March 2, 2024

Tinubu’s Barbed Jibe and the NLC, by Ugoji Egbujo

Tinubu’s Barbed Jibe and the NLC, by Ugoji Egbujo

The president is mad at the Labour Union. He called it a jibe, but it was a piece of his mind. He thinks the Labour Union has become frivolous, perhaps rascally. He accused the Union of embarking on strikes wantonly, lamenting that the four labour strikes since he assumed power were unnecessary, maybe mischievous. He didn’t stop there. He taunted the Labour Union. He said if the Union was interested in electoral politics, it should remove its mask and get into the field for 2027. Tinubu’s jibe was unpresidential. 

At the point where he said the Union’s actions were “unacceptable”, he sounded like the almighty Abacha. In that brief speech at the commissioning of the rail lines in Lagos, the president manifested three worrying qualities: intolerance, arrogance and aloofness. But beneath the entire jibe was hypocrisy.

At a time when the ordinary man can’t buy food, the president should never sound petty and aloof. Not even in a joke. For a president who spent over ten years in the pro-democracy movement, fighting for freedoms through disruptive actions and 15 years as a major opposition leader, championing strikes and civil disobedience in naked conjunction with the labour Union, that speech reeked hypocrisy. He might argue that the times are different.

But if Tinubu were in opposition and any ruling president launched two major domestic policies that brought unprecedented hardship on the masses, even temporarily, he would push and urge the Labour Union to stand up and resist. So, the president shouldn’t imagine workers as a malleable flock of sheep. Subsidy removal and naira floatation are both excellent policies, but they have yet to be well implemented. Both have left workers impoverished and disoriented. The president admits these problems and calls them teething problems, yet he lacks so much compunction and empathy that he can’t understand Labour’s restiveness. 

The president has been lucky. Labour has barked a little too much and failed to bite. When Tinubu yanked off the petrol subsidy without putting in place cushions, everyone had expected Labour to resist the action. But Labour mewed and mewed, and when it acted, it only scratched and went to sleep. A poorly observed strike aborted after a few hours was all it could muster. Since Tinubu assumed office, and despite legitimate and compelling grounds, Labour has not managed to organise a proper strike action.

Perhaps the president doesn’t know that many Nigerians feel that the Labour Union has been compromised and pocketed by his government. Some public commentators have described Labour’s effervescent and spineless ‘area boy’ tactics as egunje-seeking gambits. They believe the trade union initiates actions, goes behind to negotiate private advantages with the government and goes to sleep. Otherwise, why can’t labour, perhaps leaving crude terminals and electricity working, shut down oil fuel depots and force the government to respect the workers? 

The four strikes the president has cried about were dummy strikes. Labour might have been flippant and a tad excitable, but the malice he ascribed to Labour hasn’t manifested. Against any president, the Labour Union would have shut down the country if petrol subsidies were removed without negotiations. After Tinubu promised a new minimum wage but started dithering, any reasonable labour union would have downed tools.

When most workers can’t pay their way to work, what other options exist? When the palliative wage awards were promised and not delivered promptly, a self-respecting union would have downed tools to save poor workers from unabating torment. Assuming the government had acted swiftly and gazetted a new minimum wage last year as promised, what would have happened when the CBN devalued the naira by over 400%? Every Labour Union, anywhere in the world, would have asked for another massive wage review to restore some purchasing power to the poor worker. 

 Perhaps Tinubu believes Akpabio. Akpabio thinks the food protests were sponsored by the enemies of the government. That must be why Tinubu fingered NLC with his jibe. Perhaps the food he has ordered to be released from the national reserve is some piece of gimmickry to counter political opponents messing with the minds of the people. That is why his speech contained no empathy for the workers and their Union. But he said the Labour Union isn’t the only voice of the people. He is right. Tinubu, the pro-democracy activist, realised this in 2024. But he shouldn’t pray to hear directly from the street. It could be a malignant and carnivorous cacophony. It serves him well to have a lousy Labour Union that organises feeble and ineffectual strikes on the whim. These boneless strikes will seduce the agonising masses into the false belief that someone has taken up the fight for them.  

The joke is on the Labour Union. Labour has teeth but chooses to kiss the government, and yet it is deemed a nuisance. Labour watches workers pine to death while politicians junket and do jamborees. Labour has the capacity to shut down the country, but it chooses to fool around. A guard dog that has become a pet dog. Under Obasanjo, Oshiomhole shut down the entire country for almost a week because of a partial subsidy removal. Fuel depots were grounded. Filling stations were shut.

Electricity workers were on the verge of sending the country into a blackout. Governments function better when they can be challenged. Under Jonathan, the NLC and civil society crippled the country because of a partial subsidy removal. For three days, Lagos was paralysed. Tinubu and his political allies took part in those marches. On the fourth day, President Jonathan sent out the military to intimidate protesters in Lagos.

Tinubu led the condemnation choir. Jonathan reversed the subsidy removal substantially and raised the minimum wage. Buhari would have removed the subsidy in 2021. There was no budgetary provision for it. But in the aftermath of EndSars, he feared strikes and chickened out. He deferred and deferred the removal till June 2023. These post-subsidy NLC strikes were predictable. What couldn’t have been foretold is NLC’s spinelessness.   

Tinubu met the minimum wage of N30,000. Then, the official exchange rate of the naira was about N440 for a dollar. Today, the official exchange rate is about N1500. A four-fold increase. Tinubu did a paltry wage award of N35,000 for six months. Even that token hasn’t been paid promptly.. Food prices have soared out of reach. But Tinubu thinks the workers should lie prostrate while he decides whether he is floating or anchoring naira, while he removes subsidy from the front and welcomes it from the back. And if the workers raise eyebrows, he invites them to a political wrestling match in 2027. That’s arrogance. 

The president needs to find thinkers. Major policies ought to be critically scrutinized and trialled before adoption. The country can’t afford self-indulgence. Putting the cart before the horse might be hard and courageous work, but the outcome will be an unmitigated disaster. Leaving the elephants in the room to pursue mosquitoes and clean cobwebs might be crafty politics, but it is self-deceit. Banditry. Crude oil theft. Forex inflow. Size and expenditure of government. Criminalize the possession and use of dollars by politicians and senior government officials. Lead by example.