The Organization of African Trade Union Unity (OATUU) marked its 40th anniversary recently . Founded in 1973 (under the defunct Organization of African Unity formed a decade earlier), the formation of OATUU brought to the fore the significance of trade unions in Africa.
Unlike contemporary Africa when some governments keep labour at arms' length, irrespective of their ideological persuasions, Africa's founding fathers (and mothers too!) appreciated the role of labour in anti-colonial struggles. Even more remarkable too, scores of nationalists and patriots who fought for independence were tested trade unionists in their own rights. Notable historic figures included late Ahmed Sekou Toure of Guinea, a trade unionist turned a political activist. He singularly mobilized the Guinean people for independence and terminated French colonialism in 1958 in a French Referendum. That was a heroic feat given that the likes of the late Félix Houphouet-Boigny of Ivory Coast voted for continued French rule. The late President Julius Nyerere and former President Kenneth Kaunda, were all unionists who fought against British colonialism in Tanzania and Zambia respectively. Late Tom Mboya led Kenyan Trade Union Movement but was also in the fore front of the struggle for Kenya's independence. Late President Modibo Keita of Mali, President Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, Hamani Diori, the founding President of Niger, late Nnamdi Azikwe, late Chief Obafemi Awolowo, Mallam Aminu Kano and of course, late Pa Michael Imoudu were all union organisers who brought to bear their respective trade unions skills in contestation and negotiation to lower the British Union Jack. Even in later day liberated territories of Namibia and South Africa, trade unions were the touch bearers in the battle for freedom.
In recognition of the historic and positive roles of African Trade Unions in 1973, OAU encouraged and consummated the formation of the OATUU. The government of Osagyfo Dr. Kwame Nkrumah was even exceptionally appreciative by building a 6-storey building, "Hall of Trade Unions" for the Ghana Trades Union Congress. It is not by accident that OATUU has it's secretariat in Accra until recently headed by Alhaji Hassan Sunmonu, the founding President of NLC.
The selling point of OATUU is the unity of Africa's trade union centres. African workers had always desired a continental organization as countervailing force to governments and employers who were equally organised at continental levels taking decisions that impact often negatively on jobs, wages and pensions among others. Trade unions were not immune from the ideological divisions of the Cold war era. Indeed they were itemised into the defunct All-African Trade Union Federation (AATUF), the African Trade Union Confederation (ATUC), and Pan-African Workers' Congress. OATUU is commendably an offshoot of these centres in 1973.
Sadly I search in vain for some discernible perspectives on OATUU at 40. Not long ago, African media uncritically downloaded the mantra according to President Barack Obama that Africa needs strong institutions not strong men. How can we build strong institutions in Africa, when we even lack knowledge of our institutions? OATUU with its secretariat in Accra (interestingly where the American President delivered his sermon about strong institutions in 2009) had been a strong and tested institution with committed selfless working men that included, Denis Akumu of Central Organisation of Trade Unions COTU (K) in Kenya, Hassan Sunmonu of Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) among others.
OATUU, despite challenges of governance (military dictatorships in many countries until the latest democratization) and unfavourable economic climate (SAP) had made positive impact on the lives of African working men and women. Proudly African, it has helped affiliates (South Sudan reportedly being the newest 55 member) to build capacity, especially in economic literacy. We must credit OATUU and other progressive organisations with the African debt cancellations and debts write offs at the turn of the century. As far back as late eighties, at a time it was fashionable for SAP imposed military regimes to outdo each other in slavish diligent repayments of dubious debts (even as they denied minimum wages and employment at home!) to its credit OATUU, called for the unconditional and total cancellation of Africa's debt. It has also been counted on the labour market institution building in the continent. OATUU played a decisive role in the transformation of hitherto top-down OAU Conference of Ministers of Labour and Social Affairs into a more participatory present day Tripartite OAU/AU Labour and Social Affairs Commission. Structural Adjustment programmes (SAPs) of the 80s collapsed due to the great struggles of OATUU's affiliates notably NLC of Nigeria and TUC OF Ghana. In particular NLC since 1988 had been resisting incessant fuel prices increases and leading "SAP riots" even at the risk of the illegal dissolution of its executive twice under IBB and Abacha dictatorships.
With the support of the Chinese, OATUU has also built a Labour College in Ghana. Rightly, many would question the independence of OATUU if African workers and governments cannot build its infrastructure. If OATUU's affiliates independently built their offices, why not OATUU? OATUU should avoid the pitfall of the dependency mentality of African leaders who preside over capital flight and corruption in the continent yet still rely on the Chinese government to rebuild AU secretariat in Addis Ababa. Let's us copy China and not ape China; cooperation and partnership, not servitude. In the next 40 years, OATUU must consolidate on unity of actions in defence of rights of African workers. We are again, sadly, back to proliferation of trade union centres without ideological claims but comfort zones of labour aristocrats. OATUU must also deepen its internal democracy. Its last Congress in Algiers was more of hearsay and murmurs compared to the open democratic contestations and participation that characterised the election of Comrade Alhaji Hassan Sunmonu in late 80s. OATUU that was loud in the struggle for enthronement of democracy in the continent must reduce its own internal democracy deficits. Brinkmanship alien to trade union movement must give way to comradeship and continental solidarity. Long live OATUU!