By Victor Ahiuma-Young & Johnbosco Agbakwuru
The disagreement between Organised Labour and the Minister of Labour and Employment, Chris Ngige, over the replacement of Chief Frank Ovie Kokori as the Chairman of the Nigeria Social Insurance Trust Fund, NSITF, yesterday degenerated into violence as suspected thugs attacked and injured labour leaders, and others at the private residence of the Minister of Labour.
Nine of the protesters are currently receiving treatment at the Trauma section of the National Hospital, Abuja.
The injured unionists have also given statements to the police after the FCT Commissioner of Police and Director of Department of State Security DSS, visited them at the hospital, while some police officers mounted security at the time of this report.
A woman who was a victim of the alleged thugs’ attack refused to either identify herself or speak to journalists.
She, however, said that her husband would make an official statement on that.
The picketing of the minister’s private residence by the labour was said to have started about 5 am with two petroleum tankers used to block the entrance and exit points of the house.
According to the source, all efforts to get the labour leaders to remove the trucks proved abortive as they insisted on the picketing.
Security sources had informed that the picketing took the Minister unaware and he left the house through a different means with only one car.
It was gathered that more activists joined the picketing at 7.30, but security personnel from the Police, DSS, Nigeria Security and Civil Defence Corps, NSCDC, prevented them from gaining access to the minister’s residence.
Trouble was said to have started an hour later after some people suspected to be thugs stormed the Minister’s residence in a white Toyota Hiace bus, dressed in black attire with an inscription on some of their shirts “Police Swat”.
Some of the others later came from another side of the street and joined them armed with stones, sticks, bottles and another weapon with which they descended on the picketers.
At this point, the Police, DSS and NSCDC personnel watched helplessly while the thugs beat up the picketers.
The suspected thugs damaged vehicles belonging to NLC, in the melee.
Recall that NLC had given the Minister of Labour ultimatum to inaugurate the NSITF board with the veteran unionist, Chief Kokori as chairman before Workers Day, May 1.
Labour had rejected the replacement of the name of Chief Kokori with his kinsman Austin Isere and accused the Minister of orchestrating the crisis for selfish interest.
Wabba threatens more action
NLC at a briefing in Abuja Tuesday threatened to embark on many actions to compel the Minister to inaugurate the board including picketing the Minister.
Speaking after the attack, Wabba called on President Buhari to intervene, describing the attack on labour leaders and others as barbaric.
Wabba also confirmed that the nine persons were injured in the attack and had been taken to the National Hospital for treatment.
He equally informed that the Commissioner of Police and the Director, Department of State Services, DSS had visited the victims at the hospital.
According to him, “the act today (Wednesday) is barbaric, where maximum force has been used upon workers and live bullets used on them. Whereas workers went with bare hands, the thugs were carrying weapons and arms. As I talk to you, we have nine people in the hospital apart from those that were injured by bullets.”
Wabba threatened that the NLC would invite more workers to continue the protest, saying, ”we are going invite our largest organ by tomorrow. We are also going to decide on a larger scale of action. He has no reason to be called Minister of Labour. He is a lord of his own and therefore instead of protecting us, he is against us.
“Therefore we have nothing to do with him and under the circumstance, except Mr President Muhammadu Buhari intervenes; workers are going to down-tools. That is why we are calling our Central Working Committee, CWC. It has never been so bad where Minister of Labour will bring thugs to attack workers. That has never been heard. It is on record and everybody has seen it.
“That is our position and now we are here to demonstrate and also to show that we are not happy. Therefore Mr President must act on this immediately. Workers voted and supported him. Ngige cannot in any circumstance assume the power of the president. That cannot be the case.”
However, the Minister in a statement through Special Assistant, Media, Nwachukwu Obidiwe, denied any attack by suspected thugs.
According to the statement “The private residence of the Hon. Minister of labour and Employment, Sen. Chris Ngige was early this morning (4 a.m.) invaded by the President of the Nigerian Labour Congress, Comrade Ayuba Wabba and his members These members among who are tanker drivers, some with ferocious looks, also barricaded the gate to the resident of the Hon. Minister with two long trucks. They chanted war songs and prevented the Hon. Minister, his wife, children and other aides from either leaving or gaining access to the compound.
“Comrade Wabba later left and returned with re-enforcement. The presence of these strange faces and mounting war songs sent heavy panic on the family members, especially children and female aides who thought the sudden early morning assemblage were of the underworld. Some of these unknown faces and the two tanker lorries blocking the entrance to the house are still there as I send this press statement. “I, therefore, wish to state that contrary to reports being mischievously circulated in the media by the NLC President, the Hon. Minister, family members who are still in great trauma and his staff members did not invite thugs, have no knowledge of it, or have a hand in the alleged manhandling of any worker.”