By Nwachukwu Obidiwe

UNFORTUNATELY, the dust arising from the skirmishes between the Minister of Labour and Productivity, Dr. Chris Ngige, and one of the nation’s labour centres, the Nigeria Labour Congress, NLC, over the chairmanship of the board of the Nigerian Social Insurance Trust Fund, NSITF, appears to have overcast the giant strides the minister has made to reposition his ministry and the agencies under it.

Minister of Labour and Employment, Dr. Chris Ngige

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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 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, asking the President to take his ministers to 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 behavioural 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 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 work plan approved by the President for the repositioning of the NSITF just lately buffeted by N62 billion pillage, in order to please some people, would have been an unforgivable blunder.

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. 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 Senator Ngige, I would  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.

Regrettably, I have read opinions that advertised this unionism and attempted to use the dust it raised to overcast Ngige’s stewardship. To have resolved age-long issues with ASUU, NASU, JOHESU, NARD, NMA, NUPENG, 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 offices  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 democratisation of the organisation, achieving the election of Nigeria from point zero where her only representative was frustrated out, to deputy chairmanship  of the organisation. 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 Organisation on Migration to establish Migration Information Centre in Benin City to take the battle to the roots. It went further to develop 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 centres across the country, streamlining and upgrading their training programmes to standardise and internationalise the Trade Test Certificate.