By Rotimi Fasan
IN deciding to embark on a nationwide strike to press home its demand for a significant increase in the minimum wage payable to workers, the Nigeria Labour Congress , NLC, and its affiliate bodies have chosen on, perhaps, their only and most potent weapon of offence against a recalcitrant government. In this battle, the NLC is pulling all plugs and its members, it would appear, have been adequately mobilised and braced for the success of the exercise.
But there is something about the excitement with which the battle is proposed to be fought, especially the promise to ground all activities without much concern for those who will most likely bear the brunt of the strike, that should be troubling to anyone looking beyond the immediate call to arms. Before fleshing out my point in more detail, let me hasten to say that any fight for improved welfare for Nigerians, in the private or public sectors, is both welcome and long overdue. There is no reason why ordinary Nigerians should carry the cost of meeting the needs of a ruling or political class that is just about worthless.
There are very good reasons why the NLC, being the umbrella labour organisation in Nigeria, should fight not just this government but every one or group(s) that have a part in passing the cost of their own lavish and unearned sustenance to the Nigerian people without commensurate results to show for it. In doing this, labour should be careful not to be seen as holding the present government which only happens to be the present face of the Nigerian ruling class as solely responsible or liable to blame for the situation in which we have found ourselves.
Being careful in this regard also means labour must be sensitive to any narrative aimed at turning or making their struggle look like a fight against the Buhari administration. A government at a loss for a reasonable response or one unprepared for the likely effect of a grinding strike cannot be expected not to tow such a less than honourable line that would end up weakening the merit of the fight for a fair distribution of the country’s wealth.
Nigerians, represented by the NLC, need no more that look at those pretending to be their elected and appointed representatives to come to a recognition of the grand larceny that is being perpetrated in their name; they need not look farther than the misery in which they are enmeshed to see the need to demand more from the present generation of those in charge of the country’s leadership. The cost of governance has become absolutely forbidding and without justification.
Placed side by side what is consumed by our leaders, appointed and otherwise, the N30, 000 minimum wage that Nigerian workers are asking for is in relative terms is worse than a beggar’s alms. Neither is it fitting for someone on welfare to say nothing of it constituting a living wage for a slaving labour force.
Where Nigerians have no sense of what their (s)elected representatives earn, there is no reason why they should be called upon to help make the cost of governance less prohibitive, which is part of the reason government is opposed to any wage increment now. While the cost of maintaining an average public office holder remains classified information, what is clear is that such cost is well out of the world of the earnings of an average worker and is, to boot, worth a king’s ransom.
It’s the kind of payment reserved for royalty. Let the belt-tightening measures, therefore, be equitably shared if they cannot start from the top. For many years since the return to civil governance in 1999, Nigerians have sought without success to know what our elected leaders earn.
Those concerned have never been eager to have that conversation about their earnings. The fact out there, following revelations by the embattled senator from Kaduna State, Shehu Sani, is that a Nigerian senator, for example, earns a princely N45 Million every month! No Nigerian public servant can honestly earn what that comes to in a year in almost a life time of public service. Yet, this is the kind of money that is randomly paid to politicians many of whom, in a two-tier legislature, have no legitimate means of livelihood. Politics for them is a vocation for which they demand and receive more than a full time payment with which they acquire some of the most expensive things money could bring.
There are just too many wastages going on within government circle. The executive arm is not left out in the determined wastage and pilfering of the country’s resources. Year in year out, they make budgetary allocation, running into billions of naira, for the same set of things- grass cutting, planting flowers, feeding wild animals kept in captivity for the pleasure of idle hands misnamed leaders. They also set aside billions in foreign exchange for toothpick, cutlery, furniture, vehicles, office stationery, electronics, welfare of bodyguards, maintaining the first ladies, their staff and keeping and maintaining a fleet of executive aircraft and fueling generators. These are some of the known expenditure incurred by governments that cannot keep to an agreement they freely entered to review workers’ pay every five years, the last one happening some seven years ago.
Government needs to feel the anger of the people. But the NLC must look out and be sure it does not end up punishing the same people for whom it claims to be fighting. Which is why it should exclude from its action those sectors likely to impact negatively on the people. The involvement in this strike of unions like the Petroleum and Natural Gas Senior Staff Association of Nigeria and Nigerian Union of Petroleum and Natural Gas workers can only bring more misery to the lot of majority of Nigerians who have no access to alternative means of support available to those in public office. People could only stock up on food and whatever else are their needs for a while. Many would still have to go out daily to earn their living.
These are not members of the ruling class. Nor are they residents of government house. This situation does highlight the weakness in the NLC position and its demand for uniform wage in a supposed federation in which most Nigerians are not public workers and cost and standard of living are different from one part of the country to another. The fight for wage increment is a demand for restructuring in another way for without restructuring the polity in a manner that reflects our varying levels and state of development we will continue to move in circles, treating the symptoms rather than the cause of our persistent troubles.