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Gabriel Ajah

17.05.2024 Featured How Gabriel Ajah, Enugu SUBEB Chairman, Fired 5 Primary School Teachers for Requesting Pay Raise From Governor

Published 17th May, 2024

By Timileyin Akinmoyeje

In March 2024, five primary school teachers were dismissed by the Enugu State Universal Basic Education Board (ENSUBEB) for alleged misconduct, insubordination and violation of public service rules.

Gabriel Ajah, the ENSUBEB chairman, had publicly revealed that the five teachers were found guilty of some allegations by the board and dismissed accordingly.

But aside from being primary school teachers, the dismissed teachers also had another thing in common. They had all publicly called out to Peter Mbah, the Enugu State Governor, to increase the salaries of primary school teachers in the state a month before the dismissal.

Peter Mbah listened to the agitations and ordered the implementation of N30,000 as the minimum wage for civil servants in the state, in line with the directive given by the federal government in 2019.

FIJ deduced that the similarities between the dismissed civil servants and the timing of the dismissal were too poignant to ignore. Through interviews with the affected civil servants, FIJ gathered that the dismissals might be a vendetta against these teachers for calling the attention of the governor to the wage problem.

In interviews with FIJ, the civil servants also made other interesting revelations about the veracity of the allegations and the efforts they had made to plead their case with the ENSUBEB since their dismissal in March.

WHERE IT ALL BEGAN

Natasha Uju was employed as a level 7 worker to teach primary school pupils in 2019 with a starting income of N32,000 monthly. That year, Nigeria averaged an 11.40 percent headline inflation rate and a 14.67 percent food inflation rate.

By the time it was 2023, headline inflation had spiralled to 24.66 percent on average, and the average food inflation had increased to 27.96 percent. Meanwhile, Uju and primary school teachers like her did not record any significant pay increase in this timeframe.

This is how Uju described the change in her pay structure between 2019 and 2023:

“We were employed at level seven, step three. We were paid N32,000 every month. And with every promotion, N1,000 is added. I was supposed to move up to level eight after three years.

“But I have gone for the promotional exam twice, and I haven’t been promoted, so there was no increment in my salary. In 2023, they started paying N37,000 after some adjustments were made to the pay structure of BSC holders in level seven, step six.”

It was against this backdrop of a skyrocketing cost of living and static income that Uju and other teachers began to attempt to negotiate for higher pay through planned protests and other means they considered available to them.

The move, however, was neither Uju’s sole decision nor her initiative. She credited it to a digital community of Enugu-based primary school teachers she led.

“We, primary school teachers, have a WhatsApp community where we share ideas. We share our plights, progress and lesson notes, among others. We also have some sort of leadership to ensure that the group runs smoothly,” she said.

“We planned a protest at a time. The NUT, the union fighting for primary school teachers, called us and gave us a paper that we should not go on strike. We assumed that the government had agreed to pay us the money the way they were paying others. But when we resumed work, it was as if nothing happened, and the money was not paid. So, teachers kept complaining.”

READ ALSO: Peter Mbah Signs N100b MoU With Four-Day-Old Company

THE AGITATIONS

Following the suspension of the planned protest and the concerned agencies taking action, the complaints about pay began snowballing again in the teachers’ online community, according to Uju. This was close to the Enugu State gubernatorial elections.

“We started agitating that we had done interviews and our salaries should have increased. During the election period, especially, the primary school teachers started agitating that they wouldn’t vote for the PDP government despite our plea and despite working tediously,” said Uju.

“Some teachers even handle two classes, unlike in secondary school, where a teacher is assigned to a subject. Also, we sometimes compared our working conditions with those in secondary schools. Despite being at the same level, they receive more salaries than us.”

“At some point, I had to complain to the government and the current governor because I think he believes in education. I promised the teachers in our online community that we’d take action if nothing was done, and they took my word for it.”

Uju noted the efforts of the government to cushion the effects of fuel subsidy removal. While the money did not do much to change the fortunes of the teachers, it helped them manage the blowback from the subsidy removal at some point in 2023.

“When the present government started and the fuel subsidy was removed, things started getting difficult. At some point, we couldn’t go to school again due to a hike in transportation fares. At some point, we even purchased some lesson materials ourselves,” said UJu.

“We eventually read from the news that there would be an increase in civil servants’ salaries. Some of us were happy when we saw a N10,000 increment in January. So for people in my level, our salary at the time was N47,000.”

LETTER TO THE STATE GOVERNOR

The ecstasy of a N10,000 pay increment was short-lived, according to Uju. She narrated how it took just an observation by one of the teachers and a comparison with the pay for secondary school teachers to ignite the dying flames of agitation over poor pay and unfair treatment.

“It took a question from one of us to bring teachers back to their senses. The teacher in question asked why we were rejoicing. They noted how secondary school teachers got a N25,000 increment,” Uju said.

They also mentioned how even non-teaching secondary school staff, like cleaners, got at least a N20,000 increase. We were surprised when we heard this because we were not aware. Teachers suggested that we should all set a date for a mass protest again.”

FIJ observed that in all of Uju’s narration, she maintained a pro-government stance. According to her, she had convinced the teachers in her community that the governor would attend to their plight. On the brink of a second protest, she recommended writing to the governor, and the teachers decided to give her the benefit of the doubt.

“As the president of the WhatsApp platform, I disagreed with the idea, and I told them that I would write directly to the governor, informing him about our plight, and I assured them that he would give us a positive response,” said Uju.

“I also told them that I would write to the commissioner of police, his assistant, and the speaker of the House of Assembly for them to be aware, should anything go wrong or the teachers insist on the protest.

“I went to Enugu State Command with a letter, which they endorsed, I went to the House of Assembly, and the speaker stamped the letter. I also took it to the Ministry of Education, and it was stamped.

“I took the letter to the chief of staff to the governor. He received it and called me to come to the government house. He told me to go home and get a copy of the letter and bring it the following day.”

A copy of the letter
A copy of the letter

A copy of the letter

Uju was finally able to gain access to Peter Mbah through the chief of staff to plead her cause as well as that of other primary school teachers in the state. The responses they got, according to Uju, hinted at some sort of positive development.

MEETING THE GOVERNOR WITH FOUR OTHER TEACHERS

“That Sunday in February, I took the letter to CoS. He called me later in the evening and told me that the governor would like to see me. He also instructed me to come along with four other teachers,” Uju said.

“I created a WhatsApp platform and randomly picked four teachers. I asked them if they could accompany me to the governor’s house, and they responded. We met with the governor and explained our plight to him.

“The governor told us that our complaints should have gone to the NUT. He said they were the ones who should have presented our case. The governor also invited the leadership of the board and the NUT.

“He asked if they were aware of our complaints, and they responded in the affirmative. He then told us to be patient. He cited his huge investments in education in the state and promised the wage conditions would improve”.

DISMISSAL AND POST-DISMISSAL CRISIS

On the one hand, Uju and her delegation of teachers were happy they got an audience with the governor. But on the other hand, she believed that the decision angered Gabriel Ajah, the chairman of ENSUBEB. She told FIJ that the chairman threatened to deal with them for acting out of turn.

Uju's dismissal letter

Uju’s dismissal letter

“The board chairman was angry, maybe because of our guts, and immediately said he would deal with us. We initially thought he was joking, but he said he had assembled our files. He told us to come get our queries in his office the following day,” Uju told FIJ.

“He also asked if we had other means of survival because our actions could cost us our jobs. On the 14th of March, we were summoned to get letters of dismissal.”

“We were called on the 14th of March to come and get a dismissal letter. After we got the letter, I sent it to the teachers’ platform. I told them I had been dismissed. They were angry, and some started even calling top officials and traditional rulers to inform them about what happened.”

“I wrote back to the board chairman that I would not accept the dismissal, and I requested a reconsideration. However, a board member advised that I write an apology instead, and I did.

“The board chairman took my apology letter to the radio station, saying that I had owned up to my mistake. He said that they didn’t do anything wrong in dismissing me.

“He added that I was a violent person who had fought with the school heads and people were threatening him because of me. I was paid my March salary of N57,000, which reflected the changes made by the governor.”

Uju's letter to ENSUBEB rejecting her dismissal

Uju’s letter to ENSUBEB rejecting her dismissal

Uju told FIJ that at that point in the drama, she felt sorry for the teachers who had joined her to meet the governor. She narrated how their salaries were seized, how their letters for reconsideration were dismissed and how the basis for the dismissals did not hold water

“After some time, when we thought the matter was over, the remaining four teachers’ salaries were seized. They wrote a letter to the board, which was ignored,” she said.

“I have written to the governor that we were dismissed because we met and pleaded that I and the remaining teachers be reinstated. I have not got any response, though. But I believe that due process will take its course and the right thing will be done.”

ADDRESSING THE ALLEGATIONS

When Ajah was addressing the press about the dismissal of Uju and her delegates of four other teachers, he dismissed the stories that they were sacked for wage agitations as mischievous.

Instead, Ajah displayed the letters of apology these teachers had written, stating that they were part of 13 other cases of errancy treated by the SUBEB at the time.

From the letters FIJ obtained, the five of them were dismissed on the same basis. The allegations, as detailed in the dismissal letters issued by SUBEB, were “absence from duty without written permission, breach of communication channels in the public service, insubordination and contravening provisions of public service rules by engaging in serious acts of misconduct”.

Speaking about the allegations, Uju explained that she had had no disciplinary case since she joined the public service in 2019. She did recall getting a query for lateness because of an extenuating circumstance with her bank in 2023.

She told FIJ, however, that no sanctions were taken against her after she provided explanations to her headmistress at the time.

“There was one time when I got a query. We had just received salaries, and I noticed that some scammers had emptied my salary account of everything inside. Instinctively, I rushed to the bank to complain. Against my plan, I got back to school late,” she said.

“When the headmistress asked me, I explained to her what had happened. The bank called me that same evening to show up the following morning. I went to school at about 9:30 am that day.

“The HM brought me a query letter, which I responded to at the time. That was the closest I got to a sanction for breaching any public service rule. As for the other teachers, they have not had any such cases, nor have they breached any public service rules.”

Blessing Orji, another of the dismissed teachers, corroborated Uju’s story about the visits to the governor’s office and the reaction of the ENSUBEB chairperson.

Orji also stated insistently that she had never violated the rules of public service. She also stated that she never had a disciplinary case as a teacher.

When FIJ contacted Ajah for comments and clarification, he wasn’t available to discuss on the phone. FIJ sent a text to Ajah on April 16, but it has not been responded to as of press time.

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Published 17th May, 2024

By Timileyin Akinmoyeje

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