While the billow of smoke from the ENDSARS protests, counter protests and subsequent looting peaked over the past two weeks, a rare development which signposts a candle in the dark tunnel that has become the Nigerian university education system passed almost unnoticed. It was a silver linen on the enveloping dark cloud over our higher education. Though the rot in Nigeria’s universities is not up for discussion here, Nigerians who helplessly bemoan their fate, bluntly accuse successive cadres of leaders and politicians whose children study abroad, of negligence and complicity in the decadent fate of public universities across the country. While a degree of efforts made over the years towards the revitalization of the universities have produced less a significant result, even as each successive governments swear to have done the best, the contrasting pictures of the children of the rich and affluence in public service graduating from foreign universities, while institutions at home are under lock and key mocks every claim to commitment, worse, patriotism .
Ordinary Nigerians will readily swear the rot festers because the politicians who rule Nigeria all have their children overseas and lose little sleep over the scandalous institutional decay. They only hope the glory days will return only when the children of those in power will learn in the same academically unwholesome environment that currently captures the picture of Nigerian public universities. Sensibilities are offended by pervasive impression that no big politician has his children in Nigeria! This has gained traction though, but the recent graduation and induction of the son of the Hon. Minister for Labour and Employment, Sen. Chris Ngige on October 19, 2020 among other 58 granduants from the Medical College of the Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu University, Awka provides a typical page in the worrying discourse .
The import of this fresh chapter is enormous and far reaching . It first lays to rest, the widely held view that the ruling class is not committed to the re-vitalization of the public universities because their children either study abroad or in the local private universities. In a way , it also restores hope in the foreseeable return of excellence to the nation’s ivory towers and foreshadows such a rebirth as begotten of patriotism and collective sacrifice . With the nation’s Chief Conciliator of trade disputes at the centre of this consolation chapter in an all long bitter tale, it significantly affirms the sincerity of the present administration to the regeneration of the universities and further bears out its honest intentions in negotiations with the unions in the academic community. It certainly goes beyond mere coincidence that Sen. Chris Ngige who has his three children in Nigeria public universities is the nation’s Number One Labour Officer and the Competent Labour Authority according to the Conventions of the International Labour Organisation(ILO) . Therefore, if previous ministers who performed the same role could be accused of non-commitment for the reason of children of politicians not being in the public universities, here is a minister whose children struggle for seats with other youths in Nigerian public schools .
Recall that the Director General of the ILO, Guy Ryder, had in a congratulatory message to the Minister on his re-appointment last year, declared it was one of the best appointments made by President Muhammadu Buhari. Labour unions across the country have equally expressed similar compliments in their goodwill messages. And these commendations are not borne of patronage as the Minister’s unique labour administration eloquently testifies . While the Minister has elevated social dialogue as key to dispute resolution, his openness has led the labour unions into government’s financial handicap and brought to the fore, the inevitability of readjustment of positions as regards agreements entered into with previous governments.
Importantly, the President demonstrates a clear understanding of the Labour Minister’s position as the Competent Authority and accords it the confidence it deserves . Hence, it is easily verifiable that the Minister has hardly spoken in vain in all negotiations with labour unions as the Federal Government has always backed accompanying agreements with necessary actions. With his words as bond, this has brought enormous credibility to the administration’s optics . It is indeed not for nothing that the organized labour under the two Labour centres of the Nigeria Labour Congress(NLC) and the Trade Union Congress(TUC) called off what would have been the mother of strikes on September 28, 2020 over the pump price of fuel and electricity tariff increase. It is a master stroke of prompt preemptive conciliation that denied some mischief makers the opportunity of angst which was to later violently express during the recent ENDSARS protests. Recall that the members of the National Association of Resident Doctors earlier called off its strike on September 10, 2020 with apologies to the Minister for having been misled.
The Minister has variously been quoted as telling different labour unions , “ I bring to the table, the intent of government as well as her manifest capacity to meet up obligations. My intention is to lead you into the true position of the finances of government and allow such reflect on the request you bring to negotiation.” He has also been quoted as declaring during negotiation with ASUU in September 2017 that, “if under the previous administrations, unions went as far as negotiating with President and still came out unfulfilled , I assure you that as cabinet ministers in this administration, we negotiate and get results.”
In five years as Minister, Ngige has kept the promise of every kobo he staked on behalf of the Federal Government in agreement with every labour union. From N30, 000 Minimum Wage, to tranche releases of the Earned Academic Allowances to ASUU, Revitalization fund to the universities, all demands of allowances, insurance and safety equipment demanded by the National Association of Resident Doctors (NARD) and other unions in the health sector operating under JOHESU at the peak of COVID-19, all converge on effective stewardship . The President of ASUU notwithstanding thorny disagreements had in one occasion in September 18, 2017 made reference to this, “ “I wish to place on records that for the first time in the history of this country a government official came out to say something went wrong on the government side and showed honest commitment to redress it.” Sen. Ngige had in the same negotiation said , “the disruption of the university academic calendar is our collective loss. The easiest way to tackle the problem and create a sustainable roadmap is for all of us to appreciate the size of our current earnings and tailor the demands accordingly. This government wants to resolve the lingering ASUU problem once and for all so that our children can enjoy quality education like we did. We are open and we are transparent.”
Back to induction at the Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu University, Awka, Anambra State, the prompter of this piece. Though Sen. Ngige who was once the governor of the State was at the university to witness the graduation of his son, he nonetheless demonstrated the essence of collective ownership of universities, summarizing his vision for education with the story of King Phillips of Macedon and his son, Alexander the Great. He recalled that King Philip had sought the greatest teacher of his time, Aristotle to teach his son and converted the temple at Nymphs as classroom. In appreciation for teaching his son, Philip rebuilt Aristotle’s home town of Stageira and re-populated it by freeing her citizens earlier taken into slavery. Whether this anecdote effectively aligns with the thoughts of Ngige’s colleagues in the leadership of the nation cannot be exhausted here, but the Minister has in decades of public service lived this example starting from Anambra where as governor, he became the first to tackle the rot in her educational system. His Executive Order No 5 of July 2003 placed the salaries of all civil servants and teachers on first-line charge. He laid the groundwork and indeed returned the first batch of primary and secondary schools to the mission in 2005 and turned attention to the state university, providing befitting infrastructure and securing accreditation for eight of its courses from the Nigeria University Commission.
It is really a good turn of fate that Ngige who was once a visitor to the Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu University, returned to the institution as a guest to his son’s graduation. If he and successors in office had paid lip service to the development of the institution, there could probably have been no state university capable of instilling character and learning . More than homecoming it was for such a parent and he did not hide it, as he congratulated the institution for graduating the students despite the ASUU strike. He went ahead to splash cash prizes of N250,000 each on the two best graduating students of Medicine and Surgery, totaling N500,000, while the overall best graduating student received N500,000. The best in 2nd MB and 3rd MB (Community Medicine) and the best in pediatrics, smiled home with N150,000 and N100,000 respectively. Ngige presented N1 million to all the students in the graduating class and N1 million to all the lecturers. The summary here is that the Minister of Labour and Employment is not your everyday politician. He has left a footstep , his colleagues in the Nigerian leadership, must imbibe for the greatness of our dear nation.