By Victor Ahiuma-Young
THE out gone year, 2015, was a year Nigerian workers and, indeed, labour movement will not forget in a hurry. It was a year the Nigeria Labour Congress, NLC, that prides itself as the largest umbrella body of workers in Africa, assaulted the principles of trade unionism, dishonoured and disrespected the spirit of its founding fathers.
It was a year, comradeship was thrown to the dustbin and “lzwelethu, il Africans” (Swahili for ‘who owns the land, we Africans own the land’), became “Izwelethu, il my pocket” (who owns the land, it belongs to my pocket) by labour leaders to the detriment of workers.
It was a year workers expected improved welfare, but ended up without salaries.
NLC bungled election
Like every year, 2015 came with a lot of expectations for workers especially being an election year for NLC and Nigeria, as a country.
For NLC, the masses were expectedly very hopeful of better days ahead judging from the fact that the outgoing leadership was everything but effective, resourceful and successful in meeting their socio-economic and political expectations.
Ahead of the 11th Delegates Conference of Congress, the first bad omen was the alleged betrayal of private sector unions by the public sector unions after it was purportedly agreed that the public sector would not present a candidate for the presidency.
While that fire raged, insinuations emerged of plots to re-open nomination and clear candidates disqualified for one reason or the other by the credentials committee as against the constitution of NLC.
The insinuation became so thick that Comrade Issa Aremu, who by virtue of the candidates cleared and published by the committee as required, was a Deputy President-elect, on January 18, 2015, issued a press release warning of the dangers in altering the credentials committee’s report or reopening closed nomination to accommodate disqualified candidates.
He warned: “Any attempt to reopen the list of nomination will be unprecedented in the history of NLC’s Delegates Conferences and is deemed illegal, unconstitutional and certainly unacceptable.
“It is like saying INEC should reopen nomination process after buffeting us with the menu of presidential candidates cleared and setting the nation ablaze.”
He said Article 29 (2) and (3) of the NLC Constitution was very clear on the conditions that could warrant reopening of the list of contestants duly cleared by the Credentials Committee namely. Article 29 (2): “Should a nominee die before the election, his/her nominator/affiliated union shall reserve the right to re-nominate, regardless of anything in the article and Standing Orders.”
Article 29 (3): “Should an affiliated union withdraws its nominees before the election and leave insufficient candidates to fill the existing number of seats or additional seats created, fresh nominations shall be accepted regardless of anything in this Article and the Standing Order.”
He urged the NLC to obey its own rules, saying “NLC’s voice demanding for free and fair election in Nigeria cannot be respected if it does not obey its own rules. He that seeks equity must do equity and must come with clean hands.”
True to the insinuations, the report of the credentials committee was not only altered, but closed nomination was reopened and hitherto disqualified candidates were cleared throwing the conference into turmoil.
Disruption, rescheduling of election
Meanwhile, ethnic colouration was introduced into the planned election as allegation of disenfranchising delegates from a section of the country in favour of delegates from the other section of the country became an issue by the supporters of the two candidates to the Congress’ Presidency; Comrades Ayuba Wabba and Joe Ajaero.
Some aggrieved members of the Medical and Health Workers Union of Nigeria, MHWUN, from Rivers State, dragged Comrade Wabba to the National Industrial Court, NIC, challenging his eligibility to contest the election, claiming by virtue of the union’s constitution, his tenure as President of MHWUN, on which platform he was seeking to be elected NLC President, ought to have ended since 2013. (The case is still ongoing at NIC till date).
The consequences of the reopening of nomination and clearance of the hitherto disqualified candidates on February 10, 2015, manifested during voting where it was discovered that there were multiple ballot papers bearing some candidates’ names while some ballot papers bearing the names of some other candidates had no serial numbers.
Whether due to printer’s errors or by deliberate design, this discovery compounded an already charged environment which culminated in the disruption of voting and eventual suspension of the process.
After the intervention by NLC veterans led by pioneer president, Comrade Hassan Sunmonu, and Governor Adams Oshiomhole of Edo State, the election was rescheduled for March 12, 2015.
When Thursday March 12, came, accreditation of delegates and voting went well without qualms. But the sorting and counting of votes were not to be. They were suspended several times for one reason or the others.
Before the sorting and counting of votes for the Presidential election were completed, allegations of manipulations of the process by individuals that were not members of electoral committee, but participated in the process, in alliance with some members of the committee to favour a candidate, were raised.
One of the two presidential candidates, Comrade Ajaero and his supporters threatened not to accept the result of the election, claiming the entire process was skewed toward achieving a predetermined outcome. But early on Saturday, in the election that commenced Thursday, Wabba was declared the new NLC President of NLC.
Ajaero and his supporters, including the President of Nigeria Union of Petroleum and Natural Gas Workers, NUPENG, and General Secretary of the National Union of Textile, Garment and Tailoring Workers of Nigeria, NUTGTWN, who both contested for the deputy presidents of Congress, rejected the results of the election.
NLC splits into factions
At a briefing later in that day, Ajaero and other Labour leaders in the group declared that they were conducting a parallel delegates conference in Lagos and that 23 affiliates of Congress, had thrown their weight behind the planned parallel conference.
True to their threat, on March 19, 2015, the aggrieved unions held a parallel conference in Lagos and elected their officials with Ajaero emerging parallel president of NLC.
Since then, Congress has not remained the same.
Though the veterans, led by Sunmonu and Oshiomhole, had on August 19, set up a seven-man reconciliatory committee headed by Sunmonu, with three members from both factions including the factional leaders; Wabba and Ajaero, the crisis has remained unresolved.
Despite the initial enthusiasm, and meetings in Abuja, Lagos and Benin, reconciliation appears to be motion without movement.
Unpaid salaries, minimum wage
Another memorial of 2015 was the unpaid salaries of workers by both the federal and state governments.
At the beginning of the year, workers had looked forward for a new national minimum wage because the current N18,000, ought to have expired after five years by virtue of the agreement that brought it into being.
Recall that it was signed into law in March 2011, by then President Goodluck Jonathan, after both houses of the National Assembly had passed it into following a protracted tripartite negotiation involving representatives of federal and state governments, employers’ body (represented by Nigeria Employers’ Consultative Association, NECA, ) and Organised Labour.
However, workers were confronted with unpaid salaries by federal and state governments. The situation was so bad that some states were owing workers salaries and allowances of almost a year.
There were reports that states were broke having allegedly spent their resources on the general election and frivolities.
To save the situation, the new government headed by President Muhammadu Buhari, in July, approved financial intervention or bailout for the states to enable them meet their obligations to their workers and pensioners.
Despite the bailout, some states are still owing workers till date.
As the issue of unpaid salaries was raging, state governors on the platform of the Nigerian Governors’ Forum, NGF, headed by Governor Abdulaziz Yari of Zamfara State, after a meeting on November 19, said they were no longer going to pay the N18,000 minimum wage, citing the poor state of the economy.
Though Governor Oshiomhole and about two other governors had since dissociated themselves from the NGF’s stance, the controversy is still on despite threat of fire and brimstone by organised labour.
Two minsters for Labour
The Ministry of Labour and Productivity was also renamed Ministry of Labour and Employment.
The Permanent Secretary in the Ministry, Dr. Clement Illoh, was retained by President Buhari, who later appointed two ministers to the ministry: Dr. Chris Ngige and James Ocholli (SAN), Minister of State, the first time the ministry is having two ministers.
Last year also saw the retirement of two veteran general secretaries: Comrades Babatunde Liadi of the National Union of Civil Engineering, Construction Furniture and Wood Workers, NUCECFWW, and Marcus Omokhuale of MHWUN, in controversial manners.
Also, retired in accordance with the union’s constitution was Isaac Aberare of NUPENG.