By Mathew Egwuonwu
Following the mammoth crowd that welcomed the legendary Peter Obi, the Presidential candidate of the Labour Party, at Michael Okpara square on 12th January 2023 and in which Hon. Chijioke Edeoga, the gubernatorial candidate of the party in the state, alongside others, were introduced to the teeming Enugu supporters; the Ugwuanyi-led Ebeano PDP have not hidden their anguish, apprehension and desire to outdo the Labour party in terms of numbers at their own rally. That day finally came on Friday, 27th January 2023.
On that fateful day, this writer only got to know about the event when two of his wards in the public primary school returned shortly after leaving home on the premise that their school was shut down to enable their teachers to visit Michael Okpara Square, Independence Layout Enugu. Visit Okpara Square for what purpose? They could not explain.
In his workplace, it was explained that all public primary school teachers in Enugu State were compelled to attend the PDP’s gubernatorial campaign flag-off, with a threat of dismissal from service in case of disobedience. Of course, no teacher could afford to stand up to the ‘Almighty’ Ikeji Asogwa, the ‘Idi Amin’ head of the state’s primary schools board (ENSUBEB) and who also doubles as the Director General of Peter Mbah’s gubernatorial campaign council.
As it’s often said among Enugu teachers, the fear of Ikeji Asogwa is the beginning of wisdom. The teachers, therefore, quickly abandoned their classrooms to attend a political rally at the expense of their pupils, who now attend schools only four times a week due to the recurring Monday Sit-at-home saga and which the ‘do nothing’, governor of the state has done nothing about.
It is pertinent to note here that due to the unwavering commitment of the Ebonyi State governor, Dave Umahi, the unreasonable and nonsensical forced holiday has since stopped in his state. It would also be recalled that in the very same week the rally took place, only three days were available for schooling in Enugu State as Tuesday, 24th January 2023, was also claimed by the mad fugitive in Finland who, for inexplicable reasons, controls our lives here.
That particular order to sit at home, not emanating from IPOB, was not obeyed in Anambra, Abia and Ebonyi States. Governor Ugwuanyi, who hardly shows interest in what his counterparts do, decided to compound parents’ misery by taking away one more day( Friday, 27th January 2023) just for a political rally.
Back to Okpara square. The teachers appeared in colourful branded uniforms with face caps to match. Those who attended the event attest that over two thousand attended and were made to sit inside the main pavilion to give colour to the event. Ever since the event, a segment of the social media loyal to the governor has indicated that the teachers joyfully adopted Barr through provocative outputs. Peter Mbah was their choice for the office of governor of the state. May God forgive them. Of course, they will not report that the hapless and grumbling teachers were fuming from their seats and cursing the PDP for dragging them into partisan politics in the most barbaric manner.
Aside from the anger of dragging the teachers out to step up attendance in a rally that most people avoided, there are many reasons why no reasonable teacher or local government member of staff in Enugu State will vote for Peter Mbah or anything called PDP. Before the last minimum wage, it was an inviolable convention for any salary increment approved by the state to be implemented across the board and for all public sector workers without discrimination. As soon as a minimum wage was successfully negotiated at the federal level and approved by the state, all that was left, was for local government workers and teachers to await a circular from the Head of Service accompanied by a chart for immediate implementation.
At no time in the history of the state was the opinion of a local government chairman required to be sought after the governor had approved implementation. That has, unfortunately, happened. For the first time, a minimum wage approved by an Act of the National Assembly was discriminatorily implemented in the state. The state leaders of the NUT( Nigeria Union of Teachers) and NULGE( Nigeria Union of Local Government Employees) in excitement, returned to their bases bearing copies of the circular which authorized immediate implementation and which they promptly submitted to their respective authorities.
Shortly afterwards, a rumour began to make the rounds among local government workers that chairmen of local governments in the state held a meeting and resolved that they would not implement the minimum wage due to lack of funds. The case of primary school teachers was not different, as their education secretaries also reported the ugly news to them. Since the local governments and the local education authorities drew from the same pool of funds, it became clear that the recalcitrant chairpersons received the backing of the governor to pay the minimum wage only if they could afford to pay. Quickly, they returned a negative verdict to the governor even though available records indicate that monthly statutory allocations to the councils have not fallen below #100 million per local government area in the past four years. In more extensive local government areas, grapevine gathered and collected as much as #180 and #200 million per month and spent them on ghost contractors and other frivolities instead of paying the minimum wage to give the teachers a sense of belonging.
The question now is; is nonpayment of the minimum wage to Enugu State primary school teachers and local government workers violating the Minimum Wage Act as passed by the National Assembly? The answer is yes, as it became unlawful to pay any public sector employee in Nigeria anything less than the nationally approved minimum wage right from the very day the Act came into force. For this reason, the NYSC immediately adjusted their payment template to reflect the new law.
If the nonpayment of the minimum wage to Enugu primary school teachers and local government workers conflicts with the Minimum Wage Act, what remedy is available to them? Who goes to the National Industrial Court to enforce their right under the law?
When the teachers, after waiting in vain, decided to protest against their unlawful exclusion from the new wage regime, Governor Ugwuanyi, in his usual chicanery, set up an implementation committee with a hidden mandate to buy time and never to come up with any agreement until the end of his tenure. This was disclosed to grapevine by a member of the committee, which sat at the new state Secretariat ( after police headquarters) and which, for four years, dribbled the NUT and came up with nothing until their patience was stretched to the elastic limit.
The teachers embarked on strike severally before Ugwuanyi decided to implement it haphazardly. Even now, many teachers can still not earn the new wage while local government workers have had their dreams wholly dashed.
Due to low morale, local government councils in the state have once again turned into graveyards with little or no activity. Another critical question is; even if the government began to pay the minimum wage in the last quarter of 2022, what would happen to the backlog since 2018 the payment started? Is it recoverable?
Having denied teachers and local government workers their lawful entitlements for four years, on what basis does the Ikeje Asogwas of this world believe that an Enugu primary school teacher will waste his vote for the heartless PDP? To continue with their policy of exclusion? Won’t things get even worse under Peter Mbah being a protégé of Chimaroke Nnamani, who the teachers accuse of misadvising the governor since coming on board in his second term? It is on record that Chimaroke Nnamani did not pay salaries regularly, let alone mention minimum wage, throughout his eight years of despotic rule.
Grapevine also reports that apart from nonpayment of minimum wage, Enugu State primary school teachers and local government workers, just as their counterparts in the civil service, have forgotten the last time gratuity was paid to their retired members. The PDP is indeed not a worker-friendly party and should be shunned by all workers in the state.