Mr Anderson Ezeibe is the National President, Academic Staff Union of Polytechnics. In this interview with GRACE EDEMA, he talks about the union’s demands, which led to the ongoing strike and the position of the law on the appointment of rectors of polytechnics
On April 6, 2021, ASUP decided to commence a nationwide strike action due to some issues. Can you explain some of the things that led to the strike?
The strike was predicated on the level of neglect by the government of the sector. The nine items include the non-constitution of governing councils of federal polytechnics since May last year and in so many other state polytechnics, where there are no governing councils in existence. The second item has to do with the non-implementation of the NEEDS assessment report of 2014 in all public polytechnics and colleges of technology in the country. We also have issues with the non-release of the arrears of the new minimum wage in our sector. We are owed for 14 months since April, 2019.
Members in the federal polytechnics are owed for 10 months and in the state polytechnics, we have on record that only four states are implementing the new minimum wage for our members in their respective polytechnics. On the issue of the non-payment of salaries in some state owned polytechnics like the Abia State Polytechnic, Aba; the polytechnic owned by the Ogun State Government, the Moshood Abiola Polytechnic; the polytechnics and colleges of technology in Osun State; the polytechnics in Edo, Benue and Plateau states, our members are owed salary arrears ranging from five to 24 months.
We also have issues with the continued victimisation of our union officers in some places like the IMT, Enugu, where we have five union officers dismissed since three years now, one in the Federal Polytechnic, Nubi, and another one in the Rufus Giwa Polytechnic, Owo. We also have issues with a recent letter from the Office of the Accountant-General of the Federation alleging that about 19 of the federal polytechnics owe tax liabilities to the tune of about N19bn and that they are going recover the funds; that is pay-as-you-earn tax liabilities, according to them. They are going to recover the funds from our members; we had issues with that also.
We also had issues with the fact that the sector is not as properly regulated as we would have liked; therefore, we are asking for the establishment of a commission that will concentrate on the regulation of standards in all polytechnics in the country. Then, our members in colleges of agriculture that are monotechnic members; the Agricultural Registration Council of Nigeria is trying to force them out of our union into another union. We don’t think this is correct; it is an infraction on their right to freedom of association. In brief, these are the items that led to the declaration of an industrial action by our union on April 6.
What were the outcomes of the meetings held with the Federal Government in April, any progress?
The first meeting was on April 6. Two days later, they released a list of members of the governing councils; that means they reconstituted the governing councils on the 20th. So, what it means is that that particular item in our demands has been met. The governing councils, once they are in place, the staff appraisal can be concluded, because it is the duty of the governing councils to do this. Appointment of principal officers can now take place; disciplinary issues and overseeing the finances of the institutions can now take place, and so many other functions of the governing councils. That is a major one.
Of course we know that the panels are coming on despite our reservation about the composition and the non-release of previous reports. We still think that this is a positive step; we believe that this particular exercise is going to be different; we look forward to having a report that is implementable at the end. At the meeting of April 14 that was the second, we also tried to look at other issues on a line by line basis.
I can say we also reached some measures of understanding, but I will not be able to be very specific to you now, because we have not agreed on the documentation yet. You know the documentations are also issues on their own, because in a collective bargaining process like this, sentences, phrases and words mean so much.
So it takes another level of bargaining to agree on the wordings of what will be captured as resolutions. But I can tell you that we have made some reasonable progress also in that regard. We look forward to proper documentation of the resolutions before we can present them to our members.
Then, the N15bn is the new development. They have made an offer of N15bn for infrastructure revitalisation in their words; the resolution we signed says immediate release; so, we are awaiting the release; we are waiting for the implementation. It was signed on Tuesday, April 27, and we haven’t seen the fund dropped. Our minimum wage accrued arrears are included – N4bn; we need to see the funds dropped. They said they will ensure immediate release; immediate release means at once and without any delay; we expected that the money should have dropped by now; so, we are patient; we are waiting. We are awaiting the N19bn.
When will the strike be called off?
Whatever is released to us, the National Executive Council will appraise the situation. It all depends on the government if we are able to harmonise our position on paper, I will now present it to the NEC. It is for the NEC to now agree to what is presented. If the National Executive Council agrees, the strike may be suspended. If the NEC decides otherwise, then we know that the strike will continue and what it means is that we have to continue with the negotiations. We want to see the right structures put in place to pursue them to a logical conclusion within a specified timeframe. I think if we are able to see these put in place, I’m sure our NEC is a group of reasonable persons and I’m sure it will review our position on the strike.
Permit me also to say that one of the major items, which I omitted earlier on, is the appointment of unqualified persons as chief executive officer or rectors in polytechnics in Nigeria. It cuts across both the federal and state even though it is more rampant in the states because of the kind of law they have in the states; some of them really have obsolete laws in place. But at the federal level, where we expect that these standards are supposed to become reference points, we have also started seeing infractions with respect to the quality.
Recently, when the government appointed six new rectors for the six new federal polytechnics, from our own standpoint and the prescription for federal polytechnics, five out of the six persons appointed do not meet the qualifying criteria for the appointment. The law says that a rector shall be a chief lecturer with a minimum of five years’ experience.
What are the criteria the government was supposed to consider while appointing rectors for polytechnics in Nigeria?
The Federal Polytechnic Act of 2019 amendment was very specific in respect to qualifications. The qualification is that the rector shall be a chief lecturer with a minimum of five years post chief lectureship experience in the polytechnic sector. What it means is that if you’re not a chief lecturer of up to at least five years in any Nigerian polytechnic, it means you cannot be appointed. Like I pointed out, we picked issues with the position of the government appointing five out of the six new rectors for the new federal polytechnics do not meet this criterion. The five of them are coming from universities and we don’t have chief lecturers in universities. For us, these persons do not meet this criterion and therefore cannot be appointed as rector of any Nigeria polytechnic for now.
Are you saying that people from universities cannot be rectors of polytechnics?
The law is very clear about who should become the rector, just as the law is very clear about who should become a vice-chancellor. I don’t think the law in the university permits someone, who is not a professor, to become a vice-chancellor.
Does it mean that the law does not permit anyone to cross from the university to the polytechnic?
The law is very clear. In fact, the law states that he shall be a serving chief lecturer. What it means is that the sector is peculiar; you have to be in the system to understand the problems in the system; it is only when you’re in the system that you understand the problem and you can resolve issues in the system. So, you can’t come from outside and come into the system; you will spend most of your time trying to understand the workings of the system and the problems in the system before you can start solving them. We don’t think such a position is for people to come and start learning on the job and that is why the law is specific that the position of rector is for chief lecturers that are there.
It is also in the interest of our members and for their career progression. Why will you stay in a system working for 25 to 30 years and when it is time for you to apply to the topmost position there, then someone, who is not in the system, is imported from another sector all together to take up that position, meanwhile you cannot be exported to that other sector. It is not right, that is why the law is there. The law has made it so and we expect the government that made it into law should respect it.
Has the government gone back on that decision?
The people in government are insisting that what they did was their prerogative. We know that it is the prerogative of the President to appoint. We’re not telling the government who to appoint; we’re only saying that the government should respect the law. We’re not dictating to the government who to appoint, but they should make the appointment in respect to the qualification criteria. That means they cannot just appoint any person they like and that is why there is a qualification criteria put in the Act.
You once said that polytechnics should be removed from the NBTE because they have outgrown the body. Why is this so?
We believe that if you look at it, the NBTE is overseeing polytechnics, colleges of technologies, enterprise vocation centres and all of that, totalling more than 620 as we speak. Polytechnics sit at the apex since they are tertiary institutions. Polytechnics and monotechnics are tertiary institutions. Now, the universities have a homogeneous setup; the National Universities Commission is overseeing them and they are less than 200. The National Commission for Colleges of Education have the same thing and here we are muddled up with all of these other sub-tertiary institutions, that is, they are not up to tertiary. It is undermining proper regulation in the sector; it is undermining enforcement of standards in the sector as well.
So, we think that if a commission is established in the same way the universities and colleges of education have theirs, it is going to help the polytechnics to really function the way tertiary institutions should function and align them in line with the provisions of the new Federal Polytechnic Act as amended in 2019.
Is the National Commission for Polytechnics Bill at the National Assembly already?
The bill has already gone through the first reading at the National Assembly. We are waiting for the second reading, which will be coming up soon. No matter what, if the National Assembly passes a law, it still requires the President to assent it. What we are looking at it is for the government to buy into our position so that anytime the National Assembly is done with the passage of the law, it will now receive the President’s assent.