Beyond The Headlines: ASUU Vs N683bn Intervention Fund

By Professor Muhammed Sani Ibrahim

Lately, Nigeria’s media space has been buzzing with twisted news of President Bola Ahmed Tinubu’s approval of a hefty N683 billion as the 2024 Intervention Funds for public tertiary institutions. However, amid the excitement, Nigeria’s political elite, aided by the media, seem to be playing tricks, wrongly implying that N1.9 billion is set aside for ASUU in each university.

While praises go to President Tinubu for nearly doubling the 2024 Intervention Fund, a crucial question lingers: What is really covered by this N683 billion? A closer scrutiny is essential to avoid misunderstandings of the true purpose and destination of this Intervention Fund.

So, why all the drama? In the recent history of ASUU strikes, their constant requests revolve around seven points, with about five being money matters. These money matters are: revival of tertiary institutions (so-called Intervention Fund), increasing budgetary allocation to education to 26% (from primary to tertiary levels), salary adjustment, payment of earned academic allowances of several years still being owed, and payment of withheld salaries.

Sadly, similar to past governments, the present administration is becoming fixated on just one money matter – the Intervention Fund. But why is it becoming more of a pattern to always prioritise these so-called intervention projects? Even the Minister and Minister of State for Education seem to be talking more about “infrastructure” than about the quality and quantity of manpower needed to improve the education sector.

Contractors and vendors! Why do government officials consistently prioritise the so-called intervention funds and the associated contracts of buildings and vehicles while forcing diligent workers to survive on a cocktail of unpaid salaries and earned allowances? Why do they ignore the reality that their prioritisation of contracts and vehicles is continually depriving the manpower and damaging the country’s education system?

And, in the midst of this financial paradox, the laboratories and studios for student learning resemble a low-budget horror tale in which students are forced into the lowly realm of “alternative to practical”, a sort of practical exercise without apparatus or specimens. And, strangely, the political elite’s undying love for awarding contracts continues to wax strong. It’s almost like they’re working overtime to create a separate universe of construction marvels, all while expecting poor workers to keep perfecting the art of unpaid academic diligence.

Surely, the stark parallel between Nigerian politician’s enthusiasm for ‘infrastructure’ and his indifference to the pressing, unpaid entitlements of the poor workers paint a sorry picture that calls for an urgent recalibration of this administration’s priorities.

By the way, where in the world have physical structures form the body and soul of efficient and effective university systems? Is it not common knowledge that a thriving university system is not merely about bricks and mortar but a system of motivated teams of human beings? President Tinubu, a seasoned manager of people, must be well aware that the most important resource of any setting is its manpower.

In his 2023 election campaign, he promised to ensure that “our graduates at tertiary level are not only trained for white-collar jobs, but they will be enterprising and innovative.” As such, he must steer clear of misguided advice on the priorities of Nigeria’s education sector and close the wide gap between the beloved construction wonders and the often-overlooked, unpaid academic dedication.

He must work with the understanding that improving the quality of Nigeria’s tertiary education system centres on a motivated manpower propelling it forward, not just forests of buildings manned by sparse and deprived, unhappy humans. Buildings and vehicles are essential, but not at the expense of workforce needed to run the system effectively.

Yes, Nigerian public university workers are deprived. Let me paint a picture of the struggles faced by public university workers using my personal story. My promotion journey resembles a suspense thriller – I was promoted to associate professor in 2017, and my salary arrears are still pending. In 2020, I was promoted to the rank of professor with yet another round of pending salary arrears.

It appears university workers’ pay cheques have embarked on indefinite sabbaticals. But that’s not all; hard-earned allowances of several years continue to play an endless game of ‘boju boju’. Sadly, this narrative mirrors the experience of every worker in Nigeria’s public tertiary institutions.

Again and again, why does the approval for building and vehicles seamlessly sail through every time, while the rightful entitlements of workers remain perpetually underway? How does the “intervention” ritual consistently navigate around challenges, overlooking the plight of the workforce in tertiary institutions?

Surely, this government must not, similar to its predecessors, expect substantial national development without a strategic investment in its most vital resource – the manpower. Surely, President Tinubu must urgently examine his appointees’ priorities, questioning why spending on constructions and automobiles consistently takes precedence over the immediate and essential needs of the manpower that shapes Nigeria’s educational landscape.

Permit me to say the ongoing unchallenged misinformation buttresses my argument in a previous essay about ASUU’s insufficient engagement with the Nigerian public, titled “Rethinking ASUU’s Approach in The Government Tug of War.” In the essay, I argued that effective communication, idea marketing, and evidence-based problem-solving methods by academics are crucial for positive change in the Nigerian university system but have been noticeably absent.

Is ASUU, alongside other academics, steering the current narrative? No! In fact, it seems they are unaware or even helpless against the ongoing propaganda. As it stands, students, parents and other stakeholders are celebrating the ₦683 billion approval, assuming it is earmarked “for ASUU.” Oblivious, many now believe that the government is already meeting ASUU’s financial demands.

From the foregoing, ASUU and its counterparts must do more work to counter the ongoing misinformation of relevant stakeholders of Nigeria’s education system the politicians. Otherwise, this propaganda will later turn around to haunt ASUU by laying the foundation for a future false narrative that ASUU is difficult to please or ASUU’s appetite for money is insatiable when, on the contrary, no money has been paid out of the workers’ entitlements being owed.

ASUU and its counterparts must communicate with, not merely inform, the Nigerian public about the recently approved ₦683 billion being solely for the procurement of physical structures and vehicles, not for salaries and allowances being owed the workers. The unions must emphasise their little or no involvement in spending these intervention funds because, as the legendary Chinua Achebe aptly expressed, until the lion learns to speak, the tale of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.

In addition, the unions must engage the President to make him fully comprehend the aspects of the education sector being funded by a significant chunk of the earmarked funds.

To conclude, because the academic unions are not the only stakeholders in Nigeria’s education sector, reforming the sector also requires selfless contributions from parents, students, CSOs, NGOs, religious and traditional leaders, media, etc. After all, it takes a village to raise a child, not just daddy and mummy. As such, the current set-up that disproportionately overburdens ASUU with the responsibility for a well-functioning education sector will not yield results.

ASUU, as a group of intellectuals, must continue to lead by engaging and influencing every stakeholder using approaches that are pragmatic and effective.

Prof. Muhammed Sani Ibrahim is a Professor of Public Health and Community Medicine at Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria.

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