BEFORE you assume this article is about to mock the beating of the President of the Nigerian Labour Congress (NLC) by Governor Uzodinma’s thugs under the supervision of Nigerian Police personnel who were allegedly led by Chinasa Nwaneri (Special Assistant to the Governor of Imo state on Special Duties), Tapey and Madoka, ask yourself one question: If the NLC President could get beaten and abducted for protesting (which is literally his job), should the rest of us expect basic human rights and civil liberties again? I can only imagine how much beating he must have gone through for his right eye to be completely shut from the torture.
Seeing the video made by the union president after that brutal torture made me very, very afraid.
It made me afraid for the Nigerian government and the ruling class, who are empowering all their gatekeepers to hold on to power, because they risk a bloody uprising of the people trying to justifiably defend themselves from economic and physical attacks. The Nigerian ruling class is a real house of commotion and we are about to break the gates down as the gatekeepers get betrayed. That uprising will not be held back by any gates, and at the risk of sounding soft, I pity these oppressors! A lot of us seriously wish that a bloodless critical awareness revolution can happen in Nigeria instead of a bloody revolution, but it is said that those who make peaceful revolution impossible make violent revolution inevitable. The same gatekeepers that have helped them to keep us down are now being attacked by them, but it’s not that simple.
We must say something loud and clear no matter the mixed feelings we have about Comrade Ajaero and the NLC. Any Nigerian has the right to participate in any protest in Nigeria as long as s/he is a citizen of our country; no matter the pure or ulterior motive behind the protest. Protest can never be a crime, no matter the time or intention, whether it is few weeks to an election or during an election. During the 2019 elections, NYSC Corp members on election duties downed tools and protested non-payment of allowances in some parts of the country. So, election period is never sacred for protests to hold. In fact, the logic of election is to protest for or against.
The only major difference between the civilian dictatorship that we experience presently in Nigeria and the brutal military regimes of the past is the fact that the freedom to associate and protest is now very legal and preserved in the constitution. There should be no debate about that!
Those justifying the attack on the NLC president on the basis of the intention of the protest are morally bankrupt morons with some conscious or subconscious ties with the Tinubu regime and what the regime represents. The intention of a protest is no justification for an attack on the protesters. If you don’t like the protest, stage your own!
Those justifying the attack on the argument that Ajaero is from Imo State and that he is not supposed to meddle into politics as a labour leader and an automatic Labour Party member are also very wrong. Labour political parties exist all over the world. In the case of Nigeria, it is sad that rank-and-file workers are no longer in charge of their party, but their right to have a political party and a political interest remains sacrosanct. Those also arguing that Ajaero might be using the protest to mobilise for a candidate in the election or for a future governorship ambition in Imo – his home state – are also very wrong. Workers and their leaders have the right to have a candidate in an election while protesting the policies of the present administration simultaneously. If the unions were democratic, workers will democratically choose those who represent their welfare interests.
If it was for a future ambition, there is nothing wrong in having that ambition. APC became a national party through the force of protest by the working people. Electoral efforts and protests are not mutually exclusive and we have to shout that from rooftops. The Tinubu regime is trying to make protests about electoral issues illegal. The first thing the APC did after it rigged the elections earlier in the year was to ask people not to protest but go to court. Activists can be radical politicians and vice versa.
As a non-political kid in Ilesa back in the 2008 – 2010 period, I playfully joined rallies of the then-ACN to restore the electoral mandate of Aregbesola in Osun State, which became the first state won by the Tinubu tendency outside of Lagos. Oshiomhole rode on his reputation as a worker’s leader to win governorship in Edo and that would have been a great thing if he had executed and defended pro-workers policies as governor. So political ambition for a worker’s leader or activist is not bad in itself. What can be bad is the goal of that ambition and the method with which that ambition is conducted? In the case of Oshiomhole, the goal was to become APC’s National Chairman and therefore his method was to win governorship and later cross-carpet to the ruling party. That method was anti-people because he only used the people for his personal interests.
Now let’s have the frank talk. The beating of Comrade Ajaero for organising a protest under a so-called democracy is not something to joke about. It’s something that calls for a sober reflection; a sober reflection on the methods of the NLC and the trade union movement over the years. The methodology of first calling for a strike/protest, and then calling same off has become the tradition for a while now.
Not only did the labour leaders imbibe this erratic habit been the practice, it had been done in an undemocratic manner. Tragically, they have through this unholy practice succeeded in building the unions into undemocratic bodies where congresses have become alien. Most unions affiliated to the NLC are dominated by mini-dictators, with the exception of a handful. The NLC did not only call off the September 2020 action against fuel price and electricity tariff increment, but they took a completely silent position on #EndSARS until the protest ended in a massacre of innocent young protesters.
The latest protest against subsidy removal and fuel price increment was called off after less than a day and since then, NLC has only been issuing empty threats while the working people of Nigeria suffer these increments every day. The working people have constantly felt betrayed by NLC. Over the years till now, it’s been all threats but no proactive action. This is understandably behind the prevailing, though behind-the-scene derision in working circles of the beating of the NLC president by the police and thugs.
Asides the fact that NLC has disappointed many Nigerians over and over again, another method of the NLC is the seeming restriction of using its national might to prosecute in states struggles that have national spread. Before now, most of the workers would allege that their state leaders are complicit with whichever state government maltreating them, and that’s why the NLC is not taking up those issues in their own state. Can’t problems like non-payment of salaries not be taken up nationally as a matter of solidarity? For example, the non-payment of workers’ salaries and pensions, that is a menace in Imo State, is a dominant challenge in almost every state of the country.
In the last administration of President Muhammadu Buhari, rather than tackle the failure of all the ministries and the neo-liberal policies on which the Buhari government was anchored, NLC singled out Dr Chris Ngige (Minister of Labour and Employment). I think this is partly because NLC fears that they have too many political interests within their own structure that they might not be able to confront the whole of the Nigerian ruling capitalist class, especially when all they rely on for their actions are those leadership structures. This is because their membership is largely disconnected because they are never consulted by the leaders who just issue directives. This history of selective activism of the NLC is why many people justify Ajaero’s pounding.
The NLC has become so irresponsible that workers no longer respond to their empty threats when they call for warning sit-at-home strikes. In the last sit-at-home strike, they had to beat workers in Ondo for not complying with the directive. Maybe the beating of the NLC President is Karma for that, may be, not. One thing I’m sure of is that the beating is a wakeup call for NLC to build a proactively democratic labour movement for the working people across the country. It is a wakeup call for the labour movement to start confronting the Tinubu regime on fuel subsidy removal, electricity tariff increment, naira floating, non-payment of salaries and allowances, non-payment of pensions, demolition of the homes of the working poor, rampant insecurity, etc.
While reading the outcry of the masses against the purchase of 160 billion-naira SUVs by the National Assembly, I remembered that I once worked in the NLC headquarters building and I witnessed the ‘carcade’ of labour leaders in the NLC and the expensive official rides of the Labour leaders. This is not to say that they should not condemn it or protest it, but to ask them to go and wash their hands clean from the corruption and inequality of this system first so that they can come to equity with clean hands.
This is to say that it has become too hard to distinguish the NLC and other labour leaders from the ruling class themselves. They also issue DIRECTIVES to the working people just like the ruling class does to workers in public service. So where is the distinction? How won’t we understand those who no longer know the difference between the NLC President and the governor, especially now that the NLC President has a Chief of Staff? How won’t we understand those who think this is ruling class infighting?
Let me cite an example of proactive unionism here. Earlier in the week, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) stormed a student community in Obafemi Awolowo University (OAU) in the middle of the night. 69 alleged internet fraudsters were arrested after being slapped and shoved around by EFCC Officials at Oduduwa Estate. The next day, the union leadership mobilised three Coaster buses and three Hummer buses of students to the EFCC office in Ibadan and staged a protest until a huge number of the students picked were released because the EFCC had no basis to hold them. Within 24 hours of the protest, the EFCC Chairman announced an end to midnight sting operations by the EFCC. I remember that there were labour leaders who joined in calling #EndSARS protesters internet fraudsters even when SARS and the Nigerian Police were brutalising all of us. People have died, workers have become homeless and the masses have become hopeless because of the evil policies of this government but the NLC has justified some of the anti-people policies of the government causing this despair and blamed the people. Now the table has turned!
I have genuine mixed feelings about the beating like most Nigerians and I have only tried to sort out those feelings by writing this. It’s not that I have answers for everyone on this complex situation. But I know that the trade union movement is our baby. If our baby has lost consciousness and our oppressors decide to help us beat our baby back to consciousness out of deep-seated hatred for us and our baby, should we not be happy for the gift of life?
Does the pleasure of life not overrule the pain of beating on the baby, especially when we are equipped and poised to ensure we address the diseases that made our baby lose consciousness in the first instance? While I send my solidarity fist to those rank-and-file workers fighting for their wages and got hurt at Imo, does the pleasure of a looming NLC protest on November 8 over this beating and other issues not override the pain of the beating of Comrade Joe Ajaero? Can we try to see the silver lining here? I’m just asking though.
Comrade Ibukun writes from Abuja and can be contacted on 09167636201