It has been a while when the Nigerian Labour movement particularly, the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) bared its fangs (some say broken teeth). Many have given up on the Congress as a bunch of self-serving labour aristocrats making hay while the sun shines. This view is not unconnected to the fact that during the several rounds of oil price increases, the NLC was loud by its silence.
Suddenly, the NLC has come out smoking and blazing on all cylinders. They have selected Kaduna State with a Governor that the Nigerian public loves to hate, and at a time when the state is under siege. The impression is that the NLC thinks that Governor Nasir El- Rufai is at his weakest and therefore waiting for the kill. For me, this is wrong targeting and wrong timing.
Wrong targeting and timing because all eyes and the national attention is on Kaduna State which has been specifically targeted by bandits and kidnappers for destruction just because Governor El-Rufai is standing his ground not to pay ransom for those kidnapped. Ordinarily, Labour should have been sympathetic towards the state and side with the Governor to end the siege before pushing its demands. To dive into the storm in a move that seemingly provide the urban side to the rural banditry and targeted kidnapping shows wrong thinking by the NLC leadershipe. Governor El-Rufai is therefore justified to categorize the NLC as a terrorist organization that should be treated as the others. How will those whose children or loved ones are in the hands of the kidnappers think of the NLC action? How will communities that have been at the mercy of the bandits relate to this labour effort to further weaken the Kaduna State Government and distracting it from pursuing the bandits and tracking the kidnappers?
The Kaduna State Governor is indeed not an easy person to do business with particularly when issues of state management are concern. Though an ‘Accidental Public Servant’, the Governor seems to have a rule book printed on stone that guides what he wants to do in the state. Love him or hate him, El-Rufai has significantly departed from the lackadaisical attitude of other governors who want to make Omelet without breaking eggs. He is courageous to take actions that he believed will beneficial to the State and its people. His determination has placed Kaduna state on the map of states that are attracting massive capital investment and turning the state around. His administration has made massive investment in education and health, respectively allocating 30% and 16% of its annual budget. Some may say, at what cost? I say at the cost that is relatively less if we leave these things to the future. And if the government is to lay a firm developmental foundation for future generations, these steps are necessary now.
A key point being made by the Kaduna State Government is that governments in Nigeria, like elsewhere, must rejig their priorities to reflect global realities. The world has significantly changed and the new global economy demands a different structure of governance at sub-national, national and global levels. The present global system requires small, sleek, quick, innovative and smart government that is able to move quickly and sure footedly respond to the myriad of problems and pandemics that the world faces in this age. This is because all other actors are adopting that mode including terrorists, criminal gangs and even civil society. It looks to me that all levels of governments in Nigeriawill either reform or crash and throw Nigeria into anarchy. The World Bank published a book a decade ago written by Moises Naim titled ‘The End of Power’. In this book, the author clearly shows that we are living in a different world where governments, big armies and big Corporations are shrinking while non-state actors are mushrooming. Governments across the globe, including that of Kaduna State, must either reform to acquire the 21st Century attributes or become a victim of circumstances.
Nigeria today is struggling to voyage into the 21st Century with an ancient governance structure weighed down particularly by the deadweight of a dysfunctional public service that does not deliver any goods, is corrupt and anti-developmental, and one that is consuming most of governments’ revenues at all levels. This is not sustainable now and in the future.. El-Rufai therefore correctly says we cannot continue deceiving ourselves that we can move Nigeria into prosperity with this ancient system where public servants have acquired such a high sense of entitlement, has low productivity rate and are opposed to changes that will lead to the development of the country.. What the NLC is doing is protecting this ancient regime and blocking Nigeria from transiting into the 21st Century with a public service that has the capacity to efficiently deliver services to majority of Nigerians, and one that can create conditions for structural transformation of the economy that will result in increased investments and creation of jobs to millions of people. The NLC did the same when the El-Rufai’s administration sacked about 20, 000 teachers who failed examination meant for primary four pupils. In turn, the government hired 25,000 qualified teachers in its public schools. At the time, the NLC leadership should have asked themselves how many of them have their children in public schools. Most labour leaders have their children in private primary schools. This is because they did trust the quality of teachers in public schools. Yet, they still opposed the Kaduna State Government for taking action that will provide quality education to pupils in the State. 21st Century public service requires skills in ICT literacy and public sector workers must be proficient in n multiple languages, must multi-tasked and have ability to work without supervision. These are issues that should not be of interest not only to governments but also to trade unions.
As someone who worked in the ranks of the NLC some decades ago, the organization has degenerated after the leadership of Ali Chiroma when we had a developmental Labour movement that engaged government not only through strikes but intellectually. NLC then responded to changes in the global economy by producing position policy papers outlining how reforms could take place with minimized hardship to workers and the poor masses. Thehe NLC at that time developed intellectual and policy papers that it made public forcing the government to respond to enabled the public judge for themselves. During this period, the Unions under the leadership of the NLC had the capacity to put alternative policy and development agenda on the table. On the strengths of its alternative development framework, the NLC will go into negotiations with governments on how to ensure reforms that will result in the development of the country, and one that will be beneficial to not only workers but majority of the Nigerian people. Because of this capacity, the NLC in particular and trade unions in general extracted concessions that were beneficial to its members and the average Nigerian. This was how the NLC managed the transitions necessitated by the Structural Adjustment Program and the commercialization of certain governmental functions.
However, the NLC under Adam Oshiomhole leadership, with his pseudo-progressive stance,turned the NLC into an organization not of workers, but of labour leaders that are ran by multi-millionaires if not billionaires. Ordinary workers are unhappy about what their federation had turned to. To quieten the workers, labour leaders often paid workers to participate in May Day rallies, demonstrations or strikes. With a leadership so spoilt and focused on self-aggrandizement, is it any surprising that they no more fight for the Nigerian people, but narrowly for themselves and so-called workers’ issues.
One thought that now that the NLC is heavily resourced, and only recently had a professor as its General Secretary, it will acquire the status of a well-organized 21st Century platform for workers to think strategically and engage governments and employers using 21st century instruments. But no, the current leadership of the NLC has adopted the same ancient approach with no clear comprehensive development vision for its members and the country. While the Kaduna State Government can afford some tough talking, the NLC cannot because as a platform for workers, its actions have to be more measured and collaborative ensuring the best outcomes for its members and the poor masses of Kaduna state. It must focus on social dialogue with the State Government and wherever workers are facing challenges. At all times, NLC must focus on the greater collective goods, and not that of its members alone. It must think of how the country can attract more investment that will create decent jobs for Nigerians. This will in the medium to long run benefit the NLC as it will increase the size of its members. In effect, NLC should engage governments across the country, including that of Kaduna State, in a manner that will result in a win-win situation, but not as a zero-sum game.
It is clear that the Nigeria public service must change whether we like it or not, it is the law of nature. This change is not going to be easy, so trade unions must muster the ability and capacity to constructively engage so that hardships of transiting to the new century economic and governance are not borne by workers alone. The NLC must constructively engage the Kaduna State Government on the current issues that led to the current strike action. The issues should be addressed on their merits and demerits, and not by emotions. The NLC must among other things come up with proposals on how the State can increase its revenue base, and come out with how it will work with the government to achieve this. And it must also address, whether some of the positions, such as clerks, secretaries are needed in a 21st century public service. Ultimately, the NLC should focus on engaging the Kaduna State Government and other States’ governments on how to attract investments that will lead to job creations for millions of our people.
My friend Dr. Omano Edigheji has just published a book on the ‘Developmental State’ titled ‘Nigeria: Democracy Without Development: How to Fix it’, arguing for Nigeria to evolve a Developmental State. I think, we must extend this to Labour. Nigeria needs a Developmental Labour Movement that will advocate for a progressive development agenda. With a developmental State and a developmental Labour movement, Nigeria can smoothly cross into the 21st Century negotiating along the way based on well researched positions and using modern tools.
Chom Bagu is a former Assistant General Secretary of the NLC