By Tonnie Iredia
At one time or the other, every working group in Nigeria finds grounds for embarking on strike. It is a common occurrence in a democracy where there is freedom of association as well as freedom of movement and freedom of speech. It is such freedoms that validate the existence of a framework for dialogue, negotiations and arbitration between employers and their employees in the country.
But because strikes tend to destabilize society, theyare often deliberately organized and positioned to adversely affect the general public hence strikes attract public comments, questions and condemnation of one or both parties involved.
The history of strikes in Nigeria easily reveals that virtually every sector has often embarked on strikes. While some of the strikes are well founded with employers taking their workers for granted, others are quite frivolous with workers holding their employers to ransom. InJune,2016,workers of the federal ministry of finance did not only embark on an unannounced 3-day strike, they prevented the then minister, Kemi Adeosun from operating at her official desk.
Their grouse was the refusal of Adeosun to allow the sharing of excess taxes collected above the target by the Federal Inland Revenue Service (FIRS). The strike by the finance workers falls withinthe executive arm of government which is the highest employer of Labour.
In that group, the most active are university workers led by the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) and health workers led by the National Association of Resident Doctors (NARD). For example, NARD has in the last 45 days been on strike over the failure of their employers to keep to an agreement they had reached with the Doctors on sundry matters.
On its part, the Judicial arm of government has for long recorded no major strikes. Such a rather clean record was soiledwhen the Judiciary Staff Union of Nigeria (JUSUN) was virtually pushed to the wall to begin a nation-wide strike which paralyzed the transparently underfunded Nigeria’s justice system.
The strike which had the tacit support of many judges was embarked upon on April 6, 2021 to agitate for the financial autonomy of the judiciary. Even the uniformed forces such as the Police and the Army where strikes are strictly banned managed to have a few which may not have followed the usual process of strikes. Soldier Yussuf and 21 others were sentenced to life imprisonment for allegedly rioting at the Cairo Airport in Egypt over the diversion of their medical allowances which ought to have been paid to them while receiving medical treatment in Egypt.
There was the second case of soldiers who allegedly attempted to kill their commanderat the Maimalari Barracks, Maiduguri who they claimed deliberately aided their ambush by insurgents. Also from Maiduguri the media once televised the invasion of the Borno state command by police operatives to angrily demand their unpaid allowances.
While it is true that strikes inconvenience the society at large, many critics refuse to realize that the only language which both the government and employers in the private sector understand is strike. Until a strike is organized, Nigerian employers enjoy holding on to workers’ legitimate allowances.
Even in sports, withholding competitors’ allowanceswas perhaps until recently a common practice. At a point, it was the decision of our football managers to cut the allowances of the players by 50 percent that influenced their refusal to board a plane to the FIFA Confederations Cup until the Sports Minister intervened and their payment pledges were met. We also recall how the sale of the PHCN to 14 successor companies was done in breach of the agreement with Labour that all liabilities especially arrears of staff salaries and allowances would first be settled before the handover.
Yet, despite the announcement by the relevant agency – the Bureau of Public Enterprises (BPE) that government had set aside about N384 billion to settle labour liabilities, workers were still allowed to assume a sabotage posture before pacifying them.
Only one group, our legislators, have not recorded any strike although their workers grumble daily. If so, what magic explains the no-strike excellent record of our legislators? Anyone who has followed their performance would readily attribute their posture to viability which is premised on wealth and huge perquisites of office.
In order to get many benefits, our National Assembly created almost the same number of committees as their total numerical strength. During the 8th Assembly, the pledge to streamline or scrap committees with duplicating functions was aborted as the committees increased from 89 to 97 in the House of Representatives and 57 to 65 in the Senate. How can an organization of 109 members divide itself into 65 groups-will each group have up to two members without duplication?
One reason our legislators do not go on strike is theproliferation of committeeswhich creates room for more chairmen and vice. But in the United States of America, from where we reportedly copied our Presidential system of government, the Senate has 16 Standing Committees while there are 21 in the House of Representatives.
Nigeria’s federal legislative arm of government is today made up of the richest set of politicians. In the states, the take home pay of legislators is not certain as they hardly discuss such issues with anyone. The sketchy information on it is that they do not earn the huge salaries that are available to their federal counterparts.
But they are always able to coerce governors to part with huge sums before any bills including those on annual budgets are passed. In the case of federal legislators, no one knows if they have added or reduced the N13.5million per month per senator earlier revealed by former Senator Shehu Sani.
The same is true of the old huge allowances on many items such as purchase of newspapers. But if we follow their urge to fight at sessions or the posture of the senator who publicly assaulted a young sales girl, the other day, the allegation by some analysts that perhaps boxing allowance may also be available can hardly be ruled out.
But will our legislators ever go on strike? Analysts who had imagined that Ondo state legislators might consider doing so on account of their well-publicized dilapidated chambers in 2019 were disappointed as the story ended abruptlythe same way the sitting of the House ended; following the invasion of snakes through the ceiling during a plenary session in the chamber.
According to media reports, one of the snakes almost fell on the Speaker, Bamidele Oloyelogun. While one snake appeared to have targeted the Speaker, a second one was going for the mace. Before adjourning indefinitely, the legislators were also alarmed to observe that termites had completely eaten several parts of the chamber which greatly angered them but they didn’t go on strike.
The only time legislators ever formally threatened to go on strike was during the 8th senate, when members resolved on Wednesday, November 02, 2016 to go on strike if the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) failed to conduct all pending re-run elections into legislative positions in Rivers State. Their request was promptly met.
With the current federal legislature which has ‘excellent’ relationship with the executive, the prospect of a strike by the members is virtually impossible. It would have been nice for our legislators to feel how a strike impacts on those who declare and uphold it.
As it is now they have no cognate experience in that subject for the purpose of resolving future strikes by other bodies. Against the backdrop of juicy committees for exploiting Ministries, Agencies and Parastatals, how can any buoyant legislators take therisk of the rule of no work no pay?