ThE recent disciplinary action by the Ogun State government against some labour leaders in the state for alleged acts of misconduct raises fundamental issues about the kind of society Nigeria wants to be under the current democratic experiment. This is because the disciplinary action belies the attempt by the Ogun State government, just like virtually all the other state governments and successive Federal Governments mouthing democratic credentials since the return to democracy in 1999, to see the society and polity as subservient to the totalising control of the government in power. This way, disagreement with government or any of its policies is seen as heresy, punishable by all means, especially if those concerned are government or public officials.
We are of course aware of the time honoured requirement for civil servants and public servants generally to be apolitical in order for them to be able to effectively discharge their responsibilities. Yet, the point has to be made that this requirement also recognises the holding of political opinions and preferences by civil and public servants to the extent that they are permitted to vote, such that what is frowned at are overt political positions. And the rules recognise overt politicking as belonging to a political party and holding the party card. It stands to reason, therefore, that where clear rules exist such as this, it would be unnecessarily fastidious to want to read extra and other meanings into such rules in order to serve transient political interests.
The concerned labour leaders were alleged to have invited leaders of opposition parties in the state to the last celebration of the World Teachers Day where the opposition parties leaders publicly spoke against the state government and its policies in the presence of the representative of the state governor who was obviously invited as the special guest of honour. The state government thought that such an act by the leadership of the Nigeria Union of Teachers (NUT) constituted a misconduct and set up an administrative panel of inquiry to investigate the issue. The panel, after its sitting and deliberation, recommended the dismissal of 16 civil and public servants and the suspension of 19 others it alleged were involved in the so-called misconduct.
Here, the issue is not whether or not the state government summarily punished the labour leaders or followed the laid down procedure in setting up the administrative panel. Rather, it is about the complaint itself and why it should constitute the basis of a misconduct allegation in a society that wants to run more than personal fiefdoms. It is, of course, true that even national leaders of the NUT have weighed in to condemn the action of the Ogun labour leaders with a pledge to apologise on their behalf to the state governor, relying on the benevolence of the governor in reversing the punishment.
We, however, see the position of the NUT national leadership as symptomatic of the totalising disposition prevalent in Nigeria, which disposition is not promotive of the full flowering of democratic potentials in the country. For the finer democratic argument is that it is impossible, within a democratic firmament, to want a disposition in which a political persuasion, no matter its transient ascendancy through the occupation of government and governmental structure, leaves no room for the existence and flowering of other political persuasions. In this case, the point has to be made that government is not society and the current opinion held in government does not exhaust the panoply of persuasions. Thus, it is the responsibility of the society and government to demand and work for the promotion of all political opinions within the ambit of the law instead of treating government positions as sacrosanct.
To be clear, the leaders of the NUT and all labour leaders have a duty to be decent in the way they celebrate their activities. Such decency demands that they treat the governor and his representative with respect on account of the invitation to their function. But the Teachers Day is an NUT function and it is at liberty (and perhaps under duty) to invite other political opinions to the celebration. If, in the way the ceremony was conducted, the governor felt embarrassed, it would be alright to complain in order for the organisers to know how to conduct future ceremonies, with the governor at liberty to refuse future invitations. But such complaint cannot be the basis of an allegation of crime against the organisers as there is nothing in the laws of Nigeria that says not giving deserved respect at a ceremony or inviting opposition political parties leaders to the same ceremony is a crime.
We must accept the reality that, under a democratic setting, it is the right of the opposition parties and their leaders to also vent their positions in all forums including at labour union functions even alongside the position of the government. The labour leaders would therefore be right to invite them to their functions and give them the platforms to canvass positions different from the government’s. The policy process is not a unitarian process, but admits of all kinds of opinions and celebrates differences by according and affording them exposures at all times. That is the hallmark of democracy and should not be turned into a crime, except Nigeria wants to continue with personalised rulership while calling it democracy.
Indeed, parliamentary democracy requiring the government to adequately fund the opposition to be able to counter and oppose its position. This is what Nigeria should strive to emulate and not the silencing of other views by punishing labour leaders for promoting such views. In that vein, because it is against the true spirit of democratic practice and aspiration, the Ogun State government should immediately and unconditionally reverse its sack of the labour leaders.