The federal government has opened an account with the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) in which it has deposited N200 billion being part of the funds earmarked to tackle the rot in the nation's university system, the presidency disclosed Tuesday.
The lodgement, it added, was part of efforts to fulfil the promise President Goodluck Jonathan made to the Academic Staff of Union Universities (ASUU) during their marathon meeting in November.
The government, which has insisted that it has met the union's demands to enable it suspend its five-month-old strike, has also extended today's deadline for the striking university teachers to resume work or risk losing the jobs by one week. It also assured lecturers who resume by the new deadline of December 9 that they would be paid their salary arrears.
As part of the efforts at resolving the protracted crisis in the education sector, supervising Minister of Education, Mr. Nyesom Wike, yesterday met with students' leaders behind closed doors in Abuja to solicit their support for the federal government's efforts at getting the teachers back to class.
Senior Special Assistant to the President on Public Affairs, Dr. Doyin Okupe, told THISDAY in an interview that the federal government, in demonstration of its sincerity to meet the demands of the lecturers, had opened the account with the CBN in which the N200 billion, being the first tranche of about N1 trillion intervention fund the president promised ASUU in November.
He said: "The federal government has opened an account with the Central Bank of Nigeria and the sum of N200 billion has been paid into the account. It is not true that the federal government is not sincere in trying to resolve the ASUU crisis.
"The opening of the account with the CBN and the deposit of N200 billion into the account is by all means an indication that the federal government is sincere and wants to see the universities opened.
"An account in the name of 'Universities Infrastructural Funds' has been opened in the Central Bank of Nigeria and the agreed sum of N200 billion has been set aside for the account by the federal government.
"The Academic Staff Union of Universities therefore has no legal or any legitimate grounds to continue the strike for even one day longer."
On the demand by the union for a guarantee that its members would not be sanctioned for going on strike, Okupe assured ASUU that government had no intention to victimise the teachers.
"The issue of non-victimisation is a non-issue because it is already guaranteed by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) provision to which Nigeria is a signatory.
"The renegotiation of the 2009 agreement cannot be a condition as it was already agreed with by the president. Demanding a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) is superfluous. This of necessity follows all resolutions. ASUU strike obviously on all moral grounds has expired," he added.
The president's Senior Special Assistant on Youth and Students' Matters, Mr. Jude Imagwin, also said ASUU had no business continuing the strike because the federal government had met its demands.
He told leaders of the National Association of the Nigerian Students (NANS) in Abuja that it was based on the government's action that a larger membership of ASUU campus chapters voted for the immediate suspension of the strike.
NANS President, Mr. Yinka Gbadebo, had said the association would remain neutral, adding that it supports a just cause.
The federal government also yesterday shifted today's deadline, which it issued last week to the academic staff to resume work, to December 9.
The new deadline is to honour a former ASUU President, the late Prof. Festus Iyayi, whose funeral rites begin tomorrow and would last until Saturday.
The Executive Secretary of the National Universities Commission (NUC), Prof. Julius Okojie, at a press briefing in Abuja also expressed the readiness of the government to pay the four-month salary arrears of any teacher who returns to work.
He added that the government decided to shift the resumption deadline after it received the notification of Iyayi's funeral rites late on Monday so that government and ASUU would not have to deal with matters arising from the ultimatum during the funeral.
Also yesterday, Wike met with the NANS leadership as part of efforts to seek solution to the industrial dispute in the education sector.
THISDAY sighted one of the official vehicles the NANS' president at the premises of the NUC even though the current national secretariat of the students' body is in Obafemi Awolowo University (OAU), Ile Ife, Osun State.
A source confirmed the meeting but could not provide details of the agenda. "The meeting was supposed to hold much earlier but it has been postponed until later today (Tuesday) because we heard the minister was going to the National Assembly. So it will hold when he is done with the National Assembly," the source said.
Despite the threat of a job loss, ASUU members in Ekiti State have said they will not be cowed to call off the strike.
Speaking in Ado Ekiti after a meeting of the Ekiti State University's branch of the union , ASUU's Coordinator, Ilorin Zone, Dr Ayan Adeleke, described the threat to sack over 93,000 academic staff across all public universities , as an empty one.
However, the senate of the University of Port Harcourt (Uniport) yesterday announced Sunday as the reopening date for the institution.
But the announcement drew the ire of the Uniport branch of the union, which insisted that its members would not be available to attend to returning students. The university, after the meeting of its senate yesterday, released a new timetable for academic activities on the three campuses of the institution, noting that lectures would resume on Monday, December 9.
The spokesman of the university, Dr. Williams Wodi, said many lecturers, despite the ASUU's stance, had already indicated interest to resume work. In a related development, the Rivers People Forum(RPF) has criticised Wike for his handling of the strike by ASUU.
The group, in a statement yesterday by its President, Charles Bekwele, described the minister's resume-work-or-be-sack order as in bad state.
"It is indeed tragic and an imminent threat to our democracy that in a democratic setting, a minister of education would use the dictatorial threat, the autocratic style, the military regime mentality of mass sacking of lecturers as solution to a crisis that could easily be resolved through dialogue, if the minister, Nyesom Wike, is sincere in his negotiations with ASUU.
"Indeed, Nyesom Wike does not have the capacity, wherewithal and character to handle any ministerial portfolio, for that matter. His stock-in-trade has always been to spread lies, rumours, mischief, destroys whatever he touches and betrays whatever confidence that is repose in him," it said.