Rotimi Fasan

By Rotimi Fasan

CHRIS Ngige, the Minister of Labour, wishes to and could well be the nemesis of the Academic Staff Union of Universities under its present leadership. This, except the union brings to its dealings with him and the government he represents all they can muster by way of strategic thinking and action in the Nigerian public space. This is one man who would rather bring down the entire house of Nigeria’s tertiary education as represented by ASUU than have his ego bruised.

He is clearly on a personal demolition exercise that only a union, even of seasoned academics, that is wise to the manipulations of power that Ngige’s own personal insecurities is leading him to engage in, can checkmate. ASUU has to be alert to and consciously aware of his every move. Otherwise, it could be rubbished by the antics of this man who says one thing but obviously means the exact opposite. 

With his whitish goatee and squat look, Dr. Ngige cuts the picture and has the strategies of ijapa, the trickster tortoise of African folklore. He may be a wily prankster but like the folkloric trickster, he is not a strategic thinker. His short-sighted aspirations will not let him see the foolishness of winning a battle he is presently enmeshed in at the expense of the war that is sure to follow.

Chris Ngige has come a long way from the piteous character allegedly forced into blood oaths in dinghy shrines in the dense forest of Okija in 2003. He was then a minion, a mere puppet in the hands of the Uba brothers. His time in office, but for providence and the courage of the people of Anambra who demanded justice, would have taken less than a footnote in the political history of that state in particular and Nigeria as whole. He would have probably become an unknown quantity.

Here is that same man, now the disrupter, playing God with the destiny of not just his betters but of Nigeria’s future. If Chris Ngige now claims that the October salary of university lecturers that called off their eight-month old strike about the middle of last month upon the intervention of House Speaker, Femi Gbajabiamila, was prorated, where was he when the agreement was being reached between the lecturers and the House Speaker on behalf of government, that the backlog of salaries owed the lecturers would be paid in full by Abuja? 

That was the sense Nigerians had of that agreement even if it was not midwifed by Chris Ngige or the Labour Ministry that had serially tried but failed to close any deal with the lecturers. Things got so bad between Ngige and the lecturers that aside the mutual name-calling, the lecturers resolved not to have further dealings with him. ASUU’s distrust of Ngige was not without foundation. It was a result of the minister’s constant misrepresentation of the outcome of his meetings with ASUU in the course of the many negotiations between the lecturers’ union and the Labour Ministry led by Ngige.

These never yielded any positive result. Not for once did any agreement reached between ASUU and Ngige move forward the negotiations between the lecturers and government. Nor was any of the point of negotiation taken to the level of execution. Rather, it was always the case that the lecturers had one understanding of the outcome of their meeting with Ngige and Ngige had another sense of it. 

Chris Ngige was always overtly optimistic after every meeting with ASUU. He would leave each meeting bubbling over with optimism, only coming short of saying that the lecturers left the venue of their meeting with him and went straight to the classroom. This was always the case and Ngige never missed a beat in his report and assurances to Nigerians that the strike was over and done with when he went before the cameras.

His view of the agreement reached on each of his repeated meetings with the leadership of ASUU was as a matter of course far more sanguine than the lecturers were ever willing to concede. After Ngige’s upbeat, saccharine-filled report would come the gloomy explanation of what had transpired of an ASUU president. At a time, it became clear to any discerning follower of the strike action to wait to hear the ASUU side of things before being infected with Ngige’s unfounded optimism. But after and in spite of all these shenanigans an agreement was eventually cobbled together following the Industrial Court’s ruling that ASUU return to the classroom before it can bring any other prayers before the courts.

It was at this point that the Gbajabiamila initiative kicked in. All through this, Chris Ngige and the Labour Ministry was silent. It is true that Ngige lost his position in the centrestage as the key negotiator but he witnessed all that went on and said nothing in opposition. Even when ASUU President, Prof. Emmanuel Osodeke, appeared to enter a caveat and played down the extent of ASUU’s readiness to go with the agreement by claiming they were endorsing it only in the “interim”, Gbajabiamila, obviously miffed, was quick to restate that the agreement was binding and final and no caveat would be entertained. 

Chris Ngige heard all of this and said nothing. He knew what he had up his sleeves and was probably enjoying a secret smile like the wily tortoise. It is apparent now that he was nursing a grudge and waiting for that moment, such as he now has, when he could again seize the centrestage with what must have appeared to him as a masterstroke – his advice to the Finance Ministry that the striking lecturers be paid pro rata for the month of October. Like the tortoise, he was quick to deny his part in the scheme to pay the lecturers lesser than a month’s salary even when his imprints are all over it by the fact that the memo that led to the prorated payment emanated from his ministry. 

He or his spokesperson claimed nobody was paid half salary but rather lecturers were paid pro rata. Translation? We are back at the no-work-no-pay terminus we all thought we had gone beyond, especially since medical personnel of the Usman Dan Fodio University, Sokoto, that were alleged not to have joined the strike were paid in full. This has taken the bottom off the entire agreement reached between ASUU and Gbajabiamila.

It is a bilious, dog-in-manger action of a man that would kick dirt on a deal he could or would not reach.  And this embarrassment could only happen in a government led by a President Muhammadu Buhari whose suffocating indifference to consequential matters of governance in the name of neutrality borders on irresponsibility if not criminal negligence.  

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