Unfortunately, the dust arising from the skirmishes between the Hon. Minister of Labour and Employment, Sen. Chris Ngige and one of the nation’s labour centres, the Nigerian Labour Congress(NLC) over the chairmanship of the board of the Nigerian Social Insurance Trust Fund (NSITF) appear to have overcast the giant strides the Minister has made to reposition his ministry and the agencies under it. As someone who has been close to numerous negotiations involving labour unions in the last four years, who witnessed encomiums which labour leaders including Ayuba Wabba had heaped on Ngige at various times, matching such remarks with their recent media outbursts, makes clear, the maladaptive role of character mutation. I easily flashback to the night of September 18, 2017 at one of the marathon meetings held to resolve the ASUU strike. Delivering an earnest of ASUU’s implicit confidence on the Minister, the ASUU President, Prof. Biodun Ogunyemi said, “ I wish to place on record that for the first time in the history of this country , a government official came out to say something went wrong on government side and showed honest commitment to redress it.” I saw the same Biodun Ogunyemi at the so-called anti-Ngige protest, calling the President to ask his ministers to undertake psychiatrist test! What? I can as well copiously quote Ayuba’s numerous encomiums on the Minister for delivering on his responsibilities to the workers. The reason I point out this is to establish a consistent pattern of behavioral change that overly explains the current detour by labour leaders as a consequence of a failed ulterior motive. The NLC in pressing for the chairmanship of the NSITF, struggled to set a selfish secret agenda as that of the Nigerian workers. Good to point out too that the two other labour centres, the Trade Union Congress (TUC)and United Labour Congress (ULC) distanced themselves from Ayuba’s narrow agenda.
The roughshod over the constitutional responsibilities of the Minister of Labour resulting in the surreptitious and anomalous listing of Frank Kokori as the chairman of the Board of the NSITF against the clear provisions of Sec. 4(a) of the NSITF Act, which exclusively confers nomination authority on the Minister, was the height of reckless intrigues which no officer alive to his responsibilities would condone. Ngige therefore acted on the path of the law by flatly rejecting the usurpation of his responsibilities and stoically resisting attempted intimidation by the NLC, obviously spurred by unseen hands. Jettisoning the comprehensive workplan approved by the President for the repositioning of the NSITF just lately buffeted by N62 billion naira pillage, in order to please some people, would have been an unforgivable blunder. The NLC made the case messier by that early morning criminal invasion of the residence of the Minister. The fact that they blocked the entrance to his house by two tankers loaded with fuel, rests any argument as to criminal intention. It was a denouement of rouge unionism; what a Presidency press statement would later describe as a “condemnable attack on a serving official of government.”
Ayuba clearly overstepped his bounds and ought to be made to understand the limits of unionism against the rights of individual Nigerians to private and family life as contained in section 37 of the 1999 constitution. Had the NLC got an intellectually equipped legal department or seek counsel from competent authority, it would have been availed of the clear impotence of the Trade Union and Trade Dispute Act before the sanctity of the section 37 of the constitution. Matters got worse when critical x-ray of facts lucidly shows the appointment of the chairman of any agency as purely political and without nexus to the provisions intended by Trade Dispute Act. There was simply no dispute that infringed on the rights of the workers, hence using unionism to push for this case is illegal in fact and in deed. If I were Sen. Ngige, I will press for criminal charges against Ayuba who might have been emboldened by the May Day show of shame, where in front of international audience, he devoted ten minutes to castigate a serving minister over an illegitimate cause. It was a clear onslaught on the authority of the President, which the Vice President and the Secretary to the Government of the Federation who were among the audience, inadvertently acquiesced to, by congratulating Ayuba for his effrontery with a handshake.
Regrettably, I have read opinions that advertised this irresponsible unionism and attempted to use the dust it raised to overcast Ngige’s lofty stewardship. I dare say the NLC ought to commend the Minister for rescuing the NSTIF from an agency that could not pay salaries in 2015; where workers stagnated for six years, whose four regional and state offices were closed down, an agency that had no audited account for seven years, where locust ate a whopping N62 billion, out of which N5billion was stolen in a day without vouchers! It is the same organization that now stands firm , alive to its responsibilities, receiving contributions from external publics, hitherto put off by chilly tales of sleaze. Labour should give a standing ovation to the man that ably pushed and stood by workers, defending them against the tyranny of state governments all through negotiations for the Minimum Wage. Is it not appropriate to refresh our minds on how bad government – labour relations was at the inception of the administration, with cascading threats of actions and actual strikes by different unions? It is creditable that Ngige deployed brilliant labour administration skills, conducive for positive social dialogue in the tripartite negotiations that saved Nigeria the ugly specter of a Venezuela as detractors of the Buhari administration had vaunted. To have resolved age long issues with ASUU, NASU, JOHESU, NARD, NMA, NUNPENG, PENGASSAN etc. and restored equable industrial milieu is not a walk along the orchard.
With Ngige’s deft move, the mass retrenchment in the oil and construction sectors was forestalled when he brought their captains to the table. An agreement was reached to cut the heavy pecks of top officers to accommodate the junior and middle level workers . It was similar encounter with banks when he confronted the financial sector over unilateral declaration of redundancy in June 2016, threatening them with revocation of licenses . The vexed issue drew heated arguments from legal, financial and social critics. The matter came before the Joint Committee of the National Assembly where Ngige was commended for standing firm that Nigerian workers cannot be treated like slaves and that their terminal benefits be fully paid if sack was the only option.
In various ways, the Minister has impacted positively on Nigeria’s labour administration. His outings on international labour diplomacy speak eloquently. From being a bench warmer in the ILO for ten years, he brought Nigeria back to the Governing Board as a deputy . And from serving as deputy, his sterling leadership caught the attention of fellow African Ministers who nominated him the continent’s spokesman in November 2017 and went further to elect Nigeria as a Titular member on the board in March 2019, in acknowledgment of his impressive roles. At the African Regional Labour Administrative Centre based in Zimbabwe , Ngige pushed for the democratization of the organization, achieving the election of Nigeria from point zero where her only representative was frustrated out, to deputy chairmanship of the organization. At the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act conference in Washington in October 2016, Ngige called on the United States to establish Africa Skills Development Fund with Nigeria as headquarters.
Also, irregular migrations which has claimed thousands of lives across the Sahara and the Mediterranean received the attention of the ministry as it partnered the International Organization on Migration to establish Migration Information Centre in Benin City to take the battle to the roots. It went further to develope a programme with the European Union under which qualified Nigerians will legally migrate, work and earn decent livings abroad. Apart from ensuring that no staff of the federal government was sacked even while the country was passing through recession, Ngige appropriately advised government to create openings for recruitment of hundreds of thousands of Nigerians into the federal civil service and other agencies of government. Besides, he shifted emphasis to skills acquisition, to avail Nigerians of the limitless opportunities in the blue collar world. He followed it up with the resuscitation of skills centers across the country, streamlining and upgrading their training programmes to standardize and internationalize the Trade Test Certificate. The trainees were further assisted to access soft loans from the Industrial Training Fund and from the Ministries of Agriculture as well as Trade and Industry. It is not indeed for nothing that the President while addressing the creme of the Lagos business community during the last presidential campaign, introduced Ngige as the Minister of Labour and Employment who “has competently guided me in all labour matters.”
Obidiwe, a journalist writes from Abuja