Etim Ukpong is the Akwa Ibom State chairman of the Nigeria Union of Teachers. He also doubles as the chairman of the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC). In this Interview by INIOBONG EKPONTA in Uyo, he speaks on the rise and decline of the nation’s education sector and how some states of the federation are making efforts to reawaken the sector.
Nigeria recently marked its 58th independence anniversary. How would you rate the country, judging from the public education sector?
There were times I would have said we were going backward, but we are obviously moving forward. I am saying so because there were moments the schools were used as instruments for measuring the progress of the society. Schools were at the forefront of the society; teachers were the only ones who went to the white man’s country. Teachers were the ones who could be relied upon to guide the society. But there was also a time when all that collapsed, not the fault of teachers, but quality of leadership and response of Nigerian society to such leadership.
Education was no longer a priority. Teachers were pushed to the background; salaries were owed. I remember when I came into service as a young graduate teacher. I was owed eight months’ salaries. You couldn’t have expected them to perform magic. Infrastructure and science equipment were not provided. The society no longer recognised teachers because they had nothing to offer. Even in church committees, teachers were no longer invited because they had no money to contribute.
This year’s world teachers’ day is significant as we face yet another opportunity to select leaders; what are teachers looking at in the next president of Nigeria?
The president should be above board; he should be super competent, super experienced and super Nigerian. Nigeria is a big country. Whoever is coming in as president should be above board in terms of personal integrity and ability to lead. He must not attach so much importance to a section of the country, family, religion, old friends as it is the case in governance in Nigeria today. The president should be Nigerian inside out.
And on the education sector?
Whoever must govern Nigeria must love the development of the society because teachers are at the centre. The development of the education sector is a continuous process. Teachers should always have conducive work environment. The physical environment, roads to school, infrastructure within the school, the teaching and learning environment must be conducive, the immediate host communities where schools are located must be well cared for, not playing politics with PTA matters. Incentives and motivations must not be left entirely for other private agencies to be giving best teacher awards.
Do you see the N65,000 minimum wage canvassed for as realistic?
A few months ago we were buying a bag of rice for N22,000, and the minimum wage was N18,000. You now see that even someone on a good salary grade level could not comfortably afford a bag of rice. The minimum wage is so less minimum that it cannot afford a minimum measure of comfort for families of public servants. It may sound unrealistic when you take a census of states that can’t even implement the N18, 000 minimum wage. But the NLC recently surveyed income of states and realized that most states, including Akwa Ibom, can conveniently pay the N65,000 and still do other things. In some states the workers generally are still collecting salaries on negotiated percentage. What organized labour is saying is left for negotiation; we can also sit down and talk. The problem is when the employer refuses to sit for a talk, for instance the nationwide strike was not that labour was asking for announcement of new minimum wage, it was for government to agree to come back to the negotiation table. The governors say they don’t want to be part of it. Let us bring what you take home every month and compare to what workers take home. Your money is not even affecting the economy of the country because most of them fly out of the country. And because of the election, we had a way of forcing them back to the negotiation table.
Was the strike successful?
Yes, labour must not go on strike indefinitely. When you push, expect the other person to also push then you re-strategise with a view to achieving your aim. Yes the aim was achieved.
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