The President of the Academic Staff Union of Universities, Prof. Biodun Ogunyemi, in this interview, speaks on the challenges in the Nigerian university system, the proposed Sexual Harassment Bill and other issues.
In September 2017, ASUU announced a conditional suspension of its strike, giving the Federal Government till the end of October 2017 to fulfil its pledges. What is the situation now?
Not all the promises have been fulfilled. Why we have not come too strongly lately is because there are some aspects of the Memorandum of Action that we also have some work to do. We have been working with the government. An example is our Pension Fund Administrator, which is the Nigerian universities’ Pension Management Company. We have been working with the Federal Government on some aspects of the licence required.
Like we said in 2017, it took us four years to get a response from the National Pension Commission and there were issues they raised such as changing our directors and going back to the Corporate Affairs Commission to apply in order to smoothen our registration. We are still doing that. March 23, 2018, was when we were able to get these things done.
So, as long as we are facing some challenges, we could not come back to say that the government has defaulted totally. There are, however, some aspects which are pending and on which we have written to the government. A specific example is the N20bn promised the universities to replenish the NEEDS assessment intervention fund. Since the end of October 2017, that that fund was promised, the government has not paid the money.
The main reason we have not talked much is the issue of our pension commission. It is very dear to our hearts because our members, who retired three or four years back, have not been able to get their pensions.
What do you intend to do about the outstanding areas of negotiation?
We have written on those areas. On Monday, I was in a meeting at the Ministry of Labour and Employment where the permanent secretary, directors and others were present. We brought up this issue again. But let me be honest with you. The problem we have presently is with the Minister of Finance. She has reneged on her promise to release that N20bn and our members have to consider the next line of action. We are ready to engage her at the appropriate time.
Looking at the incidence of alleged sexual harassment by university lecturers, what is your take on the Sexual Harassment Bill proposed by the Senate in 2016 to criminalise sexual harassment with a five-year jail term as punishment?
Well, you said we opposed it in 2016 and I will say you are correct. This is because we had our reasons for opposing it. One, we have since found out that the bill was even plagiarised from an existing bill. There are existing laws that address issues of sexual harassment, rape, abuses and others. There are several laws which we brought out at that Senate public hearing on the bill. So we did that because we did a diligent search and we found out that there was nothing new in that bill. That is one. We are scholars and we can see ahead of people that think they are smart.
Secondly, the rule of lawmaking does not permit you to target legislation against a group or an individual. That bill was too restricted. What the lawmakers did was to narrow down on lecturers. Laws should be made open; not saying lecturers, male lecturers, who are in tertiary institutions harassing female students. The phrases in the bill, which we brought out, showed ample instances of direct targets at lecturers. Everyone can study it closely. You will find places where the lawmakers make it an offence for lecturers to winkle or smile to students forgetting that learning takes place in a friendly environment.
And when we got there, we told them that sexual harassment takes place everywhere including in the National Assembly. And we sighted the case of a female youth corps member who was also harassed in the National Assembly at that time. It was on record.
So, don’t target people with a bill. You can work on existing laws and enforce them.
There are ample structures in the system to address the abuses. But we don’t want a procedure that will lead to jungle justice. So, for these three reasons, we came out to say, ‘no, don’t call us bad people. Don’t stigmatise lecturers’.
You have once said the bill was unfair and discriminatory. Don’t you think university lecturers are also supposed to be models of ethical and moral standards to their students?
You are correct. We have never challenged that. We have never disagreed on that note. We know that we stand in as local parents. We are parent substitutes to our students and I will tell you that many lecturers discharge their responsibilities faithfully. There are lecturers that sponsor male and female students in a university system without any strings attached. So, if people now see one or two that are deviants and move out of the norm, you don’t use such instances to generalise. Go and see what is happening on the campuses.
Does ASUU have an in-house disciplinary committee which looks at these ethical and moral failings among its members in Nigerian universities?
ASUU, as a union, has mechanisms in place. We encourage students to come and report such cases. We attach female lecturers to such cases and victims. We have cases where we suspend our members as parts of disciplinary procedures, once a prima facie has been established against the lecturer who is involved in such abuse. The only thing is that we don’t need to go to press to discuss such suspension.
We are certainly conscious of our ethical responsibilities. We are role models. We are local parents and mentors to our students.
Go to any branch of ASUU and they will tell you that we have ethics and disciplinary committee. Their role is to handle such cases. And at the national, we have too. The first step is to ask the branches to handle and when they cannot, they refer to us. I can recall two or three cases that got to us, but no specifics. Those lecturers were suspended from our union; yes, they were suspended. But we don’t have the powers to take it beyond that. If we investigate any lecturer, the university authorities have the powers to take it further.
Moreso, in many of the campuses, the Staff Professional Ethics and Disciplinary Committee has representatives from ASUU and other unions. We take part and we don’t bend the rules. We stand our grounds because such lecturers will constitute a negative influence. Their negative image could rub off on all of us.
How can universities avert the recurrence of such shameful and unethical dealings between randy lecturers and students on our campuses?
First, I will talk about name and shame. When you have taken somebody through the due process of investigations and at the end of the day, the person is culpable. There should be no cover-up. Let the sanctions apply and let the whole world know about it. That is what I mean by saying that we should expose names of such lecturers and shame them in order to serve as a deterrent. But the lecturers must be taken through the due process. We have to emphasise the due process because anybody can allege anything. We also don’t want a situation where our members will become victims of reverse persecutions. The fact that we will denounce any of our members that conduct themselves in an improper manner does not mean that our members should just be stigmatised over a mere allegation.
Two, the universities have their procedure for handling unethical conduct. Let the process be sustained and improved upon. There should be no sacred cows. When I joined the system (in 1988), the first booklet we were given was a staff guidelines. It used to be called the green book. They listed all the possible offences that a staff can commit and the appropriate sanctions. It was like your Bible. And in those days when they wanted to discipline you, they would first refer you to that green book.
But these days, I am not sure they do that again on most campuses. Some lecturers that come into the system now actually don’t know what it takes to be a father figure or a mother figure to students, especially when the lecturers are young. Let the lecturers be inducted and made aware of their responsibilities and the certainty of sanctions.
How are you collaborating with varsity authorities to ensure proper accountability of these funds?
We ensure that our members kept to the guidelines for claiming the Earned Academic Allowances. What we did was to facilitate the process; the funds were sent to the universities. Let nobody have that impression that the Federal Government released any money to ASUU. We never managed a kobo from the money in 2013 and in 2017. I never saw a kobo from the EAA. The funds went to the respective universities.
On the EAA, which generated a lot of controversies and made the people to see ASUU as a bread-and-butter union, the arguments are not correct.
But if I must put the matter in the right perspective, I will say that EAA has seven items which are tied to the work lecturers do. If you teach post-graduate students or supervise them, you are entitled. If you have more than your workload, you are entitled. Not all the lecturers are entitled. The EAA is tied to responsibilities that people take on outside their normal duties. This is why when some people want to misunderstand us, including some in the university system, we take pains to explain to Nigerians that all the accusations are unfounded. It is not true.
What we are doing is to give the government enough time to sort itself with the forensic audit of the last N23bn in 2013 and N20bn in 2017. So, we are clear on this matter and we have refused to be dragged into any dirty fight.
The Federal Government has said it would declare a state of emergency in the education sector, looking at the rate Nigerians desire foreign education. Do you think the government should go ahead?
I think it is overdue. In fact, I listened to the speech of the Minister of Education during the ministerial retreat in November 2017. The minister said there was none of the D-8 countries that voted less than 20 per cent for education. But Nigeria has barely eight per cent.
My problem is that does the minister have the power to walk the talk? There are forces. He might have good intentions, but can he actually overcome the powerful forces that are tying his hands?
Those forces are both local and international. There are international agents in Nigeria who don’t think they should promote qualitative and affordable education in Nigeria, except those that they give us. They tie most of these things to their loans. As we take these loans, we are burdened and we slip further into the abyss of unconquerable underdevelopment.
Our concern is that Nigerians should rise and support a few progressives in the government. I can assure you that that state of emergency will never see the light of the day. I am not a prophet of doom. This is because some people, who are close to the government quarters, are already circumventing and subverting the process.
Many Nigerian students believe that ASUU strike is an annual ceremony. Can we hope that ASUU will not embark on a strike this year?
We also need to correct this impression because between 2013 and 2017, which major strike did ASUU embark on? The allegation of an annual ritual of strike against us does not arise. The principles behind ASUU strike are clearly two or three.
The first principle is that somebody must fight for the Nigeria’s university system. Otherwise, the fate that befell public primary and secondary schools will befall the public universities. Somebody must defend the integrity and mandate of the Nigeria’s university system. – Culled from Punch.