ONE of the structures close to the main entrance of Tai Solarin College of Education is a place known as the Business Arena. Sitting along the dusty stretch of road that leads to the Degree Complex is the campus’s major commercial hub where students can buy items from food to drinks and stationery.
On Wednesday, 6th of February, at half past eleven o’ clock in the morning, a lecturer is pleading with a stall owner to help him make photocopies of some documents free of charge.
“Please madame, I have brought A4 papers of my own,” he says, holding out the blank sheets as evidence of his thoughtfulness. But the woman remains unpersuaded.
“This is not about providing your own papers,” the business owner snaps in Yoruba.
From her tone, it appears that was not the first time the lecturer would make such demands.
“I cannot do it for you unless you bring some money. I am not running a charity organisation and I have responsibilities too.”
Awkward encounters such as this are not a rarity on the campus of the college of education.
Two days earlier, all through a 20-minute trip between ‘Lagos Garage’, Ijebu-Ode, and Omu-Ijebu where the campus is located, two staff members of the college squeezed themselves in the front seat of an old cab, and passionately discussed the ugly trends in the school — the driver and another elderly passenger occasionally weighing in.
The topics ranged from prolonged non-payment and partial payment of workers’ salaries, alleged financial excesses of the college provost, Lukmon Adeola Kiadese, and his conditional ban from the campus by the staff union congress to political implications of the state governor’s insistence on picking his successor.
“I am tired of this job,” says the 53-year-old male lecturer, seated closer to the front door.
“If I am given the N12 million the government is owing me today, I will in fact resign and tell them I am no longer interested.
“In another 12 years, I will be asked to go to my house, and you are owing me my money, you don’t want to pay. So it is fight to finish,” he adds with displeasure.
Still speaking to his female colleague, he narrates how he was once given a ride by his former girlfriend at Olabisi Onabanjo University (OOU), in her Toyota Highlander and how he could not sit comfortably in the car because he was overwhelmed with inferiority complex throughout the short trip.
He had secured a lecturing job before her, but while she rose fast through the ranks, first in a secondary school then at OOU, his career has since grounded to a halt due to the crisis at TASCE.
Across the campus, the complaints of workers, both teaching and non-teaching, are similar: of children that cannot be sent to school, of backlogs of house rent that cannot be paid, of medical bills that cannot be afforded, of tremendous shame, of begging, of the death of colleagues and loved ones who would still be alive had there been enough resources to pay for basic healthcare.
One label often used by those on the inside to describe themselves and capture their situation is “walking corpses”. With close to 50 dead already and many more struggling to feed well and properly treat one deadly ailment or the other, the description may not be very far from reality. For many of the staff members, the over ten years they have so far spent on the campus since the reestablishment of the college has been, at best, a waste of time—worrisome especially for a country where average life expectancy is no more than 55 years.
When Gbenga Daniel handed over the office of governor in May 2011, he owed staff members 10 months of salaries. But of this, seven months of net salary have been paid by the former provost, Abiodun Ojo, using internally generated revenue. For the 15 months between April 2015 and August 2016, no salary was paid at all to the workers, following a peaceful protest in Ijebu-Ode. Instead, to discourage work stoppage, the lecturers were paid monthly transportation allowances ranging from N3000 to N6000.
When a new provost, Kiadese, was to assume office in September 2016, he persuaded them to keep working while receiving half salaries. This regime lasted until August the following year.
In September 2017, this was raised to 60 per cent pay, until December 2018. Finally, the provost’s office proposed in January to pay 75 per cent of the salaries, after ‘realising’ it had the capacity to do so. As it stands, the government is owing over N4.3 billion in arrears and owed pension commitments. Part of that is 29 months’ salaries and 48 months of arrears, stemming from the late implementation of a new salary structure approved in July 2009 by the federal government for tertiary institutions.
“I can tell you there is no senior staff on this campus that will collect less than N5 million if all those monies are paid, at least from level seven upward,” observes Daniel Aborisade, chairman of the Coalition of TASCE Staff.
“We have principal lecturers, chief lecturers who will collect as high as N17 to N20 million.”
Even if the college resumes the full payment of salaries today, it may fall extremely short of the workers’ financial needs. This is because no actual promotion exercise has been conducted since 2008. The staff are still paid based on the structure and their professional levels in 2008. This is in spite of disturbingly increasing market prices of basic commodities and services.
According to data from the Central Bank of Nigeria, the average inflation rate, year on year, between October 2008 and January 2019 is 12 per cent.
Also, whenever payments are made, those who have obtained loans from the cooperative societies on campus—campus and they are many—have their loans gradually deducted from their salaries.
However, the various deductions are not remitted into the cooperative societies’ accounts, and so the debtors are compelled to pay a second time in order to access other packages, allow others benefit from the pool, and apply for benefits such as their retirement package. Elizabeth Hemba, for example, had N461,000 deducted on paper from her total pay, but she still has to pay the same sum to the societies.
Life has been tough for the workers. Their children have had to sit at home because they cannot afford the fees. People close to them, or they themselves, have died because they could not afford the pills. Some have been chased out by their landlords because they could not afford the bills, so they move to less expensive places or their family homes.
Moses, an administrative staff member, and his family had to seek shelter in a few churches in Ijebu-Ode for several months before he could gather enough money to transport his properties to Sagamu, where his father’s house is.
For Sofolabo James Olatunde who has been in the system since 2006, the challenges are not only financial and physical, they are also deeply psychological.
“You can imagine the psychology, when you come around to teach other people’s children and your own children are struggling to go or remain in school, will you be able to give in the best?” he asks in a mild, almost hushed, tone.
Sofolabo is unable to fulfil his perceived duties either as a husband at home or as a son to his aged parents. He has a son at Olabisi Onabanjo University, but his wife has had to bear the burden of paying the fees alone. She is also responsible for other bills at home. In a deeply patriarchal society like Nigeria, this role reversal has taken an emotional toll on her husband.
“My wife is now my husband,” he mutters in an emotion-laden tone.
“You know… when you live in a house and your wife determines this and that, who are you? I am just like a housemaid to my wife at home because she knows there is no way for me to do all my dues as the husband.”
The ban of a union and the rise of another
In most public institutions where the workforce is considerably large, trade unions naturally emerge to protect the interests of the workers. For TASCE, there was the College of Education Academic Staff Union (COEASU) to which staff members regularly paid commitment levies, among others. The unions were in the frontline of championing for the payment of arrears and full salaries. But in a letter dated June 11 2015, the Ogun State government declared it suspended, as well as other union activities in the school.
The government also proceeded to suspend the union’s chairman and secretary, Dan Oludipe and Modupe Oba-Adenuga, alleging that they did not uphold the instruction to suspend all union activities. A 2018 order of the National Industrial Court, Ibadan, voiding the letters of suspension and awarding damages of N100,000 to the applicants is yet to be complied with.
Seeing there was no voice loud enough to speak on behalf of the workers, Daniel Aborisade, Sub-Dean of Students’ Affairs for the college’s degree programme, and other lecturers formed in November what is now known as the Coalition of Tai Solarin College of Education Staff, which has since filled the void. Aborisade describes the coalition as a child of necessity that will fizzle out once all demands have been met by the authorities.
Hemba, the coalition’s secretary, believes its emergence is nothing short of divine. She recalls how some college employees predicted that the initiative would be short-lived, and says instead it has gone on to achieve much more than was envisaged.
“When we started, some of us were saying it will not last, that ‘by the time they pick one or two of them everything will die down’. But, thank God, we started in November and we are still moving.”
The coalition has written letters upon letters to important personalities and government figures at various levels. It has written newspaper rejoinders. It has organised peaceful demonstrations, and even successfully forbade the college provost and acting bursar from visiting the campus until they have “good news about something to be paid”.
The new union also recently appealed to the public for help in cash and kind. One of the few who answered the call was the Ogun State chapter of the Nigeria Labour Congress, NLC, which supplied bags of rice, beans and garri, packs of noodle, paste, spaghetti, among other relief materials. These have been distributed to lecturers between levels one and nine. The families of deceased staff members were also given some of the foodstuff.
“We really want to commend the NLC because the foodstuff really came on time and those staff that got it really appreciate it,” says Aborisade.
Ambali Akeem Bolaji, Ogun State chairman of the NLC, acknowledges in a phone interview with this reporter the challenges facing the college staff, and says the union sees the government’s inaction as “a deliberate attempt to kill that institution and to send some of the lecturers to untimely death”.
The union leader adds: “When we even visited, we were moved to tears when some of the lecturers sought for used cloths, used shoes and what have you. It is a deliberate attempt to ensure that they are pauperised, they are demoralised, and some them die untimely.”
He also accuses the state government of not using the released bailout funds for what they were intended for and calls on the federal government to “set up a probe panel to unravel the appropriation of Paris club refund and bailout to Ogun State to ensure that all these monies will be properly utilised”.
Nuhu Ogirima, COEASU’s President, says the national body met with the Secretary to the State Government, Taiwo Adeoluwa, towards reversing the decision to suspend the union. The government has, however, insisted that the staff coalition must stop its activities for negotiations to start.
“The state government is not happy that the coalition has been making serious negative publicity against it,” Ogirima informs The ICIR.
A brother’s death
The reporter met Odeneye Adesola, a lecturer at TASCE’s English Department and a single mother, as she taught phonetics to a class of about 70 students. Two Fridays before this encounter, on the 25th of January, she had lost her only brother, a 43-year-old, to illness. Yet, like most of her colleagues, she keeps showing up for work in spite of bereavement.
She explains that she was the deceased’s only benefactor and the major reason he died was because she could not afford to properly get him treated.
‘Sola herself has been diagnosed with arthritis and postmenopausal osteoporosis. She cannot walk long distances nor can she stand for a prolonged period.
Just as her brother before his recent death, she has had to rely on herbal medicines as she is unable to afford orthodox medical treatment, which she has discovered to be expensive. But her ill health and brother’s death are only few of the problems the English lecturer is faced with. Her postgraduate programme at the University of Ibadan, where she had applied for a PhD in Pragmatics, also suffered premature death as she could no longer afford the expenses.
Her youngest daughter, a 2017 TASCE graduate, has just gained admission to study at the Lagos State University, and she has still not been able to meet the financial obligations. Asked how she has managed to see her other two children through school, she instinctively gives one answer: donations from friends and families.
“It got to a stage that when you beg everyday, people do ask us if we are really working,” she laments.
“So we are potential beggars… We beg and our benefactors are tired of us. Even we are tired of our benefactors.”
“I just thank God that I don’t have parents again because I wonder what I will be telling them,” ‘Sola adds.
Of shame and a stagnating career
While Adesola is thankful for the absence of her parents so they would not have to share in her adversity, for Oluwatobi Elizabeth Hemba, a senior administrative staff at the college, her feelings concerning her living parents are a mix of regret and shame.
She explains with a heavy heart: “At time, I still go to my mother, whom I ought to be taking care of at her old age, to collect money and to collect foodstuff. When will she start enjoying me?”
Hemba, who also serves the Coalition of Tai Solarin College of Education Staff as the secretary, was employed at Tai Solarin University of Education (TASUED) in December 2004. She observes that she achieved much more in the four years between that December and July 2008 when TASCE was separated from the university, compared to the over ten-year-period that has followed. This, according to her, is because her salary was paid completely and regularly at the time and she could save as well as plan with it.
“But since I got to this place, I don’t think I can count anything that I have actually achieved,” she says. “My children, as little as they are, always pray that: ‘mummy your salary will be payed. By the grace of God, Amosun will pay your money.’ It is as bad as that.”
Compared to the staff members who were transferred to TASCE from TASUED, those who remained at the university—despite having similar degrees, engaging in the same work, and being at the same institution—are doing much better for themselves in terms of achieving basic life goals.
Hemba goes into the detail of moments of humiliation she regularly goes through, especially when she attends ceremonies together with staff members from other colleges. At other times, as she waits under the sun to hitchhike at the usual spot near Lagos Garage, she finds friends in other institutions drive by in enviable cars. This awkward situation often leaves her overwhelmed with shame, she said.
“We have been downgraded,” she bemoans. “It is only the grace of God that has been sustaining us, [and the hope] that once we still have life we will make it… But when you come to the office at times you will not want to work because you feel very bad.”
Another of the many college lecturers who wait at the Ijebu-Ode bus station for free rides to work is Odunlami Samson, employed at the college clinic. He describes his experiences at TASCE since his employment in 2008 as pathetic, traumatic and dehumanising, adding that he has been on the same spot ever since. Narrating a familiar experience common on campus, he says his first son gained admission into Olabisi Onabanjo University earlier in the year, but he does not have the means to pay his fee.
Years ago, he was sent packing by his former landlord after owing a house rent of N2500 per month. He had to live temporarily with his wife and children at an uncompleted building in a government quarters. “And I will go out saying that, yes, I am a government worker,” he adds.
“We are still working. You can see us on campus, going about our normal duty, doing the job effectively. And we are glad that we are doing the job,” says Samson.
“But it will be a thing of sorrow that at the end of the month, we could not have our pay … because the same market they are going to is the same market we are going. And the market women will not give us special considerations because the government did not pay us.”
Students cry in solidarity
It is apparently not only the employees of TASCE who feel the heat from the non-payment and part-payment of deserved earnings, undergraduates at the college have their fair share of the misfortune that has befallen the college. While lauding most of their lecturers for not allowing the setback to prevent them from teaching properly and regularly, they also acknowledge that the financial suffocation has greatly affected their studies.
The matriculation ceremony of freshmen, slated initially for January 18, has been postponed indefinitely. They have also neither received their identification cards nor undergone any orientation processes. Power supply has been erratic on campus and the generators have not been used for months.
Lecturers, says Aanu, a second-year student of Political Science, sometimes do not attend classes with the excuse of not having the needed fare. The students are also worried a prolonged disregard of the lecturers’ clamours may disrupt the smooth-running academic calendar.
“If we should go on strike now, it is a big deal,” states Ishola Monilola Ajoke, a student legislator representing the School of Art and Social constituency.
She explains: “So many students have already spent three to four years at home before even gaining admission into NCE. Now imagine if the school goes on strike because of salaries not being paid. Where do they even want to start from?”
For Adenuga Abisoye, a student of the School of Languages, the only explanation for what has befallen the staff of the school is that the Ogun State government “does not have human feelings”.
He asks Amosun, the governor, to imagine a scenario where he has to work for two years without getting paid his salaries and allowances.
“He will talk now,” he quips in pidgin English, “that this thing is unfair.”