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Minister Ngige: Conciliator or Instigator?

By Tonnie Iredia

For the better part of the last one month, Nigerian government officials were busy holding meetings with aggrieved members of the Academic Staff Union of Universities, ASUU and the National Association of Resident Doctors, NARD who had embarked on strikes to ventilate their grievances.

The meetings with the groups were no doubt stressful for both the government and the officials of the striking groups as the meetings reportedly stretched into late nights. From news reports, it appears that some level of consensus has been reached. We commend the Ministers for being able to engage the labour leaders because in any dispute, the right direction to go is continuous negotiations. What this suggests is that officials of government not being among those aggrieved needed to be far more patient and tolerant.

Labour leaders the world over are known for being vexatious and belligerent. Such traits must never be allowed to provoke government officials into losing either their cool or mandate which is to reduce the heated polity and the sufferings of Nigerians who depend on the services of the striking groups.

Education Minister, Adamu Adamu, in particular maintained a calm countenance which elicited empathy.  His Permanent Secretary, Sonny Echono obviously followed his footsteps while pacifying a delegation of the National Association of Nigerian Students who led a protest to government.

The students were not only visibly angry, their leader stated clearly that if government failed to mobilize ASUU back to the classrooms within 2 weeks, they would cause civil unrest across the nation. In response, Echono gave an assurance that government would not wait for the two weeks before resolving the issues raised.

The assurance was to some extent disarming, although the notoriety of government in not keeping any promise remained in everyone’s sub consciousness. That notwithstanding, it was good that our education authorities adopted a conciliatory posture. The Minister of Health, Professor Isaac Adewale did not do less. For this reason, we commend the officials and urge them not only to resolve the current crisis but to do so with a view to avoiding its recurrence.

Unfortunately, the Labour Minister Dr. Chris Ngige who was supposedly the official conciliator portrayed a stance which tended to encourage confrontation using every available opportunity to apportion blames. Painfully, his blame was not premised on substance but on technicalities and procedures as if his observed failure of the striking groups was not a reaction to the failure of government to play its own assigned and agreed roles.

If the Minister was anxious to establish that two wrongs don’t make a right, there is a point there, but there was no point in his perspective which saw the second wrong as the only blame-worthy one. We were unable to see the wisdom in his constant references to legal provisions on trade disputes because there is no provision that justifies government’s lethargy.

Apart from the inappropriateness of holding on to technicalities during crisis, the Minister took the strikes as new issues rather than a resumption of suspended previous actions. ASUU made the point by continuously drawing attention to the failure of government to honour an agreement it willingly entered into.

Ngige’s stance which represented the posture of government showed that the Minister of Labour can hardly serve as an arbiter in an issue involving Labour and Government. It is thus expedient to tell our government and its sympathizers on this subject some home truths. To start with, those who argued that ASUU ‘s demand was unrealistic needed to know that ASUU was demanding a figure worked out not by itself but by a government committee.

Second, in accepting its committee’s huge figure, government pledged to set aside a figure annually for six years to instalmentally off-set the amount. This was done in the first year when government released N200 million. As we hear, the matter ended there supposedly until another strike comes.

If the instalmental spirit had been followed what would have remained by now would have been too small to warrant crisis. In fact, such sincere implementation would have made ASUU’s resumption of strike unpopular.  The inability of government to do so is only a reflection of its poor rating of the importance of education to national development.

The same argument is valid for the striking doctors. If a profession or an occupation is so important to be classified as essential service which must never be disrupted, it stands logic on its head to make its practitioners die from hunger while serving. If that happens who will save the lives of other citizens that require medical help? It is indeed more annoying that the reason some of the doctors were not paid is not recession or lack of funds but the inability of the management of health institutions to appropriately integrate doctors into the framework of their pay rolls.

That a cherished group – medical doctors had to go on strike before getting paid in Nigeria calls for a review of the over-bloated administration and finance personnel in hospitals. It also suggests that our nation was thinking with its legs; otherwise how come the salaries of Senators that Prof Itse Sagay reiterated last week to be N3billion per member per year are never among those delayed?

Government officials should stop hardening the feelings of the aggrieved. Instead, they should encourage government to always show good faith because the defects in the governance systems in our universities which were being raised during the strike should have been raised during negotiations; they couldn’t in truth answer the failure of government’s side of the agreement.

Again, to say the government did not have the resources for playing the role is illogical in view of the billions of public funds which she is now recovering from its predecessors. Luckily, the Minister of Information Lai Mohammed while explaining to a forum of communication scholars and professionals in Kano last Wednesday that Nigeria was out of recession reeled such statistics that gave many including this writer the hope that members of ASUU and NARD will soon be fully pacified. Meanwhile, our Labour Minister must dump his transmission model for the transactional model of communication that can assuage the feelings of the aggrieved as well as create conducive climate for negotiations considering that non-teaching staff of universities are set to begin their own strike tomorrow.



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