Abuja and Minna — The Federal Government lacks the required finances to meet the demands of striking university lecturers who downed tools six weeks ago, Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala said yesterday.
She spoke in Minna, Niger State, few hours before she joined a team of government negotiators in Abuja to meet with leaders of the Academic Staff Union of Universities on the differences between the two sides. The discussions are scheduled to continue on Monday.
ASUU called an indefinite strike on July 1, demanding better working conditions and repair of infrastructure in universities.
The union says it is asking for the implementation of a 2009 agreement based on which government will release N100 billion in 2012 and N400 billion from 2013 to 2015 to address infrastructure decay in the universities.
The Finance Minister yesterdayyesterday said though talks were still on with the lecturers, government had no sufficient resources to meet ASUU demands which she said would cost N92 billion.
"As we speak, ASUU wants government to pay an extra N92 billion in additional allowance over and above their salaries which they called 'End Income Allowances' and we are in discussion and negotiation with them but the problem is that the resources to take care of these are simply not there," she said at the opening of the National Council on Finance and Economic Development.
Okonjo-Iweala said government was under sustained pressure from labour unions to pay higher wages to workers including those who lack the capacity to execute their jobs.
"We have labour unions, we have different set of workers who want more pay, more allowance and all of these key into the recurrent expenditure," she said, adding "we are getting to the stage where recurrent expenditures take the bulk of our resources and people get paid but cannot do the work."
The minister said many Nigerians are decrying poor infrastructure which is caused by low capital budgets but at the same time sympathising with those agitation for higher pay which translates in to higher recurrent expenditures.
Hours after Mrs Okonjo-Iweala spoke in Minna, she participated in discussions in Abuja between ASUU and government's team led by Benue State Governor Gabriel Suswam.
Suswam, who is also chairman of the Presidential Universities Needs Assessment Committee, spoke to journalists at the end of yesterday's three-hour session, saying there was progress in the discussions.
"The meeting continues next week Monday. We made some progress, we had very fruitful discussion with ASUU and we have agreed we are to meet again on Monday at about three o'clock. When we meet again we will be able to arrive at some decisions," he said.
Reminded that he had made same promise last week, Suswam said: "No, I said between one and two weeks. There is nothing wrong. You know we introduced some new faces, the Minister of Finance, you (will) agree with me she is attending the meeting for the first time and also the Director General, Budget. Now that Finance is coming, we are getting close to resolving it because the strike is about settling some debts and also intervening in the universities and so she is here and she also has contributed."
He added that "we believe that when we meet next week Monday with ASUU we would have moved from where we are to the next stage. I can assure Nigerians that the President has taken this seriously as you can see the Minister of Finance and two ministers of education, a distinguished senator, DG Budget, Minister of Labour, every person who should be here is here to show concern.
"I have spent so much time as governor being part of this which shows the seriousness which the President attaches to what is happening in the education sector. As I leave here, we are going to the second meeting which is on the needs assessment. We want to make sure that we solve this problem so we are holding meetings round the clock."
Suswam also said "The fact that we were unable to conclude today does not mean that the meeting is deadlocked; very fruitful meeting. And I believe that when we meet next week, we will arrive at some conclusion. That is what I can tell you."
ASUU President Nasir Isa Fagge, who led the union's delegation to the meeting, refused to speak with reporters at the end of yesterday's session.
In Minna yesterday, the Finance Minister also spoke on the need to diversify government's sources of revenues to reduce dependence on oil.
"This is a problem which plagued all tiers of government. At both the Federal and sub-national governments, we have become very reliant on FAAC allocations, and as a result, we face a lot of challenges whenever there is some price or quantity shock to our oil production," Okonjo-Iweala said.
She also revealed that about 75 per cent of registered firms in the country were not in the tax system as at last year. Also, about 65 per cent of registered tax payers had not filed their tax returns in the past two years.
Because of these, she added, around N80 billion in revenues were missing. She said consultants who evaluated the tax system "found many areas where we could improve enforcement and compliance in our tax system."
The Minna conference was declared open by Vice President Mohammed Namadi Sambo, who was represented by National Planning Minister Shamsuddeen Usman.