Thursday, May 20, 2021 saw two national strikes resolved in one day. One grounded two of the three arms of government for nearly two months, while the other, lit a fuse that almost engulfed the entire country from Kaduna State. Their timely resolution have saved the nation some tragic consequences once more . It is not conflicted in any way, that the line that seamed the world of work to the polity is very malleable . One foretastes the other and mutually, they share salutary and antagonistic factors and effects. A regressive world of work is an active volcano on the fortunes of nations.
Luckily, Nigeria has a relatively stable industrial milieu substantially obtained on the strength of a sustained effort of one man, the Minister of Labour and Employment, Sen. Chris Ngige. Otherwise, the situation on the ground is unsupportive. The incidence of unemployment put at 33% by the National Bureau of Statistics, the heavily inflated prices of goods and services that ate out the Minimum Wage and the unresolved age-long labour issues that ginger restiveness will ordinarily mock preceding submission of a stable national labour locale. Ministry of Labour is a distinction at a time many Nigerians would trace a larger chunk of our woes to incompetent leadership! Here is a shining post amidst multiple dim lights . Unfortunately, this effort is diminished in optics, by the usually more visible foibles in the collective leadership. Ngige faces huge headwinds in labour , yet he delivers.
The hell that was Kaduna between May 17 and 20, 2021 is well-documented in the media. It was unprecedented. It would be the first time in history Labour would march one state with the weight it marched on Kaduna. It was a total lockdown of all services amidst threatening specter of violence by thugs apparently hired by the state government . It was anarchic , law and order almost broke down, as the NLC affiliate unions the country over, threatened to join in sympathy . NUPENG warned members were gearing to down tools just as the Minister of Works and Power raised alarm over plans by the affiliate unions in the sector to impose darkness on a nation already benighted by a nightfall of hunger, disease and insecurity. Had the strike prolonged, government would have offered on a platter, what detractors could not achieve during the last EndSars protests in a renewed national conflagration.
Therefore , the intervention of the Federal Government through the Minister of Labour and Employment was a stich in time. With the torrents of mess the man keeps clearing in the industrial sector, it is little arguable that he is the bulwark without whom the country will descended to a Hobbesian jungle. His letter to the warring parties in Kaduna was concise. “I am therefore constrained in the exercise of my powers as the Minister of Labour and Employment , under the Trade Disputes Act, CAP . T8, Laws of Federation of Nigeria (LFN) 2004; to invite you and your top officials to the emergency trade dispute conciliation meeting.” The letter equally asked the two parties to maintain the status quo ante bellum pending the resolution of the dispute which included the retrenchment of workers, compulsory retirement of workers on Grade Level 14 and above and those who have attained the age of 50 years irrespective of their Grade Levels, reduction of the staff strength in each Local Government to 50 and casualization of workers on Grade Level 1-6.
The Kaduna State Government was led to negotiation by the Commissioner for Local Government Ja’afaru Sani and the Head of service , Bariatu Mohammmed while the NLC President, Ayuba Wabba led labour . The atmosphere warring parties created in Kaduna was an assurance that sleeves could be rolled up at the meeting and it did with Bariatu Mohammmed insisting the NLC apologize for calling the Kaduna Governor a tyrant. NLC yielded no inch. With barrage of allegations and counter , the Minister appeared to have deliberately allowed a rowdy window for ventilation of the bottled up, before deflating the tension in his usual deftness for issues to be resolved with decorum. Six hours down the line , issues got to a head as Ngige reached out for section 20 of the Labour Act, CapL1, laws of Federation of Nigeria and declared that all the things in contention border on redundancy as fully captured by the law. He further explained the provisions were not followed by the Kaduna State government.
The meeting therefore decided to constitute a 10-man Bi-partite Committee comprising six representatives of State Government and three officials of the NLC to engage further with the objective of reverting with a work plan on how to integrate the provision of section 20 of the Labour Act and report back Tuesday 25, May 2021. By the time the MOU was signed, the once stony faces beamed with laughter , fist pounding and bumping , giving themselves dap and banters. The peace maker has made peace once again.
Then came the turn of the Judiciary Staff Union of Nigeria(JUSUN) and Parliamentary Staff Association of Nigeria (PASAN) who have patiently waited for hours along the corridors of the Ministry. In fact, officials of the Ministry had to hurry up the Kaduna team who were foot dragging over the semantics of a particular word deployed in the MOU. They were yet to leave their seats when members of PASAN and JUSUN began to take some of the vacant seats. The journey to the climax the day was for the two unions was tortious and windy, involving arms and tiers of government as well as professional associations whose opinions must determine the resolution of the autonomy challenge.
Ngige together with Sen. Ita Enang who is the Secretary of the Presidential Implementation Committee on the Autonomy of the State Judiciary and Legislature had to liaise with Attorney General of the Federation, the Solicitor General of the Federation, Chief of Staff to the President, the Governors’ Forum, Conference of Speakers of State Houses of Assembly, Conference of judges and the Nigerian Bar Association as well as the two unions . With the unions insisting the provisions of the 1999 constitution was non-negotiable, rebuffing rapprochement overtures, the stake got higher. No wonder offers were turned down and strike lasting as long. But the issues were more complex than the usual straight negotiation as legalism and equity battled for balance on a scale denominated by figures of financial autonomy.
But Ngige’s patience, a consistent animating principle in all negotiations, is as long and uncommon as the authority he exudes at negotiations. Nonetheless he could also tug the heartstrings. At times , he turns a teacher to take the mostly young union members through misconceptions. His endurance takes the unions through gritty facts and procedures without which negotiation will be improbable. An insider at one of the negotiations revealed how he disabused thinking among unions that state judiciary and legislature can draw straight from Federation Account . He was quoted to have once told the unions, “ I am a medical person. I deal with clinical precision, and can’t be debating what is impracticable.” It was meeting upon meeting for a stretch of a month. On the day the unions walked out, claiming the Minister and the government team kept them waiting, the Ministry countered the meeting was postponed to enable the Federal Government negotiating team harmonize all issues from the memorandum of understanding reached at different meetings so as to give negotiation a clear focus.
Sen. Enang provided insight into how Ngige’s seminal contributions broke the ice. “In this matter, you became a judge, a lawyer and an accountant . You also brought in your experience as a former governor and Senator. Fortunately for us , we came to learn at the feet of a person who practiced this autonomy about twenty years ago without Executive Order 10. So we thank you very much and thank God for making you a Minister at this time and on this matter.” The success would have been impossible without Ngige’s eminent role.