Ngige’s many battles, eye opener for new labour minister
As the Minister of Labour and Employment, Dr Chris Ngige, bows out of the ministry tomorrow, Wednesday, he would be remembered for battles he fought against employers, labour unions, and centres.Indeed, pundits argue that Ngige could easily go down in history as the most controversial Minister of Labour Nigeria ever had.
In 2016, he took on employers at the time Nigeria was facing acute economic challenges that forced the financial sector to downsize, which pitched him against the immediate past Director-General, Nigeria Employers Consultative Association (NECA), Olusegun Oshinowo. He also led a fierce battle against the management of the Nigeria Social Insurance Trust Fund (NSITF), in an attempt to outdo the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), and the courts by instituting a commission of inquiry into the misappropriation of funds.
His mission led to the suspension of some senior officers whose cases with the EFCC are being pursued in the courts, even as he extended his ‘radical’ approach to the labour unions on various industrial relation issues.
Some pundits like the Head, International Department, Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC), Uche Ekwe, insisted it was hard to commend any policy of Ngige while in office; especially as “the NLC had a very rancorous relationship with him. He showed a lot of bias against labour. I don’t know where the positive thing will be said about Ngige if he did not have good relationship with labour and employer bodies. We in the NLC think that the outgoing Minister is the worst, comparable only to Uba Ahmed, who operated under a military government.”
Although he recalled that Ngige cultivated a close tie with labour movement while a Senator, which many thought would be carried forward in his new role, but he emerged a formidable antagonist of the moment as a Minister.
This, Ekwe noted is because “the primary duty of a Minister of Labour is to be a councillor. He is not like any other Minister. Yes, he was appointed by the executive arm of government, but he is expected to be neutral when dealing with the tripartite bodies that include government, labour and employer. That makes his role very unique.
Even the credit for the passage of a new minimum wage couldn’t go to the minister, as Ekwe insisted, “the minimum wage was not awarded by the Ministry of Labour; it was a product of a negotiated instrument by the tripartite bodies. It was difficult for the government to come to the table under his watch as the representative of government, and it took two strikes to achieve minimum agreement.”
But no matter his seemingly many sins, the immediate past President, Non-Academic Staff Union of Universities and Associated Institutions (NASU), Mrs Ladi Illiya, lauded Ngige for driving the process that led to the emergence of a new national wage floor.
“It is unfortunate that it is difficult to rate the government not to talk of the ministers that served under it. It is also difficult to blame someone that is working in a field that he knows nothing about. If it were somebody that has an administrative experience, it would be easier to rate him or her,” she said.
In the last three and a half years, Illiya submitted that factors ailing the labour sector such as disability in the world of work, equal work for equal pay, discrimination against women, crèches in the work place, absence of unemployment and threat to the implementation of employees compensation scheme, and comatose inspectorate division of the Ministry, still persist.
For Peter Esele, a former President, Trade Union Congress (TUC), the Minister should be commended on the new minimum wage despite all the brouhaha witnessed before President Buhari eventually signed the bill. He added: “Apart from that, the Inspectorate Division of the Ministry is still what it was before Ngige came, the health and safety is still what it was, and workers welfare is still poor. Welfare is not only in Naira and Kobo; there are more things that workers expect. Welfare includes the work environment, and the way the work is done. Will I say that Nigerian workers have enjoyed during the stewardship of Ngige? I don’t think so. Apart from minimum wage, I cannot lay my hands on any other thing.”
Perhaps the worse for Ngige as far as Esele is concerned was the fiasco over the board chair of the National Directorate of Employment (NDE). His words: “Even as the board Chairman of the National Directorate of Employment, there is no policy driving employment generation in Nigeria. Most, if not all, the things that happen around employment generation are on ad hoc basis. I have not seen data tying up employment generation to execution of physical projects such as construction. There is nothing to show. For me, I don’t think the Minister performed to the expectation of the stakeholders in the labour sector. But as we say: aluta continua, hoping for the best.”
Going down memory lane, on November 11, 2015, when Ngige assumed office, he pledged to tackle unemployment headlong, and boasted of introducing policies that would reduce massive unemployment and would be the fulcrum of his tenure.
Therefore, it was no surprise that the 2016 economic recession that forced major layoffs of workers in the financial sector became the first major test for the Minister. Pronto, Ngige issued a ‘directive’ to banks not to retrench workers.
This ‘directive’ sounded strange to the private sector that relies on private funds to run their businesses. Obviously not oblivious of possible misinterpretation of his ‘directive’, on June 3rd, 2016, the Minister explained that the order became necessary following the high spate of petitions and complaints from stakeholders in the banking, insurance, and other financial Institutions. He said: “I hereby direct the suspension of the on-going retrenchment in the sector pending the outcome of the conciliatory meetings in the industry.
“This decision is further predicated on the fact that the continued retrenchment and redundancy by the banks and other financial institutions are jeopardising the outcome of the conciliatory and mediatory processes being undertaking by the Ministry of Labour and Employment.”The employers would not have any of that.
The no-nonsense Oshinowo on June 8th, 2016, accused Ngige of recklessness.Speaking from Geneva, Switzerland, Oshinowo said: “The Minister is getting very reckless with his disposition and comment on the issue of retrenchment. He is appropriating to himself the power, which the state has not conferred on him. His comment on withdrawal of licence at a global forum is a shame and embarrassment to Nigeria. It is a comment that is ‘un-Ministerial’ and simply painted a very ugly picture of governance and government in Nigeria.”
On June 14th, Ngige fired back saying the reaction of Oshinowo was unpatriotic
It took the intervention of the National Assembly to put an end to the imbroglio. While applauding the Senate for unbiased intervention, Oshinowo, who expressed NECA’s sympathy to Nigerian workers and masses that have had to bear the brunt of the economic downturn at the time, said the employers who were equally victims did not cause the situation.
NECA assured workers that were affected by redundancy that the body would do all within its power to ensure that their employers paid them redundancy benefits.Although President Muhammadu Buhari has signed a new minimum wage of N30,000 into law, the Minister ensured the struggle for its realisation was laden with controversies.
First, the negotiation took many turns, as Ngige continued to insist that no agreement had been reached on N30,000. To further demonstrate the fact that the Minister was speaking its mind, the Federal Government went ahead to send dual minimum wage figures of N30,000 for the federal workers and N27,000 for other categories of workers.
This was seen as a deft move to assuage the state governors that the Federal Government was sympathetic to their complaints of incapacity to implement an increment in the existing N18,000 national wage floor.While the signing of the law is important for the Nigerian workers, it is the implementation that means much more. Before the signing of the law, the Presidency indeed demonstrated unwillingness to pursue a national minimum wage that would be beneficial to the workers.
As Ngige bows out tomorrow, Wednesday, the sectoral negotiation that will determine how the minimum wage will cascade to other salary levels has not taken off. Perhaps, the most controversial issue that threatened the tenure of Ngige as the Minister of Labour and Employment was the aborted appointment of a former General Secretary of NUPENG, Frank Kokori, as the board chairman of Nigeria Social Insurance Trust Fund (NSITF).
Kokori, who was first appointed into the position in August 2017, struggled for 19 months for the actualisation of his mandate failed.
Just like the June 12, 1993, election presumed to have been won by late business mogul and Aare Ona Kakanfo of Yorubaland, Moshood Abiola did not materialise, the mandate of Kokori did not come to pass. Indeed, Kokori was famous for the sterling role he played in the struggle to actualise the June 12 mandate. It is also instructive to note that ‘prisoner of democracy’, the late President of South Africa, Nelson Mandela, told him he has more significance other than the June 12 struggle.
The seeming rejection of Kokori by Ngige after President Buhari first appointed him was a bitter pill that labour found hard to swallow.Labour led by the President of NLC, Ayuba Wabba, shouted, protested, threatened, but Ngige remained firm, insisting that while he was not the appointing authority, it was his responsibility to make recommendation to President Buhari for the appointment.
He also jolted labour when he declared that he never recommend Kokori to the President for appointment as the board chair of NSITF, and also accused the union of wanting to foist one of their own on the NSITF board.
To drum their point home, labour picketed the residence of the Minister that resulted in fracas that led to the injury of nine persons, which made the workers declare him unfit to occupy public office. As predicted by The Guardian, the Minister stayed away from the celebration of 2019 edition of May Day at the majestic Eagles square Abuja.
The Guardian had reported: “It is not unexpected that the Minister of Labour and Employment, Dr Chris Ngige might want to stay away from the annual ritual. But he may not have his way since he is likely to represent President Buhari before the workers. If Ngige attends the rally at the majestic Eagles Square today, he can be sure to receive cold shoulder from labour leaders especially after labelling them ‘thugs’ who prevented the inauguration of a new board.”
That was the first time a Labour Minister would miss the event.With the declaration that Ngige was unfit for public office, will the Minister stage a comeback in the next administration as a Minister? Will he come back as Minister of Labour and Employment? What kind of reception awaits him if he stages a comeback?
President Buhari seems to be the artistic director that chooses artist that is best suited for this role in the drama that may have a part two in the next administration.