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Visions of the Alfa Talakawa, from the Proletariat...Nigeria, as I see it

Friday, February 3, 2012

LEPRECHAUN'S POT OF BLACK GOLD I : Workers and Soldiers in the Ant Colony


Labor unions in Nigeria actually precede the 1914 amalgamation of the Northern and Southern Protectorates to form ‘Nigeria’.

As at 1912, government employees had a civil service union which became Nigerian Union of Civil Servants in 1914.

By 1931, two other major unions were founded: the Nigerian Railway Workers Union and the Nigerian Union of Teachers (which included private-school teachers).

The Unions became legal entities in 1938, and was followed by rapid labor organization during World War II as a result of passage by the British government of the Colonial Development and Welfare Act of 1940, which encouraged the establishment of unions in the colonies.

In June and July of 1945, 43,000 workers providing key services went on a strike that lasted more than forty (40) days.

This strike was provoked by the defense regulation of October 1942 (which interestingly made strikes and lockouts illegal for the duration of the World War II) denying African workers the cost-of-living allowances that European civil servants received. Wages were sparsely increased, even in the face of escalating cost of living. 

Consequent upon the strike's success, the labor movement grew steadily and by 1950 there were 144 unions with more than 144,000 members.

The Labour Unions became the only organized voice of dissent from the Military intervention of 1966, and defied Military decrees outlawing Strikes all through. However, there were several factions.

In 1974, the four central labour organisations of Nigeria were the Nigerian Trade Union Congress (NTUC) led by Wahab Goodluck, the Labour Unity Front (LUF) led by Michael Imoudu, the Nigerian Workers Council (NWC) led by Ramon and the United Labour Congress of Nigeria led by Kaltungo and Odeyemi (ULCN).

Only the ULCN was officially recognized by the Nigerian government. In that year, the four groups merged to form one central labor organisation, the Nigeria Labour Congress with Wahab Goodluck as the pioneer President. 

By 1977, the Obasanjo Military Administration had banned eleven labor leaders (including Michael Imoudu, Wahab Goodluck and Samuel Bassey) from further union activity. Under terms of a 1978 labor decree amendment, the more than 1,000 previously existing unions were reorganized into 70 registered industrial unions under the NLC, now the sole central labor organization. The Government was apparently acting on the petitions written by Pascal Bafyau and Hudson Momodu. A committed and transparent leader, Comrade Hassan Sunmonu, emerged from this crisis as head of the NLC.

Comrade Hassan Sunmonu was underrated because he was the first leader to emerge from the Senior Cadre of the Civil Service. At the time he launched ‘The Workers’ Charter of Demands’ in February 1980, and demanded a Minimum Wage of N300, insisting also that the Minimum Pension must not be lower than the Minimum Wage, not many took him serious.

Until May 11 1981.

As the World awoke to the death of the Legendary Bob Marley, Nigeria woke up to a crippling general strike!

The government resorted to intimidation at first, and the recorded goof of going after Comrade Hassan’s identical twin brother Hussein in hot pursuit in a classic case of mistaken identity ensued. Eventually the Government had to succumb to negotiations and a compromise of N125 was reached.

The return of the Military Junta in 1983 took its toll on Labour, the ‘freezing’ of Workers Wages in spite of soaring inflation, the detention of Alhaji Ali Ciroma, the then NLC President , and some other Labour leaders under the Babangida Regime during the  Subsidy Removal Protest. The Babangida administration eventually succeeded in installing a 5th columnist: Pascal Bafyau (the reader might need to go back three paragraphs if he/she is encountering this name for the first time in this article). He was the Labour leader till the dissolution of NLC in 1994 under the Abacha regime.

It was against this backdrop that PENGASSAN and NUPENG suffered a heavy blow in 1994 in the heat of the June 12 struggle (the movement to actualize the mandate given to the late Businessman/Politician, Bashorun MKO Abiola on the 12th June 1993). Unknown to most Nigerians, Pascal Bafyau was meant to be MKO Abiola’s running mate as scripted by the ‘Army Caucus’ but Abiola picked Alhaji Babagana Kingibe.

NUPENG was worst hit, with Frank Kokori (General Secretary) being detained Four (4) Years (he was released Nine (9) days after Abacha’s death on June 17th 1998. The Late Wariebi Agamene, the President of NUPENG, was released much earlier (December 31, 1995). PENGASSAN’s Milton Dabibi (General Secretary) was arrested and detained January 1996 till June 1998.

 Under Bafyau, the NLC received N50 million for the construction of NLC National Secretariat in Abuja and N100 million for the Federal Urban Mass Transit program. These monies were not accounted for.

This provides a backdrop for the controversy that greeted the N2.3-out-of-5 billion NLC/TUC China Bus deal that made the news 21-22nd October 2011, the ghost of which ‘re-emerged’ in the heat of the ‘Palliative’ debate that came up following the fuel-price-hike-fuel-subsidy-removal-whatever drama of January 1st 2012.

Years of Military incursion and unwholesome meddling morphed the Labour Union into what it is today. The Obasanjo 2005 Labour Reforms made Union Membership non-compulsory. While it empowers Union Members to pull out or threaten to, when they feel their Welfare concerns are not being attended to, it unfortunately became a powerful weapon in the hands of Employers who now compel members NOT to join Unions.  

Today, one can say categorically, that the NLC tragically falls short of its Mission Statement:

‘…………….. to organize, unionize and educate all categories of Nigerian workers; defend and advance the political, economic, social and cultural rights of Nigerian workers; emancipate and unite Nigerian workers and people from all forms of exploitation and discrimination; achieve gender justice in the work place and in NLC; strengthen and deepen the ties and connections between Nigerian workers and the mutual/natural allies in and outside Nigeria and; lead the struggle for the transformation of Nigeria into a just, humane and democratic society.’

The NLC that rose on January 29 1999 out of the ashes of the Abacha tyranny has been reduced to ‘Pump Price Negotiating Unit’ without much recourse to other areas of welfare affecting the Nigerian Workers.  Occasional Significant pickets of Multinational Companies tend to miraculously ‘miss’ the 9-10 O’ Clock News, even in an era of ‘Private Media’.

Perhaps, the onus lies significantly on Civil Society Groups, as exemplified with the Occupy Nigeria Rallies, and even such Rallies would have to device means of sustenance should NLC pull the plug.

It is this Writer’s opinion that Opposition Parties can build their strength by actively resisting State Policies that tend to be repressive on the people whose votes they seek in forth-coming elections. While the PDP led Government may try to intimidate Opposition by calling them ‘embittered losers’, it is my experience that Nigerians with time, eventually get to judge sincerity when evident.

Afterall, the Tyranny of Mugabe has only been restrained by the Opposition Parties to his ruling ZANU-PF Party.