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40 years of NLC: So far, so fair?

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•From left: Governor Victor Ikpeazu, Senator Chris Ngige, Vice President Yemi Osinbajo, NLC President, Ayuba Wabba and other labour leaders at a public forum in Abuja

Four decades ago, the history of labour unions in Nigeria changed. Tony Akowe in this report chronicles the journey.

Forty years in the life of any organisation is a milestone indeed. For labour union icons, especially those alive to witness the evolution of labour unionism in the country from its infancy to adulthood, the next best thing will be to bring out their drums and cymbals and celebrate this coming of age indeed. Which is truly what it is!

But how did this whole thing started?

A horse of recall

Though labour unionism had been in place in Nigeria even before the nation attained independence, it was not until February 1978 that what is today known as the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) came into existence. It is instructive to say that the labour movement played a very active role in the struggle for and attainment of independence from colonial rule with the likes of Pa Michael Imoudu of blessed memory actively involved.

Interestingly, trade unionism in Nigeria owes its root to one Mr Henry Libert – a Sierra Leonean who first summoned a meeting of about 33 indigenous workers in August 1912. Researchers have shown that the meeting took place over a few times and by the fifth meeting on 15 November 1912 after advice was received from Sierra Leone, the aim of the union was decided and this was to promote the welfare and interests of the indigenous workers of the Nigerian Civil Service. It started with the name, Civil Service British Workers Union but later changed to the Nigerian Civil Service Union shortly before independence in 1960.

By 1975, about one thousand trade unions have been and there was the need to harmonise them and what is today known as the Nigeria Labour Congress came into existence as the only central labour centre in the country after the four existing labour centres agreed to collapse their structures to speak with one voice. These labour centres were Nigeria Trade Union Congress (NTUC), Labour Unity Front (LUF), United Labour Congress (ULC) and Nigeria Workers Council (NWC).

Enter labour icons

Hassan Summonu who became the pioneer President of the congress told The Nation that after the formation, the government wrote for the congress a constitution and named it Central Labour Organisation, but this was later changed by the workers its inaugural conference in Ibadan to Nigeria Labour Congress because that was the name preferred by the workers.

The emergence of the NLC ended decades of rivalry and rancour involving the four centres and unions affiliated to them which were later restructured into 42 industrial unions.

Summonu said: “We had a restructured trade union system where we had almost 1000 in house unions structured into 42 industrial unions that made up the Nigeria Labour Congress. We had no factions because four former labour centres merged, they called special conferences to formally dissolve themselves, surrendered their certificates before the present NLC was formed on the 28th of February, 1978. Don’t forget the fact that the name government wanted the NLC to be called Central Labour Organisation. It was the only thing that the constitution that was drafted for the NLC at the inaugural conference at Ibadan could amend because it was a one day conference. So, the only thing we were able to change in the constitution was the name because we wanted to maintain the name and be called Nigeria Labour congress.  From there, we started from a building that was hired for us by the federal government on Ikorodu road. We knew that one of the assets we inherited from one of the merging centres was a building along Olajuwon road which had not been completed that time.”

Many faces of labour

However, the NLC has gone through several phases and over came several challenges including two proscription by the military government and the imposition of sole administrators on the congress, the first proscription was by the Babangida military junta, who truncated the regime of Ali Ciroma as the second President of the Union and Summonu believed that it was because of the congress stand against the Structural Adjustment Programme being canvassed by the government which the NLC vigorously campaigned against.

The Abacha government was to repeat the same proscription alongside NUPENG and PENGASSAN, imposing sole administrators on the three organs. The administrators are accused of plundered the finances of Congress. Peters Adeyemi, Deputy President of the NLC said the sole administrator appointed by the Abacha government squandered the money which the congress wanted to use to build a labour college.

Going down memory lane on some of the successes of the NLC in its 40 years of existence, Comrade John Odah, the immediate past General Secretary of the congress said even though there are people who believe that the congress should not be celebrating when things are not alright with the Nigerian worker, there is actually a lot to celebrate.

He said “from 1978 when we had the Summonu leadership of the NLC, there were those teething problems of a new organisation trying to wield together a coherent set of industrial unions under a coherent leadership. One of the major highlight of that era was the 1981 national minimum wage which the NLC got after a two day national strike and the May Day celebration, which prior to that, it was only on May 1, 1980 that the Balarabe Musa and the Abubakar Rimi led government of the PRP, gave mayday as a public holiday. This was followed by the then progressive governors of the UPN and the NPP governors in the south east and the south west and Plateau.

“The following year, the Shagari administration, in other not to be outdone, granted may National as a national public holiday. It is part of the struggle of the last 40 years that we now have May Day as a national holiday. Thereafter, you have the Ali Ciroma led administration which took over from Summonu in Enugu in February 1984 and faced two military governments, the Buhari government and the Babangida government. This was the time when the military government was implementing the IMF Structural Adjustment Programme which made a whole lot of things to go up and the living condition of workers started coming down because government t was removing subsidy on social services. Increasing cost of education and health care,” he recalled.

Pyrrhic victory

However, as the congress celebrate its 40 years of existence, many believe that victory is far from being achieved as a result of the contending issues which has been left unattended to over the years, the average Nigerian worker still cannot afford a decent living, an issue that has been on the front burner over the years.

Besides, contending issues such as nonpayment of salaries, increase in minimum wage, unilateral sack of workers, hike in cost of living and other issues good governance and workers welfare are some of the issued that have been agitating the mind of the Nigerian worker. For decades, organised labour has consistently been at loggerheads with government mover the welfare of Nigerian workers. Though opinions remain divided as to what the NLC has achieved in the last forty years, but even the worst critic of the labour movement agrees that the NLC has been a rallying point for Nigerians who feel oppressed.

Adeyemi told The Nation that from Hassan Sunmonu who was president from 1978 to 1984 to the current president, Ayuba Wabba, the NLC has fought series of battles to protect and defend workers’ rights.

On his part, Ayuba Wabba, President of the NLC has consistently said that workers must wake up and fight for their right because “there had never been anything that Labour got on a platter of gold since the history of the labour movement in Nigeria.”

There is however no doubt, the road has been rough for Nigerian workers. But in its four decades of existence, the NLC has survived attempts by various military and civilian governments to dissolve it. Most significant of such challenges have been direct assaults on its existence on two occasions.

Apart from efforts of the military junta to cripple to labour movement in the country, there were also attempt by the civilian government of Chief Olusegun Obasanjo to dismember the congress and apparently weaken it as the only central labour organisation in the country. This effort gave birth to the Trade Union amendment act which gave birth to the Trade Union Congress of Nigeria.

According to Odah, who described it as part of the challenges the congress had to pass through said: “In the eight years that Adams was President, the NLC had series of street battles with the Obasanjo administration over the government penchant for increasing at will, prices of petroleum products. In 2003/2004, it was so bad when the NLC called for a national strike, scores of Nigerians were killed. If Obasanjo was still a military head of state, he would have proscribed the NLC. What he then tried to do was to rush a law to the National Assembly to try to disorganised the NLC and remove from the NLC, the status of the only central Labour Organisation in the country.”

But the single most important threat to the survival of the congress emerged immediately after the 2015 election that brought the present leadership into office when some of the aspirants alleged they were rigged out and went ahead to form a parallel leadership of congress which later dissolved into another labour centre that has been battling to get registered by government.

Summonu who, as one of the veterans of the congress tried to broker peace said the body has not been registered because it was practically impossible for the United Labour Congress to be registered since it was one of the Labour centres that surrendered their certificate in 1978 to pave the way for the emergence of the NLC.

The post 40 years of NLC: So far, so fair? appeared first on The Nation Nigeria.

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