Friday Musings with Ayo Olukotun
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“During a recent tracking of the huge public funds that have been earmarked for funding education and other social services, I confirmed that several billions of naira in the TETFUND account are lying fallow at the vault of the Central Bank of Nigeria due to the failure of the management of tertiary institutions to access the intervention fund”
– Human rights lawyer, Femi Falana SAN, at last week’s Delegates Conference of the Academic Staff Union of Universities.
As the quotation in the opening paragraph sourced from Femi Falana’s address to last week’s Delegates’ Conference of the Academic Staff Union of Universities shows, a debate has broken out regarding the use or large scale abuse of monies collected by the Tertiary Education Trust Fund. The gist of Falana’s important address is that humongous funds are sitting idle at the Central Bank of Nigeria, while the universities are wallowing in distress occasioned by underfunding. This appears to be a striking confirmation of the Yoruba prayer and wise crack that “omo alaso ko gbodo wo akisa” (The child of a baron dealing in clothes should not be seen outside in rags).
For sure, this is not the first time in which our public intellectuals have drawn attention to the muddle, fraud and underutilisation of resources at TETFUND. For example, The PUNCH columnist, Prof. Niyi Akinnaso, has consistently drawn attention to unhelpful and unhappy events at TETFUND which shortchange universities, to say the least. Akinnaso had argued in ‘University education in Nigeria at the crossroads’ (The PUNCH, Tuesday, September 5, 2016), that, “it is often whispered around that TETFUND is a pot of gold for those who have no business on university campuses, except of course their contractors to which TETFUND contracts are awarded.” Akinnaso and other public intellectuals had drawn attention to the rot and maladies at TETFUND in the hope that the current administration, which rode to power on the mantra of change would cleanse the Augean Stables and free the much needed funds for chronically underfunded tertiary institutions.
Although a few arrests, too few and too far between, of colluding officials with itchy fingers have been made, it is doubtful whether the thorough-going and large scale reconstruction of that institution, have begun in earnest. Interestingly, as Falana reveals, TETFUND is a fruit of the many struggles by the Academic Staff Union of Universities, to address the issues of perennial underfunding in Nigerian universities. The pity, however, is that while TETFUND projects, especially in the areas of physical infrastructure, are in evidence across tertiary institutions owned by government, only a fraction, and a tiny one at that of the huge funds amassed under the Act has been disbursed. The TETFUND website iterates the areas of special interventions as including essential infrastructure to support teaching and learning, instructional material and equipment, research and publication, academic staff training and development as well as material resources essential for the improvement of quality and maintenance of standards.
Obviously, diligent implementation and management, underwritten by accountable governance standards would have mitigated the woeful status, marked by frequent strikes of tertiary public institutions. That this did not happen as envisaged, suggests a need for stakeholders, especially unions such as ASUU, to maintain vigil and oversight on the institution. It is obviously an indication of the ambiguity and lack of clear direction in its teething years that funds from the organisation were disbursed to primary, secondary and tertiary institutions on the basis of ratio 2, 3 and 5.
In the last seven or so years however, TETFUND, in keeping with governmental focus on higher education and its original mandate has sought to uplift tertiary institutions. Perhaps, and considering the galloping destitution of basic education, some other projects will have to be instituted to address primary and secondary education, although that is a matter for another day. A related and growing advocacy concerns the extension of the scope and mandate of TETFUND to include the growing private tertiary education sector, considering the fact, as some of its advocates have insisted, that a good chunk of the education tax is paid by the proprietors of private universities and cognate institutions. The first order of business appears to be how to get the TETFUND, mired in characteristic under- performance, pillage and dysfunction to perform for greater efficiency. At this juncture however, this writer asks the reader to indulge a short take.
We are forced to record and to raise the alert, once again, that the nation is under siege, held by the jugular by roving criminal gangs, some of a shadowy nature, resulting in a situation where each day narrates its own harvest of tragic murders or kidnaps. A country which recently basked in the glow of international attention conferred by President Muhammadu Buhari’s state visit to the White House, has now diminished to become the subject of travel advisories by Western governments, and anxieties about the shape of things to come in an election year. It is not enough for Buhari to lament that the escalating insecurity is the handiwork of individuals and groups bent on causing civil war in Nigeria. The point is to confront the syndrome, by raising it to the level of a front burner governmental policy. The location of a new battalion of the army in Birnin Gwari, Kaduna State, which recently succumbed to massive bloodletting is a step in the right direction. However, this must be quickly followed up by policy initiatives calculated to empower and deploy security institutions, increase their fire power, rejig their leadership in cases of proved incompetence as well as reduce the trust gap and misperception between a traumatised public and law enforcement.
To return to the initial discourse, the assignment to redeem TETFUND cannot be left to the bureaucrats alone. A coalition of stakeholders, under the aegis of ASUU, must rise to the occasion to ensure that it is working as designed, even going beyond the design to introduce widely agreed innovations. For instance, as Falana makes clear in his topical paper, even the collection of the education tax is done in a desultory and haphazard manner, which ensures that close to 50 per cent of registered companies are not complying with the obligation to pay up two per cent of accessible profit, as stipulated.
The confession by insiders in TETFUND, that they lack the mechanism to audit those who comply and those who default, indicates the need for the unions, and here we have in mind staff unions of universities, polytechnics and colleges of education, to step into the gap. Why not set up expert committees with specialisations in finance, taxation and related matters to track, in conjunction with the Federal Inland Revenue Service, both the desultory collection and the opaque disbursement of funds.
The marriage between advocacy and policy monitoring, long overdue, ought to begin with this case. That is not all. It should be possible to extend the writ of civil society oversight to include the monitoring of projects ostensibly executed by institutions, but which are no more than clever ploys to spirit funds out of a broken system. At a minimum, the struggle to redeem TETFUND should now commence apace.
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