Columns

June 8, 2024

As Vanguard Newspaper Turns 40….., by Muyiwa Adetiba

As Vanguard Newspaper Turns 40….., by Muyiwa Adetiba

Muyiwa Adetiba

It happens often. Birthdays or anniversaries take the back seat when urgent and pressing developments crowd the mind. Last Monday was not an exception. June 3 was the day forty years ago, when the first copy of Sunday Vanguard rolled out. It is not a day I am expected to forget easily given the role I played in midwifing this birth. Besides, a few ex-staff had hinted me earlier in the year of their intention to mark the day.

Yet, I woke up on this auspicious day with my thoughts crowded by the news that a nationwide strike had indeed, taken place. Like any newshound, I tried to find out the extent of compliance as lives could be lost and destinies altered by a crippling strike besides its obvious inconvenience and material losses. Strikes are deemed successful when all activities are grounded. This might make the organisers happy but the effects always go beyond the euphoria of the moment.

I grew up learning about power as something you did not use often as it could risk being demystified. Obviously, the Labour President learnt about power from a different school. He has flexed the strike muscle at every turn and had actually embarked on a nationwide strike at least three times in the past year. This is not a common occurrence in our history of labour struggles. I also can’t remember when electricity outage was the first casualty of a general strike. Last time I checked, water and electricity were under essential services.

The strike this time, is about demand for living wages for Nigerian workers. It is a demand that is not unreasonable given the rapid erosion on the purse of the poor and given the lifestyle of our political elites. But asking for about half a million Naira seems ridiculous, even as a negotiating point. It also says something about those leading the labour movement. If the government is blackmailed into acceding to what it cannot pay, then we all suffer as capital expenditures will be affected – the Buhari government spent the last few years borrowing to pay salaries.

Besides, how long will this new, improved salary that is not backed by increase in production or productivity last before inflation takes its toll? How long before we embark on another cycle of salary demands? How long will this money that would soon not be worth the paper it is printed on last before the economy collapses? The negotiators, especially labour, should realise that Public Servants are less than 10% of the workforce. About 80% of the workforce, would have to struggle their way into the scheme of things.

It won’t be easy. In other words, most of the people who suffered the effects of the strike are not likely to enjoy the benefits of it. Some might even lose by it. Speaking of losses, I feel particularly sorry for the aged; those who are living on pension or worse, those who collected their gratuities in bulk. Twenty million Naira was a lot of money twenty years ago. Those, particularly from the oil industry, who collected that amount at the time were considered lucky. Today, they would be in their 80s and would be struggling to pay their bills. Many would not be able to afford drivers and domestic help now that they need them most. The new round of salary increment would only worsen their situation. The largely unskilled and semi-employed which abound in every State would also be hard hit as cost of living is expected to rise. The rate of wage default in the States, Parastatals and even private sector would also rise.

Given the foregoing, it’s hard to believe the strike is in the interest of the average Joe. Or that the resulting salary increase would be beneficial to all concerned to quote a four-way Rotary test. What I would have wished for, is to have Labour use some of its considerable, but often misapplied powers, to push for fiscal discipline among our leaders especially the Executive and Legislature, to reflect the realities in the country. A fight against prodigal spending and indulgences of government at the State and Federal levels would have the support of many people because it would be a fight for fiscal discipline at the top.

Should the country for example, have spent 160 million Naira each to buy SUVs for our Legislators? Should we even have a bi/cameral legislature? Should we have spent so much on the Vice President’s lodge and other Governors’ lodges across the country? Does splurging a 90 billion Naira on pilgrimage make sense? Why are international companies exiting the country? Labour can lend its weight in addressing these, and other fundamental issues, rather than trying to have its share of the dwindling cake through incessant wage increases which eventually get swallowed up by inflation.

All these while, my subconscious kept telling me I was forgetting something. It wasn’t until past noon that I remembered. I phoned Uncle Sam. He picked and promised to call me back. He did after about thirty minutes. Meanwhile, I had called the Editor whose line was busy – I have long forgotten what Mondays could be for an Editor. My reason for the calls was to see if the day was being marked in any way. After speaking to the two of them, it seemed the financial situation at the Vanguard, as it is in the print media generally these days, has made outward celebrations feel insensitive – a financial situation that would be compounded by the new wage agitation.

But I managed to get the Editor to promise to ‘do something’. I have a personal interest in seeing the day recognized. They say a woman never forgets her labour pains. Mine was a labour of love – and sacrifice. As the Pioneer Editor, I led the small team of journalists that produced the maiden edition against overwhelming odds. The debut date had been shifted a couple of times and we were determined that June 3 must hold. The gods were not in agreement as the installation of the generator had not been finished and a truck struck our electric pole putting us into darkness. This pulled everybody back including the Spanish Engineers trying to test run the printing machine.

Most of us spent our days and nights in the office for over a week to compensate as the GM and NEPA worked feverishly to restore light. Even Uncle Sam spent a night with us though he says he can’t remember. I am therefore, particularly glad to be alive to witness this day. I pray to also be around in July when the Daily would be forty. I am proud of the role Vanguard has played in the life of the nation over the years and the dignity with which it discharged that role. It was always my wish and prayer, derived partly from a seemingly innocent but cynical remark General Tunde Idiagbon made at a meeting with Editors in Dodan Barracks during the teething period of the paper, that Vanguard would be counted among the best newspapers in the country.  It was a wish God granted even beyond many expectations.