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Buhari, IPPIS and ASUU – softly, softly, please…

The current, fragile peace in the country’s university campuses just survived a scare following the suspension of a threatened strike by the Academic Staff of Universities (ASUU), which was proposed in the wake of the federal government’s intention to extend the provisions of the Integrated Payroll and Personnel Information System (IPPIS), to include federal universities. The suspension of the anticipated strike was after a meeting between the Senate and ASUU last week, after which its National President, Professor Biodun Ogunyomi, confirmed the postponement of the planned strike. Before this development, President Muhamadu Buhari had at the presentation of the 2020 budget estimates to the National Assembly on October 8th 2019, declared that as from the end of October 2019, any Federal Government establishment that is not covered in the IPPIS would have its staff going without salaries. Academic staff of federal universities as members of ASUU automatically fall into the bracket of Nigerians targeted for the IPPIS, but are not presently enrolled on it.

The IPPIS was introduced in 2007 to provide for a harmonised management of the personnel costs of the federal employees through direct payment of their net salaries and wages to banks after due deductions to third parties. According to the Office of the Accountant General of the Federation (OAGF), the IPPIS was intended to achieve two key objectives. Firstly, is the payment of federal government employees on time, as well as within statutory and contractual obligations. Secondly, is to have a centralized payroll system that meets the needs of the employees of the federal government and helps the government to plan as well as manage the payroll budget, more efficiently and effectively.

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However, this intention of the government to corral the academic staff of federal universities members into IPPIS has not gone down with ASUU whose ranks are still smarting from recent skirmishes with the federal government over matters bordering on the wellbeing of the universities. According to Professor Ogunyomi, its position is hinged primarily on the timing of Buhari’s Presidential ultimatum of the end of October 2019, which the association finds not only insensitive and drastic but manifestly unrealistic. Many observers within and outside ASUU see it as a veiled attempt by the government to punish ASUU, which is believed to be in the firing line of the latter. Along with timing come several other grounds which include the matter of autonomy of individual universities on remuneration as is enshrined in the enabling acts setting them up. Beyond autonomy, ASUU also queries the system as being prone to abuse given the undeniable, systemic control weaknesses in the management of public sector affairs in the country; and which without a doubt is still fraught with a legion of incontinences. Specifically, ASUU views the IPPIS scheme as presently constituted, to be one whose fundamentals is too strait-jacketed and inflexible to accommodate the peculiarities of the country’s university system.  ASUU further reinforces its contention with the argument that IPPIS is not even backed by law as it is a mere policy measure, which can be jettisoned in future by a government that is not disposed to continue with it. In summary, the ASUU President hyperbolically referred to the IPPIS as a “threat to national security”.

However, lying somewhere between the foregoing is the question of merit or otherwise of the conflicting positions of the two camps. The IPPIS was introduced in 2007 as one of the strategic reforms intended to take the country’s public service sector to a new level. It commenced with seven designated MDAs in the pilot scheme, and as at April 2018 had captured a total of 490 of the country’s MDAs, and in the process now accounts for the salaries and wages of over 700,000 who draw their emoluments from the consolidated federation account, These include the Nigeria Police and other paramilitary agencies.

However, the migration of the respective agencies unto the IPPIS seems to remain fully unaccomplished, as it now requires a presidential ultimatum to make IPPIS conclude on its designated span of coverage. This is attributable to the fact that the scheme posed significant headaches to agencies migration onto its platform. Although the paramilitary establishments in the country are said to have migrated unto the platform, for them and the Police, the migration to the IPPIS was not a tea party. Ostensibly, for a related reason, the military is yet to come on board, for reason of not destabilising its operational framework due to any untoward fallout associated with problems that may arise from a hurried entry into IPPIS.

Hence the reluctance of ASUU to be forced to migrate unto the IPPIS, before the end of October 2019, remains justified and needs to be considered with significant discretion by the government. After all, if other agencies with relatively more homogenous, internal operational cultures, can exercise discretion before joining IPPIS, the case of the universities remains even more acute, given the peculiarities of the university system, of enterprise appraisal and remuneration.

Questions have, however, risen over why the President would adopt such a drastic stance, as symbolized by his October ending ultimatum, given the wide range of challenges and constraints facing the implementation of the IPPIS in the country. One lobby justifies it as necessary to stampede the lagging MDAs to brace up and fall in line with the government’s pace of reforming the public service, even in the area on the mission of the IPPIS. However, others counter that such a shock therapy for lagging MDAs remains ill-advised, as they question the capacity of the government to cope with an accelerated pace of implementing the IPPIS as the ASUU angle has exposed.

The way forward remains the consideration of ASUU’s aversion to the IPPIS as presently constituted, and work along with its recommendations for a better run for the initiative.  Critical in this respect is the advent of a law by the National Assembly, that will not consolidate the statutory ambit of the IPPIS, but also render it compatible with the statutory autonomy of the universities and any other establishment which its present restricted policy format violates.

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