In an August 8, 2021 tribute to Senator Chris Ngige entitled “Birthday in the Season of Accolades,” it is certain the author wasn’t oblivious the title might change were he to repeat the piece by the turn of the year. Reason is that Nigeria is not only a nation in transition but also in persistent flux. August 8 is here again and Ngige’s birthday is marked amidst strife, blame displacing accolades.
Ironically, the horrid national indices of 2021 aren’t quite different from what obtains at present. Terrorism, banditry, kidnapping, sky-high unemployment figures and runaway prices of goods and services! Indeed, there were even more industrial actions last year than today. Difference is that despite industrial unrest in 2021, the harvest of tributes was bumper for Ngige.
While the prickly National Association of Resident Doctors (NARD), described Ngige as a medical elder of repute and a pillar of emulation to young doctors, it further thanked him for swift responses to their ceaseless actions. NARD at another event, chaired by its then Vice President, Arome Adoja said: “If more Nigerians were like Ngige, the country will be a better place.”
The judiciary Staff Union as well as their counterparts in the Legislature also in April 2021 apologised to the minister for being labourunfriendly while the NMA President, Professor Innocent Uja took to the national television to clarify his statement that had misrepresented Ngige’s views on doctors’ strike. SSANU also gave Ngige an award of excellence in the same period. Even the sabre-rattling ASUU also found time to commend Ngige for living an example of patriotism; sending his children to public universities in Nigeria. ASUU went further to push for legislation by the National Assembly to force all public officials to behave like Ngige!
Then, the Presidency took time to commend their own through the then Special Adviser to the President on Niger Delta Affairs, Ita Enang. It was at the peak of the resolution of the nationwide strike by workers in the judiciary and legislature. Ngige was eulogised for availing the Presidential Committee, his deep wealth of experience across tiers of government. Speaking for the Presidency, Enang further extolled Ngige for saving Nigeria from an industrial conflagration that would have engulfed the entire nation through Kaduna State, where Governor El-Rufai was pitched in a bitter street feud with the national leadership of labour.
Ngige apprehended the imbroglio, doused the flame and successfully conciliated the matter in May 2021. Today, the magic wand Ngige brought to bear on disputes has not disappeared. In fact, Ngige has not lost the skill that held back labour restiveness from fusing with terrorism and violent crimes to push Nigeria down cataclysms as seen in some countries. However, applause has ceased for Ngige. Some of the Jewish crowd that sang Hosanna for him in 2021 are also part of the throng that want him crucified in 2022. But for the minister, who has successfully conciliated 1,683 disputes since appointment in 2015, his management of the tripartite community can be safely scored 80%.
His scorecard on indices that benchmark labour administration is brilliant. Prime among this is the prevalence of social dialogue. Unions haven’t lately had doors so open for the Minister virtually sleeps in the office. Next is the promotion of tripartism which peaked with the re-establishment of the National Labour Advisory Council in 2021 to enable unions, organised private sector and government reflect and take joint decisions on all labour issues. Frontloading decent work to the national milieu is another.
This is not yet Uhuru as Nigeria is battling asphyxiating economic woes. In spite of this, the re-engineering of the labour laws to entrench fair labour practices, tackle casualization, formalise the informal sector, lower the base of working poor as well as stem unilateral redundancy, signposts a bright future.
These indicators have been instrumental to the relative industrial peace despite teething challenges. Unfortunately, the remaining 20% comprising mainly the debilitating university based unions’ ongoing strike has become Ngige’s Achilles heel, denying him the deserved loud applause as the curtain draws gingerly on the Next Level stanza, the final lap of Buhari’s administration. The two issues that triggered the strike are intricate, heavy and seemingly defiant.
It is a threatening eclipse of Ngige’s quintessential stewardship. Several factors, however, weigh in his favour. One is that of the twelve issues upon which ASUU first declared dispute in 2017, Ngige has conciliated all but one, which is the re-negotiation of the 2009 Agreement.
The dispute over the payment platform only came in 2019. Indisputably, Ngige has over the years taken the university workers dispute on both shoulders as a concerned parent, the fate of whose children also hangs in the balance like that of ordinary Nigerians. Ngige has acted above Napoleon to earn ASUU’s trust to the extent that it’s immediate past; President Biodun Ogunyemi described him in 2017 as a public officer who saw something wrong and showed determination to right it. What then has changed for the Jewish crowd? Ngige’s patriotic insistence on cutting no corners in re-negotiating the condition of service of university workers, which is the core issue in the 2009 Agreement, made him a scapegoat ASUU needed to garnish its propaganda. While the unbending disposition of ASUU to negotiation is an issue, a certain back yard politics and personalization of the dispute by the union, portrayed Ngige as a clog. In simpler terms, the realism of the minister that any agreement entered into by the Federal Government must worth beyond the paper it is typed on, against the idealism of ASUU in having an agreement that cannot be supported by government finances, is the crux.
Here then lies partly the reason ASUU declared Ngige an enemy and tries to impose it on national optics. At another angle, his quest for an all-inclusive resolution, denominating all the university unions against ASUU’s insistence on exclusive settlement, further fuels dislike. Ngige had argued that resolving the ASUU strike while SSANU, NASU and NAAT were on strike is half way, half measure.
Classes can’t resume in the absence of non-academic staff. Above all, the brutal fact that Collective Bargaining Agreement must be premised on the capacity of the dwindling national economy rankles the ears of ASUU, who cites longitudinal corruption and bureaucratic disinterestedness as reason for government’s inability. As the proverbial congregation in the church, Ngige is the one that ASUU the priest, heaps all the blame on. On the other hand, it frankly does not seem the Federal Government intends to exempt ASUU from the IPPIS payment platform.
The claim and counter claims over the integrity and vulnerability of ASSU’s UTAS as an alternative to IPPIS, continues to stretch even as the result of the second round of test appears to be taking forever. Then, solving the riddle of dissent, introduced by SSANU/NASU’s UPPPS as a foil to UTAS, tightens the knot. Bottom line. That the Minister of Education Adamu Adamu who boasted he would resolve ASUU strike in two weeks is yet to emerge from the labyrinth three weeks after the matter was reverted to him, is a window to the hot vortex around the issues.
A vindication for Ngige whom the reversion was erroneously and mischievously portrayed in some quarters as a referendum on incompetent conciliation. Buhari and his Ministers are close to the exit gate but Ngige’s stewardship remains momentous despite the dark cloud of ASUU strike.
No gain rehearsing deleterious global events and their impact on national boundaries at the outset in 2015 which had Ngige’s work, clearly cut out in the dimmed fortunes of the world of work. Any tribute on his birthday will therefore be incomplete without the watershed that highlights his service to the fatherland. For more good reasons, the world of work will certainly miss Ngige, known for fresh new ways. The mere fact that no federal civil servant was retrenched even as Nigeria went into recession twice and the window of recruitment not shut until lately, is a big feat if the experience of rightsizing and down-sizing of the previous administrations, even at a period of buoyancy counts.
Ngige will be remembered for standing firm with the Nigerian workers in pushing through the National Minimum Wage at the period many thought impossible. He was resolved against the unilateral redundancy declared by banks and financial institutions in 2016 and ended up saving thousands of jobs. He took a similar step in convincing the oil majors and the construction giants to cut top office perks so as to save thousands of jobs at the lower wrung of service. He equally changed the ministry from a mere dispute resolution corner without a capital budget, to one that built, rehabilitated and functionally operated skills centres across the country.
Just as the world of work will miss Ngige, the international labour arena will feel the gap of a Nigerian minister who pulled the country from an effete back bench, to the prime position in the governing body of the ILO; where the influence of Nigeria as Africa power locus, was in full in throttle, successfully, influencing the emergence of an African, Gilbert Houngbo as the next Director General of the ILO. Sure Ngige met a brick house in 2015. Though it cannot be claimed he has turned it into a marble, it is incontestable he has replaced its shaky foundation with solid pillars.
Obaro, a labour reporter, writes from Abuja