Pioneer president of the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC), Alhaji Hassan Sunmonu, speaks with Segun Adebayo and Imoleayo Oyedeyi on the country’s political structure, strategies for economic recoveries, labour unionism, among others.
Talking about moral authority, a majority of Nigerians believe that this present day Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) and Trade Union Congress (TUC) leaders have become toothless dogs that can only bark but can’t bite. What do you think of this?
Well, everybody is entitled to his or her opinion. And let me tell you that the crop of Nigerians we have today, whether you are a unionist or leader; are they not different from the crop of leaders that brought us independence? The workers and union leaders themselves don’t come from the moon. They are part of the Nigerian society.
Unlike the present union leaders, I was fortunate to have been taught the ABC of unionism by a trailblazer in ideological clarity like Wahab Goodluck. But, the present union leaders are product of the current Nigerian society. So we cannot use the template used during our time for the leaders now because society itself has evolved especially with technology. Now, things are very different. Take a look at the Lekki incidents; the whole world watched it live. So, I find it very difficult to judge the current union leaderships. But no matter the evolution of the society, we shouldn’t lose our moral grounds, though I won’t say the current union leaders have lost their moral authority because if they had lost it, they won’t be in charge. What most Nigerians believe is that once there is an industrial dispute between an employer and his employees, everything must end in strike. That’s the general belief but in my entire six years tenure as president of NLC, we went on strike only once and it lasted for three days. A general in the Army does not use his most potent weapon in the beginning of a war. So, you don’t employ a strike except as the last weapon.
But are you aware, many Nigerians believe the current NLC leadership is not doing the needful in terms of fighting for Nigerians and workers, especially in view of the recent hike in the price of fuel. What do you think of this and how do we get out of the problem?
They [labour leadership] have not failed. Anybody is entitled to his or her opinion. But the door of dialogue must always be kept open no matter what happens. It calls for understanding and deliberations from both sides because when our common property is destroyed, it becomes the loss of all of us. So everything must be done to make sure that things don’t fall apart. To me, I don’t deliver judgment anyhow and all this while, I have always advised the union leaders because we only have this country.
There was NLC then and there is now. What can you say about the union activities during your own time?
First and foremost, before we were elected, there was no NLC. But there was one in 1950 when all the unions decided to come together. But it lasted for only three years because of issues bordering on international affiliations. There were people who wanted the union to affiliate with those in the socialist countries while there were others who wanted it to affiliate with those in the North American countries.
But I was part of the second NLC. You could remember the Apenas Cemetery declaration. The late John Adebayo Oduleye before he died, he was the treasurer of the United Labour Congress of Nigeria. He died in 1974. His brother, then also a unionist, was at the Nigeria Trade Union Congress (NTUC) at that time. So, there was also Labour Unity Front which was led by the late M. A.O Imoudu. And then you have the Nigerian Workers Council which was led by Comrade Raymos.
So, the four national unions came to pay their last respect to the late Oduleye. They then thought that the man would have been better honoured if the voice of unionism had been one in the country instead of four disparity voices. So, all the sentiments and viewpoints that each of the unions was expressing were written down by one Okon Eshiet. And it was the recordings and words he took down that later became the Apenas Cemetery Declaration.
So, after the burial, the entire four union members gathered at the late Oduleye’s house and agreed to be united. In view of this, a 50-man steering committee was then set up. Though the Nigerian Union of Teachers wasn’t an affiliate of any of the four unions, it was included in the steering committee to champion the unity of unionism in the country for 15 months. I was part of the committee representing the NTUC. So, there was a conference between 18th and 20th of December, 1975. But the military regime then thought that the unity can’t be achieved because the differences between the unions were very much. But the government was surprised when the conference of December 1975 was held. They then got some of our trade union boys to create confusion by writing a petition against us.
What was it like being a labour president under a military regime?
First, it was not easy. But the training and background that we had was such that if we believe that something is right, in the interest of the workers and that of the country, we were ready to reject any nonsense and do anything to achieve it. That was the trade union training and background that we had. And then, it made us to be reliable in the sense that if you are doing what is right for your members and for your country, even God himself will be in your support and you then fear no foe. We didn’t fear the military government. And in fairness to them, before taking a decision, they won’t consult. They will only talk to themselves. But when they have taken a decision, General Obasanjo would send for us. We knew they wanted to sell us something; so, we too would have prepared what we would sell to them. It was purely a two-way traffic not one-way. For instance, when the government said they were going to withdraw vehicle advance [loan] and so on, they didn’t call us. But after they have done it, they sent for us and we told them what the reaction of the people would be. So, one thing about the military is that they would tell you their own decision and hear what the reaction of the people would be. But when the people now react as you have told the government, they won’t send security to shut down the people or put the leaders in detention because they have been warned it would be the consequences of their decision. But when the civilian regime of Shagari came in October, 1979, his first Minister of Labour, within two months of their government, started creating the labour committee of the NPN and plotting how to divide Nigerian workers and disorganised the NLC. But fortunately for us because the workers had confidence in us, we survived it all.
There has been clamour within the country for restructuring. But a section from the North has been opposing this. Do you believe the country needs to be restructured and what benefit does restructuring have for the country and the South-West?
I look at it from the national perspective. First and foremost, if Nigeria does not fix two or three things, the continuity of the country as a nation will not be guaranteed. What you call restructuring is actually going back to the Constitution of the Federal republic of Nigeria as agreed by our founding fathers. Nigeria is being run by a constitution that is not driven by the people, because it is military-imposed and has turned a federal system of government into a unitary system of government that has one commander like in the Army. If this is not fixed, the future of Nigeria is not guaranteed.
Secondly, if Nigeria doesn’t return to parliamentary system of government, sooner or later, the country would crash, no matter what anybody does because the money we are expending on presidential system is very much. Anything that is not sustainable will eventually collapse. For Nigeria to be able to exist, these things must be done. The truth is anybody that has been enjoying some kind of privileges will not like to peacefully surrender it. But Nigeria will not be able to fulfil its destiny if we don’t return to true federalism, parliamentary system of government, equity, fairness and justice.
The presidential system of government we are practising breeds corruption and wastage as it diverts major resources of the government to the pockets of few political leaders while the real producers and owners are not getting anything. We cannot do a successful federalism with these glorified local governments we call 36 states. There has to be some regrouping of the current states into six or not more than eight regions and running a strictly federal structure. The fact is that you cannot use the pill for stomach ache to cure headache, but this has been our problem. Everybody runs to Abuja at the end of every month for allocation. Was that what used to happen before?
We had a federal constitution that had three regions and later four. And each of the regions controlled its natural resources. It takes 50 per cent, give 20 per cent to the federal and share the remaining 30 per cent on a formula. And there was no fear then as is being exhibited by the North now.
I always say it that there is no state in Nigeria that doesn’t have at least two solid minerals in its underbelly. Look at Osun, the gold we have there is more superior to the one in South Africa. So, if the states are in control of 50 per cent of their resources like before, they will have enough to take care of education, agriculture and industrialisation that create employment. But as long as those profiting from this current unitary system of government refuse this, then, they don’t wish Nigeria well. This country will crash because the system is not sustainable.
Look at our debt profile as well as poverty and human development index, are they not crashing already? Meanwhile, the 1999 Constitution is not the Nigerian people’s constitution even if they lied when they were drafting using ‘We the people of Nigeria’. Was it truly we or they the military leaders?
As the pioneer president of NLC, what exactly pushed you into national activism?
Well, there were so many antecedents that made an activist out of me. Firstly, at the Yaba College of Technology, I was elected as the Secretary of the Muslim Students Society (MSSN) and it came with a big responsibility. I used to be a shy person, but that responsibility took the shyness out of me because as secretary of the society, I have to organise weekly lectures for the students by Muslim scholars like the late Alhaja Sodeinde who used to be a columnist with the old Daily Times and the late Professor Fatai Giwa of the University of Ibadan. Those were some of the scholars we used. Then, we would do debates and many others just to get the society going. That was the starting point. And also as the secretary then, during Ramadan, I used to wake the students up and prepare the tea so that the students won’t miss the fasting. After that, immediately I finished my OND, I have an identical brother and we both used to take part in the annual conference of the MSSN.
So, there was a time when one of the General Secretaries of the society, Professor Nurudeen Alao, who later became the Vice Chancellor of the University of Lagos, during that time, I was selected as the national auditor of the society for five years between 1962 to 1967. Then, my twin brother and I were being sponsored by the federal ministry of works and we were also earning salaries. In 1965, I came for my HND and in 1966; I was made the President of the Students Union. That same year, I was appointed as the president of the National Association of Technological Students comprising all the students of technology across the polytechnics in Nigeria. And during that time, I also became the second Vice-President of the National Association of Nigerian Students (NANS). So, these are part of theantecedents of my NLC activism.
But the real one happened in June, 1967. After I had finished my HND, I reported to the federal ministry of works and in July of the same year, I was elected the secretary of the Association of Techno officers of the federal ministry of works comprising all categories of techno officers ranging from the assistant techno officers to the principal techno officers. So, we were asked to prepare the grievances of all those categories of officers. So I and three other executive members started work and finished by December of the same year. Wethen submitted it to the general meeting for ratification and it was adopted. Being the secretary, I was asked to write the Permanent Secretary of the ministry of works who was the late Engineer S. O. Williams. When we presented the report, they gave us a date to meet with the officials of the ministry and the real thing that changed me into a trade unionist happened at the meeting. When the meeting started that day, having collected the letters conveying the officers’ complaints from us, the industrial relation officer of the ministry asked us a question. Is this association a registered trade union or an affiliate of a registered trade union? And we were none of the two. So, the man told the permanent secretary and other officials that it was pointless negotiating with us because we don’t have any legal recognition. So, the work we did for four months became wasted. So, the ministry sent I and one Mr. Bakare to go and register the trade union members, particularly those who have membership card of workers in the ministry of works, so that we will have solidarity with them in case of an industrial action.
After going round for four weeks, we discovered public works, aerodrome and technical workers union which was led then by the late Comrade Wahab Goodluck. We asked for their members and all the technical assistants and workers associated with them. So, we call a general meeting, reported our findings and our union members accepted them. So, on the basis of this, the late Goodluck wrote a letter, on the behalf of the union, to the permanent secretary that we, the association of techno officers, have taken over the entire members of the public works, aerodrome and technical workers’ union. So that meeting which compelled us to affiliate with the public works and aerodrome union was the antecedent that brought the unionism out of me because in 1968, we got affiliated to the union and in 1969, the union had its congress and it was at that congress, I became the second assistant secretary of the union at the national level as I could speak French which I learnt out of curiosity because my parents used to live in the former Gold Coast now Ghana before they came back to Osogbo in 1965.
It is fashionable nowadays for people to use unionism to get rich or political positions. Do you regret not using your tenure to amass wealth for yourself?
I don’t regret it at all because if I do, you won’t find me in this house. Not regretting it has earned me the confidence and respect both of Nigerian workers and the entire populace as they all see me as a man of integrity. I can look any of the politicians, either military or civilian, straight in the eyes, because I have never done anything demeaning before any one of them. Apart from that, the trade union background and experience I had with people like Wahab Goodluck, who is one of the best trade unionists you can find in the entire of Africa. He had been secretary of the Levers Brother’s workers’ union. If he had been corrupt, he would have had an agency that will be a direct factor in the present day Flower Mills and Nigerian Breweries. But neither he nor his children have any interest in any of the Lever Brothers’ companies. And that was why he had the moral authority. I used to tell my colleagues, including my children, that what you mustn’t lose in life is your moral authority. As a trade unionist, if you sell out your members, you lose their respects, those of the employers and the government and even your own moral authority.
Sir, you have heard of the Lekki shooting including the claims and counter claims that trailed it. What do you make out of this?
I support the youths because they have a legitimate grouse to protest against unemployment, inequity and corruption. And they carried out the things peacefully before the mayhem that engulfed the whole demonstration. But what we have known from the series of enquiry that have trailed the mayhem is that when the Lagos State governor, Babajide Sanwo-Olu, heard of the incident and the police were unable to manage it, the governor made a call to the Nigerian Army and as you know, they are not police. From what we heard, they first came with water tank and later fired shots at the protesters and people were injured. We really don’t know the number of those that died.
But the government does not need that excessive use of force because the protest was peaceful. I don’t know what the various [panel of] inquiries that have been set up will come up with. But you know, a section of Nigerians want to profit from the discomfort of other Nigerians. Meanwhile, there has been quite a number of fuel price increases in Ghana, but the Ghanaian government were able to make it impossible for either the marketers or the petrol station owners to cheat the ordinary Ghanaian commuters. But we haven’t got such control in Nigeria.
Though I won’t call this leadership failure, I believe if you are initiating a policy, you have to calculate the positive and negative effects it will have on the majority of your people, particularly the low-income earners. I also criticise the recent hike in the price of fuel. How could somebody in the NNPC just wake up and say he has put an amount on the price of fuel in a country that has laws? Successive governments in this country, including the military, have not been able to control the effects of any price hike on the masses that are powerless, penniless and hopeless.
You chaired a committee that brought about the issue of a modulated salary payment structure in Osun in the last government. How did you come about this?
First and foremost, I am Nigerian citizen and don’t belong to any political party. I maintain my neutrality. I was invited by the Governor Aregbesola’s government on the insistence of the unions in Osun State. The drop of oil affected the income of the state and the governor then wanted to be open and transparent. He wanted a committee that would monitor what comes into the state treasury and then share the income. He wanted a person with integrity to chair the committee and they came to me. The current governor who later became my vice in the committee was the one that brought the letter to me. I accepted it after consulting with the unions at the state and national level. But from day one when the committee was created, I told them that the modulated salary should not affect workers between Level One and Seven and the government accepted. It only affected Levels Eight to 17 and I also insisted that once the economy becomes buoyant, the half salary that has been taken should be paid back. And when the first Paris Club agreement [refund] came, we paid part of the half salary owed. And when the second one came, we paid the pensioners.
Nigeria is reportedly broke, yet its debt profile keeps soaring while the state governments are struggling to even pay the minimum wages. How do you think the country can get out of this?
I have already said that we have to go back to true federalism and parliamentary system. It has been reported that about 52 per cent of Nigeria’s income is being consumed by its political system. There is nothing wrong in borrowing for development. Even without being an economist, I am opposed to borrowing for consumption because it will carry you nowhere. And you cannot be drawing water with a basket and then accusing those who have to fill a tank for being lazy when the means of drawing the water is already leaking. That is what is.
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