By Clarius Ugwuoha
It was the late Ugandan despot, Idi Amin, who was credited with the immortal but infamous dictum: “You have freedom of speech. But freedom thereafter, that I cannot guarantee.” This appears to be the guiding principle in Nigeria and most other African countries.
The history of the Nigeria Labour Congress, NLC, as a trade union with capability to sway labour laws in the country and advance the interest of workers, has been heavily vitiated by graft, intimidation and compromise. The current Nigeria Labour leader, Mr. Ayuba Philibus Waba, is certainly in a dilemma due to the peculiar operating terrain. The contemporary Nigerian reality is worse than military dictatorship and the autocratic reflex is evident in every tier of government-citizen engagement.
There are no pretensions about the repression of workers. Labour laws, if any in Nigeria, are obeyed in negation. Pensioners cannot access their wages and the national minimum wage – a paltry US$74 – cannot be implemented in many states of the federation because they are not the priority. Therefore, Nigerian workers continue in sub simian subsistence, spiking crime and insecurity in the country.
In the hey days of military dictatorship in Nigeria, organised labour was a strong democratisation voice. But non-violent protests and strikes to stand down military rule, were met with escalating repression. There was crackdown on unionists and leaders. Many were dismissed from duty posts, leaders like Mr. Frank Ovie Kokori and Milton Dabibi of the oil workers union were jailed. Union offices were sealed off by troops and subjugation continued unabated despite international outcry and sanctions.
Trade unionism cut her teeth as a militant body to be reckoned with under the foremost Nigerian labour leader, Pa. Michael Aikhamen Omnibus Imoudu. Before then, trade unions were more like social organisations and not industrial movements.
It was during the colonial era. Pa. Imoudu had become the President of the Nigerian Railway Workers Union in 1939, the same year that the trade union was registered under the enabling Colonial Ordinance giving them legal authority to seek communal bargaining with their employers. The fixation of the radicalised union was enhanced wages, decasualisation and better working conditions. Most of these were met, but crackdown on union leaders was the order, culminating in the dismissal from service of Pa Imoudu in January 1943 by the Railway authorities.
Pa Imoudu later headed the Trade Union Congress of Nigeria, which was the forerunner of the present Nigeria Labour Congress. It was a vibrant and radicalised body that sought workers’ welfare as well as good governance in the larger society. Union leaders have constantly faced attempt by various despots at muffling their voices. From Pa Imoudu to Wahab Goodluck, from Hassan Sunmonu to Ali Ciroma; from Pascal Yeleri Bafyau to Adams Aliyu Oshiomhole, from Abdulwaheed Omar to Ayuba Philibus Waba. All of them faced the heat from autocracy. Some were fairly successful in their stewardship, while others were accused of graft and compromise.
Today, with the semblance of democracy in place, union leaders have largely shunned the anti-democratic tenets of governments, concentrating only on workers welfare, which is also not too effective as many anti-labour practices are firmly in place under the very nose of the unionists. Recently, in Kaduna State of the federation, local government employees above 50 years of age – a non-retirement age- were extra- constitutionally sacked in one fell swoop. The template also pegged the number of staff in each local government council of the state at 50. There was no recourse to any extant labour laws in the state before this ill-advised muscle flexing. This prototype has been replicated in various states of Nigeria, citing government fiscal exigencies, employment irregularities, paucity of fund for salaries and whatever else.
Under cover of COVID-19 issues, about 850 contract workers were laid off in the nation’s refineries. This act, perpetrated by the Group Managing Director of the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation, was allegedly without consultations with the National Union of Petroleum and Natural Gas workers, NUPENG, and there were no terminal benefits for the victims. In another development, Chevron Oil company, a multinational in Nigeria, was said to have sacked about 175 workers without even the dignity of termination letters, via WhatsApp chat platform. The Waba-led NLC strongly condemned this anti-labour and condescending treatment.
Recently, in Imo State of Nigeria, workers of Imo State Oil Producing Areas Development Commission, ISOPADEC, received severe salary cuts and about 126 of them were laid off, allegedly without disengagement benefits. It is not clear if any union was consulted before this exercise, but knowledgeable sources fingered employment anomalies as reason for the sack.
Irrespective of anyone’s views or political leaning, it is indecorous to lay off workers without commensurate terminal benefits and in complete negation of enabling labour laws. The subliminal reasons behind the current trend of repression of workers is deeply political. Workers of the state or federal service engaged during a given political dispensation risk arbitrary disengagement when a new faction takes over political centre stage.
The solution to the myriads of problems faced by Nigerian workers is not only functional unions insulated from politics, unions prepared to go the whole hog but also a responsible government ready to obey the enabling labour laws and allow freedom of expression within all humanitarian context.