The acting Accountant- General of the Federation, Mr Sylvia Okolieaboh, on Thursday expressed the resolve to interface with the leadership of Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) with a view to proffering lasting solution to the seven-month-old strike declared by the lecturers.
Okolieaboh gave the assurance during the tripartite reconciliatory meeting held at the instance of the leadership of the House of Representatives, chaired by Honourable Femi Gbajabiamila, who assured that the House leadership would seek an audience with President Muhammadu Buhari on the resolution of the ongoing crisis.
The Accountant-General, who noted that the issues would be resolved using the IPPIS payment solution, however, argued that adopting University Transparency Accountability Solution (UTAS) might prompt unwholesome requests from other agencies to be paid in their own salary structure.
He said: “If there are peculiarities in the university salaries system, what we need to do is to sit down with ASUU and identify them and address them in IPPS. Are you willing to accept? If the answer is yes, then, the whole of the issues will be resolved.
“What we need to do, in my own opinion, is to sit down with ASUU and know what the issues are and address them inside IPPS.
“One of the risks adopting UTAS is that everybody will come and say give us our own salary. As we speak, the military is on IPPS, the Police is on IPPS. They have their own peculiarities. What we need to do is to sit down. IPPS is not a perfect system.
“In the spirit of reconciliation, if ASUU knows any fibre that can help to resolve the issues that we have, ASUU should go ahead. If ASUU knows any solution, we are more than willing to accept. if we are going to use UTAS, it means we are going to build the salaries of the universities.
In his intervention, Gbajabiamila, who led the principal officers of the House to the meeting had enquired from the Accountant-General and National Information Technology Development Agency (NITDA) if the universities payment systems can be re-evaluated.
While the NITDA director -general, Mr Kashifu Inuwa, who disclosed during the last meeting that all the three payment systems failed integrity test and as such, could not be relied upon, however, informed the House leadership that the agency is waiting for further directive from the government to continue with the testing of the solutions.
“Our interactions with ASUU started in 2020. We keep identifying issues. We are always willing to continue with these engagements. We ended the last test in June 2022. We are waiting for directive to continue. The last engagement was on the directive of the Chief of Staff to the President.
“We have three solutions. UTAS, U3PS and IPPIS. Professional advice, these solutions have failed. There are vulnerabilities in them as we identified. As far as university payment system is concerned, these three solutions have failed,” he said.
Also speaking, the director-general of the Budget Office, Ben Akabueze, expressed stiff opposition to the adoption of multiple payment solutions, stressing they would be expensive to fund.
He said: “There is a dimension to this discussion. Acquiring and maintaining any application based on which we will pay thousands of people will cost money. If you decide to use any of them, you need a data center and it will cost billions of naira. There has to be backup.
On her part, Head of Service of the Federation, Mrs Yemi Esan, maintained that the Federal Government “may not afford two payment platforms at this time. Running two platforms will be expensive at this time. If we are using UTAS or IPPIS, let’s flush it and use it.”
In his presentation, Minister of Labour and Employment, Senator Chris Ngige, who alleged that ASUU hurriedly went on strike when negotiations were still ongoing without his notice, kicked against the UTAS payment solution initiated by ASUU.
While proposing financial autonomy for the university to generate their own funds, Ngige said: “You started very well on the critical part, which is the renegotiation of their salaries and wages. It is money. The economy is bad, biting on everybody. I don’t blame them.
“The minister of education cannot even sign it alone. The ability to pay is a guiding principle of collective bargaining and agreement. You cannot offer what you don’t have.
“The AGF supported me. Some people said they have discovered something that would make us not lose foreign exchange, why won’t we embrace it? I am happy with the clarity the Budget Office has offered, that the three systems we will look at them. Anyone that is good the government would adopt it for the whole country.
“So, no matter how I love ASUU, I would not support something that failed a test. But the good news is that they said it is a continuous process. I had advised at that time when the first result came, do handshake with IPPIS. The peculiarities can be captured.”
While speaking, ASUU President, Professor Emmanuel Osodeke, who blamed the Federal Government for failing to honour previous agreements, also queried NITDA for failing to make available the report of the last test conducted on UTAS, insisting that the report must be available for them to study.
He said: “We were told exactly this same thing in 2017. They all came and told us the same thing. Are we really patriotic? They are paying money to foreign company per person.
In his final remarks, Gbajabiamila appealed to ASUU to interface with the accountant- general in the interest of the students, assuring that the parliament would be a witness to the agreements.
He appointed the Chairman, House Committee on Education to be part of the tripartite meeting.
While ruling, Gbajabiamila said: “Let me just say I believe this would be, hopefully, the last meeting we are going to have on this matter, because from here the leadership of the House will put together our reports, our recommendations and our thoughts, and take it to Mr President.
“I am happy for the solution on the issue of UTAS. It is no victor, no vanquish: everybody is carried along. And if it is possible to accommodate everything that ASUU wants in UTAS, for me, that is the best way to go.”