We suspect foul play, labour won’t allow it — NLC

Olojede

Chairman of the Oyo State chapter of the Nigeria Labour Congress, Waheed Olojede, tells OLUFEMI ATOYEBI that the state government’s proposal to involve private partners in the management of some public secondary schools in the state will force many pupils out of school

Why is the labour adamant on opposing the Oyo State government’s proposal on the private partnership arrangement to manage some of the secondary schools in the state?

During the electioneering campaign before the last governorship election in Oyo State, Governor Abiola Ajimobi said his policy on education would take after the previous administrations’ policy of free education. He said the government of Oyo State would do everything possible to ensure that children of school age in the state had access to education with no stress in terms of cost.

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In his first term as governor, Ajimobi tried to pursue this promise to a logical conclusion. Shortly after he assumed office in the second term, his government kept complaining about paucity of fund. According to the government, funding education as promised has become very difficult.

I remember that at a time when the government had to call a meeting of stakeholders in education, parents, the Nigeria Union of Teachers and the Nigeria Labour Congress were represented. At the meeting, which was called by Ajimobi, the government complained bitterly about shortage of fund to run free education. At the meeting, stakeholders agreed that instead of leaving the whole responsibilities to the government, the roles should be shared.

The attention of the government was drawn to the fact that it should stop paying pupils’ fee for the West African Senior School Certificate Examination. It was agreed that parents must carry the responsibility because if there would be any benefit from the pupils’ success, the parents would be the direct beneficiaries. The government promptly agreed to this recommendation to stop paying WASSCE fees for pupils.

At another meeting, his government said the load in terms of funding of education in the state was still too huge for it to shoulder. We advised that the governor should call on parents to commit a little fee to the education of their children and to monitor their academic performance. At the meeting, it was agreed between all stakeholders that parents should start paying N1000 for each pupil per term.

That arrangement has been on ground for some time now. But the expectation of labour is that the government should have given the stakeholders a feedback on how much was collected and how it was utilised to improve on the facilities in our schools. This was our agreement but government did not do it.

What we saw instead was the government coming up with a new policy inviting stakeholders to express interest in partnership and ownership of public secondary schools. When we saw this in a national newspaper on May 25, labour felt worried. What caught our attention mostly was the idea of ownership. If it’s all about partnership, it could take any form. You can call on alumni to contribute to the progress of their alma mater. It could be calling on parents or the community to build classrooms, toilets or buy instructional materials. This is what we understand by partnership.

But when it’s becoming ownership, we suspected some foul play and sharp practices. If care is not taken, it is possible for the government to transfer public schools to private hands.

The Edict 14 of 1975 clearly stated that the government decided to take away schools from private owners because of their inability to do the right quality of education. That law that transferred schools to the government is still potent.

If the law has not been repealed, and the government is taking action to return schools to the owners, it is a betrayal and a rape on that law. If the government knows the rule of law, it will not propose that policy. If one goes ahead and does it, it’s like returning public property to private individuals because over several decades, peoples’ taxes had been spent on those schools. That will not happen in this state.

The laws of the land allows establishment of private schools. That is why we have many private schools in our land today. What makes the difference between the public and private schools is the fee.

Those that cannot send their children to private schools because of the exorbitant fees they charge there have the option of public schools where they charge N1000.

If you now transfer these schools to private hands, it’s like taking the schools away from poor parents. We have told the government to encourage people to establish more private schools instead of taking the public schools. But the government made it clear that it was just a proposal that had to be deliberated upon by stakeholders and members of the public and only 31 schools were involved?

Is it the number of schools affected that you are concerned with?

The point we are raising is that if each of the previous administrations in the state had been handing over 31 schools to private hands, will Ajimobi meet the number of schools he met in the state? It is important to prevent any bad policy from happening because once it happens; it will create a big issue for subsequent administrations to handle. If government claims that it is just a proposal, why did it take a decision behind stakeholders to charge N250,000 application fee from interested people.

A decision was reached and it was single-handedly taken by the government. If someone is paying N250,000 for application, you can imagine how much that person will pay for a school. Eventually, the high fees that will be charged will take education away from the reach of the poor masses. We don’t consider this as a proposal because the decision should have been taken after the stakeholders meeting.

The government said labour was invited to the stakeholders meeting but instead of attending, you came to disrupt the meeting?

The advertorial was published on May 25, 2016 but there was no letter of invitation to labour from the government until 4pm on May 31, 2016. The meeting was held on June 1, 2016.

When we did not receive a letter from the government before the day it was sent, we held a meeting and came up with a communiqué where we informed the government of our opposition to the policy. That was when it thought of sending a letter to us which was only received by the clerk. By then, we had perfected our strategy to go on a peaceful protest. I only saw the letter after we were released from the Agodi prison.

How did you get to the Agodi prison?

On June 2, 2016, we were invited by the police and seven of us were arrested immediately. The government was never serious about inviting labour to the stakeholders meeting.

It was alleged that you disrupted the meeting and damaged properties at the venue. Is this true?

There was nothing like disruption. We only went on a sensitisation rally and before we embarked on it, we wrote a letter to the state Commissioner of Police, informing him of our intention to stage a peaceful rally to sensitise the public to rise against the policy of selling our public schools being proposed by the government. In our letter, we stated our itinerary that we would go through some popular schools and end up at the venue of the meeting to inform prospective buyers and sellers that our schools were not for sale. We were given police protection throughout and we were led out of the meeting. There was no disruption and that was why no arrest was made at the scene.

What about the allegation that chairs were destroyed and that the Secretary to the State Government, Olaleka Ali, was beaten up?

No chair was damaged and Ali was not beaten by anybody. If you see the front page of some dailies the following day, the picture used was taken from the venue and all the chairs were intact. I think the government should stop misleading the public.

If you have something against the proposal of the government, have you proffered an alternative solution?

We have always been doing that. The Nigerian Union of Teachers has a tradition; once a new government comes into power, we send our proposal to the government to address failure in the education sector. To address this issue of school transfer, the NLC through the national body submitted a proposal to the state government.

But it seems your main agitation is now drifting towards salary payment and not opposition to the government’s proposal on education. Is this not a shift in ground and is the strike not illegal as claimed by the government?

The strike is not illegal. What led to this strike was the noise generated when the leadership of labour in this state was incarcerated in the Agodi prison. The national leaders heard about it and came to the state. We were in the prison when they came. They then realised that six month salaries were being owed workers by the state government. They were not happy that after the workers demonstrated understanding, their leaders were clamped into prison. The strike was called by the national leaders to protest non-payment of salaries and the government proposal on education.

Why did you use pupils for protest?

In our address to the government, we made it clear that teachers did not send pupils out to protest. The pupils were only expressing their fundamental rights knowing that if schools were sold they would be at a great disadvantage. When they were on the streets, we were in prison.

Do you think the state government has the money to pay your salary demands?

There is a social contract between the employee and the employer. The contract is that if I serve you, you must pay me. It is not the business of the employee to know how government will get money to pay workers who have already rendered their services.

How long can you go on with the strike?

The strike is intact and sustained. It is also effective by our estimation. That is why thousands of our members resume at the labour secretariat everyday for congress since it began.

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