By Victor Ahiuma-Young
A FORMER President of Nigeria Labour Congress, NLC, and immediate past governor of Edo State, Comrade Adams Oshiomhole, in this interview, takes a look at NLC in the past 40 years.
Since you left the Government House in Edo State. How has it been?
Wonderful. This is probably my fourth retirement. I retired as a textile worker, I retired as the General Secretary of the National Union of Textile and Tailoring Workers of Nigeria, then retired as the President of the Nigeria Labour Congress, and now as governor of Edo State. It is a real opportunity to make up for what I call 16 years of not sleeping properly. Eight years of NLC, very turbulent years, and another eight years of not only governing Edo State, but also fighting very vicious godfathers. To be honest, I feel quite good.
But people around you do not believe that you are resting. Some say you are busier now more than when you were President of NLC or even when you were governor of Edo.
Well, the difference is that a lot of people come to seek my view on a couple of issues. And you know, politics is where people come to share their thoughts, and stories, rumours and so on. But those are not demanding. It is just socialising or sharing thoughts or ideas with people. But I have maintained my touch, my contacts strongly with the labour movement.
Talking about labour movement, the NLC, which you were one of the most celebrated Presidents, is 40. Looking back from the time you became actively involved and now, how do you describe the NLC, first, on its impact on workers and, second, on the Nigerian state?
Comrade Hassan Sunmonu, the founding President, laid a very solid foundation. I was inspired by his style of leadership; vocal, militant and displaying uncommon will power. As a much younger union leader in those days, I was in the Textile Union as Deputy General Secretary when Sunmonu was President. At the time NLC was inaugurated in February 1978, I had left for Oxford because I needed to further my education, equip myself because I was determined to be in trade union movement. It is good to have courage, honesty and commitment to a goal, but you also need capacity to engage, you need to be able to have the brain to articulate quite convincingly the other side on public policy, at the level of the enterprise, at the level of the industry and at the level of the economy. So, I was in school then, but I was very much concerned about what was happening at home.
Sunmonu laid a solid foundation which I believe successive leaders have built on. There is no question that labour has made a difference. But first, we need to understand that NLC is an umbrella organisation. It is not a primary trade union. The primary trade unions are the industrial unions that cover workplace environment like issues of salaries, allowances, terms and conditions of service, disciplinary issue, promotion issues. But NLC deals with broad policy issues, engages the state at various levels. You are dealing with macro-economic issues, trade issues, monetary policies, fiscal policies and so on and how they impact on the quality of life of workers and working families. I believe NLC has made tremendous impact in moderating negative impact of bad policies, even sometimes preventing government from pursuing a policy that will undermine public welfare and long time public interest. In the life of NLC, it has been a story of cooperation and contestation between successive governments and successive leaders of the NLC.
Some have argued that after the generation of labour leaders during your time, the NLC has lost its vibrancy and there is now disconnect between labour leaders and workers. What is your take?
My very good friend who is widely respected within the labour movement , Sylvester Ejiofoh, had always expressed this fear when I was President of the NLC that we should have a policy of creating an environment that will indoctrinate younger union leaders so that they imbibe certain values, traditions and, subsequently, become ideologically clear about the dos and dons, be familiar with the history of the movement so that, overtime, as they begin to grow from the cadre to becoming leaders, they are already well grounded. And he had tirelessly expressed his fears that if we did not do that, we are going to, overtime, have a crop of leaders who may not have sufficient clarity about those issues that define society and the place of labour in society. I guess there may have been few cases where people who have not been properly grounded have found themselves becoming leaders at the level of industrial unions.
The mistake most analysts make when they look at the NLC is that they are looking at those elected formally as NLC leaders like the President, Deputy President and what you might call members of the National Administrative Council, NAC. But the truth is that these leaders have to emerge from the unions and, because NLC is mass driven, mass funded and a democratic organisation, it is what the majority of the affiliate union leaders want that translates to what you might call NLC policy. At that level, things can become quite complicated. Most commentators do not understand the inner workings of congress. Yes, you have the NLC President who seems to have all the power, but the truth is taht power does not reside with him.
The power resides with leaders of the industrial unions.,They are the ones who can remove the NLC President and the entire leadership. The NLC President is not in a position to remove the leaders of industrial unions. So, that is a very complex relationship. It is unlike in government where the President or governor appoints members of his cabinet (federal executive council), they hold their offices at the mercy of the President or, in the case of the state, at the mercy of the governor. For the NLC, it is the opposite. It is the President who stays in office at the mercy of the affiliate unions. So, the character of NLC leadership will always be an aggregate reflection of the values of the leaders of the industrial unions. However, this is not to deny that the leadership can inspire and influence the direction and character of the movement by working hard to stamp his authority and influence the style and help to influence what gets to be discussed and what is played out. So, this is not to certainly underestimate the influence of the direct leadership of NLC.
When people talk about the vibrancy of the movement, of all the positions I have been privileged to occupy, including the governorship of Edo State, I think that my days as President of NLC was easily the most challenging . Because then I was obliged to build consensus. I did not have instrument to force anybody to fall in line and, given the socio-geopolitical reality of Nigeria, to get people across the premodial sentiments to agree on a common policy and to go back to their respective states and local governments to drive those policies, particularly where it has to do with mass action, was tasking. I also found out that each time people invest that trust in you by participating in a mass action necessary to bend the hands of the government of the day, particularly a very strong willed President like Olusegun Obasanjo, each time you succeed in moderating him or even compelling him to abandon certain policies, your responsibility tends to increase because people now think that you can get everything done, if only you want to do it. And yet to get Nigerians to believe in your can be quite a challenge, across religion, ethnicity, region and so on.
I think the most challenging one I faced was when we tried to, after series of engagements on prices and so on, Obasanjo announced what he called fuel consumption tax and without recourse to parliament . In my view, he illegally ordered the demolition of all the toll gates across the country that were created by an Act of parliament . He tried to be very smart by making the tax something that is so negligible, N1.50. Of course, we saw through it that this is where leadership comes in.
The workers might say N1.50, does it worth our trouble? And a good section of society will say, N1.50, let him take it and let us avoid that trouble. But at the level of the leadership, we sat down and said no, the issues here were two. First, does the President have the power to order the demolition of toll gates that were a creation of the law? We were convinced that he did not have such powers. That was abuse of executive powers. Two, without an Act of parliament, does a President have a right to introduce a consumption tax on petroleum products? It is not the issue of the amount. Because at the heart of democracy, it is not just about what you do or even your intention, it is the process. It is actually a celebration of procedures and parliament is what defines democracy. Because whether you are under dictatorship or under monarchy or so, the only thing that can be absent is the parliament.
When parliament makes laws, those laws are meant to be obeyed especially to the extent that those laws are not in conflict with the constitution of the country. So, when parliament makes laws about toll gates, in my view, the President did not have the power to demolish them without recourse to parliament to, first, repeal the Act. The second issue was, does the President have the power to impose taxes? Taxes have to be imposed or levied by parliament. And if we allow him to get away with it, not only do we create a dangerous precedent, the President will begin to exercise parliamentary powers which our constitution does not invest on him. Unfortunately at that time, we did not have a viable opposition. Nigeria was almost a one party state even though on paper, there were other political parties.
Somehow, consciously or unconsciously, it became our responsibility under my leadership of NLC to try to provide not a political opposition, but the only countervailing force that could moderate President Obasanjo when he exceed what we considered to be his powers as President. I also remember that people often do not appreciate this, when members of the then National Assembly decided to appropriate N5million and N2million to senators and House of representatives respectively for furniture allowance, the NLC under my leadership challenged it. We got mass popular support. I am happy that we were able to explain it convincingly to the public that it was not about the amount, although N5 million at that time was a lot of money because the minimum wage then was N5, 500. I believe if you now look back at the first assembly, you will fnd out there is a difference between what was going on then and now in all facets of governance.
We have to engage, for example, the issue of the right of the public to criticize their leaders without endangering their lives. For instance, with Chinwoke Mbadinuju as governor of Anambra State, the NBA Chairman in Onitsha and his wife, who was alleged to be pregnant, were murdered in cold blood . It is not for me to say who the suspects were or who was responsible for the murder. But we were convinced that lawyers could not boycott courts, when they boycott court, dictators are happier because whatever they do are not challenged in court because the courts are shut. So, NBA did not have the capacity, in our view, to put up the kind of fight they ought to put up.