By Emmanuel Nzomiwu
A fortnight ago, news broke that Nigeria, against all expectations, has made a dramatic exit from recession, recording its first growth in three quarters. Pressed by the COVID-19 pandemic and very low oil prices, Nigeria had slipped into its worst recession in five years in the third quarter of 2020 with the gross domestic product (GDP) contracting by 3.6 per cent, having contracted 6.1 per cent in the second quarter. A recession is two consecutive quarters of economic decline as reflected in the GDP in conjunction with monthly indicators, such as rise in unemployment.
Although economic experts earlier predicted that Nigeria will make an exit from recession in the first quarter of 2021, the country’s GDP grew by 0.11 percent in the third quarter of 2020, according to the statistics released by the National Bureau for Statistics (NBS) on Thursday, February 18, 2021. What magic did Nigeria deploy to come out of recession earlier than projected?
According to the Vice President, Professor Yemi Osinbajo, Nigeria’s exit from recession is a key indicator of the success of the ongoing Economic Sustainability Plan (ESP) approved by the Federal Government. Osinbajo spoke through his spokesman, Laolu Akande, while reacting to the latest GDP figures for the fourth quarter of 2020, which signified the rebound of the Nigerian economy.
Similarly, Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, said the exit was not by accident but “with hard work, foresight and deliberate planning by government.” The Nigerian spokesman said this in a Channels Television programme, “Sunrise Daily” on Saturday, February 20.
For the Secretary to the Government of the Federation (SGF), Boss Mustapha Esq., the exit from recession could not have been achieved without the support of the organised labour and the working population of the country because they were the ones that ensured that the petroleum sector, the lifeline of the Nigerian economy was not disrupted. “If we have had disruptions, it would have been difficult for us to exit recession in the first quarter of 2021, let alone, the fourth Quarter of 2020,” Mustapha said. The SGF made these submissions during the last bipartite meeting between the Federal Government and the organised labour, held at the Banquet Hall of the Presidential Villa Abuja on Sunday, February 21.
However, notwithstanding the praises for the organised labour, I am of the view that President Muhammadu Buhari and the Minister of Labour and Employment, Senator Chris Ngige, deserve special commendation for the roles that they played in the process that led to the rebound of the Nigerian economy. It is on record that President Buhari set up the Economic Sustainability Committee (ESC) headed by Vice President, Yemi Osinbajo and saddled with the responsibility of working out ways of mitigating the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the Nigerian economy.
Courtesy of the ESC with Ngige and a few other ministers as members, the government introduced programmes, such as the Survival Fund, aimed at ensuring that Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) did not collapse. Under the fund, companies that have between five and 50 employees were given payroll support for about three months. Others are the Special Public Works programme, otherwise called the 774,000 jobs scheme, which offered 1,000 jobs through public works given to each of the 774 local government areas in Nigeria. The government gave out the Tradermoni, Farmermoni, marketmoni, even as 233,000 artisans got N10, 000 grants per person.
What role did Ngige play in bringing Nigeria out of recession? In the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, industrial crises engulfed the country’s health sector. The National Association of Resident Doctors (NARD) embarked on strike on September 7, 2020, to protest lack of Personal Protective Equipment, Life Insurance and nonpayment of hazard allowances to their members, amongst others. Senator Ngige who is a member of the ESC, quickly intervened and compelled the doctors to embrace dialogue. Following his intervention, the doctors called off the strike within 24 hours, even as they tendered an unreserved apology to the Minister.
But, less than one week after the resolution of the doctors’ strike, other health workers under the aegis of Joint Health Sector Unions and Assembly of Health Care Professionals commenced an indefinite strike on September 13, 2020. The strike paralysed medical services in public hospitals across the country.
The health workers listed among their grievances, the inadequacy of PPEs, nonpayment of hazard allowances, lack of Life Insurance and structural and infrastructural decay in the health sector. As at the time of the JOHESU strike, over 50,000 Nigerians have been afflicted with the COVID-19 disease, out of which 1,061 lost their lives. Many of the fatalities were health workers who constituted the country’s first line of defence in the battle against the pandemic. Just like in the case of NARD, Ngige’s quick and timely intervention cut short the JOHESU strike.
The former Anambra State Governor equally aborted the planned September 28, 2020 strike of the organised labour over the increase in fuel price and upward adjustment of electricity tariff. Many Nigerians believed that if this mother of all strikes had held with the full support of the civil society and the political opposition already poised for mass protests, the country’s precarious economic situation would have been aggravated as crude oil production, the mainstay of the Nigerian economy would have been shut down.
Recall that Economic forecasts from the world’s leading economists reported online by FOCUSECONOMICS on September 22 captured the state of the Nigerian economy a week to the aborted strike. Quoting the report, “The economy contracted at the sharpest pace in over 15 years in Q2 due to the twin shock of low crude prices and COVID-19. Lockdowns pummeled the non-oil segment of the economy, with the manufacturing, transport and trade sectors, among the worst hit. The vital oil sector also reeled as the pandemic’s fallout sapped the demand for the country’s main export commodity.
“Looking at Q3, activities seem to be gaining some momentum as restrictions are loosened. After business conditions had improved in July for the first time since March, the private sector PMI jumped in August, thanks to recovering clients demand. Business confidence also continued to strengthen in August, notably the trade and services sector. That said, sentiments is still relatively downbeat and the recovery is likely to remain constrained going forward as the lingering effects of the health sector crisis continue to take its toll.” This forecasts made by leading economists showed that a strike at that time was neither in the interest of Nigeria or Nigerians.
The indefatigable Ngige swung into action again, inviting the two arms of the organised labour, the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) and the Trade Union Congress (TUC) for a meeting at the Presidential Villa in Abuja. He chaired two rounds of meetings held between the government and the organised labour. Others from the government side at the meetings were the Secretary to the Government of the Federation, Boss Mustapha, Minister of Humanitarian Affairs, Hajiya Umar Farouk and Babatunde Fashola SAN (Works) and Ministers of State for Petroleum, Timipriye Sylva and his Labour and Employment counterpart, Festus Keyamo SAN. The Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC), National Electricity Regulatory Commission (NERC) and other relevant agencies were represented at the meetings. Following Ngige’s intervention, the organised labour shelved the strike action, forcing those already poised for mass protests to team up with the violent ENDSARS protesters. The rest is history.
Ngige equally resolved the prolonged strike action of the Academic Staff Union of Universities in December last year. Following his intervention, the Federal Government released N40 billion for payment of earned allowances of workers in Nigerian universities and N30 billion for revitalization of Nigerian universities. For the first time in over ten years, visitation panels to the universities were also constituted while a renegotiation team was inaugurated for the review of salaries of the workers in the ivory towers. A few days ago, he resolved the strike by the Non Academic Staff Union of Universities and Allied Institutions (NASU) and the Senior Staff Association of Nigerian Universities (SSANU) under the aegis of Joint Action Committee (JAC).
In conclusion, I will say that while we praise the organised labour for their sacrifices which brought our economy out of recession, we should not lose sight of the contributions of our dear President, Muhammadu Buhari and Senator Ngige. Being the Chief Labour Officer of the country, Ngige has without doubt exhibited high level of competence, dexterity and finesses as well as openness in conciliating between the Federal Government and the Nigerian workers, both in the past and at this difficult COVID-19 pandemic era.
Not minding that he is from the government side, he has proved to be an impartial and unbiased conciliator in labour disputes. All his experience in the federal public service where he retired as a Deputy Director in the Federal Ministry of Health has been brought to bear in his conciliations. Ngige’s diligence in handling labour disputes has vindicated the Director General of International Labour Organisation (ILO), Guy Ryder who described his re-appointment as Labour Minister in 2019 as the best appointment made by President Muhammadu Buhari in his second tenure.
Lastly, I have no doubt that when all is said and done, Nigerians will ultimately appreciate the efforts of the duo in saving the country from recession.
• Nzomiwu is a journalist and public affairs analyst.