Mahmud Jega

WAITING UNTIL THEY DIE, By: Mahmud Jega

Should our society show appreciation to and reward the hard work of millions of citizens in various underpaid and under appreciated sectors, or should we wait for them to die and then receive their rewards in heaven? I was thinking of a 1972 White House memo during the Richard Nixon administration. A low-level staffer on the Congressional Liaison Office wrote a memo to his immediate boss, saying a certain Senator was dying in hospital. He suggested that President Nixon should phone and sympathise with him.

The memo landed on Chief of Staff Robert ‘Bob’ Haldeman’s desk. Ever the cold calculator, Haldeman decided that if the Senator was dying, then it was a waste of presidential time to phone him. Instead, it would be more advantageous politically for the president to phone his widow after the senator’s death, so Haldeman minuted on the memo, “Wait until he dies.”

Nigerian school teachers have been waiting for decades to go to heaven where they will get their reward for working very hard to bring up our children to be responsible members of the society. They live in shanties, trek to school come rain come shine, make do with dilapidated classrooms and pupils sitting on the floor, always borrow money ahead of payment of their salary, which is meager; and they tolerate in-laws looking down upon them when they go to look for wives.

Last week, at long last, government promised to make amends and rolled out a package that, if implemented, will redress a historic societal injustice. “If” it is implemented. It is a very big “if” because in order for teachers to enjoy this promise, we need to pass a law, get the buy-in of state and local governments, reorder national priorities, make budgetary provisions, release the budgeted monies, and protect it from being misappropriated at various levels.

Meanwhile, university lecturers are waiting, not so much for heavenly reward but for their small salaries here on earth. There was this very touching letter to the Daily Trust editor from Prof Shehu Abdullahi, who said he has served ABU Zaria for 43 years, 31 of them as a professor, 5 of them as Vice Chancellor, only to receive only his basic salary through IPPIS, and that was months ago. Not only have lecturers not been paid for months, but the Accountant General of the Federation upped the ante last week by saying those not enrolled on IPPIS would be thrown out of the payroll altogether from next month.

I think ASUU made a tactical mistake with this strike’s timing. Why insist on striking during the pandemic and lockdown? Hundreds of thousands of civil servants have been at home for months, collecting their salaries. If lecturers had not been on strike, they would also have enjoyed a full seven months’ paid holiday courtesy of the pandemic. Anyway, the shortcomings of IPPIS that ASUU pointed out are grave, but it is not impossible for a few IT technicians to rectify them and get the lecturers working again. What is happening now is terrible; it is worse than waiting for reward in heaven. The President and the Minister should accelerate the search for a solution, while ASUU leaders should also retreat from their habit of making every fight an existential one.

There are other people who are waiting for our society to reward them here on Earth. Farmers, for example. Without the back breaking labour of millions of our farmers over several centuries, in the rain and under the hot sun, suffering injury from sharp implements and risking snake bite in the bushes, we all would have starved to death by now. Certainly we wouldn’t have had the energy to multiply to our current numbers. The colonialists wouldn’t even have bothered to come here if their early scouts Mungo Park, Henry Bath and Hugh Clapperton had found us writhing with hunger. Yet, middlemen and agricultural merchants reap all the benefits of farming and leave the farmers themselves high and dry.

Fishermen are also waiting for their reward here. Even though we humans are terrestrial, these men and women dive into rivers, streams, lakes, estuaries, lagoons and even the sea, to bring out fish for us to eat. Apart from the deep and fast flowing currents, their fishing boats sometimes capsize and they often encounter underwater thorns, spiny fish, electric eels, crocs, hippos, clams, giant squids and poisonous jellyfish. Yet, a few “fishing moguls” feed fat on all that labour. Time to reward fishermen right here on earth.

Spare a thought for herders. There are millions of upright pastoral cattle herders in Nigeria but their name has been utterly spoilt by the hundreds or even thousands of their kin who in recent years took to kidnapping, banditry and mindless killing. If all we have been eating in Nigeria for centuries had been grain and tubers, without the meat and milk that pastoralists supplied, we would have all been too malnourished to hold the flagstaff when Lord Lugard hoisted the Union Jack. For centuries these men and women crisscrossed the entire region, successfully navigated their way without maps or compasses, identified edible grasses without the aid of botanists, and found cure for cattle diseases without vets. Must they first go to heaven before they get the correct payment for ponmo?

Never mind the excesses of the now disbanded SARS. Police men and women in Nigeria should get their reward here on earth before we all go to heaven. We tend to believe that our cops in Nigeria are ineffective, sloppy and corrupt. Remove them from the scene for an experimental one week and let us see how many burglaries, muggings, robberies, kidnappings, fights, commercial disputes, child abuses, landlord ejections and violent marital disputes would go unsolved within the period. People are in charge of our security, but all we do is to scoff and jeer and look down upon them. National Assembly, please amend the Police Act and allow policemen to go on strike. There will be another nationwide protest, this time with the hashtag #End Police Strike.

Spare a thought for the watchman, the lowliest of all house helps. In every Nigerian mansion, the watchman’s quarters are the crampiest and least hospitable. His food is often a leftover; his family usually lives hundreds of miles away in a village; his monthly take home pay isn’t enough to take him home to see them. Yet, home folks often shout at him to open the gate in a hurry lest they miss a favourite television program. Without the security the watchman provides, the family will sleep with their eyes wide open. Must he die first before he gets his reward?

Spare another thought for soldiers. Maybe we lost respect and pity for them because in the 29 years when their senior officers ruled Nigeria, soldiers carried themselves around as Lords and Conquerors. Otherwise, why do many Nigerians seem to think that there is nothing to it if a soldier is killed? Many Nigerians think that joining the army is the same thing as enrolling in a suicide squad. There is little public pressure on government to provide troops with the weapons, vehicles, kits, gear, gadgets and welfare necessary to overpower enemies and return home unscathed. Sloppy, egotistic and impatient though we think they are, without soldiers, we would all be paying allegiance to Shekau by now. They deserve a piece of their reward here on earth.

If you have any more thought to spare, spare it for house helps in Nigeria. They now number in the millions. Every middle- and upper-class household has house helps, often many of them, including cooks, butlers, nannies, washmen, drivers, gatemen and watchmen. They are recruited from rural areas and homes of the urban poor. Even though they are the single largest labour sector in Nigeria today, NLC does not represent them. They have no union and no collective bargaining. They are left out of the Minimum Wage Act and they suffer untold abuse, including rape. Must they first die and expect to be rewarded in heaven?

Monday Column, October 12, 2020.

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