Three Principals and a Vice Principal of a Government-owned secondary school painfully died at the wake of a state-wide industrial action instituted by the Delta State Chapter of the Nigerian Union of Teachers (NUT).
They were involved in a fatal motor accident on their way to a teachers/government peace parlay meeting in Kwale geared towards calling off the state wide strike action.
Their death became a major state issue as the government immediately declared a mourning holiday in all public schools which hitherto were about resuming class work on Monday 27.
The governor had immediately sent condolence message to the NUT Delta State Chapter and All Nigeria Conference of Principals of Secondary Schools in the state over the tragic incident which occurred on Friday.
The strike had snarled on for weeks and just when the teachers’ union, led by Comrade Jonathan Jemirieyigbe, had made up their mind to accept the olive branch waved by government, four principals became sacrificial lambs.
They paid the supreme price fighting the cause of improved pay, and welfare perks for teachers and the return of their children and wards to classes for the Union, more than to government or the students.
Certainly, it is probably not the desire of the teachers that the strike should linger while their children suffer deprivation, especially those who were supposed to commence the West Africa Senior Certificate Examination (WASSCE) but when the Union says no backing out it becomes a dilemma for all (or perhaps not all of them since some of them gladly heeded an earlier order to return to class on Monday 20th).
So the teachers had died fighting more for the Union and for themselves, and less for the students whom they are primarily paid to tutored but in all of this the bulk of the blame rest on the shoulders of the state government that is constitutionally saddled with the responsibility of taking care of the welfare of its citizens.
The talk around town whether the state Government was not responsible for payment of primary school teachers’ salaries as enshrined in the 1999 constitution was a just a clear indictment on the government as lacking in management of humans and financial resources in the state.
Shockingly, Governor Ifeanyi Okowa also held on to this position said emphatically that the union leaders had misinformed their members about the current economic situation in the country which had grossly affected allocations accruing to the state and cost of governance in general.
After meeting with newly elected state chapter Chairman of Trade Union Congress (TUC), Comrade Michael Nwobodo, Governor Okowa had this to say about the strike –
“If anybody, leading a union or an association, wants to pretend that there is no change in the economy, such person will definitely be deceiving himself or will end up deceiving those that we lead and as leaders, we owe it a duty to tell the truth in the best of ways to those we lead because it is under that condition will they begin to find ways to adjust their thoughts towards issues of demand and welfare.”
For Okowa, misinformation by the NUT leaders to their members was the basic reason for the strike action, reiterating that primary school teachers were actually the responsibility of the Local Government Councils and not the state government. He was quick to add however that the state government have been liaising with the councils on how best to handle the payment of salaries to local government workers and the primary school teachers in the best interest of the state.
“There is this misinformation which continues to go out there that the primary school teachers are supposed to be paid by the state government; that is not true, it is a misinformation and when somebody who leads a union rises up to speak in a way that is not right to his people and by lying to them, then I get worried because as far back as the nineties, I know that the allocation going to local government councils was moved from 10percent to a little over 20. 6percent.
“The primary school teachers were moved to the local government councils and the state allocation which was over 30percent was then reduced to 20percent; but that did not stop us as a state from assisting when there is money to offer assistance.”
With these analogy, you might say the teachers were insensitive to the reality of the hard economic situations in the country but the fact is that successive governments and some other states of the federation have always managed the situation which is a constitutional matter, not peculiar to Delta State, so why should the Okowa-led state government stick so much to its guns that lives have to be wasted for it?
Was it possible for the state government to have used this particular sit-at-home action declared by the teachers to revert or even stop the situation where states have always had to argument allocations of local government councils to be able to take care of primary school teachers?
There have never been a time when government owns up to having so much finances to manage its current and capital expenditures – it has always be complaint of paucity of funds even in the days of oil boom – but one thing that is clear is that some states manage to survive through their marshal out plans that in the face of the challenges they throttled on the wheel of governance going forward.
However, poor media management by the governors’ handlers, attributed to the near embarrassing press, had always compounded the way the state government is running the state, otherwise how could a strike action which is a normal thing employees use to press home their grievances become so poorly managed that the opposition party in the state, APC would leverage on it to lambast the Governor for purportedly ‘killing’ the education section?.
At a time when tempers were still very high, one would have thought the state government would adopt an approach to calm nerves since negotiations was still on, but alas those saddled with responsibility to act on behalf of government inflamed the already tense situation by issuing intimidating public announcement that appear as though government could force an end to the strike action by the policy of ‘no work, no pay’.
Again, we got press statement of how the state government has placed security agencies on alert to man public schools following report of alleged harassment, intimidation and picketing of teachers and schools that had heeded to the government directive to return to classes. It appears the state government had wanted to force the strike to end by any means instead of returning to the negotiation table.
This was as a result of claims that government at the Joint Account Allocation Committee in conjunction with the various labour leaders agreed to the payment of 81 percent of salaries to local government staff and primary school teachers who were being owed nine months and two months salaries respectively but the state NUT Executive purportedly wanted to be taken care of to the detriment of the NULGE members.
If actually there was an agreement of such nature, which the Association of Local Governments of Nigeria, ALGON, Delta State Chapter’s Chairman, Sir Ithiako Ikpokpo also alluded to; why should the teachers union suddenly renege on these agreements or could it be that recent news of release of first and second tranches of Paris Club Refunds monies could have nudged them into demanding immediate clearance of their backlog?.
Ikpokpo was quoted to have backed the state government position when he said, “It is common knowledge that the present state of the nation’s economy has adversely affected the monthly allocation and other revenues of the local governments. It is important to note that primary school teachers and staff of the Local Government are beneficiaries of the statutory allocations of the local government.
“It is in the light of this obvious imbalance and the unimaginable hardship confronting staff of the local government, that ALGON, in consultation with the Joint Account Allocation Committee, JAAC, and other important stakeholders agreed on a pro-rata payment of salary for both primary school teachers and local government staff.
“It is therefore, incorrect for the state wing of the Executive Council of NUT to accuse JAAC of reducing teachers’ salaries to 81 per cent as stated in its communique of March 2, 2017. Explaining the agreement, he said, the pro-rata salary arrangement is a proportional payment of salaries across board. As the allocation of the local government continues to increase, issues of prompt and full payment of salaries would be given due and proper attention,” Ikpokpogri assured.
Even at that, it was bad that the teachers’ union had to sacrifice the examination of students to the altar of unionism when they could have possibly adopted a work-to-rule while negotiations continued with the state government instead of the sit-at-home approach which sadly led to the death of some of their colleagues.
It became even more worrisome when teachers had to go picketing schools that heeded to government call to end the strike action and constituting breach of public peace.
Obviously, with reports of release of second batch of the Paris Club refunds, even if the monies have not be made available to states, it should be clear enough that teachers and pensioners would agitate for their pay and government should envisage this and prepare for it, after all, Paris Club Refunds (or perhaps no Paris Club Refunds) government had already managed the situation and no death recorded for it.
What was not clear in all this is the alleged insinuations that government was saving money for election in 2019 but I don’t think a responsible government would do that, knowing fully well that teachers and council workers constitute the larger part of the voting population.
But who knows, it is also possible, they maybe, have used the teachers’ insistence of full pay as excuse to keep the money and use same at critical time when the chips are down.
However while I would commend the Governor on the long run for coming out himself to hold meeting with the teachers’ union from where a deal was eventually struck to end the strike, Governor Okowa’s delay in arresting the situation also fuelled the protracted crisis.
The governor must be seen as handling all issues as they break, even when duties are shared among Commissioners, the mien of the Governor in certain occasions will inflame or soothe the situation and this could have put credence to the fact that teachers and council worker’s welfare are top priority of the Okowa’s SMART agenda.
Written by Joe Ogbodu