Minister of Labour and Employment, Senator Chris Ngige, has given an insight into the ongoing trade dispute between the Federal Government and the members of the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU).
The minister, in an interview with some journalists in his Alor country home in Anambra State, after he distributed palliatives to the people in his constituency, accused ASUU leaders of misleading their members, insisting that IPPIS has come to stay. Excerpts:
What is the situation about the faceoff between the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) and the Federal Government over the Integrated Payroll and Personnel Information System (IPPIS)?
The situation is a situation that is perfect. What ASUU is saying is laughable. Your employers will dictate how they will pay you. They can decide to pay you with a cheque which you sign in your regional office every month and you take your salary and go. They can decide to do electronic transfer. You bring your account number and they do a transfer electronically to you. They can decide for reasons best known to them, they want you to show up physically and sign for your money in cash in your regional office. As an employee, you have no right to dictate for them. It is even in ILO convention on wages. The important thing there is for your salaries and wages to come to you as and when due. As a workman you receive your pay as compensation for services rendered. That is what is in the statutes everywhere. But for some strange reasons, this has become an issue with the Academic Staff Union of Universities. Why? They claimed that they were being migrated from the GIFMIS (Government Integrated Financial Management Information System) platform into the IPPIS. The Federal Government pays their salaries and the Federal Government says that ‘we are losing a lot of money paying you from the GIFMIS platform because the GIFMIS platform only transmits money for your salaries to the university system, bursar’s office and from there they pay you. The anomalies there are, one: some people are ghost workers. They don’t exist at all, but their names exist and they are drawing money from federal coffers. Two, some people receive more than their due because after salaries, some who are teaching in the other various universities are supposed to take 50 per cent as extra pay for teaching in that other university. And the maximum university they should teach is two. Some teach in three, some teach in four. Again, the taxes that are being deducted by your bursars and your Vice-Chancellors are not reflective of the taxes of the PAYE, Pay As You Earn. They are not and because they are not, the shortfall in the taxes they deducted, the various state governments were those universities are domiciled have petitioned the Joint Tax Board [JTB] to demand for this shortfall to be paid by the Federal Government which is the principal employer of these university teachers. And over sometime, that has accumulated into about N800 billion which the Joint Tax Board has billed the Federal Government as monies that have not been paid to those sub-national governments, the state governments. And the Joint Tax Board is the enforcer. So, Federal Government through the Accountant-General had to pay that money, over N800 billion. So, the IPPIS takes care of all these shortcomings. The universities refused and insisted that they have a system that is better than the IPPIS; that the IPPIS has some shortcomings. That it doesn’t capture those who are on sabbatical. It doesn’t capture visiting lecturers and some other things they mentioned. Government now said that ‘you said that you have something better than IPPIS’. They said yes, University Transparency and Accountability Solution called UTAS. And that UTAS is locally made. The Executive Order 5 encourages local production and local content. So, government said that UTAS should be given a place and be tested. They were discussing with the Federal Government; they refused to supply their biometrics and fill all the forms for transfer or migration into IPPIS. Meanwhile, the GIFMIS component that was used in paying them had expired and was not renewed because that is GIFMIS personnel and the Accountant-General didn’t renew it. So, everybody migrated including other university workers; including some members of ASUU. They migrated and came to IPPIS. IPPIS is not 100 per cent perfect, one or two shortcomings even for all of us who are there already. But once you point out the abnormality or whatever is the issue, they correct it like every other system. It is a computerized system. But before you could say Jack Robinson ASUU went on strike and said that they didn’t pay them whereas the president had given an injunction that anybody who didn’t come to IPPIS by the end of October will not get the salary. We pleaded for an extension for a lot of institutions including the universities to end up December which the president graciously granted. By the end of December, ASUU members had not supplied their biometrics and other things needed. They paid them in January. By February, the system shut them out.
Did ASUU embark on strike just because they were shut out by the system or is it that the negotiation it was having with the Federal Government failed?
They proceeded on strike on March 9; nine days after they didn’t get pay. Because they didn’t follow the normal labour procedure for going on strike; they didn’t fill any form, trade dispute, three, they didn’t even notify me as Labour Minister; they didn’t even write me giving the mandatory 21 days notice. They didn’t do so. I, however, apprehended and brought them to the negotiation table with their primary employer which is the Ministry of Education. I am not their primary employer. That brought us to the Accountant-General’s office. We had discussions. They now said also that some of the agreements we had in the memorandum of action of 2019 February were not implemented religiously. We had agreed that they would be paid N25 billion for earned academic allowance for them and N25 billion towards the revitalization of the university system. The Federal Government paid the first tranche of the N50 billion and, thereafter, there was the issue of National Minimum Wage. And there was the issue of consequential adjustment on that minimum wage which cost the Federal Government about N160 billion. I negotiated it. N160 billion for 2019 and the Federal Government had to pay with effect from when the president signed the minimum wage act. So, because of that financial situation, Federal Government couldn’t pay them the next tranche of N25 billion which was due to be paid in October last year. They said that there was a breach. Federal government said ‘yes, we are owing that. We can pay it.’ So, we structured it and agreed that the government can pay them N20 billion for that and another N20 billion for earned academic allowance between April 2020 and May. We all agreed. ASUU, bring your UTAS. Bring it for testing to know about the integrity of the system. If we notice it is better than IPPIS, Federal Government will migrate your members to UTAS. The UTAS they said was ready, they couldn’t present it. They now said that it is with their researchers. We said okay, how long will it take the researchers to bring this forward? They did us a work plan and said that it will take one and half years; 18 months: six months for the development of the software, three months for assembling it with the hardware, another six months for them to internally wire it and test and another three months for complete packaging. We said that is a long transition. In between that, government cannot continue to lose money that bedevilled the old GIFMIS personnel payment system. Therefore, government still recommended to them that while waiting for 18 months, come into IPPIS. When your UTAS is developed and we test and everybody agrees, we migrate you from IPPIS into the UTAS. I as conciliator told them that it made sense because it was the same problem you had during the pension fund administration. You said you want a different university pension fund operator. You didn’t have it. We put on the general PENCOM pension administration that they brought. And I assisted you to get your Pension Fund Administrator [PFA] which is the Nigeria University Pension Management Company, they call it. It took three and half years to get the NUPEMCO. Government assisted. It is one of the things I conciliated and they got them provisional licence even though PENCOM board was not in place. Because of that they had to give them provisional licence and they now migrated their people from the pension fund administration that they were in into the NUPEMCO. The migration is still on. So, we can do the same. Whenever you finish your UTAS and bring it, we migrate you back from IPPIS. In the meantime, get into the IPPIS so that the right thing will be done; leakages will be blocked. We won’t have non-existent lecturers. We won’t have shortfall in taxes because breach of those PAYE tax law is a criminal offence. We don’t also want dead lecturers or those who are retired to be on because IPPIS will knock you off. Once your data is on IPPIS, immediately the number of years required, I think for university, it is 65; once you are 65 it knocks you off. If you are a professor, once you are 70, it knocks you off. But what is going on now is because it is not automated. People can even die and still receive money. So, this is the situation we have found ourselves with ASUU. And ASUU now said that they are going back to consult with their members on this whole situation; that their earned academic allowance is sorted out; the revitalization of the university system is sorted out; visitation panel sorted out; state universities that are underfunded sorted out because we made provision for them to talk to National Economic Council. We put up a committee working on it and they are quite happy with it. The negotiating of the 2009 agreement they had with Jonathan government, they are happy with it. They are making progress. They rejected Babalakin’s wife and the process was stalled, but now the meeting is going on. We had unanimity, consensus and accord concordia in all these areas.
Are you saying that the main bone of contention is the Integrated Payroll and Personnel Information System [IPPIS] and not other issues raised by ASUU?
The sticking out was the IPPIS. And I can tell you that was the major reason they were going on strike. It is not for any other reason. The main issue is that IPPIS. They have to tell their members the truth because they don’t have UTAS which they told them that they have. Their members were of the view that UTAS existed. It doesn’t exist. They couldn’t present anything. I have as the conciliator not wanted to go into all these details for the general public, but it is important now that we say it so that everybody will know. They don’t have UTAS. They said that it will take them one and half years. In the next one and half years, this government would have been preparing to go. We will be on our way out. So, the logical thing to do is for them to come on to IPPIS; you develop your UTAS and bring it for integrity test. If it passes the integrity test we migrate you back just like we have done with you for your pension funds. So, I have as the conciliator pleaded with them to come back. They didn’t even come back to the negotiating table; they didn’t even go back to their respective university congresses before declaring on 23rd of March full and total strike; indefinite strike. I think some hoax there like to be performed annually so that it will be seen that they are working or that they are revolutionaries. That’s not true revolution. That’s not unionism. Unionism doesn’t mean you breach even international laws and want to dictate to your employer how you will be paid. That’s not correct.
They said that IPPIS breaches university autonomy. How? They said that it is the council that will tell them how to be paid. Let the council generate money and pay you. The Federal Government is generating their own money in very tight measures and there are still leakages and you tell them to continue to leak. No! They have said no because the leakage is like the blood going out of their system. The Federal Government will go anaemic and from being anaemic it will die; the economy will die and everybody will lose. We don’t want the Federal Government and the Nigerian economy to die.