Opinion: How Organized Labour Deceived Nigerians – by Reuben Abati
I was very skeptical when the current leadership of Organized Labour in Nigeria objected to the decision of the Federal Government to withdraw fuel subsidy and hand over the pump price of petrol to the forces of demand and supply, also known as market forces. Labour, represented by the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) and the Trade Union Congress (TUC), and their affiliates and privies in civil society, further threatened that they were opposed to the hike in electricity tariffs. They issued a statement in which they railed against neo-liberal policies, bad timing, and the insensitivity of government. They made heavy weather out of the hardship that COVID-19 has imposed on the people and why any form of additional taxation that could pressurize the people would be utterly unacceptable. Deregulation of the downstream sector is not a new subject in Nigeria. Removal of fuel subsidy is an old subject. Only the dumb and the deaf would deny being aware of the persistent argument that a functioning electricity sector in Nigeria would unleash the country’s energy and potentials, through the values derivable therefrom: saving of costs, creation of jobs, a value-added SME, an improved manufacturing sector and a happier, more productive citizenry.
In 2012, when the Jonathan administration announced a full deregulation of the downstream sector and removal of fuel subsidy, Organized Labour aligned with opposition politicians and turned the argument on its head. They called out their troops and a thoroughly hypnotized political class, and workers’ community, fostered tension and instability in the system. In 2016, the party that succeeded the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), that is the All Progressives Congress (APC) and its leaders who had lied to Nigerians that there was no fuel subsidy in the country, but unconscionable theft, and that the Jonathan government was wrong, promptly increased fuel prices. They argued that a fuel subsidy regime was not sustainable: the same argument that they opposed in 2012.
Their conspirators at the time in Organized Labour kept mute. In 2020, with COVID-19 disrupting everything in the world including relationships, with Nigeria suffering a debt and revenue crisis, the collapse of fiscal buffers, and sheer adversity, the Federal Government decided to pull the plugs. It blamed all of these factors and chose to announce a removal of fuel subsidy. Pump price of fuel, benchmarked to the spot price of crude oil in the international market jumped through the roof. Nigerians groaned. The Federal Government argued that it was not left with any other option. Everyone expected that Organized Labour would intervene. But Labour didn’t quite do so. Groups in civil society had to picket the Abuja Headquarters of the Nigeria Labour Congress to protest that the NLC should speak up and call the people out on the streets, because life had become harsh and hard for the average Nigerian.
After being pushed, a combined team of the NLC and TUC finally announced that they would call out Labour on strike and shut down the country. They gave the Federal Government stringent conditions: a complete reversal of the hike in fuel price and electricity tariffs. Or else, Nigeria would be shut down indefinitely beginning from September 28, 2020. I was not impressed. I questioned Labour’s sincerity of purpose. I felt they were just playing a game. The biggest tragedy that has befallen Organized Labour in Nigeria is the thinking since 1999, that the leadership of Labour can be used as a stepping stone to a bigger role in Nigeria. Labour leaders use their positions to negotiate big benefits. They mouth progressive slogans and parrot aggressive rhetoric but it is all a lie.
Under the military, there was a man called Paschal Bafyau who used the ladder of Labour leadership to gain prominence. Matthew Hassan Kukah in his book – Democracy and Civil Society In Nigeria (Ibadan: Spectrum, 1999) considers him “a sell-out”. With the return to democracy in 1999, the new Labour hero was Adams Oshiomhole of the Textile Garments and Tailoring Union. He was a thorn in the flesh of the Obasanjo administration. He could talk, dance and make Communist-style speeches. He captured the public imagination. He would soon make a leap from being Labour leader into partisan politics. He became Governor of Edo State for two terms. He later became Chairman of Nigeria’s ruling party. He also became a Godfather of Nigerian politics. Something tells me every Labour leader after Oshiomhole wants to be like him. They too want to ride SUVs, and enjoy unfettered access to the seat of power.
They also want to be Godfathers in Nigerian politics. The danger here is that this transmogrification of Labour Leadership in Nigeria, sighted first with Paschal Bafyau and raised to another level with Oshiomhole, created a new brand of Labour activism that contradicts norm, culture and tradition in the Nigerian Left. This new generation of opportunistic Labour leaders have devalued the heroism of the likes of Labour Leader No 1, Michael Imoudu, Herbert Macaulay, Eskor Toyo, Wahab Goodluck, the Sunmonu brothers and Frank Kokori. A compromised Labour leadership is a disgrace to the Revolution. I find no better exemplification than the current Labour Movement in Nigeria led by Comrade Aliyu Wabba, and the incompetent and hypocritical response to Labour issues in the country.
In my view, the NLC and the TUC had no business calling out anybody on strike. When they reluctantly did so, they were playing politics and trying to appear concerned about workers’ welfare. This new set of Labour leaders don’t care about the people. They are partisan politicians. Civil society organizations continue to make the mistake.