THENATION
by on October 13, 2019
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Ethelbert Okere

IT was certainly not for nothing that President Buhari decided to retain all the reappointed ministers in their former portfolios but methinks some particular cases inadvertently portray him a man of wisdom in taking that decision. The ministry of labour and productivity perhaps best illustrates this view. Minus the ministry in charge of power, the most sensitive and most talked about is that of labour and productivity, currently headed by Dr. Chris Ngige, a medical doctor, who was reappointed along with about 18 others and sent back to the ministries they manned during Buharis first term.

Of course, labour and productivity is not a juicy ministry and as such, ministerial appointments into it are not usually celebrated as would say, Works, Housing, Internal Affairs, Foreign Affairs and Power. It is one of the ministries that are, in the Nigerian parlance, described as dry. Instead, it is a troublesome ministry whose minders spend most of their time pacifying restless workers.

Differently put, a minister of labour in Nigeria, a country in which the extremely harsh economic conditions have taken workers deprivation to an all-time high, must be an iron-cast fellow, a fellow who has the skill to strike a balance between ceaseless agitations by workers for improved welfare and the capacity of government to meet the demands. Did President Buhari run a check on Ngige to determine if he possesses the quality of dealing with the Nigeria labour force at a period like this before giving him the job in 2015? Most unlikely.

Minus a track record of a brilliant performance as governor of his state, Anambra, for a period of about 33 months, Dr. Ngige would improbably be most peoples idea of the type of fellow needed to handle labour matters in Nigeria at a time like this. In a sense, therefore, Buhari could as well take some credit for discovering such a talent, though more by default than by design, as already noted, given that contrary to initial fears, Nigeria has not been reduced to a cacophony of labour unrest since Ngige took over as minister of labour and productivity.

To be sure, organised labour should also take some credit for manifesting a rare sense of maturity and patriotism but there can be no doubt that there must be something in Chris Ngige that has made it possible for the country not to experience a complete shut down by workers in the last four years, given the debilitating economic situation in the country. Perhaps the most glaring testimony is the fact that it was under Ngige that labour and government successfully went through a long period of negotiation to arrive at a new minimum wage of N30, 000.00 per month.

Some people marvel at the near effortlessness with which Ngige has ran the labour ministry but some of us who had the privilege to observe him at close quarters while he was a governor, do not. Ngige is full of candour. He took over as governor of Anambra state after an administration that made the very hard working people of Anambra look like the back waters of Nigeria: Unpaid salaries for almost for upwards of two years, schools closed for the same period of time, incredibly bad network of roads and what have you. In less than three years, Ngige transformed the state in nearly all spheres and from the back yard, the state became one of the most talked about, to the extent that the federal establishment took particular interest in who governed it!

I was a regular visitor to Anambra state during the time of Ngige and I could vividly remember that women used to untie their outer wrappers to lay them on the ground for the governor to walk on; while young men pulled out their shirts in a similar gesture. There was this particular incident at a town along the old Enugu-Onitsha road. The governor was on an inspection tour and as we walked pass, a young lady screamed: Oga Adilili Gi Mma (it must be well with you). I later found out that the lady was a teacher who had been without salaries for years but which had now been cleared by Governor Ngige The fellow who succeeded him, Peter Obi, also performed creditably well but I can state without any fear of contradictions that had Ngige had eight years as governor, Anambra state would by now not be counted as part of Nigeria, to put it so ordinarily.

Back to the topic of today, however, my view is that the Buhari administration may be accused of anything else but not in the area of labour management. As a matter of fact, the relative calmness in the labour circle in the last four years is quite surprising, considering the general perception of the administration that whose insiders have made up their minds on everything no matter how differently the rest of the country feels. As noted earlier in this article, it is quite significant that the country was not shut down during the long negotiation on the new minimum wage. Agreed, perhaps the bigger hurdle is on implementation but that has already begun with the federal civil servants on grade levels 1 to 6.

Where we are now is on the consequential adjustment for those on levels 7 to 17. While the federal government is pleading with labour to accept an adjustment of 11 per cent for workers on grade levels 7 to 14 and 6.5 per cent on those on grade levels 15 to 17, the latter is insisting on 29 per cent and 24 per cent respectively for workers on grade levels 7 to 14 and 15 to 17.

Initially, labour had wanted 30 per cent (for grade levels 7 to 14) and 25 (for grade levels 15 to 17) but later came down by only one percentage point (29 and 24); while government moved up from 9.5 per cent to 11 percent (for grade levels 7 to 14) and from 5.5 to 6.5 per cent (for grade levels 15 to 17). The difference is so glaring that one begins to wonder if both sides are looking at the same figures and indices on Nigerias political economy. Methinks that labour might not have availed itself of all the facts.

It was against this back drop of what looks like a logjam that the minister reportedly revealed to the nation that what the federal government is trying to avoid is a situation where by it may have to lay off workers to be able to meet the demand of labour. Dr. Ngige was also reported as saying that No worker deserved to be owed salary. I was struck by these two touching statements and I think we should appreciate the minister in his candor which I alluded to earlier. Taken together, both statements underscore the basic philosophy upon which the minister approaches the issue at stake; which is at once pragmatic and humane. It is natural for labour leaders to try to controvert him in a bid to maximize the expectations of those they lead but the danger is that there is a tendency for mere grand standing. In my view, the leaders, who by and large have shown some sense of patriotism, should endeavour to avoid this.

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