Lagos — The Minister of Labour and Employment, Dr. Chris Ngige, may have had the last laugh over the inauguration of the Board of Nigeria Social Insurance Trust Fund (NSITF), as The Guardian learnt in Abuja last night that the Presidency had, indeed, given the minister the approval to install Austin Enajemo-Isire as the Chairman of the Board at the Banquet Hall inside Aso Rock on Monday, May 13.
The venue, it was gathered, is seen by the Presidency as a safe haven that is beyond the picketing reach of the labour movement.
The rescheduled inauguration of the Board in Aso Rock has taken the wind out of the sail of the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) and National Union of Petroleum and Natural Gas Workers (NUPENG), who are rooting for the validation of the appointment initially offered a former general secretary of NUPENG, Chief Frank Kokori, in 2017.
Meanwhile, Director General of Nigerian Employers Consultative Association (NECA), Timothy Olawale, said the national umbrella body of employers was ready and would participate in the inauguration of the new Board wherever and whenever it is fixed.
He stated: “Officially, we are looking forward to the inauguration of the new board wherever the venue is fixed. However, NECA is unable to confirm whether the inauguration will take place in Abuja, in Aso Presidential Villa or in any other place for that matter.
“What is paramount to us as employers and as critical stakeholders in the management of the Fund, is that we are ready to attend the inauguration whenever we are invited to participate in such an event.”
On his part, NLC President, Ayuba Wabba, said the labour movement might reconsider its stand if President Muhammadu Buhari extends a counter offer to Kokori. He, however, insisted that with the imbroglio raging, Kokori has not been told officially that he has been moved to the Michael Imoudu Institute of Labour Studies in Ilorin (MINILS).
“Well, if another offer comes, Kokori will see if he wants to accept it or decline. Kokori was not appointed based on his antecedents as a former labour leader, but was appointed strictly as a member of the ruling All Progressive Congress (APC) from his home state of Delta.
“Labour stepped in when we saw that he was going to be humiliated. Kokori is not an orphan; he has a constituency, which is labour, and he is a veteran and a hero of democracy.
“Two years after Kokori was appointed, no one has given him another letter to another establishment officially. All we are hearing is that the minister has a letter purportedly signed by the President moving Kokori to Ilorin and appointed another person in his stead.
“We know very well that Kokori is well qualified to manage the contributions that are pooled to compensate workers who sustain injury in the course of duty,” he said.
Wabba maintained that whether Kokori is eventually made the Board chair of NSITF or not, labour would ensure that the representatives of both the NLC and NECA resist the running of the Fund by proxy.
While accusing Ngige of running the labour sector as a sole administrator, the NLC leader said the National Labour Advisory Council (NLAC) has remained unattended, while the minister devoted so much energy to NSITF, where the federal government belongs to the minority in the organogram of the Fund.
He hinted that labour would protest against Ngige next month in Geneva, Switzerland, during the annual International Labour Conference organised by the International Labour Organisation (ILO).
On its part, NUPENG said it had concluded plans to mobilise its members across the country to join the NLC on a national protest on Monday over the recent alleged attack on the labour leaders at the residence of the minister in Abuja over the NSITF saga.
The oil workers alleged that Ngige lied to Nigerians that the union brought fully-loaded petroleum trucks to barricade his house during last Wednesday’s picketing.
Addressing a press conference yesterday at the union’s national secretariat, its National President, Williams Akporeha, said the allegation was unfounded and belittling of a federal minister and a show of shame to his status and demanded an open apology from the minister, while urging him to visit members who are currently in hospital in the interest of industrial peace.
They also called on Buhari to intervene in the matter to ensure sustenance of peace between workers and the Ministry of Labour, while demanding the inauguration of NSITF Board without further delay, with Kokori as the chairman, noting that the process must be transparent.
Akporeha stated that Kokori has a lot to offer Nigeria and should be given all the support to serve this country and should be remembered and celebrated at a time like this because of his role in the struggle for democracy.
He said: What is the special thing or deal that Ngige is hiding from the public that Kokori would expose if he is inaugurated as chairman of NSITF Board?
“We want to ask him why he would want to inaugurate a Board in his private residence or at a hotel?”
Meanwhile, the United Labour Congress (ULC) said that the Wednesday incident has polluted and endangered the candour and sanctity of the traditions and practice of industrial relations in Nigeria, urging government to quickly call a roundtable of all major stakeholders within the industrial relations space for the purposes of seeking rapprochement with workers and their unions that have been brutalised.
In a statement yesterday, President of ULC, Joe Ajaero, expressed worry at the growing use of thuggery and violence in mediating relations amongst workers, employers and governments, urging Ngige to demonstrate more patience in dealing with workers and to show greater understanding of the laws that govern industrial relations in Nigeria, as the use of certain language may not be sensitive to relationship in the space.
ULC called on the minister to address the underlying causes of the crisis by immediately resolving all issues surrounding the inauguration of the NSITF Board under its duly appointed chairman, Kokori, noting that Nigerian workers remain the major contributors to the social insurance landscape and their wishes and underlying interests have to be respected by the minister, no matter how unpalatable.
Meanwhile, Ngige has urged Nigerian workers in Abuja to shun the protest.
A statement yesterday by his Special Assistant on Media, Nwachukwu Obidiwe, said calling out workers on a flimsy and selfish excuse of non-inauguration of the NSITF Board with Kokori as the chairman did not constitute a trade dispute, as contained in the Labour Act.
“The issue in question is political; it is about the exclusive right of the President to make an appointment. This is clearly outside the purview of the Trade Union and Trade Disputes Act; hence imperative for workers to go about their normal businesses.
“It is important to state here that every worker is supposed to put in eight hours of work per day, for five days in a week, in line with the ILO Convention. Therefore, using the office hours for such protest without the approval of the employers is unlawful.
“The 40 hours a week, which the Nigerian workers subscribed to, should be used for productive ventures, especially in view of the new national minimum wage and the consequential financial adjustments,” the statement read in part.
The statement further said the directive by the NLC to workers to attack the minister and his family members anywhere they were sighted was a criminal offence, saying the minister was already taking necessary legal action in that respect.
It insisted that the minister remained the competent authority in all issues concerning labour in Nigeria, including its external relations, in line with the ILO Convention, warning that internationalising what was clearly the exclusive right of the President on political appointment was unpatriotic.