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Nigerian workers: Drawing energy from despair

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Nigerian workers: Drawing energy from despair

The past 57 years of independence has witnessed Nigerian workers labour in an atmosphere of despair and uncertainty while clinging to various labour movements for hope. SUNDAY OJEME reports.

 

The history of Nigerian workers’ struggle in the last 57 years has been riddled with partial comfort, conflicts and equal level of dynamism associated with commitment to duty and desire for an improved standard of living.

Pre-independence Although there was unrecorded passive resistance by workers before and shortly after independence in 1960, the most prominent and what could be described as a true picture of labour agitation emerged 20 years before independence with the late Michael Imoudu in the picture.

He started his working career as a lineman in the department of posts and telecommunications, before moving on to the Nigeria Railway Corporation (NRC) where he developed a deep interest in trade unionism and politics. His agitation was stirred by the oppressive disposition of the colonial masters towards African workers at the time.

He organised and became the first president of the Nigeria Union of Railwaymen in 1940, and his tenure in office was marked by unprecedented militancy. He first came into the limelight when he led over 3,000 railway workers to the government house to put workers’ grievances to the colonial governor.

In 1945 he was reported to have led a general strike over a cost of living allowance for workers. The strike lasted 44 days, demystified colonial rule and made independence for Nigeria inevitable. Even though Imoudu resigned from active trade unionism in the early 1960s, he was still very active in workers’ struggles against the African elite that had assumed the position of the departing colonialists.

Affiliations In 1962, aware that workers needed an independent voice, Imoudu and other like-minded patriots such as Eskor Toyo founded a short-lived Labour Party.

Long after Imoudu’s activism, the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC), which is an umbrella organisation for trade unions in Ni- geria, came onboard in 1978 with Wahab Goodluck as the founding president. Its emergence followed a merger of four different organisations: Nigeria Trade Union Congress (NTUC), Labour Unity Front (LUF), United Labour Congress (ULC) and Nigeria Workers Council (NWC).

The numerous affiliated unions were restructured into 42 industrial unions. Conflicts During its history, conflicts with the military regime twice led to the dissolution of the NLC’s national organs, the first in 1988 under the military regime of General Ibrahim Babangida and the second in 1994, under the regime of General Sani Abacha.

The NLC has over 20 affiliated unions with more than four million members making it one of the largest trade union organisa tions in Africa. Under Nigeria’s military governments, labour leaders were frequently arrested and union meetings disrupted.

Following democratic reforms in the country, some of the anti-union regulations were abolished in January 1999, the same month one of the union’s most vibrant leaders, Adams Oshiomhole, was elected president.

Conflicts between the government and the NLC have always emerged due to perceived high handedness on the part of the government against workers especially as regards increase in the prices of petroleum products, which automatically leads to increase in prices of other items.

The NLC has led several general strikes protesting the government’s fuel price policy. In September 2004, the NLC gave the federal government an ultimatum to reverse the decision to reintroduce the controversial fuel tax or face a nationwide protest strike.

The strike threat was made despite the fact that a Federal High Court judgement in an earlier dispute had declared the organisation lacking legal power to call a general strike over government policies.

Following the announcement of the strike plans, Oshiomhole was said to have been “abducted by a team of operatives of the State Security Services (SSS), who overpowered him, wrestled him to the ground and bundled him into a standby Peugeot 504 station wagon, which bore no licence plates.

” Women’s wing Through the struggle for workers’ welfare, the women have not also been left out as the female wing of the NLC, Na-tional Women Commission, was created in 2003 to increase the participation of women in the affairs of the union.

Beginning in 1983, demand for more recognition of working women led to the establishment of women’s wing in state capitals. Currently, state branches of NLC have a women’s committee and the chairperson of the committee is an automatic member of the administrative council of the state’s NLC.

At the national level, the head of the National Women Commission is automatically a Vice-President of NLC. Intra-union crisis The NLC, currently led by Comrade Ayuba Wabba, remained vibrant, popular and a united body, until about two years ago when the last delegate conference ended in crisis leading to the emergence of the yet to be registered United Labour Congress (ULC), whose members protested the outcome of the election.

Notable allies Besides the NLC, other bodies such as Trade Union Congress (TUC), Association of Senior Civil Servants of Nigeria (ASCSN), Petroleum and Natural Gas Senior Staff Association (PENGASSAN) and many others have evolved over the years to represent the interest of workers in their profession.

Last line However, the various labour movements have thrived over the years, it is obvious that their existence has given voice to workers in the last 57 years as their absence would have put employees in both public and private sectors in permanent servitude.

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