ORGANISED Labour, and specifically, the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC), has continued to make strategic miscalculations since the inauguration of President Bola Ahmed Tinubu. The first slipup was the failure to spontaneously respond in kind to President Tinubu’s inaugural address when he literally declared war on working people by his pronouncement that “subsidy [on petrol] is gone!”
Responding in kind would have been a replication of the spontaneous 2012 January resistance to former President Goodluck Jonathan’s petrol price increase, which ultimately forced the government to reduce the price of the product. In addition to that, Jonathan’s subsequent political misfortune could arguably be linked to that nationwide protests, then described as the Nigerian version of the Arab Spring.
If the inaction in calling workers out was an unforced error by the leadership of Organised Labour, a greater error was the obviously unreflective resolutions from Labour’s dialogue with the Femi Gbajabiamila-led federal government team on June 5, 2023 that truncated the threat to embark on an indefinite strike scheduled to start on Wednesday, June 7.
The seven-point resolutions, which leaders of Organised Labour flaunted as justification for the suspension of the strike were, to use the cliché, not worth the paper on which they were written, and could have justifiably been trashed by even the least experienced but conscious trade unionist.
The resolutions were not only way off the demands contained in the communiqué of the National Executive Council (NEC) meeting, signed by Comrades Joe Ajaero and Emmanuel Ugboaja, NLC President and General Secretary respectively, they also completely failed to take into context the fury in an earlier statement signed by Comrade Ajaero in which he described the new petrol pricing template as “vexatious” and an “ambush” that may scuttle the dialogue between Organised Labour and the federal government.
There is nothing to indicate that this pattern will alter any time soon. This conclusion is based on the outcome of the most recent engagement between Organised Labour and Government, which again led to Labour’s suspension of yet another general strike and street protests that affiliate members of both the NLC and TUC, as well as civil society allies and the general public, had been successfully mobilised to start on Tuesday, October 3.
Like the June incident, the October suspension, on the basis of the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between Labour and the Federal Government, did not go down well with arguably all but only the labour leaders who negotiated the MoU. Workers felt that the clauses in the MoU were not in any way commensurate to the demands that prompted the strike ultimatum, and therefore should not have been suspended.
As the indisputable leader of the Nigerian Labour Movement, the NLC will for a long time rue these blunders. The truncated strikes would certainly have gone a long way in redeeming its dented image and dimming visibility in popular consciousness, with strong mass perception that the once proactive NLC has abdicated in its historic obligation of defending the common cause of Nigeria’s working people.
The Congress, as NLC has come to be addressed, is well-endowed in all ramifications – be it manpower, material, intellectual and organisational resources. The NLC has never lacked the dynamism for rhetoric and vigour for intellectual contestation, and of course, the energy or capacity for virulent civil resistance.
An icing on its cake is that the NLC has a rich collection of tested, experienced, intelligent and dedicated veterans. It is therefore a shame that the Congress is being mocked, with profound public perception, including in labour platforms, that its current leadership has been compromised and rendered impotent and unqualified to proudly fly the flag of its glorious forebears.
It is instructive to note that all past Presidents of NLC, but one, are still alive. So also, all her past General Secretaries, but one, are still alive and active. This is in addition to dozens of very sound and committed former national leaders of the NLC as well as those of affiliate unions. These array of living archives of the struggle would be willing counsellors in crucial moments of contestation and engagement to guide contemporary leaders to reproduce themselves in ideology and charisma.
The forte of a formidable working class organisation like the NLC lies in the undying spirit of collectivism. This valued feature is clearly lacking in the Congress to productively moderate the internal constellation of willing solidarity resources that abound in the Labour Movement. The successes of past struggles, particularly in the decades of battles against neo-liberalism and military dictatorship, which ultimately translated to civil rule in 1999, were not by accident but surely outcomes of clear ideology trajectories – unadulterated, altruistic but collective and devoid of personal ego. This is no more the case!
The Comrade Joe Ajaero leadership has a duty to do everything possible to rise to the challenge of the prevailing sense of siege on Labour, which Nigerians have come to interpret as timidity arising from compromise; materially or ideologically.
No doubt, it is has become increasingly critical to reawaken trade union consciousness to become more political and be able to frontally confront a dangerous strain of ruling class insensitivity bent on enforcing undigested policies sucking away every existential hope of not only the working class but even that of the ruling class.
Though a sound and experienced trade unionist he may be, Comrade Ajaero, as the current leader of the trade Nigerian union movement, by virtue of his position as the President of NLC, dearly needs the power of experience of veterans of the movement and the creativity and imagination of left/progressive intellectuals; a combination of which had sustained the struggles over time.
Comrade Ajaero should as a matter of urgency convoke a National Symposium of the Social Movement where germane issues and apprehensions of our nationhood, particularly the place of the working class in our political economy, will be discussed, eyeball to eyeball. This is a collective survival initiative, that only Organised Labour still has the moral burden and obligation to carry on its weary but tireless shoulders.
In the interim, however, the national secretariat of Congress, which still has a few experienced and competent hands, needs to be strategically repositioned towards productive utilisation of the vast literature of the struggle in order to assist the leadership in times of negotiations and dialogues with government. The contents of agreements and Memoranda of Understanding (MoUs) as well as pronouncements of labour leaders indicate that there is little or no effort at sifting through relevant literature prior to engagements with government. There exist enduring throve of documents on subsidy and deregulation of the downstream sector of the petroleum industry, and generally neo-liberalism. These are areas that have defined the resourcefulness of past leaders of Congress. Reviewing them is bound to offer valuable information necessary to confront and silence government’s so-called technocrats’ outdated arguments.
Labour’s future, it must be noted and stressed, definitely depends on the outcome of its engagements with employers, particularly governments at all levels. When such engagements are handled with levity, and the threats of strikes end in anti-climax, as had recently been the case; hopes are crashed, workers are enfeebled, activism dampened and solidarity strangled.