Dr. Chris Ngige, Labour and Employment Minister
By Emma Agu
Nothing suggests that the leadership of an organisation cannot make mistakes. Why would anyone expect a leader to be infallible? But what distinguishes nobility from charlatanism; maturity of mind from mediocrity is the ability to retrace one’s steps, the humility to apologise once a mistake has been unambiguously identified. As psychologists will tell you, rather than being a sign of weakness, humility is a sign of strength, that inner power that makes the purveyor stand erect even after eating humble pie.
But all this will seem to be lost on the leadership of the Nigerian Labour Congress, NLC, as it continues to grandstand after the presidency had unequivocally disowned it over the failed appointment of Frank Kokori as Chairman of the Nigerian Social Insurance Trust Fund (NSITF). For those not familiar with it, let me rehash the issue that led to a protracted crisis between labour centre and the minister of Labour and Employment, Dr Chris Ngige. In the count down to the constitution of boards of agencies under the ministry, it was reported that Comrade Frank Kokori, a veteran labour leader who, for many years, was general secretary of the NUPENG, had been pencilled down to head the board of the NSITF. It is instructive to note that there was no formal announcement by the Federal Government beyond social media speculations and “scoops”.
Mismanagement of about N48 billion of the Fund
However, acting on the recommendation of the minister, President Muhammadu Buhari approved that the inauguration of the specialized board is put on hold, to allow an on-going administrative enquiry, empanelled by the minister, into the mismanagement of about N48 billion of the Fund’s money, to be concluded. Besides, it will appear that those who had pushed for Comrade Kokori, to head the Board, did so without the endorsement of the minister who, by the NSITF Act, was charged with the responsibility of recommending to the President who to appoint as chairman of the board. Thus Ngige recommended Austin Enejamo-Isire, an insurance practitioner of repute, an accomplished chartered accountant and a highly respected corporate player, to chair the Board.
The NLC would not hear of that. Thus began a battle of wits between the minister and a section of the labour leadership as both the Trade Union Congress (TUC) and the United Labour Congress stayed out of the needless controversy. For its part, the NLC deployed every conceivable strategy: blackmail, ethnic profiling, intimidation and ultimately, the physical bombardment of the minister’s private residence, all in a vile but futile effort, to cow the minister to submission. In the end, the Presidency weighed in on the imbroglio and got the Board inaugurated in the Presidential Villa.
Perhaps this article would not have been necessary if labour had not persisted with its grandstanding, even after the inauguration of the Board. Worse still, coming after the Presidency had explicitly denied the claim that it had nominated Kokori for the top political appointment, the NLC’s sanctimonious posturing is reeks of a huge character deficit and a shameless throwback to the era when unscrupulous and self-serving labour leaders held organisations to ransom. In any decent society, labour would have swallowed its dented pride, shown remorse by publicly apologizing to the Federal Government, the minister and Nigerians who, it had led into falsely believing that Ngige was all along disobeying the President. Actually, the Presidency said it loud and clear that the Minister, as an experienced former civil servant, brought a programme of work for the place which was duly approved by the President.
But the NLC President, Comrade Ayuba Wabba would not have anything of that. Rather, typical of the impunity that has become the hallmark of irresponsible leadership in Nigeria; he blamed the Presidency for coming out with its explanation late. What impudence! If the truth must be told, the NLC’s obduracy, in the face of its falsehood, did not deserve any explanation. Besides, it was never in the province of the NLC to dictate to the Presidency whom to offer or deny political appointment, unless it could muster evidence to show that the prospective nominee had character flaws which, by the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, disqualified such a person. What even made NLC position to be hopelessly untenable was the fact that though the NSITF dealt with workers’ compensation contributed by employers, the appointment of the board was not a labour matter.
To put it mildly, the conduct of the leadership of the NLC smacks of condemnable pettiness and questionable patriotism. Never in the history of labour activism has the leadership of the NLC descended to this nadir of petulance and unbridled egotism. We all saw the fiery Hassan Sunmonu, the suave Paschal Bafyau and the methodical Ciroma and others that lead the NLC through very difficult periods, traversing but not restricted to military interregnums. As militant as they were, risking detentions and abuse, never did they arrogate to themselves the power to dictate who got what political appointment. Even in the not-too-distant past, Comrade Adams Oshiomole, the National Chairman of the ruling All Progressive Congress (APC), as stubborn as he was, never usurped the power of the minister. If he did, it was not public knowledge, implying that he possessed the skills and tact to navigate his way through the intricate political webs of Board appointments. Especially Tripartite Government Boards in which the NLC was represented.
Wabba’s pathetic position on the NSITF Board issue is worrisome as it unearths a certain gap in the leadership of the NLC. If the leadership of an organisation cannot be trusted to tell or ascertain the truth, then such an organisation is bound to flounder because many of its actions would be based on falsehood, as in the instant case. To say that it behoves the leadership to retract its position and issue an apology is what leadership is all about. By the way, this will not be the first or only time that activists would have been caught on the wrong side of the truth. For those familiar with the case, we would not have forgotten too soon the Ebony Magazine conundrum of the eighties involving one of Nigeria’s stormy petrels of those days, Dr Tai Solarin. That was the era of haywire disinformation, aimed at discrediting the military junta that was in power at the time.
Country’s standing in the global labour calculations
Quite frankly, unless there are ulterior motives behind the bizarre behaviour of the NLC, labour should be proud of the achievements of the Buhari Administration in labour matters. This is not about Ngige. It is about the country’s standing in the global labour calculations; it is about the commitment to the welfare of Nigerian workers, in spite of the dire economic straits; it is about how free labour has been in conducting its legitimate activities. If we must narrow it down to Ngige, the facts demand that the NLC should have the honesty and humility to defer to a public functionary who has the constitutional powers to oversee its activities and whose actions so far, do not portray him as being anti-labour. However, if his insistence that a new vibrant NSITF Board should be allowed to forensically handle the mindless mismanagement of workers’ money, under the watchful eyes of a Board that included two labour leaders, then Ngige is likely to be a criminal forever! Why should the NLC be shouting that its two members are not being prosecuted by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC, when it’s a maxim in Management that if there is a failure in a place, the members of the Board is held accountable without exception? From what the minister explained at the inauguration, the impression one gets is that both the Administrative Panel and the Auditor General’s report indicted all the Board members without exception.
For now, the Federal Government can count its blessings, on the labour front. First, is that, with Ngige as the Government’s arrowhead, Nigeria has returned to reckoning in the International Labour Organisation (ILO). It is now back, to the honorary board after 10 years of absence. The second important point is the approval of the new minimum wage of N30, 000. Whether Ayuba or the NLC like it or not, Ngige will always be remembered as the Government’s arrowhead that made it possible even if he disagreed with labour on the figure, during the negotiations, as claimed by the NLC President in one of his media attacks.
The ultimate demonstration of the poverty of leadership
Not to be left out is the negotiation that ended the strike by the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU). That the truce is still holding simply shows that either the Federal Government is keeping to its side of the bargain or that ASUU is reasonably satisfied with the noble intentions of the Federal Government that it is prepared to be patient while the problem is being addressed. Not to be forgotten was the bail-out funds that were magnanimously approved by President Buhari to enable the states to settle arrears of salaries while ensuring that Federal workers were not denied their legitimate entitlements. Neither labour nor any fair-minded person could ignore such a demonstration of empathy without risking the charge of sadism. And to pretend that the minister of labour had no hand in all these or did not use his political clout to get these deserved benefits for workers is to take hypocrisy to the apogee of tomfoolery.
No matter the way anyone wants to look at it, truth is that Ngige stands out as one of the most vibrant and result-oriented members of the Buhari cabinet and one of the most successful labour ministers of all times. That said, it should, of course, be recognized that in this era of jostling for ministerial positions, chances are that some interested politicians could indeed be speaking through the mouths of labour leaders. Could it be that Ayuba is fighting a personal war for his selfish interest or is he doing a proxy war for some political leaders; only he can answer. But if the answer is in the affirmative, that will be the ultimate demonstration of the poverty of leadership.