Controversial Conciliator or Provocateur in-Chief?

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For the better part of his enduring tenure as Minister of Labour and Employment, Dr. Chris Ngige has been under siege by sundry labour activists, often putting him under pressure to redeem the blemished image of the Muhammadu Buhari administration, but he has managed every expectation with some degree of competence, writes Onyebuchi Ezigbo

Ministry of Labour and Employment is not one of those ministries regatded as an attractive portfolio or in the Nigerian political parlance, one of the juicy ministries. Just as it’s name implies – labour implies, the ministry deals with very tasking issues that, most often ,has to do with intractable industrial disputes. It is considered a dumping ground of all manner of industrial disputes and workers strike. Only few ministers can say that they really enjoyed their stay in the ministry and are able to contain the torrent of attacks, jeers and mudslinging thrown at them by angry workers and their union leaders. Nobody expected that as a former governor of Anambra State and a federal legislator, Senator Chris Ngige will come to the office with such a disarming humility, wealth of experience, and hard work.

The first baptism of fire that greeted Ngige shortly after his appointment was a looming national strike precipitated by the increase in the pump price of Premium Motor Spirit (PMS). Organised labour was threatening to unleash a nationwide strike that would have crippled the new All Progressives Congress-led (APC) administration but Ngige proceeded to tackle the highly volatile issue with unprecedented tact notwithstanding the resoluteness of organised labour to take on the new administration over what they considered as outrageous hike in fuel price, Ngige was able to persuade and negotiate with the leadership of the workers not to embark on a national strike.. Another issue that threatened industrial peace in the country was the dispute over minimum wage. After a very long and tuturous negotiation, Ngige and other members of the government team were able to resolve the knotty issues to arrive at an acceptable N30,000 new minimum wage. The then Permanent Secretary, of the Ministry of Labour and Employment, along with the Chairman of National Income and Wages Commission also played a very key role in achieving this milestone.

The ministry successfully led the government team which included federal and state governments in the Tripartite National Minimum Wage Committee that produced the National Minimum Wage Act 2019. The negotiation was tripartite plus in nature, tortuous, rigorous but reached the land mark N30,000.00 minimum wage for the least paid Nigerian worker. It was not an easy task as the Minister was made to wear the twin cap of a Conciliator and an Employer at the same time, a situation that exposed him to buffeting by both sides but at the same time made him the harbinger of the good news for all Nigerian workers in the public and private sector at the end of the day. Remarkably, this time, a National Minimum Wage Act through the cooperation of the National Assembly that worked on the Bill and Mr. President who signed the Bill into a new law known as the National Minimum Wage Act 2019 was born.

One of the basic principles of the International Labour Organization (ILO) which Ngige so much believes in is the principle of collective bargaining. It’s like a magic wand. Once there is an industrial dispute, the minister will first remind the union about the basic tenets of collective bargaining and the fact that all negotiations must respect the sanctity of that noble principle for it to yield positive results and be implementable. As part of his strategy, the Minister will first court the affected union and get them to trust his neutrality and authority in moderating negotiations between then and their employees.

He will start by emphasizing that in all labour agitations, especially when it concerns demand for welfare and better pay package, that the guiding principle for resolving it and reaching acceptable agreement should be based on collective bargaining. In pushing for this, Ngige is always ready to go the whole hug with the unions, including cracking jokes and exchanging banters at each other during negotiations. In the end, the minister brings out the best in his negotiation skills and uses it to soften whatever hardline position that the unions may present.

Some of the factors that makes his work easy as a minister include the authority he exercises, sure-footedness, the brilliance, clout, conviviality, wits and pun he takes to negotiations.

Also President Muhammadu Buhari has demonstrated a clear understanding of Ngige’s position as the competent authority and accords him confidence. It is a verifiable fact that the Minister has hardly spoken in vain in all negotiations with labour unions as the Federal Government usually gives full backing to every accompanying agreement or pronouncement.

A case in point was during the clash with the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) over the board chairmanship of the Nigeria Social Insurance Trust Fund (NSITF). Ngige was firm and resolute in his determination to push through the position of government on the issue. The tough and witty nature of the man who once survived politically masterminded plot to kidnap and remove him from office as governor of Anambra state was brought to bear when the NLC blocked the entrance to his private residence in Asokoro, Abuja. The intention was to embarass Ngige and possibly prevent him from going to office and more importantly attending that day’s Federal Executive Council meeting but somehow, the minister was able to beat the blockade and left his house to attend to his official functions. Notwithstanding, NLC’s spearheaded a campaign against the composition of the NSITF Board, the Minister had his way and secured the president’s approval for the new board.
The minister also seems to have a way of bending backwards to reach out to agreived labour unions to the extent that he was able resolve issues with them amicably.

This has brought enormous credibility to negotiations. For example, the ease with which the two labour centres NLC and the Trade Union Congress(TUC) called off what would have been the mother of all strikes on September 28, 2020 over the increase in pump price of fuel and electricity tariff is a clear example. It was a master stroke, preemptive conciliation that denied mischief makers the opportunity of angst which was later violently expresed during the “EndSARS” protests. To make sure that every negotiation has the full weight of government participation , the Minister ensures that parties to talks are represented by officers not below the position of a director. He frowns each time ministers, permanent secretaries and chief executives of MDAs relevant to conciliations are not fully represented.

In August 2017, for instance , the Minister had told a deputy director who came to represent a director in the office of the Accountant General of the Federation to leave a negotiation meeting. The Minister was also said to have berated the lackadaisical attitude of the Office of the Accountant General of the Federation over the release of funds approved by the Federal Government for specific purposes. He also told all the agencies that had a role to play in implementing the Memorandum of Action (MoA) with Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) to be faithful to such role. He went further to institute a model where all the stakeholders in the MoA with ASUU must be conversant with such agreement and promptly assigned roles. He further warned that, “the era when agreements entered into is left to gather dust in the shelf is over.

According to Ngige, “Everybody must strictly play the assigned role and faithfully too.” Sources at the ASUU negotiations said the brilliance, clout, conviviality, candour, wits and literary-pun Ngige takes to negotiations prove a hold on the ego of these intellectuals who would relentlessly assert vaunting airs at meetings. Instructively, in five years of serial thorny negotiations ASUU has neither walked out on Ngige nor did negotiation snowball into presidential intervention . A source at their meetings said that Ngige once asked ASUU leadership if there is any promise he made to them that failed. The response was a deafening silence in the conference room. The source said ASUU may also not easily forget its experience at one of the negotiations in February this year when Ngige momentarily yielded floor to a younger member of the government team to moderate negotiations. The situation became so tense was that the ASUU team almost left in fury but for Ngige’s intervention. That was how the famous phrase, “young Turks” came into the recent history of FG/ASUU negotiation according to the source.

Ngige bends backwards to ensure negotiations are successful. In the midst of COVID-19 last year for instance , he defied fear and protocol to summon meetings with the National Association Resident Doctors (NARD) and Joint Health Sector Unions (JOHESU) in his personal house to end an unfortunate strike they embarked on. He went ahead to push for government’s approval and release of N32 billion COVID-19 allowance for frontline health workers.

Despite ASUU’s defiant posture, Ngige also advised government to set aside the “No Work, No pay” policy as contained in Sec. 43 of the Trade Dispute Act, Cap T8, Laws of the Federation of Nigeria( LFN )2004 to pay the salaries of university teachers who refused to teach for nine months. Such benevolent disposition of government later helped in softening the position of the university lecturers and to the eventual resolution of the protracted strike.

Most of the labour unions like NARD, SAANU, NASU and JOHESU at one forum or the other acknowledged the Minister’s commitment to industrial peace . For instance, the President of NARD recently apologised to the Minster for some of their actions and ill-informed comments during September 9, 2020 strike. He expresed satisfaction at the efforts and fatherly disposition Ngige showed during their negotiations. The union went ahead to honour Ngige with the Chief Conciliator Award in 2020. After the resolution of the latest strike which NARD embarked on, they wrote the Minister to commend him on the swift manner he negotiated an end to the strike.
In an effort to preempt last month’s strike by the National Association Resident Doctors (NARD), Ngige held a meeting with the remuneration committee of the Nigeria Medical Association (NMA) on the review of hazard allowance for health workers.

Same goes for the TUC that announced him as the Best Labour Minister Award in 2019.
The recent resucitation of the National Labour Advisory CounciL (NLAC) after many years that it was abandoned is seen as the outcome of the Minister’s dogged spirit. The Council is a tripartite council of government, labour and employers advocated in the ILO statute to help social dialogue and pave way all the time for industrial peace and harmony. Attempts were made to create budget lines in 2017 and 2018 for the re-establishment of this Council which has not been alive in the last seven years but it didn’t materialize due to national revenue shortfalls. The non functioning of the Council has been responsible for delays in addressing worker’s welfare issues and other complaints until they metamorphose into a major industrial dispute. However, the Minister was able to reconstitute the Labour Advisory CounciL and get it back to function once again in March this year. Although some of his critics said he has been more defensive of government’s positions during negotiations, the Minister’s commitment to upholding agreements reached with unions and keeping to implementation timelines cannot be faulted.

Ngige has ensured that industrial disputes are promptly managed and that strikes that would have shut down the economy and operations of governance were nipped in the bud or quickly “apprehended” as he would say. It is surprising that the ministry is able to maintain relative industrial peace despite the harsh economic environment and many unfulfilled commitments to the workers. There is no doubt that the ministry has been able to contribute it’s quota to keeping the ship of state afloat inspite of serious challenges confronting the country. It was not surprising when the presidency recently expresed it’s appreciation of the minister s efforts through the Senior Special Assistant to the President on Niger Delta Affairs, Senator Eta Enang.

Senator Enang stated during the meeting with the leadership of the striking Judiciary and Legislative workers in Abuja that Ngige has been very sincere and passionate in seeking for lasting solution to the face-off between the governors and judiciary and legislative arms of government.
Enang said, “the minister has shown great dexterity in the handling of negotiations and I thank him for bringing the best of his skills to bear on the talks.”

QUOTE 1

Despite ASUU’s defiant posture, Ngige also advised government to set aside the “No Work, No pay” policy as contained in Sec. 43 of the Trade Dispute Act, Cap T8, Laws of the Federation of Nigeria( LFN )2004 to pay the salaries of university teachers who refused to teach for nine months. Such benevolent disposition of government later helped in softening the position of the university lecturers and to the eventual resolution of the protracted strike.
Most of the labour unions like NARD, SAANU, NASU and JOHESU at one forum or the other acknowledged the Minister’s commitment to industrial peace . For instance, the President of NARD recently apologised to the Minster for some of their actions and ill-informed comments during September 9, 2020 strike. He expresed satisfaction at the efforts and fatherly disposition Ngige showed during their negotiations. The union went ahead to honour Ngige with the Chief Conciliator Award in 2020

QUOTE 2

Nobody expected that as a former governor of Anambra State and a federal legislator, Senator Chris Ngige will come to the office with such a disarming humility, wealth of experience, and hard work. The first baptism of fire that greeted Ngige shortly after his appointment was a looming national strike precipitated by the increase in the pump price of Premium Motor Spirit (PMS). Organised labour was threatening to unleash a nationwide strike that would have crippled the new All Progressives Congress-led (APC) administration but Ngige proceeded to tackle the highly volatile issue with unprecedented tact notwithstanding the resoluteness of organised labour to take on the new administration over what they considered as outrageous hike in fuel price, Ngige was able to persuade and negotiate with the leadership of the workers not to embark on a national strike