By: Israel Umoh
Yet no teeth
Just Claw-less and Clueless
Once a huge and fearful animal
Now a walking carcass
A shadow of its former self
Nigerians almost organised a requiem mass for Organised Labour typified by Nigeria Labour Congress and Trade Union Congress as soon the planned nationwide strike on September 28 failed. The purported strike was called to compel the Federal Government to reverse the hikes in Premium Motor Spirit called petrol and electricity tariff.
Since the Organised Labour bungled the opportunity of taking the battle to the lion’s den, most Nigerians have refused to listen to any ‘gospel’ by labour. Not that people wanted strike for its sake, the point remains that there were, and still are, many thorny issues bogging Nigerian workers and of course the less privileged in this country. With the hyper inflation, closure of public universities, poor road network, prevailing insecurity, ill-equipped hospitals, unemployment, indebtedness of workers’ salaries and other entitlements still staring many in the face, many saw and still see NLC as an arbiter. In fact, many believe that labour has the gut of a lion to dare the behemoth- government.
Before the strike was averted, government had to play a fast one on labour. Prior to the nationwide strike, NLC leadership led by Comrade Ayuba Wabba held a closed door meeting with Femi Gbajabiamila, speaker of House of Representatives on Sunday, September 27. No truce was reached. Same day, labour leaders held another meeting with Federal Government delegation for seven hours.
At the end of the meeting, NLC and Federal Government reached an agreement that resulted in the labour calling off the strike despite the massive support and mobilization of workers and Nigerians to embark on the strike.
Perhaps, the abortion of the strike re-ignited outrage. As a way of easing off tension, some hoodlums and unpatriotic Nigerians capitalized on the ENDSARS protest in looting and unleashing mayhem on public and private properties. Though this was highly condemnable, many wanted the opportunity to vent anger on government and its operators over insensitivity to their plights and perhaps recklessness in the management of their common patrimony. So what the strike labour could not do to ease off their cathartic feelings and bottled emotions, the steam was let off during the hijacked protest that ended in trails of blood, and tears.
The amusing thing is the outcome of Sunday, November 22 meeting.It was reported that leaders of Nigerian labour unions, walked out from a meeting with the federal government barely five minutes after it started.
The President of the Trade Union Congress, Quadri Olaleye noted that the issues surrounding the hike in the price of fuel and electricity tariffs were on the meeting’s top agenda, accusing the federal government of dishonesty, playing to the gallery and painting the organised labour in a bad light before civil servants and the public.
He said, “Government is showing a high level of insincerity in discussions with us and is also putting us at risk with the people we are leading — with the masses. We find it difficult to move freely, but the people in government are moving freely.
“This meeting is not going to be as usual. Why, because we have seen the insincerity of government and it’s putting us at risk. They are taking us for a ride, which cannot continue.
“We are in the process of discussing, for over three months now. And they made announcement increasing the fuel price again. And no other person than NNPC. When has authority been giving to NNPC to increase the price of PMS? This is unacceptable.
“The meeting agenda is not well prioritised. And because of that, we are leaving the meeting. We will not continue, we will go back to our organ, and we are going to get back to you on the next line of action.”
It was not clear if labour knew it was dealing with government. In a rat race, the cat chases a rat and a rat dodges looking for a hole to enter and hide. While labour is looking for the welfare packages for its members, government, on the other hand, has to employ means- subterfuge is one to escape some commitments. Unwittingly, the government set up a bogus committee and gave a two-week ultimatum to proffer solutions to Labour’s grievances. It is not clear if the labour leaders are incapable or lack capacity, will and experience to know the workings of government. For now, the issues at stake remain as they were and labour is in quandary.
The “Claw-less Lion” poem, title of this piece, would have been an elegiac in nature. But it would have sounded apocalyptic and foreclosed. It is burlesque, parodying the fate of what was known and called Nigeria Labour Congress. It bemoans the fate of a once-dreaded union but government assigns it the derogatory status.
NLC formally constituted as the only national federation of trade unions in the country in 1978. Before, four labour centres- Nigeria Trade Union Congress (NTUC), Labour Unity Front (LUF), United Labour Congress [ULC] and Nigeria Workers Council (NWC) – had existed. The same treatment was meted to the two unions in the oil and gas industry; National Union of Petroleum and Natural Gas Workers (NUPENG) and Petroleum and Natural Gas Senior Staff Association of Nigeria [PENGASSAN). The unions, numbering more than 1,000, were also restructured into 42 industrial unions.
The body has had a chequered history, surviving two instances of dissolution of its national organs and consequent appointment of state administrators. The first was in 1988 under the military regime of General Ibrahim Babangida. Congress’ opposition to the anti-people Structural Adjustment Programme incensed the military administration to take over NLC.
The second military intervention was in 1994 during the regime of General Sani Abacha, whose government also became fed up with the labour movement’s agitation for the restoration of democracy. Like the initial case, the military government dissolved NLC’s National Executive Council and appointed a Sole Administrator.
By now, labour should have exhibited enormous activism and determination to convince its members and indeed Nigerians that it is not toothless and clueless. Going for negotiation and coming out to complain does not strike the right side of the brain but brawn.
Already, labour ought to have expanded its sphere of its demands to include stoppage of payment of pensions to former Governors and their deputies, stoppage of bogus payment to members of National Assembly, warning to stop increasing appetite for loans by Federal Government, reopening of public universities for nine months, payment of New Minimum National Wage to workers in all the state and end to corruption war in government circle, among others.
The body has to work on itself and come out of its shell. Pa Michael Imoudu, Paschal Bafyau and Adams Oshiomhole, among past leaders showed verve and fire in resolving labour matters and carrying Nigerians along. It would be indicting on Wabba if as a soldier, he sleeps on the duty post. Lest we forget, he ceaselessly hauled a coal of fire into the bosom of President Goodluck Jonathan on any issue of public concern. But since the advent of President Muhammadu Buhari administration, the labour leader appears to be consigned to Siberia on sabbatical. This is anti-unionism.
By waking up from its slumber and resolving issues involving all without fear or favour, labour in the country will again earn the confidence and respect of its members and the entire Nigerians.