- Minister, neighbour mull legal action against labour
Onyebuchi Ezigbo in Abuja
The Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) has said that it would hold a national protest on Monday in Abuja to express displeasure over the alleged use of thugs to attack its members who were on peaceful demonstration at the residence of the Minister of Labour and Employment, Senator Chris Ngige.
This is coming as the minister Thursday disclosed that he and his neighbour were considering taking legal action against the NLC over the invasion of their houses by the union.
But the labour movement said that it has demanded for an unconditional apology from Ngige and by extension, the federal government for treatment meted out to the workers during their peaceful protest.
The union said the federal government must come clear on the issues, adding that its continued silence is not helping the situation.
NLC had mobilised its members to picket the private residence of the minister in Asokoro, Abuja on Wednesday, over the continued delay in the inauguration of the board of the Nigeria Social Insurance Trust Fund (NSITF).
However, the protest turned bloody when some youths attacked them.
Some of the protesters sustained injuries in the process and were taken to the National Hospital in Abuja for treatment by the NLC.
Addressing journalists Thursday after an emergency meeting of the Central Working Committee (CWC) of the NLC, its President, Ayuba Wabba, said the labour movement is demanding the sack of Ngige for antagonising the workers that he is supposed to act as mediator in their disputes.
Wabba said that the meeting has resolved to mobilise workers across the country to assemble in Abuja on Monday for a massive show of solidarity for those wounded during the picketing exercise and to demand for an immediate inauguration of the NSITF board with Frank Kokori as chairman.
He said that about nine workers sustained injuries during the attack on the protesters and were treated at the hospital, while several vehicles were damaged.
“The CWC decided to embark on a national protest on Monday, May 13, in Abuja against the brutalisation of its members during the peaceful protest,” he said.
While defending the action of the NLC to embark on the picketing of the private residence of the minister, rather than his office, Wabba said that the country’s labour laws permit such an act.
“As minister of labour, he knows that there is a clear provision of the law on picketing, lockouts and even strike action and therefore for him to have instead of addressing the issues, descended so low to the extent of using thugs to attack workers who were on a peaceful conduct of the protest, is something that is less than desirable and is anti-workers.
“We were certainly taken aback that a minister who is supposed to uphold our labour laws, has decided to descend so low to violate workers’ right and therefore, we feel he is a square peg in a round hole and is not fit to be in the office,” he added.
The NLC president accused the minister of sponsoring the thugs that attacked the workers during the picketing, adding that “such has never happened in the history of the country, not even during the military era”.
He also accused the security agents that were at the scene of standing aloof and doing nothing to stop the attack by the thugs.
Wabba said the NLC has directed all workers at the various airports, including foreign airports, to embarrass and humiliate the minister and members of his family when they are travelling to serve as a lesson for undermining workers’ right.
Also in a communiqué issued at the end of the CWC meeting, the workers insisted that they conducted themselves peacefully and responsibly and bore nothing other than placards in line with the fine traditions of picketing.
They alleged that in spite of having conducted themselves reasonably well, responsibly and peacefully, Ngige mobilised thugs and hoodlums to attack them using all manner of weapons.
“The CWC further observed that in the course of unleashing this mindless violence, the thugs caused maximum damage to the vehicles of workers, affiliate unions and congress. Congress noted that workers suffered varying degrees of personal losses. CWC also observed that at least nine suffered serious injuries with three admitted at various hospitals.
“The CWC, accordingly, condemned in the strongest terms the use of thugs to break up a peaceful picket guaranteed by the law, adding that it is anti-democratic, repressive and anti-workers. It is also a violation of ILO Conventions and the fundamental right of workers to protest,” said the communique.
The communiqué noted that one of the reasons the minister gave for not inaugurating the board was that he was carrying out an administrative probe of corruption in the organisation.
“The truth however, remains that it was an unnecessary excuse for him to micro-manage the place as well as carry on as the sole administrator of the place for obvious reasons. The CWC wants to put on record that the EFCC has since carried out investigation, taken to court those with cases to answer and secured convictions. Among those convicted is a former Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Labour who was a statutory member of NSITF board. No member of organised Labour on the board was found wanting,” the workers explained.
They further restated their demanded that the board of the NSITF be inaugurated with Chief Frank Kokori as chairman.
The workers also demanded for an unconditional and unqualified apology from the government both for what they described as the primitive behaviour of “its minister and its suspicious silence, explaining that whereas the vice president found it necessary to step out of his car to address indigenous communities which were protesting against the forceful acquisition of their land by the military, the minister resorted to recruiting thugs to engage workers”.
The workers also resolved to hold Ngige and members of his family personally responsible for the violence visited on the workers and injuries that they suffered, stressing that Ngige and his family have sown a seed of violence.
“The CWC resolved that in consideration of Ngige’s past records of trading off his conscience for power as evidenced by Okija, his reputation for using thugs against the citizenry, and his questionable acts around NSITF, he is not fit to hold public office,” the communiqué added.
But speaking to the State House correspondents yesterday at the Presidential Villa, Abuja, Ngige insisted that blocking his house was an infringement on his fundamental human rights and that of his household, adding that they were all traumatised.
He denied the allegations of hiring thugs to attack the workers, saying that the reports he read in the dailies were unfortunate and misleading.
He said that NLC members arrived at his resident at 4.30 a.m. in the morning.
The minister said that when the security personnel accosted them, they discovered that it was the president of NLC himself that came physically with two tankers – one laden with petrol and one half-full.
He said he immediately contacted the FCT Commissioner of Police and the Director of DSS as well the FRSC (Federal Road Safety Commission) to see if the tankers could be removed.
Ngige said that his findings showed that the NLC members were attacked by the thugs they hired over some disagreements.
“They put one at the gate of my house and put the other one at the gate of the other house, which happens to be that of my neighbour.
“People in that compound were traumatised; some of the cooks and policemen who have quarters were traumatised.
“It cannot be quantified. Even my neighbours – husband and wife and their children, could not do their business yesterday.
“Those tankers were removed around 6.O’clock or so; it is quite unfortunate.
“My neighbour said they would take legal action; me also. It is an actionable thing; illegal actions are actionable. Nobody is above the law,’’ he said.
He said it was all about NLC’s contention on the composition of the NSITF board and its inauguration.
The minister said that April 18 was earlier fixed for the inauguration, but the union invaded the place with the same thugs and disrupted the function.
He said the event was postponed and a new date was going to be fixed, adding that the NLC had been maligning his character and integrity because he is the labour minister.
“They forget that by International Labour Organisation (ILO) Convention, I am what the ILO calls the competent authority.
“The president will not come to do labour matters; the vice president will not come to do labour matters; neither will the Secretary to the Government of the Federation come to do labour matters until I pass the matters to them.
“But it is an obtuse scene that we have here; the labour people led by Wabba, under the NLC leadership, feel that they are secondary arm of government.
“ He equates himself with the president of Nigeria; but there is only one sovereign in Nigeria and that sovereign is the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, and for today, by the Grace of God, is President Muhammadu Buhari.’’
Ngige said that the Act setting up the NSITF gave labour two nominees; private sector, two nominees but NLC appropriated the two for labour and made their nomination.
He said that the government had also made its own nomination.
The minister said that the government had approved a fit and proper person, who was neutral, not a government officer, not a labour-coloured man and not a private sector man.
According to him, that is what obtains in tripartite agreements.
He said that, as the minister permitted by law to do that recommendation, he did not recommend Kokori.
The minister dismissed insinuations that he was summoned to the Presidential Villa because of the incident in his residence, saying he was in the villa for a meeting with President Buhari