Viewpoint

June 22, 2023

Reflections on Ngige’s era as Labour Minister

ASUU strike

Senator Chris Ngige

By IBRAHIM JIBIA

By re-positioning the Ministry of Labour and Employment and changing public perception about this oldest ministry in Nigeria, Senator Chris Ngige has proved himself a change maker. He did not only raise the Ministry from decadence, but also made it difficult to either scoff or sneer at Labour and Employment as a  portfolio for less favoured appointees or what some refer to as “non-juicy” in local slang. For eight years, Ngige had no respite, it was all long midnight candle .  Quite expectedly,  there were controversies because there can’t be a radical change without social storms, especially where retardation has self-perpetuated. But in every case, he came out with ovation. 

While Nigerian Association of Resident Doctors declared him a medical elder of emulation in 2020, it also acknowledged at another forum that with more ministers like Ngige, Nigeria would be a better place. Even ASUU in 2018 described Ngige as showing honest determination for change. The list is long. Credible performance often proclaims itself like a shining light on a bushel. Ngige left trails to prove that the world of work will greatly miss him but one suffices here for a prologue.

In the wake of the election to the office of the Director General of the International Labour Organisation, ILO, in March 2022, the President of France, Emmanuel Macron, wrote to President Buhari and citied as part of the subject matter, the consequential restoration the Minister of Labour has made of Nigeria’s  international  labour  diplomacy. Macron also referred to the competent embassage and diplomatic tact with which Ngige received  a five-man French team led by its Ambassador to Nigeria, Emmanuel Blatmann ,while on a campaign visit for the election of the French candidate, Muriel Penicaud for the ILO top job. 

I have searched all through for any other Minister in Nigeria’s recent history, singled out for accolade by a President of another sovereign nation but saw none. No doubt, Macron’s commendation is not borne of nothing. Recall that Ngige had moved Nigeria’s tripartite emissary to the ILO from bench-warming of decades to the Governing Body and for two years,  chaired the government side of the body , besides being elected unanimously by African Ministers of Labour  as the lead speaker on African matters.

The unfamiliar may not understand that Nigeria has through this stride, gained technical assistance worth millions of dollars in manpower training on labour standards, laws as well as sundry funding. Arising from this diplomatic gains too, the United States Department of Labour, gave $4 million  in 2022 to support Nigeria’s effort against child labour, while another $5 million  was  shared between Nigeria and Liberia.

But Ngige’s handling of the French emissary provides further insight into how Nigeria re-asserted her eminence, leveraging on his tactful labour administration. Earlier on March 3, 2022, he told the French delegation who was on a repeat visit that Nigeria had a candidate in Gilbert Houngbo of Togo but won’t fail to switch support to France if the Africa Union’s collective support for Houghbo is impeded. Ngige would later on March 25, 2022 pull the African tripartite together, convincing Jacqeline Mugo of Kenya who had galvanised the votes of African employers for the dissenting South Africa’s Mthunzi Ndwaba against the AU decision, to withdraw and support Houngbo. Houngbo won against Penicaud of France: 30 against  23 votes. 

A better understanding of the decadent ministry which was literally a dispute resolution post in 2015 and what it is today, explains the enormous energy spent in turning burnt bricks into marbles. It was a ministry without a capital budget and dogged by an effete human and material tools, yet charged with the onerous task of job creation and stimulation of national productivity through harmony in the world of work. You now understand why it was described as non-juicy, bottom grade. Unfortunately, this is peculiar perhaps to Nigeria alone, because in Europe and the United States, labour is rated top, explaining why it is the first ministry created in Nigeria by the colonial Britain. This high honour gave way over the years due to scant attention by successive governments. 

But the Buhari administration had a different view of this all-important ministry unlike his predecessors , hence needed an achiever in Ngige to re-invent it.  He needed a  generalist not tied to the narrowness of expertise, one who can find new ways and Ngige was fit for the fiddle. He came with positive thinking  and attested in no time, his assertion during an NTA interview on January 21, 2016 that every cabinet position is largely what the occupant makes of it. The former Minister got his ducks in a row and faithfully followed through his  strategic plan.

He deflated the manpower challenge in the ministry through recruitment of qualified professionals- doctors, pharmacists, engineers, accountants, lawyers, among others. He then re-focused its trajectory as a mere dispute centre and reinstated  its essential quiddity as a fulcrum of jobs creation which would have been impossible without upgrading its capital base. With a paltry budget of less than a billion naira  in 2015, it was apparent the ministry won’t be able to weather the gathering storm in the world of work much less confront  jobs creation.

With adequate representations at the appropriate executive and legislative corners, life was breathed into the ministry and forthwith, the resuscitation of moribund programmes and creation of new ones began. If the success of the ministry is often determined by the stable industrial harmony, Ngige achieved this daunting task. He apprehended over 2000 industrial disputes and successfully conciliated  1687 of them. 

Each time I read it was the former Speaker, Femi Gbajabiamila, that made ASUU call off its eight months strike last year, I know stakeholders are not carried away by such fallacy. Ngige uprooted the ASUU strike using institutional means, by referring the dispute to the National Industrial Court of Nigeria, NICN, which directed ASUU to return to class.  ASUU had no choice. Its flight  to the House of Representatives was for soft-landing. Reason is that there was nothing the members offered them that differed from what Ngige had put on the table months back to their deaf ears .

The invocation of  section  17 of the Trade Disputes Act which referred the failed disputes to NICN and the earlier implementation of section 43 of the Trade Disputes Act on no work no pay, did it all. The National Industrial Court judgement of May 30, 2023  has finally affirmed the legality of no work no, no pay, thus,  successfully taming the perennial penchant  to action on flimsy reasons.  Successive government will continue to benefit from this judgement which effectively removed the toga of government within government which ASUU had put on for a long time.

At another level, Ngige engineered the paradigm shift from white collar jobs to the elastic opportunities in the blue collar world, making skills acquisition the currency among youths. He did not only build new skill centres while rehabilitating old ones in all the zones of the country, he re-positioned the National Directorate of Employment, a parastatal under the Ministry to retake its role as an apex job creation agency while dismantling the cesspool of corruption in the Nigeria Social Insurance Trust Fund by engineering an electronic system, E-NSITF, to dethrone non-transparent processes . 

Today while the Ministry has re-designed and upgraded the  Nigeria Employment Labour Exchange,  NELEX,  to  match those seeking for employment with the employers, Labour Market Information System, LMIS , aimed at addressing the lack of harmonised information on labour market has been put in place. There is also the Labour Statistics System to enable qualified Nigerians at home and abroad apply for available jobs. 

These are operable digital framework created to tackle unemployment. Allied efforts by the Ministry paid off with the establishment of the Labour Migration Centre in Benin, Lagos and Abuja. This idea which took form in conjunction with the European Union is to protect migrant workers by providing them with adequate information and ensure safe labour practices abroad. He had earlier in 2021 resuscitated and convoked the National Labour Advisory Council which was moribund for close to a decade. And much earlier in 2019, brought the world to Nigeria for the first ever World Youth Conference held outside Europe in hundred years history of the ILO.

The quality advisory the Minister made available to  President Buhari ensured that no staff in the Federal Civil Service was retrenched despite lean resources, even as the economy relapsed into recession twice. He engineered the implementation of the minimum wage in 2019 as well as its consequential adjustment. Just before the curtain was drawn on the administration , Ngige ensured the implementation of peculiar salary increment for civil servants. The review of different labour laws could not be completed but was taken to an advanced stage. 

Under Ngige, Nigeria also domesticated seven ILO conventions to enhance rights at work. The list cannot be exhausted here but suffice the world of work will Ngige.

Jibia, former Director of Skills and Certification, Ministry of Labour and Employment, wrote from Kano.