By Nwachukwu Obidiwe
In B.C 8, the Roman Senate bestowed honour on the first and the greatest Roman Emperor, Augustus Caesar by changing the name of the month of Sextilis to Augustus. The same Senate had earlier committed to eternal memory, the name of his uncle and Roman General, Julius Caesar by changing the month of Quintilis to July upon his death on March 15, 44 BC.
Augustus is now known as the month of August, and denotes nobility and greatness. Real or imagined , the belief is that the clement hand of fate on those born in this month is not fortuitous. It is also claimed that an August child is fearless especially those encompassed by the Zodiac sign, Lion. Fortuitously, however Senator Dr. Chris Nwabueze Ngige , former Governor of Anambra State and Minister of Labour and Employment was born on August 8, 1952.
The foregoing hangs a tale but let me leave the issue of birth and destiny to dwell on more important issues, for the time we live in , should actually have little space for such revelry. The world Bank has just released a worrying report that Nigeria is passing through its worst unemployment crisis, with an astronomical increase in the number of Nigerians, desperately seeking asylum overseas. The National Bureau of Statistics also said the nation’s unemployment rate has risen to 33%. This is added to the political distemper in the land. This frightening specter is worsened by the alarming spate of banditry , kidnapping and violent crimes that have put the citizenry in one huge prison. Ngige is therefore a Minister at a time labour restiveness can boil a stone into a pulp.
By the time he leaves office therefore , Nigerians will remember not his birthdays but how much his critical role in the cabinet of President Buhari has helped to lift Nigerians from burgeoning hopelessness, through the expansion of national productivity milieu. Assessment so far is that this medical doctor is hitting the bull’s eye, to the extent that some acknowledge that without him, the combination of industrial crisis and terrorizing social malaise would have overwhelmed Nigeria into a Hobbesian jungle. Did Montesquieu not say that societies don’t fall to outside forces till the forces within have all fallen ? Ngige’s sleepless nights have kept these grim indices on the backfoot. The only Minister who spends the nights in ceaseless torrents of disputes conciliation which have been a pacing national threat.
He has indeed come a long away in giving a new direction to labour administration in Nigeria. The list is long but in summary; midwifing the N30,000 Minimum Wage at a time it was thought impossible was not a walk in the orchard. Under him, over 1600 industrial disputes have been apprehended and conciliated, leaving the Industrial Arbitration Panel with little to arbitrate. On his advice, the Federal Government promptly cleared backlog of allowances to civil servants. Ngige also convened the National Labour Advisory Council after six years in limbo and repositioned the ministry and agencies under it, created job rich policies for optimum national productivity, while shifting emphasis to the blue collar skills. He liaised with the Ministry of Interior to tackle the abuse of expatriate quota which has been taking jobs from Nigerians. He also contributed in etching job creation content in every major contract passed by the Federal Executive Council, equally engineering the review of obsolete labour laws now before the National Assembly. He also seeks the harmonization of operation of all skills centres in the country, and mounts stiff defence of every item that promotes industrial harmony and productivity at the Federal Executive Council, irrespective of Ministries or agencies. This is in pursuit of the ILO’s 2012 Call for Action, whose thrust is for governments to take a multi-sector approach to achieve pro-employment macroeconomic policies .
At another level, his current tenure returned Nigeria to the Governing Board of the ILO, first as Deputy and now Regular. He chaired the Government Group of the Board itself between 2019 -2020, and galvanized the Africa Region as a formidable front, with other Ministers electing him, the unofficial lead speaker on Africa cause. His Push in February 2017 in Zimbabwe, led to the democratization of the African Regional Labour Centre (ALARC) when he pulled together, the West and North African representatives to break the choking grip of the South Africa Region on ARLAC. The hosting of the first ever ILO Global Youth Forum in Abuja in 2019 which was the first outside Europe in hundred years of ILO is singularly attributable to the preeminent representation of Nigeria at the ILO. The same goes for the recognition of Nigeria as a member of the Alliance 8.7, the flagship countries in the bulwark of fight against child labour. Ngige had earlier at the Africa Growth and Opportunity Conference (AGOA) in September 2016 at the Labour House, Washington D.C, moved a motion for the establishment of the African Skills Development Bank to be sited in Nigeria and was equally instrumental in the opening of the Labour Migration Centre in Benin City . These are not reckless hyperboles as they can be cross-checked .
These efforts are not in vain as his direct public appreciates in no uncertain measures. For now, the National Association of Resident Doctors(NARD) has taken over from ASUU as the most restive union with an unquenchable penchant for strike. As I write, these young doctors are on strike which some align to their age and proclivity for action. This is because just days ago, NARD left the regular interactive session with the Federal Government happy to the extent that Chris Adejo, its Deputy President declared Ngige God sent, stating that “Nigeria would be a better place with Ministers like him.”
But long before this on April 16 , 2021 , the executive of NARD in a letter signed by its President Dr. Okhuaihesuyi Uyiwala described Ngige as a “medical doctor of repute whose leadership qualities have brought timely solutions to the lingering issues in the health sector. ” Similarly on June 5, 2021, upon the resolution of the NLC/ Kaduna State Government face-off, which nearly set the nation ablaze , the same day the bitter crisis over autonomy for state judiciary and legislature was resolved, Ngige’s constituency, the Presidency, took time to celebrate his stabilizing role in the federation. The Secretary of the Implementation Committee on Autonomy for State Legislature and Judiciary and Special Adviser to the President on Niger Delta, Sen. Ita Enang described Ngige as an excellent Labour administrator, whose wealth of experience and versatile knowledge of governance at different tiers and arms of government, immensely contributed to the deft resolution of Kaduna labour imbroglio and the complex issues, involved in the autonomy for the legislature and Judiciary.
Shortly on June 13 was a letter from the Judiciary Staff Union of Nigeria(JUSUN) to thank the Minister for his support in pressing home the quest for the autonomy of the state judiciary. The letter was signed by Emmanuel Abisoye, President of the union. The Senate Press Corps also took turn to eulogize Ngige when on June 7, 2021, it conferred a merit award on him for facilitating industrial harmony in the country .
Sure, labour relations is a complex social course, often involving sour exchanges. Gritting teeth could get worse in a world of work like ours where workers and their unions are at the receiving end of the depressed economy. Ruben Abati, on the Arise Television morning programme with Ngige recently, asked what the magic was that unions now write him apology letters. Ngige only smiled it away. But the truth is that labour in Nigeria has come to appreciate his statesmanship, forthrightness and the integrity he brings to conciliation; that he acts a true conciliator who brought in egalitarian culture of conversation to labour administration . Hence apologies which have hardly been found among unionists have become a common tool in relations under Ngige.
First was the Judiciary Staff Union of Nigeria (JUSUN)who on April 26 in a letter signed by its General Secretary, Isaiah Adetola apologized to the Minister for its unfriendly labour conduct when JUSUN and Parliamentary Staff Association of Nigeria(PASSAN) stormed out of the Conference Room of the Minister. After foot dragging, the leadership of PASAN also sent in its apology signed on April 20, 2021 by its President, Comrade Mohammed Usman, saying the apology was tendered after consultations with well meaning Nigerians. And on June 22, 2021, the Nigeria Union of Pensioners(NUP) apologized to the Minister for the unethical letter by some of its members. The letter was signed by the union’s President and Secretary , Godwin Abumisi and Actor Zal respectively.
As Ngige marks his 69thbirthday therefore, I pray that he will continue to live in the footprints of Caesar Augustus who said he met “Rome a city of bricks and left it a city of marbles.”
• Obidiwe,a journalist, writes from Abuja