Labour leaders and their strike By Lasisi Olagunju


Yesterday, newspapers said there would be a showdown on Nigeria’s streets today. What does that mean? A strike was called for today but government has asked workers to ignore their leaders. Don’t blame the government. And do not blame workers too if they obey government. Labour leaders are suspects. No one trusts or respects them again. I will be shocked if they trust themselves. If workers stay off work, it will be because they are broke and tired of everything; it won’t be in obedience of any order from activist masquerades. The unions are these days seen as part of the problem to be solved. There was a Nigeria that placed its destiny in the hands of labour unions. They spoke, everyone listened and obeyed. Not anymore. That archaic Nigeria died decades ago.

An old editor called on Saturday. He wanted to know if truly workers would down tools today as ordered by their leaders. I told the boss I could not say. Why should anyone be interested in what labour leaders say? I asked if the unions were different from the government they were fighting. I asked if there was truly a disagreement between the two business partners? Imagine Moses at dinner with Pharaoh while the king’s slave masters force his people to gather straw, suffer them more and increase their burden. What angel hunts with hounds and, same time, runs with the hare? There is a court order, I reminded the boss and winked to myself. My caller said I was right. He said the fire-eating comrades might even be closet advisers to government on how to abort or stop this strike.


It was not like this at the beginning. Transactional activism in labour movement was not originally part of our civil society history. There were the patriotic exploits of Pa Michael Imoudu against the British. He did so well that the whole nation agreed that his other name should be ‘Nigeria Labour Leader Number One.’ He never sold the people’s struggle to live big. He was awesome in battles for workers but had very little in personal resources. At the age of 80, he got a house and a car as gifts from Chief Obafemi Awolowo. At age 103 in 2005, he died in a house built for him by workers. You can read the story of how in June 1945, he led the Railway Workers Union on a historic strike in Nigeria. The demand was for a raise of the eight pence daily pay of railway workers. He did not go home to sleep until the workers were victors. I was around in 1994 when Frank Kokori of NUPENG led the struggle which shooed the military out of our political space. Kokori led the labour movement to ground the country for all of us. He led the then 50,000-member strong NUPENG on a prolonged crippling oil workers strike and did not sell the struggle. Nigerians suffered and cheered trusting the drivers of the struggle. Kokori with his team suffered deprivations but did not waiver. He was arrested and detained by Sani Abacha in July 1994 and released in June 1998 by Abdulsalami Abubakar. Then came firebrand, billionaire labour leaders with mansions in their ancestral villages as dividend of their struggles. These ones throw stones at government in the day but, at night, they throw parties for the Villa. Labour unions are now wings with which politics flies. When their owners are comfortable in power, the unions go into self-induced coma; when the falconers lose relevance, the falcons bare their talons.

Our labour leaders will not ask the right questions. And it is not that they do not know what is right from what is wrong. They are merely doing what soldiers call esprit de corps. They are involved. We have a government that has very scant regard for the public and its opinions – and for truth. Government said it has withdrawn subsidy on petrol, but last week, the head of that government appointed a new head for an agency called Petroleum Equalisation Fund (PEF). This PEF exists to administer uniform prices of petroleum products throughout the country. It does this by collecting in-built transportation costs from consumers and paying same as subsidy to marketers. Did you notice the contradiction? Why should a deregulated industry sell its products in Sokoto at the same price it sells it in Lagos? And why should the Lagos consumer be made to subsidize petrol sold in Kano in a deregulated fuel regime? Government is keeping another entity called Petroleum Products Pricing Regulatory Agency (PPPRA). What work will this agency and PEF and their big men still be doing since, we are told, the sector has been deregulated? What really has this government done with the price of petrol? I have not heard our comrades interrogate these issues.

If the government is misbehaving today, it is because it knows it has conquered the whole world. If politicians have become husbands who have gone completely mad, it is because the labour unions have failed the nation. Governments spend billions on ‘audio’ palliatives for workers, labour leaders look away. Government feeds billions to invisible students in closed schools, teachers’ unions lose their vocal cords. Governors refuse to pay salaries and pensions, labour leaders venerate them with awards of excellence in public administration. The high-sounding labour leaders of the military era are now in the living room of power. They do not hide the face of Janus resting on their necks. They are analysts on television stations’ morning and evening shows; they speak for and in defence of failure. They tutor government people how to be wicked and get applause for wickedness. They call for action against excesses of government; they soon proceed to abort their own action leaving sweaty workers flat footed. If today’s strike takes off really, wait for the sad, abrupt whimper that will end it.

“The only effective answer to organized greed is organized labour,” so said an influential American labour leader, Thomas Donahue. I do not know how many ordinary Nigerians will agree with him. The reason is, here, organized greed and organized labour are synonyms. That is why I say this strike (and any strike here) is suspect. There is a reason beyond the stated reason. Why is it only over petrol price and electricity tariff? What about other unresolved issues? Unpaid minimum wage. Unbridled government borrowings. Questionable contracts and projects. In-your-face filth in public wardrobes. Deregulated death and general collapse of security. All these were live issues in our past of labour engagements. Why is security of life and property no longer on the struggle menu of our labour leaders? In August 2019, the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) held a National Executive Council (NEC) meeting in Kano. That meeting endorsed a nationwide protest against insecurity. NLC said it “would hold rallies across Nigeria to sensitise government and citizens on the need to urgently arrest the current drift in security.” It said this in a communique it issued at the end of the meeting. Now, ask our comrades: What happened to that resolution?

There is no lion again in our forest of labour movement. What we have are rats ruffling dry leaves in search of crumbs. A whole governor was shot at on Friday in Borno. Poor, innocent policemen and soldiers ‘ate’ the bullets on behalf of the governor. Death from terrorists and bandits have become ten-a-kobo in Nigeria. The North-East is Nigeria’s zone of death; the North-West is the country’s spring head of banditry. The Middle Belt and swaths of Southern forests are colonies of murderous kidnappers. The victims are most of the time straitened members of the working class. But the tears of sympathy we see are from the eyes of outsiders. There is no labour to tell the bumbling government to account for every life put in its care.

Two years ago, UNESCO said Boko Haram had destroyed nearly 1,000 schools and displaced 19,000 teachers. It cited 2016 reports from the Human Rights Watch to back its claims. It added that other UN reports indicated that Boko Haram had killed almost 2,300 teachers in that North-East corridor by 2017. “The latest education needs assessment found that out of 260 school sites, 28 per cent had been damaged by bullets, shells or shrapnel; 20 per cent had been deliberately set on fire; 32 per cent had been looted and 29 per cent had armed groups or military in close proximity.” Scary figures! That was two years ago. The situation is worse today. Some days ago, before the attack on the Borno governor, a colonel was murdered by terrorists in that state. Another colonel was reported killed by bandits in Katsina two days ago. How many nameless soldiers died with these colonels? We do not know. When will these killings end? We have no clue. Even the government cannot say – because it is clueless. Now, if all these are not enough for labour – and for us – to genuinely fret over, what will?

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