Millions of workers in Nigeria look up to their union leaders to organise them to protect their rights. But recent events show that unionists are fast losing the confidence of the masses
When the controversial Central Bank Governor of Nigeria Mallam Sanusi Lamido took his habitual goofs a step further by insulting the intelligence of the Nigerian masses at the Second Annual Capital Market Committee Retreat in Warri, Delta State, last week by stating that 'at least 50 per cent of the Nigerian entire workforce should be sacked', many people believed that Sanusi had touched the tail of a tiger and he must take the consequences. According to the governor, Nigeria spends up to 70 per cent of its earnings in paying salaries and emoluments to civil servants. Cutting public workers by half would free up money for infrastructural development, he argued.
Immediately I read about this proposal in The Punch Newspaper, I thought I could predict what exactly the reaction to his comment was going to look like: National Labour Congress leaders would immediately come up with a press statement castigating Sanusi and perhaps calling for his removal; the civil society would rise up in their numbers to reprimand the capitalist's hit-man; our ever-zealous Femi Falana and other concerned learned 'comrades in gown' would caution this agent of destruction to watch his statements; our ever-articulate pen-pushers would begin to open our eyes to the high level of corruption and money that is being accrued to the institutions such as the Central Bank under Sanusi; and the National Assembly would advise him to stop overheating the polity. Then, everybody, including the NLC, would go back to sleep and Sanusi would continue to enjoy all the luxury that his office attracts. After all, this is Nigeria where every citizen is expected to have a short memory.
In all the events that have happened since Sanusi's provocative and anti-people statement, this writer has been proved right. Strangely, the only unexpected twist that has since been added to the drama was the entrance of the Congress for Progressive Change who lambasted NLC leadership over its call for Sanusi's removal. To the party, the CBN boss is just an individual who cannot influence any policy within the Executive. This statement only shows the level of intellects of those that made up the CPC and it also indicates that in terms of policies, all the present capitalist political parties in Nigeria are birds of a feather. But how could anyone fault the CPC's position? After all, its leader is Muhammadu Buhari, a man who declared in one of his 2011 presidential debates that there is nothing wrong with the Nigerian Educational sector. To him, 'everything is just perfect'.
Beyond this, however, Sanusi's tirade and the CPC's diatribe are reflections of the erosion of NLC's leadership's hypothetical intimidating credentials. It portrays them as the paper tiger that only appears scary but cannot exhibit the real traits of a true tiger. In a capitalist's clime, the name of organised labour is enough to intimidate any oppressive strata of the ruling elite, even the president of a country cannot just say that workers are irrelevant. Ditto for political parties; the control that the labour leadership should have over the masses is enough to compel these political parties to always hold the NLC leadership in such a high reverence.
But in our case, reverse has been the case. That a political party which is still relying on the goodwill of the people for relevance could tell the NLC leaders to go to hell and 'stop being hypocritical' is a sad statement about the NLC's popularity. Sanusi may be anything but daft: he knows that Nigeria is the only country where a government agent could make such a statement and still be allowed by the labour unions to remain in power. In another setting, his tenure would have become history by now. But our own NLC is just a paper tiger whose threat doesn't go beyond the pages of newspapers.
In its hey day, trade union leadership played an inestimably productive task in the progression of Nigerian society. It organized the masses and promoted their interests against exploitative, manipulative and unfair civil relations. It participated vigorously in the decolonization process, and struggled against neo-colonial regimes to gain concessions so as to protect the socio-economic interests of the downtrodden. It often opposed laxity, negligence and corruption in the management of the affairs of the state, and pursued a relatively nationalist and unifying project in contrast to the highly divisive politics of the post-colonial Nigerian ruling elites.
Ironically, the same cannot be said of the current crop of leadership. As the Nigerian situation continues to worsen by the day, the little gains of the labour movement to improve the living conditions of the workers have been eroded; workers are now more agitated, disconcerted and perturbed, and they are looking forward for their leadership to proffer a concrete way forward; but the leadership are either not just there or are busy romanticizing and dining with the ruling elite.
The disappointing manner in which the NLC ended the mass protests of January is still very fresh in the minds of the masses as the union leaders maintained that it agreed to this because the Jonathan administration had promised to implement some programme that would ease the plight of the working masses. Unfortunately for the Labour leaders, the outcome of the whole drama points out the futility of being a gentle-compromising man in an encounter with a rascal. For barely two months after, the same government openly suspended the implementation of the limited 'palliatives' proposed in this respect while the fuel price is presently being sold, albeit unofficially, at the rate of N120 in many states across the land.
The result of such betrayal is the declining authority of NLC over industrial unions, stirring of discontent among the rank and file, declining popularity of labour officials and increased worker apathy and droopiness. When a sizeable number of state NLC were locked up in battle with their state governors over the non-implementation of N18, 000 minimum wage, there was no concrete response from the national leadership; when the workers' casualization became the major policies of many state across the Southwest and even the federal government with its proposed U-win, the national leadership bluntly refused to fight against this evil of capitalism. And while university administrations across the land are raising their school fees to astronomic levels beyond the means of the common masses and progressives unions are being proscribed, the NLC, with its Trade Union Congress (TUC) counterpart, is simply looking the other way.
Compromise under the guise of consultation is rapidly replacing labour's established method of confrontation; the specious strategy of settlement is speedily supplanting the ideologically rooted principles of struggle as a tactic; the social relevance of trade unions is becoming lowered to zero and the political relevance of labour union leaders has been whittled down. The condition is even more disconcerting at the state levels as many chairmen are simply parading the state parastatals and the governors' houses seeking appointment and contractual slots to swell their own purses. Arguably, the Nigerian trade unions have never had it this bad.
The workers' goals cannot be realized by a set of leaders who will say one thing in the open but say something else in secret; it cannot be actualized by that set of leaders who will yell all the principles of socialism from the rooftops only when they want some pecuniary reward. The present NLC and TUC leadership are no more giving direction.
And now that the financial hit-man of the Nigerian ruling elite has spoken, NLC must not be deceived that Sanusi is speaking all alone. He has tactically revealed what the Jonathan government has in the pipeline for the Nigerian masses after 2015 election: Labour and the masses had better get set for the battles ahead.
That NLC's intervention is pivotal to the growth and sustenance of genuine development of Nigeria is not in doubt. But NLC's ability to play active roles in promoting these principles as well as serving as a genuine mouthpiece of the masses has been severely weakened in the last five years. For the NLC and TUC to be taken seriously by both the state and the employers, their leaders need to reflect seriously in their actions.
Finally, while it is envisaged that the current leadership of the unions will learn to do things better with time, a deliberate inconsistence which is almost becoming the order of the day will not only spell doom for the union; it will erode the confidence which the entire masses had in it. The present leadership of the union, therefore, need to shape up or in the alternative remain stagnant, not only to its peril but also to the peril of the masses that are looking forward to the union as their saviour.
Adewale Stephen is based at the Department of History, Obafemi Awolowo University Ile Ife, Osun State, Nigeria.