• Monday, December 04, 2023
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BusinessDay

David Umahi’s baptism of fire

From his experience with the workers of his ministry, David Umahi has now realized that Abuja is not Abakaliki; and federal civil servants are not as docile as the workers in Ebonyi whom he treated shabbily with disrespect, disdain and humiliation for eight years. The minister must have picked up a few lessons in employee relations and the need to be empathetic to others.

I commend the workers in the federal ministry of works for making their points succinctly to the minister and I ask all former governors who are now ministers to learn a lesson or two from Umahi’s experience. The minister of works had arrived his office around 9.40 am on Thursday, September 28, and realized that most of the ministry’s civil servants were not in office. Typical of what many a governor would do, he ordered for the late comers to be locked out. If this had happened in Abakaliki or any other state capital, the workers would have begged, crawling on the floor and crying.

The governor would probably order them to be flogged; suspended or punished, depending on his mood. But the federal civil servants would have none of that. Instead, they barricaded the gates to the ministry, protesting the minister’s seeming highhandedness and challenging him to do his worst. A rowdy scene erupted at the gates, as nobody was allowed in and out. There were chants of ‘’Umahi must go’’. Suddenly, the minister became a prisoner in his office, locked in by his workers, whom he had locked out earlier. He did not see this coming.

The workers berated the minister for his impulsiveness without due consideration to their plight. They go to work from outside Abuja metropolis, some from as far as Niger State. Without proper mass transit services which all national capitals have; and with the recent hike in fuel price, commuting to work has become a nightmare, especially for low-income workers. When Umahi realized that the workers were not joking, he called for a truce and asked their leaders to come up to meet with him. They refused, and instead, asked him to come down to meet with them at the gate. He obliged, but the workers went further to ask for his apology for his overbearingness. He did. The spokesman for the workers told the minister, “this is not a state; this is the federal capital. You should respect us…’’. Umahi looked visibly shaken, humiliated and dishevelled.

Never before in his long career in politics and public service has he been this subdued by his workers. ‘’We expect the minister to show better understanding of the situation in the country, instead of trying to run this place like Ebonyi State’’, one of the workers told the press. The revolt of the workers was a clear indication that if pushed to the wall, Nigerians will take their fate in their own hands. It is likely that if the minister had not quickly pacified the workers, something drastic would have happened. It is a lesson to the other big men of Abuja.

As governor of Ebonyi for eight years, Umahi was notorious for abusing, harassing and terrorizing workers and the people of that state. In October last year, he was inspecting construction work at the Ebonyi airport, Onueke, when suddenly he realized that some workers were late to work. Umahi ordered the workers to sit on the floor while his guards (police and soldiers) started whipping them on his orders. It was a scene reminiscent of how slaves were treated in cotton farms in Europe and the Americas over 400 years ago. In October 2019, Umahi ordered the arrest of some motorists whom he claimed had blocked his motorcade on the road. They were mourners returning from a funeral.

The following day at a public event in the Government House, the governor bellowed out, ‘’Next time, the ADC should order for them to be shot. It is very illegal to block a governor; and if anybody is killed in the course of that, it is allowed in the law’’. During the COVID-19 lockdown, the governor ordered security men at the state’s isolation centre to gun down anybody who tried to leave the centre. In addition, he instructed that those who do not wear mask should be arrested and flogged publicly.

I recall also the case of a journalist with The Sun newspaper, Chijioke Agwu, who wrote a report on the outbreak of Lassa fever in Ebonyi in 2020. Umahi did not like the report, and he instantly ordered for the arrest and detention of the reporter. After his release, the governor banished him, together with Peter Okutu of Vanguard newspaper, from entering Ebonyi State. There was outrage nationwide, but the governor couldn’t care less. He soon issued a fatwa against the press: ‘’If you think you have the pen, we have the koboko. Let’s leave the court alone; Ebonyi people are very angry with the press, and let me warn that I won’t be able to control them, or know when they unleash mayhem on you if you continue to write to create panic in the state’’.

Read also: Why FG won’t allow asphalt for Third Mainland Bridge renovation – Umahi

David Umahi has been in politics and public service for a good part of his working life. He’s been PDP Chairman in Ebonyi; Deputy Governor; Governor and recently a senator. He has become very rich; and with his fabulous wealth, he can get away with anything. But in Abuja, he will have a tough time continuing with his authoritative and arrogant conduct. Civil servants are well protected from harassments, highhandedness and the imperiousness of their bosses by the Public Service Rules; Trade Disputes Act; ILO Conventions; ILO Declarations and Principles on the Right of Work and ILO Declaration on Safe and Healthy Working Environment. In our public service, lateness to work only attracts a query. Even then, it must be ‘’a habitual lateness’’ to attract a query; and in any case, it is not the minister that is expected to deal out any punishment to the workers. This is where the Head of the Civil Service of the Federation should come in and update the ministers on how the civil service works.

The minister’s baptism of fire is a wake-up call to other ministers, especially former governors, who are used to high-level impunity. Nigerians are facing the most excruciating living conditions since the end of the civil war. Many can no longer afford to drive their cars to work due to high fuelling costs. While some make do with the unreliable public transport, others walk long distances to get to, and return from work. Some are unable to provide for their families. They are hungry and angry, and any unjustified provocation from any minister or politician may easily result in a combustible explosion. Public officials should therefore be more empathetic, sympathetic and understanding of the plights of ordinary workers and Nigerians. The FCT administration under Mr. Nyesom Wike will have to provide adequate bus service for the residents of Abuja. This was a common sight in the city during the el Rufai administration. I think Wike can repeat that. Across the states, the governors should also take steps to ameliorate the sufferings in the land by providing bus service for the low-income workers and students.