By Hassan Gimba
There is no Nigerian that will tell you he is not aware of the NLC even if he does not know that it is an acronym for the Nigeria Labour Congress.
What the average Nigerian knows about them is that they always go on strike at the drop of a hat, strikes that have lost their meaning because they always achieve almost nothing.
Well, there’s nothing in it for the average Nigerian; only for the vanguards of the congress. At least, that is what an average citizen will tell you. This suspicion, or rather an assumption, is fueled by the fact that days into a strike, the comrades would be shown on national television laughing and exchanging banters with government officials, and the next you hear is that the strike is suspended while the reasons for the strike in the first place remain unresolved.
Citizens suspect the laughs from the chubby-cheeked people on the telly mean each side is happy with what transpired at the closed-door meeting despite the cause of the strike remaining unsolved.
A good example is that of fuel increase or subsidy withdrawal. The labour leaders would shout, give ultimatums and then mobilise workers for a strike. And these strikes affect everyone, not only workers because the public and private sectors are intricately connected.
Yet the issue ,subsidy. lingers: the palliatives promised, even though mainly targeted to help government workers, are too little or are still being awaited.
We were witnesses to a long strike, getting to almost a year, by the Academic Staff Union of Universities ,ASUU, yet the NLC was nowhere to be found.
But what is getting alarming now is that the labour union, like our governments and their institutions, is becoming a tool for personal causes. There is no reason for the union to call a national strike because its president was assaulted. If he was attacked because he was fighting for fairness and justice, then that should be seen as a sacrifice for his role.
Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Aminu Kano, Gambo Sawaba and many other great freedom and human rights fighters never privatised or personalised their struggles or made people fight the system because they were assaulted.
In any case, how many Nigerians have been attacked, humiliated and dehumanised without the labour union fighting for them? How many have been killed, some by non-state actors and some by security agents? And some victims were public servants. If labour says it is there for the workers, where was it?
And despite this, they are full of cowardice. For instance, the labour union president was manhandled in Owerri, but they came to Abuja Airport to block access roads and, after that, they embarked on a nationwide strike.
We have had many labour leaders, right from Michael Imoudu, popularly known as Pa Imoudu, the father of labour unionism in Nigeria, but none of them personalised the labour struggle till now.
Wahab Goodluck, the first president of the NLC, who served between 1978 and 1984, led the struggle for better wages and working conditions. He fought against the government’s attempt to deregulate the economy and privatise state-owned enterprises. He organised the NLC and made it a force to be reckoned with, but he never personalised the struggle.
Paschal Bafyau, who took over from Goodluck, made the NLC more politically conscious and active, but he never personalised the union. He successfully negotiated a minimum wage and led the union in the fight to usher in civilian rule in 1999.
One of the greatest presidents the NLC ever had was Ali Ciroma, who served from 1988 to 1994. He fought against General Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida’s move to introduce the Structural Adjustment Programme ,SAP. The union gained strength and influence under his leadership, but one thing he did not do was personalise its activities.
Adams Oshiomhole, who served as its president from 1999 to 2007, gave the labour union more visibility, influence and effectiveness but he never personalised its fight.
One may contend that the quality of the labour union and its search for solutions for the Nigerian worker and, ultimately, the country started nose-diving after Oshiomhole. Many people expected the union to be at the vanguard of solving the country’s problems instead of being self-serving and bringing archaic ways to help the workers and the country.
A good example is the one to do with minimum wage. For how long will labour unions continue mouthing ‘salary increments’ in the face of dwindling national income and the plummeting value of our currency?
Perhaps out of intellectual paucity, they have failed to propose a more intellectually viable option, to both workers and the government, about how to stabilise the naira and make us a nation that produces what it consumes and vice versa.
Every patriot knows that buying things from abroad causes capital flight. A patriotic labour union should be the last to sanction a situation where our government spends hundreds of billions of naira annually to buy cars from foreign manufacturers, thereby keeping afloat other countries’ economies to the detriment of ours.
But Nigerian labour leaders feel comfortable being chauffeur-driven in foreign cars, keeping foreign businesses thriving and foreigners employed while Nigerian youths are jobless and languishing in abject poverty because the country’s industries are dead. How patriotic! This is why they cannot offer a better alternative other than asking for a salary increment. They do not have the intellectual capacity to know that it is not the quantity but the quality of the currency that matters.
Take, for instance, the case of China and Germany, where the minimum wages are $358 (about ₦405,000 as of last week) and 1557 euro (₦1,845,000) respectively, now cast your mind back to when the naira was at par with the dollar and assume our minimum wage of ₦30,000 is $30,000, don’t you think that is more than enough?
Yet still, workers in some of these countries enjoy free housing, healthcare, education, affordable public transport and a constant supply of electricity. This is why salaries have value there.
Our labour union, which should be fighting for better working conditions and stronger currency, is instead fighting for more money, thereby courting inflation and encouraging capital flight through patronising foreign goods and services.
With our bumbling, self-serving and intellectually lazy labour union, it is high time we started scrutinising their motives and their base desires.
Hassan Gimba is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Neptune Prime.