Last week Thursday, David Umahi, Nigeria’s Minister of Works locked out several workers of his ministry for reportedly resuming late to work. For over 5 hours there was confusion in and around the ministry as the workers in turn locked all entrances into the ministry thereby stopping the minister from getting out of his office. Since his appointment a few months back, Umahi has been one of the few ministers seen in different parts of the country carrying supervision to the point of assignment.
Like his predecessor, Babatunde Fashola, he has been actively engaged in the inspection of federal projects in parts of the country. Unfortunately, workers at the ministry of Works do not appear to have bought into the aggressive posture of minister Umahi to promptly deliver on the promises of the new administration. While some of the workers reportedly have the habit of coming late to work, many others have been found to close early from work making it difficult for the minister to get relevant information for pursuing certain assignments.
The battle between the minister and his workers which we hear was later resolved brought to the fore several issues affecting Nigeria’s development. First, what gives workers who came late to work the audacity to question their indictment? Are those good workers? This question presupposes that there is a failure on the part of the ministry to provide an enabling environment for the workers to resume work early every day. But then, how come it is the minister himself who is essentially the political head that is personally responsible for the supervision of staff who have units, sectional and divisional heads?
Where were such heads that day? What this second question suggests is that the ministry is not functioning appropriately. In others words, the use of a ministry to achieve the goals of government is not institutionalized. Otherwise, it is not the minister that should handle staff matters. The minister did what he did because Nigeria is yet to move away from the strong men philosophy to that of strong societal institutions.
In advanced democracies, what keeps society going is strong institutions that are always on hand to ensure the survival of society – that has been the fortune of the United States which our people are used to citing. In a country where a leader becomes ungovernable as Donald Trump sought to be after his defeat at the last American presidential elections, it was the nation’s strong institutions that held him in check. Except Nigerians assiduously purse the strategy, they will continue to have strong men who get into office and hold every other person including the constitution hostage. Against the background of the antecedents of David Umahi, especially in his days as Ebonyi state governor, he is not likely to be one of those to help the country escape from the notion of strong men who in the guise of governance operate as tyrants and dictators. Umahi as governor exercised so much power, that he once arrested a caterer for preparing poor food for a state party.
It is indeed difficult to forget in a hurry how David Umahi operated as governor of Ebonyi state. It is not only that he did not tolerate criticisms, he quite often criminalised political dissent, now and again personally directing the arrest of supposed offenders in the state. He even on one occasion expelled two journalists from operating in the state. Like most governors, he pocketed the legislature and the law enforcement agents in his state. During the Coronavirus pandemic, the state house of assembly made an omnibus law titled ‘Coronavirus and Other Dangerous Infectious Diseases & Related Matters Law 005’ of 2020 under which Umahi locked up a journalist for reporting the outbreak of Lassa fever in Ebonyi state. The journalist was promptly arrested by the police on the orders of the then governor Umahi. However, the relevant medium declined to retract the report because it was a public interest story sourced directly form the Nigerian Centre for Disease Control NCDC.
Umahi was not alone in the business of power monopoly in his days as governor, there were others who locked up critics for allegedly insulting certain leaders. In 2020, the police in Katsina state arrested 3 persons for allegedly using the social media to insult former president Buhari and ex-governor Masari. In other climes, leaders ignored such lowly-placed critics because leaders ought not to have such time for the poor who show anger over their poverty. It was perhaps the only option opened to them to ventilate their grievances by insulting their leaders. In Cross River State where former governor Ben Ayade could be described as pettier than others, the law enforcement agents were instigated to lock-up one critic for insulting a relation of the governor. Painfully, when these executive-induced arrests are made, the accused are locked up without trial until the relevant excellency feels satisfied. Under the circumstance, the claim that we are a democracy is false. The point to be made is that the institutions of government must be allowed ample discretion to meet their mandates according to the rule of law.
When a powerful office holder takes the law into his hands, it is hardly possible for other bodies to work harmoniously with him. It is hoped that at the ministry of works, where minister Umahi purportedly played the role of senior prefect the other day, he did not come along to the ministry with some personal aides who may have since distorted the established processes and procedures in the ministry by usurping the functions of the regular staff. What usually happens from experience is that such aides are placed at strategic points where they determine who sees or does not see the minister. In many cases, such aides take over the work of the official staff such as secretary and others who are then rendered redundant. Such a practice is in fact part of the grand design to consolidate the strong-man philosophy. Of course this would be counter-productive as some staff will begin to work at cross-purposes with usurpers whom they see as the powerful agents of the minister.
The situation is more complicated in government parastatals which a minister is expected to supervise especially in the absence of a Board of Directors. The term ‘mother-ministry’ which evolved some years back is what is used to make parastatals virtually accountable to everyone in the relevant ministry. In my days as the Director General of the National Orientation Agency NOA, Information Minister Jerry Gana only gave me financial support rather than take over my role as the Chief Mobiliser of the federation for every government activity such elections and the national identity card project. This enabled me to execute my functions without hindrance. In 2002, I organized a rally in Ado Ekiti where all political parties, traditional rulers and leaders of thought were brought together to openly reach an agreement to eschew political violence in the coming elections. The next day, the minister sent me a letter of commendation and a presidential directive for a similar rally to hold at government expense in the other 5 geopolitical zones.
The story of support has since changed in several agencies. In the last 8 years, ministers complicate the work of agencies. Although the National Broadcasting Commission NBC would for decency sake not openly indict the supervising minister of information, it was obvious that the strong-man tactics of former minister Lai Mohammed would more than any other thing account for the draconian approach of the NBC to broadcast stations featuring daily fines and threats of revocation of licenses. Now that the current Information Minister is a tested journalist, government is more likely to enjoy greater professional service from the public media as distinct from the timidity of the last 8 years. As former minister Frank Nweke Jnr would attest, giving ample room to the NTA to perform well did not derogate from his elevated position, rather, it enhanced it. Such an approach leaves societal institutions viable and strong in the interest of continuity in the service to society. Umahi should try it at the ministry of works.