Friday, 9th June 2023

Between Ngige and critics

By Ibrahim Jibia
13 May 2023   |   4:08 am
No matter how excellently you perform in public office, some people will still say negative things about you. Such critics were the ones that the 39th Vice President of the United States of America, Spiro Agnew described as “nattering nabobs of negativism.”

Dr. Chris Ngige

No matter how excellently you perform in public office, some people will still say negative things about you. Such critics were the ones that the 39th Vice President of the United States of America, Spiro Agnew described as “nattering nabobs of negativism.”

Agnew first used the phrase in a speech on September 25, 1970, in which he slammed some members of the media for negative coverage of the Nixon administration. The phrase was misconstrued as referring to the press whom Agnew had an acrimonious relationship with. About a year later, the writer of the speech, William Safire, clarified that Agnew was referring to some journalists repeating inaccurate information about the policies of the Nixon administration in Vietnam and not the entire press as thought initially.

Back home in Nigeria, the country is currently in the mood of another democratic transition. The administration of President Muhammadu Buhari is winding down to give way for the incoming administration on May 29. Nigerians no doubt share divergent views on the performance of the government and its officers, especially the ministers.

However, one minister who appears to be receiving “rave reviews” is the Minister of Labour and Employment, Sen. Chris Ngige. A few days ago, BusinessDay newspapers conferred Ngige with its “Excellence in Public Serve Award” in acknowledgement of his meritorious service to Nigeria and having distinguished himself as Minister

Before the latest award, Ngige had received similar honours for the role he played in the labour sector all through the eight years of the administration. Notable among them were the “Meritorious Service Award in the Health Sector” from the Nigerian Medical Association (NMA) in 2022, the National Association of Resident Doctors (NARD) “Award of Excellence” in 2022, Sun Newspapers “Public Service Icon” and Senate Press Corps “Ambassador of the Senate Award” in 2021.

In spite of these recognitions, “nattering nabobs of negativism” such as one Emmanuel Onwubiko, have chosen not to appreciate his contributions in the critical labour sector since his first appointment in November 2015. In a piece in The Guardian on April 3, 2023, titled, “Are corps members year-long slaves,” Onwubiko passed comments targeted at smearing Ngige’s hard earned reputation. He accused the Minister of incompetence and blamed him for the prolonged strike of the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU), which kept students at home for almost one year. He also accused Ngige of registering two new unions in a bid to weaken ASUU. He didn’t stop there.

Onwubiko further attacked Ngige for pushing the proposed review of the current N30, 000 minimum wage to the incoming administration of Ahmed Bola Tinubu, which he couldn’t bring up for eight years, adding that the Minister as a member of committee that reviewed the minimum wage in 2019, noted that the country’s minimum wage should be reviewed every five years to fit current standard of living. Besides, he quarreled with the Minister for mentioning that he included in his handover note that negotiation on the new minimum wage, which would involve the private and public sectors and state government, should commence immediately the new government is sworn-in, ahead of its implementation, which should be in May 2024. For the writer, the statement by Ngige was unproductive and reminded him of the servitude of multitude of graduates engaging in the year-long national youth service.

After reading the piece, I shuddered at the knowledge deficiency and crass exhibition of ignorance and laziness by a newspaper columnist who shoulders the responsibility of informing and educating members of the public. Let us take the issues one after the other.

Everybody knows that the ASUU strike would have occupied a major space in the handover note of the outgoing administration to the incoming administration if not for the proactive steps taken by Ngige. ASUU was at the stage of Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) negotiation with their employer, the Federal Ministry of Education, when they embarked on strike while the world was celebrating Valentine Day on February 14 last year (2022).

No agreement is forced. There are International Labour Organisation (ILO) principles on the right to strike. There are also laws in Nigeria guiding strikes. For instance, Section 43 of the Trade Dispute Act (TDA), Laws of the Federation of Nigeria, 2004 says that if a worker decides to withdraw services, the employer reserves the right to withhold pay.

Being somebody conversant with events in the labour sector, I know that Ngige conciliated the matter twice, first on February 22, 2022, one week after the commencement of the strike and some agreements were reached, and he still brought everybody back a week later, precisely on March 1, for further conciliation. Before ASUU embarked on strike, the only thing left was the renegotiation of the conditions of service under the principle of offer and acceptance.

Unfortunately, the negotiation between ASUU and their employer, the Federal Ministry of Education, broke down irretrievably. Consequently, Ngige transmitted the dispute to the National Industrial Court of Nigeria (NICN) for adjudication, in accordance with the provisions of Section 17, TDA, LFN, 2004. If he did not do so, he would have failed in his functions. Let’s not forget that sequel to his earlier intervention in the ASUU impasse, the Federal Government religiously implemented five out of the seven demands of the union. Please Onwubiko, tell us how Ngige is responsible for the students being at home for almost one year?

Your statement that he registered two new unions, the Congress for Nigeria University Academics (CONUA) and National Association of Medical and Dental Academics (NAMDA), to weaken ASUU, is also fallacious and outlandish. CONUA members were ostracized and de-unionised by ASUU. Section 3 (2) of the Trade Unions Act CAP T14, 2005 gives the Honourable Minister of Labour and Employment, the sole power to register new trade unions, either by registering new ones or regrouping existing ones. He registered CONUA in order not to allow a large segment of the lecturers de-unionised, without protection, without a voice and without a right at work. More so, the freedom of association is a guaranteed right in Nigeria under Section 40 of the 1999 Constitution as amended.

Similarly, members of NAMDA are medical doctors lecturing in Universities who saw it as an obligation to uphold their professional ethics and Hippocratic Oath to “first do no harm” to all and as such, were against the prolonged and illegal strikes by ASUU, which had disrupted medical training and caused consequential damages to the educational system and by implication, the quantity and quality of future medical doctors and dentists in Nigeria.

On the issue of new minimum wage, I thought that a columnist should have appreciated the fact that government is a continuum. It smacks of intellectual naivety for anybody to expect an outgoing Labour Minister to negotiate a new minimum wage for an incoming government. With the benefit of hindsight, he should have known that it took the Buhari administration almost two years to negotiate and implement the N30, 000 new minimum wage, with consequential adjustment. President Buhari inaugurated the tripartite committee for the new minimum wage co-chaired by former Head of Service of the Federation, Ama Pepple and Sen. Ngige in November 2017. They concluded their work in 2018 and the President signed the bill into law in April 2019.

If the law says that the minimum wage should be reviewed every five years, Ngige deserves commendation, rather than disparagement for suggesting that the incoming government should begin discussions on it as soon as it takes oath of office. Unless Onwubiko wants us to believe that he does not understand primary school arithmetic, counting from April 2019, the minimum wage will be due for review in May 2024. Taking into cognizance, the time it took to negotiate the current minimum wage, the wise thing to do is to begin the tripartite discussion as soon as the incoming government takes oath of office. There is no molehill here to make a mountain out of.

Hence, I leave it to my readers to decide which is “unproductive” between the candid advice offered by Ngige and Onwubiko’s article meant to further prolong the servitude of multitude of graduates engaging in the one-year national service under the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC).

May be I should let Onwubiko know that the Association of Senior Civil Servants of Nigeria recently wrote a commendation letter to Ngige for approving regular (peculiar) allowance for workers on Consolidated Public Service Structure (CONPSS), known as the 40 per cent pay rise. Prior to this approval, the salary structure for core civil service, the engine room of government, was the least. Ngige promised to bridge the gap and fulfilled the promise.

Sincerely speaking, in my many years in the Ministry of Labour and Employment during which I rose from the humble position of labour officer to a Director, I witnessed several ministers come and leave. Sen. Ngige’s sterling performance is second to none. Where do I start? Before Ngige came on board in the Ministry, the Federal Government and the National Union of Electricity Workers (NUEE) were at loggerheads over unresolved issues from their 2012 agreement.

His quick intervention ended the dispute, which almost crippled the electricity sector before this government came. Ngige also resolved the dispute between Exxon Mobil and a section of its staff, which even went to Supreme Court and was returned to the Ministry of Labour and Employment for conciliation.

Owing to his sterling performance during the first tenure, the President re-appointed him in 2019. In the current dispensation, the Honourable Minister once again lived up to expectation in spite of the fact that the labour sector world over faces threat from multiple and overlapping economic crises occasioned by COVID-19, Russia-Ukraine War, among others, giving rise to clamour by workers for better conditions of services and more pay.

From November 2015 when the Minister assumed office, the total number of disputes from both public and private sectors successfully conciliated by the Federal Ministry of Labour and Employment Headquarters and 36 states/ zonal offices is 4000, leaving little or nothing for the Industrial Arbitration Panel (IAP) and the National Industrial Court of Nigeria (NICN). This is perhaps with a few exceptions in the private sector, especially disputes involving the oil and gas unions, the National Union of Petroleum and Natural Gas Workers (NUPENG) and the Petroleum and Natural Gas Senior Staff Association (PENGASSON) that were earlier referred to the IAP and NICN.

Also, his wealth of experience and versatile knowledge of governance at different tiers and arms of government have contributed in solving complex issues, such as the quest for autonomy for the state legislature and judiciary in Nigeria, which culminated in the prolonged strike by the Judiciary Staff Union of Nigeria (JUSUN) and the Parliamentary Staff Association of Nigeria (PASAN). The resolution of the strike culminated in JUSUN, PASAN, the Nigerian Governors Forum, and the Conference of Speakers of the 36 states of the Federation, signing the historic document containing the framework for each of the State governments to grant autonomy to their legislature and judiciary. Some states have already started the implementation.

In international labour diplomacy, Ngige took Nigeria back to ILO Governing Board in 2018, after 10 years of absence and became the leader of Africa and Asia Ministers of Labour. In August 2019, he became the President, Government Group of all the 187 member countries and got Nigeria elected for a second term in the Governing Board as full titular, starting from June 2020. I can go on and on.

In conclusion, I will advise Onwubiko to be more resourceful and circumspect in his criticism. A columnist in a newspaper is holding public trust. He must not abuse it no matter the level of inducement. Access to opinion page should not be used for muddling straightforward issues or mudsllinging, as Emmanuel Onwubilko, hiding on the facade of Human rights, has consistently been seen to do to Dr Ngige . Please Onwubiko, Ngige neither made the ILO principles on strike, with the accompanying rights and consequences,
nor the Trade Disputes Act and Section 43, dealing with strikes-the so called “No Work, No Pay,” which is even a law not policy.

Jibia, a retired Director in the Federal Ministry of Labour and Employment writes from Abuja