The presidential candidate of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), Atiku Abubakar, has promised to meet the demand of the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) to pay their backlog of salaries if he is elected president.
Though the union embarked on an eight-month strike which ended in October, it has since been at loggerheads with the Federal Government over unpaid salaries, arguing that its members will make up for the lost time in the classroom.
However, Atiku gave the academics an assurance of clearing the backlog during his appearance at The People’s Townhall organised by Channels Television in Abuja on Saturday.
“I’m going to increase the funding level (of education) as against what is currently obtained, no doubt about that because I am a firm and committed believer in education.
“I have undertaken to say, ‘Whatever backlog – we are going to clear all the backlogs and make sure that you go back to classes and students go back to school,” he said.
The former vice president acknowledged the “sometimes invisible roadblocks,” explaining that when the Federal Government releases money for the universities, it does not go straight to the universities.
According to him, the funds are channelled through “another federal bureaucracy” that “might decide to do whatever they want” before the monies are sent to the individual universities.
“Why not remove the bottleneck?” he asked. “Whatever is due to university A, B, C, D, send it directly!”
The PDP candidate recalled an experience during his tenure as vice president between 1999 and 2007, where according to him, a visit to several embassies revealed that “all the staff” were not owed for “several months.”
“I even visited Togo which is the headquarters of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). Every West African country has a building and staff quarters as poor as they may be, and Nigeria didn’t have, a founding member of ECOWAS,” he said.
“I came back and called the minister of finance and said, ‘What is happening? Let’s do something different.’ She said, ‘What?’ ‘Let’s ask every embassy to give us their budget.
“And when they give us their budget, we don’t send the money through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), we send the money straight to the embassies.’ That immediately eliminated the backlog of all the salaries that they were owing to our staff abroad.”
But, according to Atiku, the ministry was not pleased.
“They (MFA) kept on fighting. So, sometimes you have to really be bold enough to change some of the processes or procedures that are currently obtained in the public service to get service delivered to where they should be delivered,” he said.
“I was told of a story where, of course, some funding for universities was stalled at the Nigerian Universities Commission (NUC): ‘NUC, what do you want to operate?’ (This) much. ‘Universities, where do you want to operate?’ (This) much.’ You give them directly. Why do you have to go through NUC?
“As I’ve said, I’ve pledged to increase the funding of education as far as our budget is concerned. Sadly, we are not even meeting our counterparts in West Africa. They may be poorer than we are, but we are not spending as much, as far as the educational sector is concerned.”