Dickson Has Neglected Niger Delta University – Ogoun
Dr. Stanley Ogoun is the Acting Dean, Faculty of Management Sciences and chairman of Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) at the Niger Delta University, Wilberforce Island, Bayelsa State. In this interview with IGONIKO ODUMA, he speaks on the ongoing strike embarked on by the lecturers to protest unpaid five months’ salaries by the Bayelsa State Government, issues of condition of service and development challenges at the university. Excerpts,
Why we went on strike
We decided to embark on ANC (Active Non-Compliance) by way of sit-at-home following the failure of government to pay the salaries of our members from January till date, then also the fact that government has not paid the salaries of some academic staff that were engaged from 2013 for the purpose of accreditation visit from the National Universities Commission (NUC). If you will recall, in that very year, the Faculty of Law underwent accreditation with other programmes and the Faculty of Law was denied accreditation and Governor Seriake Dickson reacted. He wrote a letter to NUC complaining about it and NUC decided to come back within the space of some months; which is not in the character and the rules of NUC to come back for accreditation. In order to address some of those issues, the university had to engage staffers on sabbatical contracts and adjuncts to be able to cover up that gap. And from that time till today, particularly for those who came on sabbatical, they’ve gone back to their universities, but they’ve not been paid a dime. Then we have the Graduate Assistants (GAs). Normally, every university runs a policy of recruiting GAs. The essence of Graduate Assistants is that you get the best, encourage them to remain in the university so that they can become a replacement for those who are aging. If you come to Niger Delta University, we have a lot of old and retired professors from other universities that are on ground here simply for the fact Bayelsa State didn’t have the requisite manpower to run a full blown university. And for that purpose, most of the staffers, like in the civil service, were drawn from outside. If you recall, when Bayelsa State was created in 1996, the staffing situation was so poor that the state government had to draw from Rivers and Delta states to augment. In fact, for some of the critical areas, it was pitiable and that has accounted for the poor work culture we have in Bayelsa State. In order to bridge that gap, we needed to get manpower and for a university, normally it is called a university because it is an omnibus setting embracing people from all ethnic groups. So, we have a lot of people like that who are on ground to support the training of our people, to support the fulfillment of the vision of the founding fathers of Niger Delta University.
So, what is the situation of things now?
It is unfortunate that from 2013 those group of persons have not been paid. Now, the third aspect of it has to do with promotion. Academic staff are not promoted on the basis of teaching students only. In fact, you can teach a million students and you won’t get promoted as long as you do not do research and publish. Now, for you to conduct any research, you spend money, you spend money to also publish. We pay sometimes between $200 and $250 out of our salaries to publish in reputable journals and you are promoted on the basis of the number of publications you have. That’s why there is this adage that says, ‘You either publish or you perish’. For those who are not willing to sacrifice time and resources to do research and to publish, they remain where they are. Those who are willing to expend their time and resources to publish are promoted. That’s why you see a situation where a lecturer who taught a student, the student would graduate, come back, do a masters, do a PhD and become a professor and that lecturer who taught that student would remain where he is and retire for the simple fact that that lecturer refused to expend the time and resources required for research to be promoted. How can somebody earn promotion by expending time and resources and at the end of the day you refuse to pay the person the financial benefits? Then, it is as good as telling him you don’t need to be promoted, remain where you are. And if that is allowed to stand, that will automatically destroy the essence of the university system because nobody is going to sacrifice the meager salary he earns to do a research work and at the end of the day you spend money to also publish. I just sent a paper to one of the journals in the US and they requested about $350. How are my going to raise $350 with the current exchange rate? And the Central Bank of Nigeria through its monetary policy does not make provision for official (exchange) rate for the purpose of research publication. Another aspect of it is that we need to attend conferences to be promoted. We know what conferences are. They are expensive. The good thing is that TETFund sponsors some aspect of the conferences but every other thing, you have to do it yourself. So, if you don’t go for conferences and you do not publish, nobody is going to promote you. We do not even get promoted for the administrative work we do. Currently, I’m the acting Dean, Faculty of Management Sciences and the total number of points given for deanship is five points nothing more, nothing less. How can a lecturer go through that ordeal and then a government will come up with a policy saying that even if you are promoted to the next level, you are not going to get your benefits arising from that? So, these are the three main strands that informed the sit at home action we have embarked upon.
What were some of the previous efforts made to resolve issues with government before strike?
Well, the challenges we’ve had with the government didn’t start today. I need to make this point very, very clear. It began with the past administration of Governor Timipre Sylva. At that point in time, we discovered that Niger Delta University was abandoned in terms of physical infrastructural development. NDU has been in existence for 15 years and out of those 15 years, nine years recorded total abandonment by government. So, throughout the tenure of Sylva, there was no physical infrastructural development that was undertaking, only salaries were paid. The union made several efforts, wrote letters, sought and had audience with government and they made promises but nothing came out of it. And we continued in that light. And then also, the then government also complained about the essence of wasting N500million on payment of salary (to NDU workers). And so he decided to package Niger Delta University to deliver it to the Federal Government when the idea of new federal universities were mooted. Representation was done to the former President, Dr. Goodluck Jonathan, and when our union got wind of what was happening we kicked against it. We said how can Bayelsa State Government claim that they are spending N500million, in the time of Sylva, for payment of NDU salary, and that instead of committing that fund to the development of the university they are willing to take that fund to other priority area whereas the responsibility of the university should be handed over to the Federal Government? And that would have meant that Bayelsa State wouldn’t have had a state university. So we fought against it. And at the nick of time we were able to puncture it. It was even our union that recommended that Otuoke should be used as a centre for the new Federal University and that the Niger Delta University should remain. We continued with that horrible experience of only salaries being paid until this new government (of Gov Seriake Dickson) came on board and a state of emergency was declared on education and we hoped that it was going to be extended to the university but nothing happened. We wrote series of letters to the government and that led to the establishment of a visitation panel (to the university) and we were very happy because the essence of a visitation panel is to correct anomalies within the system. Uptil today as we speak, we have been asking for the release of the White Paper on the visitation panel. But as we speak today, despite writing several letters we wrote to the government, nothing has been done in that regard. Thereafter, about two years ago, the governor told us in a stakeholders’ meeting that the salaries of NDU would no longer be sustainable, that we should think of ways and means of generating fund to sustain the university, and that government was willing to guarantee a facility for the university to take and set up holding company, go into profitable ventures that will generate enough fund so that all government will need to do is give a little subvention and the other balance will come from the university. A committee was set up by government. I was a part of that committee. We interacted extensively and we told them that that model is not workable in a place like Bayelsa. Furthermore, the law setting up the Niger Delta University did not envisage profit making as part of its core mandate. It is supposed to be an institution that is designed to address social services and particularly the development of critically needed manpower. And so asking us to go into profitable ventures will require setting up of holding company, and that is going into private business, and these businesses, even when you go into them, will need time to run to be able to stabilize, generate enough profit that you can plough back into the expenses of running the university.
Did you discuss this with the governor?
We told the governor that it was not going to be feasible, it was not going to work, not in a place like Bayelsa. We even canvassed for consultancy from the state government to the university but unfortunately nothing in that regard has been done. And we felt that it was not going to be feasible but the governor kept saying we just have to do something about it. And they (the government) mooted the idea of payment of tuition in NDU, and made reference to Lagos State University and then we told them that when fees were increased in LASU from N35,000 to N250,000 for non-science based courses and N350, 000 for science and medical-based courses, the university was closed down for a very long time. In a state like Lagos, the commercial nerve centre of this country, if indigenes of that state could not afford an increase in tuition to those amounts, we were wondering how a state like Bayelsa with no industries, a purely civil service state, can afford tuition of similar amounts. It is not feasible. And in the wisdom of former Governor of Lagos State, they decided to reverse the increase back to status quo and that led to the re-opening of LASU. And as we speak today, they (Bayelsa government) should go round all the state and federal universities in this country, there is no single one that is self-funding. Even federal universities with massive infrastructure, the Federal Government regularly takes responsibility of funding them. So, we discussed extensively with government. And I remember also, we led a team; a team from the national body of ASUU had come, we discussed with the former Commissioner for Education (Mr. Salo Adikumo) extensively before he resigned and went into the state House of Assembly. Thereafter, we have had series of meetings with the governor. In fact, at one of the meetings we had with TUC, the NLC and the unions that were represented, particularly, I had drawn the attention of the governor to the fact that his attitude towards the Niger Delta University and, therefore, the attitude of the Niger Delta University workers towards him should be seen like that of a man who is married to four wives, and whenever it gets to the turn of the fourth wife, the man complains he’s tired and that he can’t give her attention, so that fourth wife was not productive. She became a barren woman. That all other wives were productive and that certainly that fourth wife was not going to be happy with was going on. And I reminded the governor that that is the attitude he has towards the Niger Delta University. I told him that when monies were coming and he was embarking on very ambitious projects, using his words, Niger Delta University was not remembered. It was completely abandoned. No effort was made, not until two years after when the governor visited NDU and made a public pronouncement of award of contract to the tune of N6.1billion. We were happy, having realized the total abandonment of the state-owned university. But as we speak today, nothing has happened. I reminded the governor about it. I also told him about the issue of the salaries and that if people have not earned salary until now, we expect that with the staff verification based on Bank Verification Number (BVN), he should go ahead and pay salary, having submitted our BVN, that we are not against any form of staff verification because we do not subscribe to payroll fraud. In essence, we are not even beneficiaries of any form of payroll fraud, so we are not going to support it. But we are going to support every attempt at cleansing the payroll system, but workers must not be made to suffer as a result of that.