By Eze Onyekpere
A couple of days ago, the Federal Government announced that it had satisfied the conditions arising from its negotiations with the Academic Staff Union of Universities for the later to call off its nationwide strike action. Part of the conditions was the Federal Government’s disclosure that it had deposited N200bn in the Central Bank of Nigeria for distribution to universities to improve their funding. There were also earlier announcements of the offer of N30bn in support of University Councils to settle the earned allowances of university teachers. On the surface of it, these offers and deposit of money in the CBN look like steps in the right direction meant to solve the challenge of the now six months old strike. However, a deeper examination and analysis may prove that the Federal Government is merely compounding an existing problem.
As the title of this discourse suggests, three issues are at stake vis, impunity, neglect of the rule of law and abuse of the budgeting process. The first part of it is impunity. When the Federal Government signed and entered an agreement it had no intention of executing and believed itself to be above the law, this is impunity and this is the foundation of the crisis and prolonged industrial action in the education sector. Many may ask about the relevance of this analysis considering that we are now looking for solutions to the crisis. My honest answer is that if we do not understand the foundations of the crisis, we are bound to repeat mistakes and take actions which ridicule the nation whilst stagnating economic development due to the absence of a sense of history and learning from its teachings. That impunity led to the refusal of the Federal Government to ensure that the provisions of the agreement are made to reflect in the Medium Term Education Sector Strategies, Medium Term Expenditure Framework and the annual budget.
The rule of law is certain as there is no ambiguity that expenditure without appropriation is an unforgivable sin against the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999. I am not aware that the N200bn deposited in the CBN for the use of the universities was approved in the 2013 Appropriation Act nor has there been any Supplementary Appropriation Bill presented and approved by the National Assembly. Permit my ignorance and accept my apologies if this money was surreptitiously approved by any authority unknown to me. The executive appears to lack the presence of mind to do the right thing as stated in the Constitution. For the members of the National Assembly, they are onlookers who do not ask the right questions or take the right decisions in such matters of urgent national importance. Did the executive vire money from one head of account to an illegal head of account not stated in the Appropriation Act or did the President simply tell the CBN to print new naira notes? Alternatively, did the President dip his hands into the Excess Crude Account or any other fund of the Federation meant for other purposes or did he simply ask the Debt Management Office to secretly raise bonds for this purpose?
Therefore, in trying to purportedly solve the ASUU challenge, the executive has commited a bigger constitutional fiscal felony. In times of national emergency, this kind of expenditure may make sense to save the Federation from a grave crisis affecting its sovereignty, integrity or to avert or ameliorate a physical catastrophe. But the ASUU strike bears no such semblance. It was a battle foretold which as an African proverb indicates does not consume a cripple because he was forewarned to move at his pace to escape the battle. For the past six months, the executive and legislature had ample time to intervene, discuss and approve appropriate sums of money. It was not supposed to be a unilateral action on the part of the executive.
In the budgeting process, the refusal to abide by the rule of law accounts for this industrial crisis and the stagnation of our national economy, which has failed to deliver concrete dividends to the majority of the population. Yes, the statisticians and the World Bank say our economy is growing in unimaginable proportions; but it is delivering the good things of life only for those in the corridors of power and their cronies. If the Ministry of Finance and the Budget Office of the Federation had done the right thing by following the rule of law as defined in the Fiscal Responsibility Act, we would have averted this crisis. The beginning of the MTEF process would have seen Ministries, Departments and Agencies convene a Medium Term Sector Strategies session which would have representation from not just the Ministry of Education and its parastatals but representatives of the legislative committees in the National Assembly which exercise oversight over the ministry, sectoral labour unions (ASUU should be there in education), organised private sector and civil society organisations. At this retreat, there would have been a review of sectoral high level policy documents, ongoing projects; objectives and goals would have been set for the medium term while prioritisation of projects and expenditure heads to fit into the envelope would have taken place.
Can you imagine ASUU at such a meeting on the determination of educational priorities without raising these issues that led to the strike? Can you imagine ASUU that has been complaining about poor funding of universities acceding to the establishment of new ones with the little vote allotted to education? For the education sector, the issues leading to this crisis would have been an in-house affair resolved at the stage of the MTSS before the approval of the MTEF. When some civil society activists queried the rationale for the abandonment of the MTSS process, we were told by the Budget Office of the Federation that it had been overtaken by the Transformation Agenda of the Jonathan Administration. Pray, what did the Transformation Agenda provide for the ASUU crisis or was it steeped in the same impunity of ignoring a signed agreement?
Therefore, the choice is clear on what the executive should do to avoid similar crisis in the future. Let the people have a say in their budget; let them determine their priorities as stated by the Fiscal Responsibility Act. Participation and consultation are fundamental issues. The days are gone when some “wise men and women” lock themselves up in a room pretending they know it all and that they can solve the problems of the country. Those days are gone and gone for good. If those days could deliver anything meaningful, why has the Federal Government failed to improve the living conditions of majority of Nigerians? If the Ministry of Finance had done the right thing by consulting with the National Assembly as indicated by the FRA at the stage of preparing the MTEF, why are we still having this unnecessary benchmark war?
Let no one spend a kobo of public money in the name of responding to the ASUU crisis without getting legislative approval. The year has virtually ended. The executive and legislature should put their houses in order and approve within the confines of the law, the necessary demands of ASUU. For the government, if it continues repeating the same mistakes, it will get the same poor results.
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