Okenwa E. Okere
Finally, the Federal Government and organized labour reached an agreement on the protracted issue of consequential adjustments of salary of the different categories of workers in the public service following the new minimum wage of N 30, 000 per month. The details of the agreement are already in public domain and as such need not be revisited here. What is perhaps of more significance is the amicable resolution of the matter, that is, without labour embarking on a nationwide industrial action as it had threatened and as, indeed, many Nigerians had feared.
But it did not come easy. What Nigerians finally saw on Thursday, October 17, 2019 was the result of a painstaking process of rigorous negotiation between the Federal Government and labour that was devoid of any grandstanding and arrogance on the part of the government team led by the Minister of Labour and Employment, Dr Chris Ngige. In spite of the fact that there was so much expectation, the tension was quite minimal; a situation that well underscored the warm relationship that has been existing between the labour movement and the ministry, especially since Dr. Ngige began to head it four years ago.
Dr. Ngige and his ministry had earlier led organized labour through a protracted period of negotiations that culminated in the N 30, 000 minimum wage agreement that has since become law. Contrary to fears in many quarters, the nation was not shut down by an industrial action during the period.
Prior to achieving that milestone, the ministry, under Senator Chris Ngige, had, through clarity of vision and administrative ingenuity, succeeded in stabilizing the national industrial milieu, while broadening the frontiers of job creation and repositioning Nigeria’s international labour diplomacy. At a period of crushing national poverty, occasioned by recession, Senator Ngige succeeded in arresting what would have been a conflagrating industrial unrest whose roots are far beyond the present administration. First was the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) national strike of May 2016. This was followed by agitations by the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU); National Association of Resident Doctors (NARD); Association of Senior Civil Servants of Nigeria, Joint Action Committee of Non-Academic Staff of Nigerian Universities and unions in the health sector operating under Joint Health Employees Union (JOHESU). Then there were the NUPENG, PENGASSAN agitations, among others. The list is long but adequate ventilation of all issues through open dialogue with the social partners staved off a wave of industrial strikes.
Between May 2015 and May 2019, the ministry intervened on 1,425 trade disputes. Out of that, 788 disputes were completely resolved; 37 cases were referred to the Industrial Arbitration Panel (IAP) while 600 are pending at different stages of mediation and conciliation. Within this period, the ministry, working in collaboration with the International Labour Organization (ILO) and other social partners, began work on the development and implementation of a National Policy On Industrial Relations.
It went offshore to address the highly vexations issue of illegal migration, through international labour diplomacy. In order to curtail illegal migration, and save thousands of Nigerians from dying in the Sahara desert and the Mediterranean Sea, the ministry, in conjunction with the International Organization On Migration, established a Migration Resource Centre in Benin City, Edo state, where most of the illegal migrants were originating from, to complement the ones in Lagos and Abuja. And in order to help qualified Nigerians get legitimate employment opportunities abroad, the ministry developed a migration policy with the European Union to assist qualified Nigerians work and earn decent living abroad. Through the intervention and advice of the ministry, the federal government resisted the pressure of placing embargo on employment, given the severe economic conditions. Instead, the ministry spearheaded the creation of white collar jobs in the ministries and agencies of government running into hundreds of thousands.
Minus a track record of a brilliant performance as governor of his state, Anambra, for a period of about 33 months, Dr. Ngige would improbably be most people’s idea of the type of fellow needed to handle labour matters in Nigeria at a time like this. In a sense, therefore, President Buhari could as well take some credit for discovering such a talent, though more by default than by design, as already noted, given that contrary to initial fears, Nigeria has not been reduced to a cacophony of labour unrest since Ngige took over as minister of labour and productivity.
To be sure, organized labour should also take some credit for manifesting a rare sense of maturity and patriotism but there can be no doubt that there must be something in Chris Ngige that has made it possible for the country not to experience a complete shut down by workers in the last four years, given the debilitating economic situation in the country. Besides successfully galvanizing the labour movement through the long period of negotiation to arrive at a new minimum wage of N30, 000.00 per month, the nation was again saved another period of anxiety with the recent truce over the consequential adjustment
Some people marvel at the near effortlessness with which Dr. Ngige has ran the labour ministry but some of us who had the privilege to observe him at close quarters while he was a governor, do not. Dr. Ngige is full of candour. He took over as governor of Anambra state after an administration that made the very hard working people of Anambra look like the back waters of Nigeria: Unpaid salaries for almost for upwards of two years, schools closed for the same period of time, incredibly bad network of roads and what have you. In less than three years, Ngige transformed the state in nearly all spheres and from the back yard, the state became one of the most talked about, to the extent that the federal establishment took particular interest in who governed it!
The fellow who succeeded him, Peter Obi, also performed creditably well but I can state without any fear of contradictions that had Ngige had eight years as governor, Anambra state would by now not be “counted as part of Nigeria”, to put it so ordinarily.
Back to the topic of today, however, my view is that the Buhari administration may be accused of anything else but not in the area of labour management. As a matter of fact, the relative calmness in the labour circle in the last four years is quite surprising, considering the general perception of the administration – that whose insiders have made up their minds on everything no matter how differently the rest of the country feels. That perception may well begin to give way if the type of thing Nigerians witnessed during the recent talks between the federal government and labour is sustained.
Overall, the significance of the successful negotiations between the government and labour goes beyond the shores of Nigeria. It will go a long way to further underscore Nigeria’s preeminence in International Labour diplomacy. It is already on record that Nigeria under Ngige was in 2017 brought back into the governing board of the International Labour Organization after ten years in limbo. Recently, Nigeria was nominated by African ministers in Ethiopia to take up the position of presidency of the ILO board next year, in recognition of the leadership Senator Ngige has given the continent since 2017 when he was elected as the deputy president.
•Okere writes from Abuja