Labour’s throes in last ditch to rescue self, masses
In the course of the political gamesmanship, which became the defining feature of the 2015 Presidential election, there was a particular moment on the campaign trail when the then All Progressives Congress flagbearer, Muhammadu Buhari attended an event organised by the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC). On account of the rousing welcome and the vociferous shouts of Sai Baba, which rent the air at the venue, it became apparent where the sympathies of Labour tilted. Buhari went on to record a historic win, and the rest, as they say, is history.
The fact regarding how Labour supported the then APC Presidential flagbearer to win the Presidency was alluded to a few days ago, when a National Leader of the APC paid a fence mending visit to NLC leaders over the current faceoff precipitated by the hike in the pump price of petrol. The APC National leader, Bola Ahmed Tinubu minced no words about how the support of labour helped in no small measure to help his party record the historic victory in 2015.
Nearly one year on however, a major paradox of the stunning triumph by the APC, with the not so tacit endorsement of Labour, is the fact that today, Labour has suddenly found itself in the trenches against the party that is supposed to be an ally. Labour is at its crossroads as it attempts to battle some of the harsh fallouts of the policies being implemented by a government led by the man they had wholeheartedly endorsed. Therefore, when Labour insisted last week that it would begin an indefinite strike to press for the reversal of the hike in electricity tariffs, as well as the sudden increase in the pump price of petrol to N145, it was not just the commencement of a struggle to achieve the reversal of a set of harsh policies. It was a clear fight to save Labour itself as an institution from the pangs of powerlessness, death, and what many now fear could become a damaging state irrelevance.
For those who drum up the lukewarm response of Nigerians to the strike, temptations to draw parallels between Labour’s current impotence and the earlier illustrious roles would prove to be irresistible. The history of the Labour movement in Nigeria is replete with heroics of how workers fought valiant battles to compel the political elite to govern with the realisation that human beings are the targets of all actions of government. For instance, it was the struggle for Cost of Living Allowance (COLA) that led to the 45-day strike of the railway workers in 1945. That action was led by the inimitable Michael Imoudu, and it served as a catalyst to trigger the nationalist struggle for Nigerian independence.
Similarly, the death in 1949 of the 21 Enugu coal mine workers also added verve to the incipient movement that had emerged to clamour for self-government. The potent force of Labour provided the inspiration, which fired the imagination of radical politicians like the late Mallam Aminu Kano, whose Northern Elements Progressive Union (NEPU) evolved ideas grounded on working class considerations. At the time however, the Labour Movement soon discovered that its closeness to the political elites of whatever hue resulted in a situation where an opportunistic political class would use them to attain power, only to abandon them (Labour) in the cold when the aspirants of yesterday become governing elites. It was for this reason that the founding fathers of the NLC in 1978 decided to adopt a strict non-partisan posture in the political process that unfolded to return Nigeria to civilian rule in 1979. Comrade Hassan Sunmonu, who was the first President of the NLC when it was formed in 1978 once expressed the view that the non-partisan approach was important to insulate Labour from compromises that would be necessarily induced by partisanship. In a 1996 paper on the challenges of 21st century challenges of trade unionism in Nigeria, he narrated how the Labour Movement sidetracked the iceberg of partisanship during his time at the helm.
“Instead (of partisan flirtation) NLC decided to concentrate on workers’ education, as a part of the human resource development of the Nigerian workers, which alone could empower them, and facilitate their active involvement and participation in the political and development process. We the leaders of the NLC at the time believe and still believe that “education makes a people easy to govern but difficult to enslave.”
Perhaps, if the current NLC leadership had committed itself to this kind of methodology in engaging the space, it would not have found itself in the current difficulty of having to confront a government it had earlier endorsed. However, the tactics that the current Labour chose to use in engaging the political space are by no means the only factors responsible for the weakness that is currently on display. A proactive leadership, which does not wait to react to actions from the government, is another quality that is alleged to be missing in the rank of the current Labour cadre. Similarly, many Labour and civil society leaders point to severe internal contradictions within Labour itself, as well as the erosion of grassroots support. Others adduce reasons connected with the role of the military, which at some point made the takeover of the unions, its main stratagem for weakening the structure of Labour. Those systemic assaults aimed at weakening Labour, it has been argued led to the creation of two Labour centres, inclusive of the Trade Union Congress (TUC).
Since the return to democracy however, it has been argued that there has been a successive decline in the quality of leadership being offered by Labour in the important task of presenting alternative ideas in the overall governance debates. After the dramatic years offered by the Adams Oshiomhole leadership, his successor Comrade Abdulwaheed Omar did not seem to possess the gravitas to manage the NLC in a manner that would moderate the ambitions within. It was the Omar leadership that handed down the divided NLC, which is now grappling with the challenge of presenting a potent front. As Labour falters by failing to put up a common front, the government has cashed in, forcing it to swallow two very bitter pills in the form of hike in petrol and electricity prices. The irony is that these two harsh policies were forced in within the space of one year.
According to a leading civil society activist, Jaiye Gaskiya, the creation of two Labour centres has been a major factor in the government’s drive to undermine solidarity. Gaskiya is of the view that by driving a wedge between the TUC, which is the union of workers in the management cadre and the other core of the NLC, serious fault lines had been created for the government to exploit in situations like this.
He said: “From the way Labour has been structured with two centres made of the Trade Union Congress, for the Senior Management level of workers, and the NLC for junior level, it has created fault lines. Although there has been cooperation between the two centres on issues of common interest like the minimum wage, there will always be differences when it comes to other issues. The creation of the TUC from the NLC was an attempt to weaken the Labour movement. It is these fault lines that have now been exploited by the government. As you can see, the TUC backed out of the strike.”
However, the frontline civic leader rejected insinuations that Labour was on the throes of its death as a result of the events currently unfolding. He argued that the strike called by the Ayuba Wabba led NLC had been effective.
“For me, the strike has been very effective. In a number of states, activities were paralysed, but in others, there was partial compliance or no compliance at all. In several instances, we had difficulties shutting down some work places in order not to pitch the union against workers or members of other unions which did not join the strike. However, the reasons and the issues for which the NLC called the strike have not been faulted. This is a battle for the minds of Nigerians. I am sure that Nigerians will come back to call on the NLC to offer leadership because we can already see the impact of the price hike on the economy. This impact will mean that the economy will go into a tailspin, especially as we are still using a model of importation.”
The activist lamented that while the government arbitrarily raised the price of petrol, no clear roadmap had been presented to end importation of refined products. He said there were opportunities for small modular refineries, which are cheaper to build and could raise Nigeria’s refining capacity, but noted that no concrete plans were being put in place in this respect. He stressed that the urgency of the fuel situation made it untenable for Nigerians to be forced to wait for the big refinery project like the one Dangote is putting in place to come on stream.
As for those who are already singing dirges to herald the demise of Labour, Gaskiya had this to say: “My reaction to the talk about Labour being too weak or that Labour is dead, we must be brutally frank. With the recent hike in the prices of petrol and electricity tariffs, I think Nigerians are too shocked to act. Those who talk about the weakness of Labour are missing the point. They decided to sit on the side lines when Labour offered leadership on clear issues affecting them, and now they turn around to say Labour is weak. If leadership and commitment has been offered and the citizens decide to sit on the side lines, how does that make Labour weak?
“It is not fair for those who failed to come out when Labour called the action to now come out to sit in judgment that Labour is dead. That is not fair. At least, we now know that those who went all out to factionalize Labour were not doing it in the interest of Nigerians. The government was present at election where the leader of the so-called faction lost the contest. But it is now convenient for the government to be talking to that same faction because it is bent on breaking the movement.”