Barrister Justin Onwujekwe is the Head of Chambers of Onitsha-based J. O Onwujekwe and Co, solicitors and corporate consultants. In this chat with Vanguard Learning, Onwujekwe speaks on the protracted ASUU/FG face-off, saying that both parties should get off their high horses and reach a compromise. He warns that if nothing is done urgently to end the feud, the consequences will be grave, not only for the nation’s education sector, but for the entire nation. Excerpts:
According to Onwujekwe, the lingering problem between ASUU and FG has occurred several times in the past. “This is not the first time such a thing is happening because for years, ASUU has been at loggerheads with government over funding. We are disturbed by this trend which is impacting the education sector negatively and most especially, the students who are now roaming the streets.
“It is not a thing of joy. I view it as muscle-flexing between both parties. At this stage of Nigeria’s development, Nigerians should always think about what would be of benefit to the generality of the people rather than massaging the egos of certain people. I strongly believe that the problem is not beyond reconciliation. What it will take is for representatives of both parties to summon courage and meet each other. Let both parties be ready to compromise so that there will be an end to the deadlock.”
Reminded that ASUU vowed not to back down until all its demands are met while the government says it can’t meet all the demands, the legal luminary said: “What I think they should do in the circumstance is for each party to tell itself the truth. Personally, I feel, and rightly too, that government can’t afford, at this stage, the money ASUU is demanding. That is very obvious.
“What I think ASUU should do is to re-strategize and take into consideration certain important factors and then come down to reality because that amount is too astronomical. When government is finding it difficult to finance other sectors, ASUU is talking about billions of naira. ASUU should come down to a reasonable extent so that things will start to function again in the education sector.
As it is now, like an Igbo proverb says, ‘He who is holding somebody down is holding himself down,’ ASUU is not moving anywhere. They may think they are holding the government down, that may be true to an extent but indirectly, they are holding themselves down also; more so now that government has implemented the ‘no work, no pay’ policy.”
Total dependence Federal Government counterproductive:
“I think ASUU should go out of its way to bring up programmes that will attract external investors so that the universities will be making some profits. The situation would have been different if ASUU was not totally dependent on government. This could be likened to a housewife who has nothing doing. No amount of money the husband gives her will completely meet her needs but if she is engaged in one form of endeavour or the other, if the husband gives her money and it is not enough, she will supplement from her own income, no matter how little.
“I will advise ASUU to look for a way out because even if government meets this particular demand, I know that within two to five years, other demands will come up. So let there be an end to this constant face-off concerning funding,” Onwujekwe advised.
*No to tuition fee:
He totally disagrees with the suggestion that introduction of tuition fee in federal varsities will be a viable solution. He said: “I do not subscribe to the introduction of tuition fee because if it were to be so, then a whole lot of Nigerian students, especially those that do not have the wherewithal, will be left out. It is at the stage of tertiary education that one’s intellectual prowess is honed because somebody may be brilliant in primary and secondary school, but when he gets to tertiary institution, he fizzles out so it is at the tertiary level that serious attention should be paid.
“Even if students are made to pay, that will still not solve the problem. Again, looking at the economic situation in the country, if tuition fee is introduced, most of the students will be thrown out for non-payment of school fees and they will join the army of unemployed youths roaming the streets and you know the effects – increase in armed robbery, kidnapping and other social vices.
“This lingering face-off is doing more harm than good and the sooner it is looked into, the better for all of us. Nobody should sit on the fence because it is affecting everybody, if not now, in the future. If all of us fold our arms and allow our university education to crumble, then in the next two to five years, we will see the negative effects.
“All the stakeholders should come together and appeal to ASUU and the Federal Government. I am appealing to them to back down, let there be a compromise so that we will make headway; after all, no amount of money the Federal Government will give them now will be enough. This is October and in two months, this year will end and we go into 2014, so this challenge should be urgently tackled,” he appealed.