This Inexhaustible National Cake, By Aniebo Nwamu

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Aniebo Nwamu
Aniebo Nwamu

Everywhere you turn in Nigeria, there’s a drama of the absurd to watch. The issue of the national minimum wage is one of them. An assembly of former and current leaders of the country (the Council of State) has prescribed N27,000 while the House of Representatives has “debated” and passed N30,000 as minimum wage (MW).

All have been playing politics, it seems. And leaders of organised labour are the greater politicians: their motive is not to achieve better conditions of service for Nigerian workers or the wellbeing of the common man. The whole MW affair is a fraud, and, like all frauds, it is meant to cause trouble. Otherwise, I don’t understand why a piece of legislation that cost several months of “hard work” and incredible billions of naira has become non-implementable: many state governments that accepted to pay N18,000 about eight years ago have yet to comply, and now a higher amount is being imposed on them.  They can’t pay until the revenue allocation formula is altered in their favour. Labour could go on indefinite strike, if it likes!

 The noise about MW has become deafening. Somebody should call the noisemakers to order. In fact, they have already put all of us in trouble. Landlords, transport operators and traders have been listening to the announcements with keener interest. Prices of goods and services have been going up, but the real trouble will come when the implementation of the so-called MW begins.

More worrying is that government employees make up less than 10% of Nigerian workers. For now, nobody’s attention is on the private sector – there will be no opportunity to negotiate with private-sector employers anyway. So, those that are outside the civil/public service (90%) have no hope of earning the MW, though all of us go to the same markets. The truth is that, in the informal sector of the economy, many self-employed people and their employees earn less than N18,000 per month. When the new MW comes into effect, these underemployed workers may choose between becoming poorer and becoming jobless; there will be no Labour Congress to negotiate on their behalf. And we have not even mentioned the unemployed – some 80million school leavers and unskilled labourers who are still roaming the streets or filling forms at the Civil Service Commission in search of non-existent jobs.

It might be easy to implement the MW as soon as the naira gets devalued again. It’s N360 to the dollar now, thanks to interventions by the Central Bank with billions of dollars so far. When the naira is floated, the exchange rate is likely to hit N1,000 to the dollar. Who will be benefitting from the MW when a loaf of bread will cost N1,000? By the time some global financial institutions finish with Nigeria, N50,000 would not be able to purchase a bag of rice. The myopic labour leaders had better start negotiating for N1million as MW from 2021!

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In any case, there are many ways to kill a rat. The federal and state governments can decide to pay the MW now and still get by. They could sack 80% of their workers almost immediately. Under Obasanjo, it was “right-sizing” or downsizing that eliminated over 120,000 jobs. Those who earn obscene salaries and allowances in the NNPC, CBN, NDIC, and as lawmakers or other political appointees might endure a salary cut.

Labour might oppose mass retrenchment but it can’t prevent government from laying off all those that have violated the Civil Service Rules: “evil” servants that lied under oath — those that falsified their age or their certificate. If all the civil servants in Nigeria were subjected to MRI tests, I’m sure it would be discovered that 80% lied about their age. Indolence, fraud and redundancy could also be given as reasons for sacking many. Stories about missing files, “Oga no dey” and “Madam is not on seat” would end when professionals take over the civil service.

Our civil/public servants have been enjoying a form of social security scheme, that is, they’ve been getting paid for not doing any work. All of us deserve to enjoy the scheme, however. Were the government and labour leaders sincere, they would have reduced the MW to N15,000 and then accommodated more people – the unemployed, the unemployable, the physically and mentally challenged, the elderly and the indigent. After all, everything in Nigeria is about sharing the commonweal. Each of the lawmakers that passed the MW bill, for instance, earns a minimum of N15million monthly for doing nothing. Today we have 40-something ministers, each with special advisers, senior special assistants and personal advisers. Former, current and future “militants” in the Niger Delta are earning N60,000 monthly under an “amnesty” programme; and some opinion leaders are asking that the same be extended to Boko Haram members in the north. What a country!

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No other nation, I presume, can withstand such deadly assaults. I started hearing about the “national cake” while I was a boy in primary school over 45 years ago. That “cake” has yet to finish, even though the aim of everybody – Nigerians and foreigners – has been to get a piece of it since then. Nobody bothers to bake the cake. And that reminds me of a Freudian slip committed by then head of state General Yakubu Gowon in 1974: “Nigeria’s problem is not money but what to do with money.” That we’ve endured all deadly assaults to the treasury is proof that this cake is inexhaustible indeed.

Over the years Gowon has struggled to give the correct interpretation of that statement. But he need not deny anything. It was the naked truth put into his mouth perhaps by an unseen voice. The author of a novel I read 18 years ago – I’ve forgotten his name but he was a lecturer at the University of Nigeria – lends Gowon support. He writes something like this: “Nobody works in Nigeria. Everybody is just struggling to get a share of the oil wealth of the country…”

Little wonder General Ibrahim Babangida, as military president, once expressed surprise that the Nigerian economy had not collapsed. Twenty-seven years after that statement, Nigeria remains more than a miracle in progress. But never far away is a reminder of our wastefulness and corruption: the existence of too many poor people in a very rich nation.

Labour’s agitation should be for good governance that has eluded this country. Ironically, civil servants have been the accomplices of politicians that have been looting public funds. Some own estates and pay their children’s fees in hard currency in America and England. Such evil “servants” don’t really need the minimum wage.

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Not Minister Adamu’s Business

Every minister of education in the last 15 years or so has issued statements condemning the existence of “fake” or “illegal” universities in the country. But rather than disappear, the “illegal” universities have multiplied. The current education minister, Mr Adamu Adamu, has just joined the chorus. He has warned that graduates from those varsities would be holding empty papers as certificates and wouldn’t be eligible for the NYSC or jobs. 
Where there is a law, it should be obeyed or enforced.  But some laws are not enforceable: the warning to avoid non-accredited primary and secondary schools has always been given, yet the majority of schools in Lagos, Abuja and other big cities today are not accredited. The number of “fake” universities is equally huge now – it perhaps exceeds that of “genuine” federal and state varsities put together.

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Many varsities, polytechnics and colleges of education are labelled “illegal” or “fake” because they have not been validated by the National Universities Commission (NUC) or its equivalent.  Maybe their promoters have not paid the right fees! NUC’s interest is not in the quality of education students receive there. If it were not so, not even the “legal” or accredited tertiary institutions would still be standing.

It might be necessary to relax the law as it pertains to setting up private schools. Let everyone who can design curricula and hire appropriate teachers be allowed to do so. Maybe they will be able to run the educational institutions we need now – schools that will enable their students to acquire skills needed by employers. The wrong schools won’t survive because they won’t have students. I believe in the efficacy of market forces.

Minister Adamu spoke as if anybody worries about the NYSC anymore. And where are the jobs to be picked by graduates from the legal universities anyway?  He and the government he represents should simply advise young people to avoid unaccredited institutions. But he should never unleash security operatives or EFCC on the schools. Let the market be the judge. Whether one would be excluded from the NYSC or government jobs shouldn’t be Adamu’s business. It is the business of those who choose to attend only approved varsities to seek information from JAMB, NUC and other regulators.

Proliferation of tertiary schools is inevitable. Less than 20% of 1.6million UTME candidates secure admission each year, and Adamu has yet to offer the rest (about 1.3million young people) valuable advice.  He has yet to improve his own “legal” universities one bit. Otherwise, ASUU wouldn’t be on strike for a half of every academic year, and the accredited varsities wouldn’t be finding illiterates and criminals “worthy in character and learning” at graduation ceremonies every year.

•Nwamu, book editor and writer, is the CEO of Eyeway.ng.

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