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, while engaging in negotiations that are based on well researched positions and using modern tools.
It has been a while since 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 in its silence.
Suddenly, the NLC has come out firing 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 vulnerable 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 provides the urban side to the rural banditry and targeted kidnapping going on, shows wrong thinking by the NLC leadership. Governor El-Rufai is therefore justified to categorise the NLC as a terrorist organisation that should be treated just like the other nefarious groups. How will those whose children or loved ones are in the hands of kidnappers think of the NLC action? How will communities that have been at the mercy of the bandits relate to this effort of Labour to further weaken the Kaduna State government and distract it from pursuing bandits and tracking kidnappers?
The Kaduna State governor is indeed not an easy person to do business with, particularly when issues of state management are concerned. Although an ‘Accidental Public Servant’, the governor seems to have a rule book printed on stone that guides what he seeks 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 omelette without breaking eggs. He is courageous in taking action that he believes will be beneficial to the State and its people. His determination has placed Kaduna on the map of States that are attracting massive capital investments and turning things around. His administration has made massive investment in education and health, respectively allocating 30 per cent and 16 per cent of Kaduna State’s annual budget respectively to these sectors. Some may say, at what cost? I say at a cost that is relatively less, if we push these changes to the future. And if the government is to lay a firm developmental foundation for future generations, these steps are necessary to be negotiated now.
A key point being made by the administration in Kaduna State 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 the sub-national, national and global levels. The present global system requires small, quick, innovative and smart governments that are able to move quickly and respond to the myriad of problems and pandemics that the world faces in this age in a surefooted manner. This is because all other actors are adopting this mode, including terrorists, criminal gangs and even the civil society. It looks to me that all levels of government in Nigeria will either reform or crash and thus 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, in which 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 victims of circumstances.
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 the majority of Nigerians, and one that can create conditions for the structural transformation of the economy, which will result in increased investments and the creation of jobs for millions of people.
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-development, and one that is consuming most of the revenue of governments 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, whereby public servants have acquired such a high sense of entitlement, have a very 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 the majority of Nigerians, and one that can create conditions for the structural transformation of the economy, which will result in increased investments and the creation of jobs for millions of people. The NLC did the same when the El-Rufai’s administration sacked about 20,000 teachers who failed an examination meant for Primary Four pupils. In turn, the government hired 25,000 qualified teachers into its public schools. At that time, the NLC leadership should have been asked how many of them have their children in public schools. Most labour leaders have their children in private primary schools. This is because they do not trust the quality of teachers in public schools. Yet, they still opposed the Kaduna State government for taking action that will provide quality education for pupils in the State. The 21st Century public service requires skills in ICT literacy and public sector workers must be proficient in multiple languages; they must multi-task and have the ability to work without supervision. These are issues that should be of interest, not only to governments but also to trade unions.
As one who worked in the ranks of the NLC some decades ago, the organisation 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 that outlined how reforms could take place with minimised hardship to workers and the poor masses. The NLC then made its policy papers public, forcing the government to respond, while equally enabling the public to 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 would go into negotiations with governments on how to ensure reforms that will result in the development of the country, and be beneficial to not only workers but the majority of the Nigerian people. Because of this capacity, the NLC, in particular, and trade unions, in general, extracted concessions that were beneficial to their members and the average Nigerian. That was how the NLC managed the transitions necessitated by the Structural Adjustment Programme and the commercialisation of certain governmental functions.
However, NLC under the Adams Oshiomhole leadership, with his pseudo-progressive stance, turned into an organisation, not of workers but of labour leaders who were multi-millionaires, if not billionaires. Ordinary workers are unhappy about what their federation has turned into. To quieten workers, labour leaders often have to pay them before they participate in May Day rallies, demonstrations or strikes. With a leadership so spoilt and focused on self-aggrandisement, is it any surprise that they no longer fight for the Nigerian people, but narrowly for themselves and abstract workers’ issues
One would have thought that now that the NLC is heavily resourced, and only recently had a professor as its General Secretary, it would acquire the status of a well-organised 21st Century platform for workers to think strategically and engage governments and employers, using 21st century instruments. But no, the current leadership of the Congress has adopted the same ancient approach, with no clear comprehensive development vision for its members and the country.
It is clear that the Nigerian public service must change, whether we like it or not. It is the law of nature. This change is not going to be easy, as such trade unions must muster the ability and capacity to constructively engage, so that the hardships of transiting to the new economy and governance are not borne by workers alone.
While the Kaduna State government can afford some tough talking, the NLC cannot because as a platform of 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 dialogue with the State government and wherever workers are facing challenges. At all times, NLC must focus on the greater collective good, and not that of its members alone. It must think of how the country can manage its resources more efficiently, so as to 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 Nigerian public service must change, whether we like it or not. It is the law of nature. This change is not going to be easy, as such trade unions must muster the ability and capacity to constructively engage, so that the hardships of transiting to the new economy 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 not by emotions.
The NLC must, among other things, come up with proposals on how the State can increase its revenue base, and how it will work with the government to achieve this. And it must also address the issue of certain categories of workers, such as clerks, secretaries and typists, whose positions are shaky in a 21st century public service. Ultimately, the NLC should focus on engaging the Kaduna State Government and other State governments on how to manage public resources in a way that will lead to job creation and other aspects of development.
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, while engaging in negotiations that are based on well researched positions and using modern tools.
Chom Bagu is a former Assistant General Secretary of the NLC.