…Minister Umahi, by his altercation with the workers in the Works Ministry, has not changed his ways. But he needs to or how does he intend to minister to the needs of Nigerians if he continues to be lawless?
IT was a short honeymoon. I expected it to be so. The Minister of Works, Senator David ‘Dave’ Nweze Umahi, was just 38 days in office when the staff of the Ministry publicly demanded his removal.
Hundreds of workers at the Ministry’s gates on Thursday, September 28, 2023 shouted “Umahi must go!”as they protested his perceived dictatorial tendencies.
Minister Umahi had that morning, as a disciplinary measure, instructed that the gates of the Ministry be shut against workers he claimed came late. After some hours, he directed that the gates be opened. He might have expected the staff to be grateful. Rather, the workers in retaliation locked the Minister in. They accused him of high-handedness, bringing in consultants to do civil service jobs, refusing to meet the unions and violating the Public Service Rules by locking out workers.
First, the Minister’s action is illegal. Section 18(1) of the Trade Disputes Act states that: “An employer shall not declare or take part in a lock-out…”
Secondly, no law or rule in the country empowers a minister to directly carry out disciplinary actions against a civil servant. Thirdly, the Public Service Rules which govern the workers have no provision for collective discipline of staff when they might not have been guilty of the same offence or in the same degree.
Fourthly, the offence for which Umahi purported to be punishing the workers is classified as ‘Misconduct’ under Section 3 of the Public Service Rules. According to that section: “Misconduct is defined as a specific act of wrong-doing or an improper behaviour which is inimical to the image of the service and which can be investigated and proved.” Umahi had neither investigated nor shown any proof that the workers were guilty of misconduct.
In fact, the rule states on lateness that the civil servant can be queried for “habitual lateness to work” not for a one-off lateness. In which case, the affected staff would have been a habitual latecomer, would be issued verbal, and later written query. The Rule says: “The query should be precise and to the point. It must relate to the circumstances of the offence, the rule and regulation which the officer has broken and the likely penalty.” The officer must be given the right to respond to the query, and if his response is found to be unsatisfactory, then disciplinary action is contemplated. Even at that, the officer to be disciplined by a Ministry has the right to appeal to the Federal Civil Service Commission.
When Umahi realised that the matter was getting out of hand, he sent messages that the workers’ representatives should come up to his office. They refused, saying if he wanted to talk, he should come down to address them at the barricaded entrance.
After a cumulative five-hour stand-off and Minister Umahi could not leave to attend to other matters, including receiving a visitor said to be a serving governor, the Minister obliged. He went down and called for a truce.
What the workers in the Ministry have done is to insist that their Minister, or indeed, any minister for that matter, should respect the rules and respect the staff in as much as they are also obliged to respect him.
When Umahi was appointed Works Minister, I knew that if he had not repented his ways, he would soon clash with the staff.
In the first paragraph of my October 11, 2022 column titled, ‘Umahi: Impunity, falsehood and denials as governance.’ I had written that he “reminds me of the colonial District Officer who was a law unto himself. I know Abakaliki, the state capital was a major centre for slave trade four centuries ago, but Umahi governs the state as if it were still a slave colony where people have no rights.”
The column was based on the strange behaviour of Umahi as Governor of Ebonyi State. On Tuesday, October 4, 2022, during an inspection of work at the Ebonyi Airport, Onueke, he claimed some civil servants came late to work. The alleged latecomers were forced to sit on the road while soldiers in Umahi’s convoy whipped them with horsewhip. When the scandal broke, Umahi while not denying that he got the workers whipped, claimed the victims were not civil servants, but “miscreants”. I had pointed out that flogging is not in the civil service rules and that even if the civil servants turned out to be miscreants, they deserve their day in court rather than Umahi constituting himself into the prosecutor, counsel, judge and appeal court.
On October 4, 2019 Umahi’s convoy was temporarily blocked by mourners in Onicha; he got them arrested. Then next day at a public function in the Government House, Abakaliki, he gave a chilling directive: “Next time the ADC should order for a shoot. It is very illegal to block the governor. And if anybody is killed in the course of that, it is allowed in the law.”
He gave a similar directive in March, 2020, during the COVID-19 lockdown when 37 persons were arrested and quarantined for disobeying the COVID-19 lockdown order. He directed the security men at the isolation centres to shoot any of those arrested who may try to escape.
Also, during the period, it was mandatory for everybody in the country to wear face masks. But there were some people violating the directive. In Ebony State, Umahi directed that all those caught without face mask should be seized and caned publicly.
Umahi as the law in Ebonyi State detained without trial, the Sun Newspaper reporter, Chijioke Agwu, for allegedly publishing in the newspaper’s April 17, 2020 issue an inaccurate report on Lassa fever outbreak in the state.
He later set the journalist free, but banned him and Peter Okutu of Vanguard Newspapers for life from entering any government facility in the state. He forgot that he himself could not be governor for life. Three days later, he got Mr Okutu detained for allegedly being “fond of degrading Ebonyi State”.
Umahi told journalists that they would not be given the right to trial under the country’s laws: “If you think you have the pen, we have the ‘koboko’(cow hide whip). 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.”
Clearly, Minister Umahi, by his altercation with the workers in the Works Ministry, has not changed his ways. But he needs to or how does he intend to minister to the needs of Nigerians if he continues to be lawless?