Mni — The Nigeria Civil Service Union (NCSU) headed by its National President Comrade Kiri Muhammed marked the centenary celebration of the union with a remarkable historic institution building gesture; the official commissioning of its national secretariat at prestigious area of Zone 6 on the 29th of August, 2012.
Nigeria Civil Service Union was officially recognized as a trade union in 1912 by the British colonial authorities making it the first official trade union in Nigeria. Trade unions, like any other institutions are products of their peculiar historic realities. Centenary means celebration of hundred years of continuous struggles of Nigerian workers for improved working and living conditions and forging a common front to achieve set objectives. Professor Dafe Otobo (1995) a leading African author of scores of books on labour struggles identified four important events, which shaped the growth of trade union movement before the reform of mid-1970s. The events were colonialism, World War II, nationalism and Cold War.
The significance of colonialism in the process of union formation cannot be over-emphasized. Modern employment and wage labour dated back to colonial times. Before the advent of European rule, traditional economy relied on either family or communal labour. Since there were no distinct employers in this subsistence economy, 'workers' in the modern sense and indeed trade unions were non-existent. British colonialists assaulted and dismantled the old production order and in place erected economic system which 'became synonymous with 'collision, conflict and class struggle'. Colonialism required wage labour in public works, infrastructure construction such as railways and administration. Early trade unions thus emerged mainly in the colonial service (read; slave labour) sector, missionary schools and railways. The first generation of trade unions understandably thus included Nigeria Civil Service Union (1912), the Nigerian Union of Teachers (1931) and Nigerian Union of Railwaymen (note: no women) (1932).
Unions came into existence with the main objectives of ameliorating the deplorable working conditions during the exploitative and discriminatory system that characterized British colonial rule. Since the emergence of the first generation trade unions, thousands of trade unions have been formed in Nigeria. Today, Nigeria has a system of vibrant industrial unionism as distinct from the house unions of pre-1975 era. This system means that trade unions are formed along industrial/trade lines in which every 'junior' or 'senior' worker in an industry belongs to the same trade union with the 'senior' staff belonging to senior staff associations.
The unions are in turn affiliated to national labour centres, the largest, oldest and tested centre being the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) with as many as 40 affiliate unions and 5 million workers drawn from the public and private sectors of the economy. NLC itself is affiliated to Organization of African Trade Union Unity (OATUU) and the global union, International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC). All industrial unions are also affiliated to their respective international global unions. Recently three global unions in textile and garment, mines, electricity and petroleum sectors merged to form a mega centre-Industry with 50 million workers from manufacturing sectors worldwide.
Thus today the nascent trade union, NCSU (which was indeed actually inaugurated on the 19th august, 1912) had transformed into a multi-industrial, national and global labour movement thanks to the perseverance and sacrifices of Nigerian working men and women in the past 100 years.
It is therefore self-evident that labour movement is older than Nigerian Republic itself. Nigeria got independence in 1960. Indeed the struggles of Nigerian trade unions for better working conditions laid the foundation for the struggle against British system of exploitation and oppression that led to independence. Amalgamation of both the North and the South took place in 1914 two years after pan-Nigerian labour union had been formed. Trade unions must therefore be celebrated as the first and foremost pan-Nigerian organisations that symbolise the unity and common struggles of all Nigerians for independence and development. Trade unions preceded Nigeria army, police, parliament and even Nigerian political parties which came into existence in 1920s. Trade unions must be treated with policy sensitivity that acknowledged its developmentalist roles in colonial and contemporary Nigeria.
It is remarkable that 100 years ago, the very crisis of compensation in terms of low pay that fired the urge of workers to form a union in 1912 persists today. The centenary speech of Comrade Kiri decried the non-payment of minimum wages by some state governments as well as some Federal MDAs. If colonial exploiters denied minimum wages and were fought and defeated by the founding labour leaders like Michael Imoudu, public sector union leaders have the same legitimate right to engage state governors that choose to govern with slave labour 52 years after independence. It is clear that from policy advocacy and mass protest intervention for good governance our trade unions are not withering away but they definitely face new challenges such as deepening internal democracy, capacity building if they must protect the gains of members and improve on more than 100 years of achievements. Abundant record shows that trade unions perform meaningful roles within the democratic system and will continue to do so in many coming years.
Happy centenary anniversary comrades!