TODAY, not a few Nigerians are nostalgic about the good old days when the labour movement in the country was strong and vibrant and represented not only the interest of workers but also that of ordinary Nigerians. That was when the movement participated actively in shaping the political and socioeconomic trajectories of the country via effervescent but patently altruistic socioeconomic activism. Not even the persecution in the of the dark days of the military era was able to cow Labour: the movement in liaison with the civil society organisations, and in particular the Fourth Estate of the Realm, effectively represented the major voice of dissent to the unelected officials and their draconian decrees.
But that was then; the labour movement has been delegitimised in the country and has become a shadow of its old self. It has lost the confidence of the government and, more importantly, the people. Nobody takes the movement seriously anymore, especially when it comes up with the impotent and usual refrain of ‘we won’t accept’ following official policies and proposals. Labour has largely become a laughing stock. While this sordid state of affairs has persisted for a while, it is believed to have reached its zenith under the present leadership. Division arising from selfish and sectional interests is considered as the bane of the unity of labour and by implication one of the causes of its lacklustre performance in terms of workers and ordinary Nigerians’ expectations.
For instance, the current leadership of the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) under Ayuba Wabba is said to be suffering from a legitimacy problem because it emerged from the public sector when it was the turn of the private sector to produce the leadership of the organisation. The alleged disruption of the succession plan reportedly led to the exacerbation of the fissures in the NLC, which hampered its ability to deliver on its mandate. Another veritable issue dampening the vibrancy of labour is the official interference in its affairs. The owners of capital would do anything to impair the unity of labour; so does the government. It is common knowledge that the government sometimes influences rifts in labour organisations and also endorses and provides support for some candidates aspiring to leadership positions at the expense of other members. It therefore becomes difficult for the leadership that emerges with its support not to be beholden to it. That is why the government hardly consults with Labour before coming out with policies that impact workers and ordinary Nigerians directly because it does not expect any stern resistance from it, having pocketed its leadership as it were.
And unsurprisingly, oftentimes the movement’s feeble reactions to anti-people policies are usually in tandem with the official expectations. These days, it is customary to see labour leaders putting up a show of resistance to harsh policies, threatening fire and brimstone, but at the end of the day, this is mere posturing devoid of any potent interrogation or confrontation. Given this kind of deplorable background, Labour cannot be expected to effectively find its voice even amidst government’s endless punitive policies. For instance, in September, there was a hike in electricity tariff and Labour told Nigerians to prepare for a strike. It even vowed that in the unlikely event that the government reversed the tariff, the protest would still go on to address other salient grievances. But the government only put the increased tariff on hold for two weeks to allow for further dialogue and by midnight, Labour had suspended the strike that would have attracted many protesters because of the palpable privations in the land.
There is a sense in which the betrayal by Labour could be adduced as part of the reasons for the #EndSARS protests and their unintended consequences such as the carnage that ensued after the peaceful protest was hijacked by hoodlums. It would appear that the youths decided to take their destinies in their own hands because the organised labour had more or less chosen to be receptive to inconsiderate official policies instead of putting the government on its toes. It is axiomatic that Labour is currently at its lowest ebb and risks being consigned to the oblivion if it does not retrace its steps to swiftly combat the challenges, both internal and external, that are impeding its vibrancy. In a clime like Nigeria where partisan politics is largely limited to contestation for power, but where amity is easily achieved across party lines when it comes to plundering the collective patrimony as spoils of office, Labour must necessarily stand up to be counted as a veritable opposition.
The labour movement should address the intractable issue of division in its fold. It must ensure that its leadership recruitment process throws up committed and dedicated leaders who are prepared to render selfless service, not the type that will gravitate towards those who are in charge of the Pot of Porridge at the slightest of opportunity.
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