It was Karl Marx who once wrote that history repeats itself twice: The first time a tragedy, and the second, a farce. For the keen observers of the Nigerian Labour movement, a feeling of deja vu must certainly be gripping them now, as they come to terms with the new draft law by General Olusegun Obasanjo, to literally break the backbone of the Nigerian Labour Congress.
Following in the wake of his most recent television broadcast during which he accused the Nigerian Labour Congress of acting as an alternative government, and being a subversive organisation, he secretly sent to the National Assembly “A bill for an act to amend the trade unions act of 1990, as amended, and for matters connected therewith.”
The nut and bolt of the new bill is that the Central LabourOrganisation, the NLC be replaced with an impotent federation of trade unions that will not have the legal power to call a national strike. The draft bill would make membership of unions ‘voluntary.’
Obasanjo’s draft labour bill would also not allow the states-based federations to call a strike unless a 30-day notice is given, and the consent of a registrar is sought before such a strike. Unions would also mandatorily enter into a ‘no strike clause’ with employers of labour as part of the normal collective bargaining process.
The draft bill as presented is clearly determined to return Nigeria to the dark days before the 1978 re-organisation of the trade union movement from tens of anarchic crafts unions, to a few modern and manageable industrial unions, by saying that two or more unions irrespective of any difference in their trade, occupation or industry may form a federation of trade unions and it went on to ask for the deletion of the words “the central labourorganisation” to be replaced with the words “federation of trade unions in the proposed bill.”
From the above, it comes out clearly that Obasanjo is determined to use his new draft bill to achieve several points. These include the removal of the opposition which organisedlabour under the leadership of the NLC, represents to the implementation of his IMF-inspired, neo-liberal, anti-people policies in the economic realm, which however, could not be divorced from an Increasingly authoritarian political practice.
Similarly, he is doing the biddings of big capital which prefers, especially in the settings of underdeveloped countries, to have maximal exploitation, without the ability of the working people to use the weapon of the strike, hence his insistence upon a so-called “no strike clause” in the collective bargaining process.
There is also the personal element involved with this draft bill, as with most things that concern the old General, who would not accept any challenge to his supremacy. Obasanjo clearly sees the NLC and its ability to mobilise a nationwide mass movement against his policies, as an enemy that must be crushed. That much was clear in the bellicose content of his most recent television broadcast. In the days of yore, he would have clamped down on the unions “with immediate effect.” But in a democratic set up, the authoritarian reflex is not of much use.
Therefore, he has resorted to the secret draft bill to achieve his aim of decapitating the most powerful organised body in the country today: one that has somehow survived division along ethnic, religious, and regional lines, and has refused to buckle under the weight of a hefty deployment of “Ghana Must Go” bags, the shop worn tactics that have been employed against opposition elements and groups, since 1999.
But as we noted earlier, a feeling of deja vu must certainly be part of the present scenario unfolding in the land. During the Second Republic, a similar step was taken to destroy the Nigeria Labour Congress by the then NPN government at the helm of affairs in the country. The crime of the then Hassan Sunmonu leadership of the NLC was to ask for a N125 minimum wage for Nigerian workers.
At a time when members of the political class went on a spending spree almost as if the very strong naira was about to be declared extinct, it became a crime in the eyes of the powers that be, that the Nigerian working people would dare ask for a markup of the monthly salaries they were being paid by employers.
Spirited effort was made at the February 1981 delegates’ conference of the NIC in Kano to have rightwing unionists take over the NLC, but that failed, as the workers chose to renew the mandate of the Hassan Sunmonu leadership. With that failure, the NPN attempted to pass a law in the National Assembly. The law was similarly couched to remove the NLC as the country’s central labourorganisation. But even that also did not succeed, as a result of a nationwide mobilisation of opposition and the active refusal of progressive elements within the National Assembly.
These are different times in Nigeria, and the National Assembly has often come under the authoritarian thumb of the executive than was the case in the Second Republic. Yet we believe that despite its inherent weaknesses, the present National Assembly can still play a patriotic role in the defence of democracy in Nigeria. This they can do, by refusing to pass this clearly vindictive law sent to them by Obasanjo.
A central plank of the democratic process is the right to dissent; and one of the best vehicles of mass dissent available in society is the organisedlabour movement. All through its history, labour has played a vital role in the evolution of the Nigerian democratic space, either in the titanic battles against colonialism, or the struggle against military dictatorship and neo-colonialism.
The present attempt at building a democratic culture has been enriched by the vigorous intervention of the Nigerian trade union movement over the past four years. The most harsh elements of the neo-liberal economic regime being rammed down the throats of Nigerian people have been mitigated by the often enlightened intervention of the labour movement.
It is our belief at Daily Trust, that the content of democracy should be deepened on an incremental basis and not be diminished; nor be turned into a personal egoistic demand for a “pound of flesh” as Obasanjo is wont to doing, with social forces that oppose his view of running the country.
After all, it is not possible for an individual to have a panacea for all the problems of a complex society like Nigeria.
We therefore appeal to the National Assembly to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the Nigerian people, to defend the democratic process which so many have fought for, and which members of our National Assembly have sworn to defend. Obasanjo’s draft bill to decapitate the labour movement is clearly anti-people, and anti-democratic. We urge the National Assembly to defend its own honour by rejecting the bill. That way you would be standing on the elevated pedestal of Nigerian history.