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Revving the labour engine for greater battles

By Olawunmi Ojo
17 May 2019   |   4:16 am
For some time now, relations between organised labour, led by the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) and the Minister of Labour...

Minister of Labour and Employment, Dr. Chris Ngige

For some time now, relations between organised labour, led by the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) and the Minister of Labour and Employment, Dr. Chris Ngige, had grown sour. No thanks to what the labour movement described as the minister’s refusal to inaugurate the boards of some labour market institutions, one of which is the Nigeria Social Insurance Trust Fund (NSITF).

The labour chiefs faulted the minister’s continued running of the organsiations as sole administrator and alleged that he was deliberately delaying the inauguration of the NSITF board in particular for selfish reasons.

And the cold war grew worse when Frank Kokori, a former labour leader and former general secretary of National Union of Petroleum and Natural Gas (NUPENG), who had been nominated as the chairman of the board, was swapped and redeployed to chair the board of the Michael Imoudu National Institute for Labour Studies (MINILS), Ilorin, Kwara State.

Back in 2017 while acting as President, Prof. Yemi Osinbajo had appointed Kokori as the chairman of NSITF. But the minister rejected the appointment, saying it was not in compliance with Section 4(a) of the NSITF Act, which prohibited the appointment of any person with interest in labour matters to chair the board. Besides, he expressed the view that Kokori, given his experience as a labour leader of note, will bring his expertise to bear in the training of unionists. Ngige recommended Enajemo-Isire to the president as replacement, and the recommendation was reportedly approved last year.

As the issue of the board chairmanship became vexatiously contentious, things came to a head last week when, in a staccato outburst, a miffed NLC president, Ayuba Wabba, led some members to picket the private residence of the minister.

When the Minister of Labour and Employment, Dr. Chris Ngige, inaugurated the board of the Nigeria Social Insurance Trust Fund (NSITF) at the Presidential Villa on Monday, with Mr. Austin Enejamo-Isire as Chairman, many had thought the exercise would end the feud between the minister and the labour movement. But organised labour, yet again on the same Monday, took to the streets of Abuja to protest what they described as “unwarranted attack” on workers who were on a peaceful protest at Ngige’s Asokoro residence.

The NLC president alleged that Ngige’s non-approval of Kokori was part of his “brazen antics and machinations against the common interest of the Nigerian workers, which obviously played out with his subversive and divisive tendencies throughout the negotiation period for a new minimum wage.”

Wabba, who said organised labour would not relent in pressing for redress on Kokori’s swap, called on the Federal Government to “offer an explanation for the removal of Frank Kokori as the NSITF board chairman even before his inauguration, after being named by the government and passing security screening.

“Kokori is eminently qualified to lead NSITF. The only thing he has not done is stealing money. Ngige invited Kokori four times to discuss NSITF issue with him after he was nominated. One of the meetings took place in Ngige’s residence. But the minister later told Kokori it would be difficult to do business with him. Kokori is not an orphan because we will always be with him.”

National President of Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU), Biodun Ogunyemi, in his defense of Kokori, noted that, “the government on its own approached Kokori in order to purge NSITF of corrupt tendencies. If that is the case, we are saying that if Nigeria is ready to fight corruption, Kokori must be allowed to lead NSITF and if someone has violated that, Nigerian workers call for an investigation.”

The President of the National Union of Petroleum and Natural Gas Workers (NUPENG), William Akporeha, said although the presidency had spoken on Kokori’s case, the workers were not ignorant of the fact that Mr. Kokori’s uprightness and integrity were factors that were used against him.

Akporeha said, “Workers know the truth; Kokori is an icon. Why do we avoid people of integrity in Nigeria? We are blessed to have Kokori around us and we will not abandon him.”

All the same, the organised Labour, which has been on hibernation, has chosen the wrong moment to shake off the shackles of lethargy.

To put it succinctly, the sudden ‘noise’ coming from labour in the ‘fight’ for Kokori is somewhat surprising to many. It is like a lion waking up from slumber to run after a rat while bigger games abound and roam free within its territory.

To be sure, save for the push for upgrade of the minimum wage for workers, not a few anti-masses policies and initiatives have been proclaimed and entrenched under the current Muhammadu Buhari-led administration with little or no query from organised labour. For instance, quite unlike the scenario under the leadership of Adams Oshiomhole, when labour gave the government torrid time during its attempted fuel pump price increase, it was the reverse as the Buhari government increased the price of premium motor spirit (PMS) from N87 to N145 in May, 2016.

What is more, when the Labour Party came on stream, many Nigerians had expected that it would serve as a rallying point and indeed, good platform, for persons who had proclaimed the need for entrenchment of certain ideals in the society, to engage the polity and address the issues that had always bothered them. But the story of how majority of labour leaders could not even identify with the party and how it has now gone into obscurity would yet be told some other time.

In other words, ordinary Nigerians believe there are better battles for Labour to fight than going on the street to foist one of its former leaders on a government agency. At the least, many had expected that Labour would use its party to thrust many ‘right-thinking’ representatives into the various law-making assemblies, where they would have been somewhat useful in checkmating the passage of oppressive laws that now torment rather than liberate the masses.

Only recently, there have been a rash of attempts by some state Houses of Assembly to foist obnoxious pension laws on the people. The laws would see the lawmakers and/or their principal officers draw varied but staggering amounts of money from the state coffers as pension, in some cases, for life.

Some other states already have the ill-conceived pension laws signed into law and active in favour of former governors and deputy governors. This is in spite of the scarce resources available to the respective states for infrastructure and development purposes. Yet, organised labour has not seen sufficient reasons to galvanise a national citizens’ action to force the various selfish leaders-cum-representatives into reversing the destructive laws.

Most times, these obnoxious pensions laws are approved in states that owe workers of organised labour salaries for months. Some have concluded that Nigeria Labour Congress has become almost complicit in its unholy silence as social infrastructure like education and healthcare continue to degenerate while elected representatives at all levels of government fritter away the commonwealth on frivolities.

As it was in the days of the revered Pa Michael Imoudu, who deservedly earned the description of Nigeria’s Labour Leader number One for his approach to political, social and labour problems affecting all workers in a responsive and fearless manner, labour must stay on its feet and be alert to the growing needs of the Nigerian masses. Rather than knee-jerk spouts, it must become organised indeed in its response to more meaningful issues affecting society.