The Labour Movement and the Nigerian condition

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LAST week working people celebrated May Day, the international day of working class solidarity. Since 1981, May Day has become a national holiday in Nigeria.

That fact in itself is an acknowledgement of the tremendous role played by the working people in the coming into being and the construction of Nigeria. Even when working class heroes like the late Comrades Michael Imoudu, Wahab Goodluck, S.U Bassey, Alhaji Adebola were not decorated with national honours, those conversant from the bottom, with a people’s history of Nigeria, know that the working class movement has been arguably, the most significant detachment of the anti-colonial movement.

And at vital points in Nigeria’s history, the working people have been the most patriotic defenders of the country’s integrity.

Yet when one recalls the cake cutting and the presence of members of the ruling elite, from President Jonathan and his ministers in Abuja, to governors in the states, that have become central to the annual May Day celebrations, there are two dialectical forces at play. On the one, labour has managed to earn a space of civil society, which even the ruling classes have to acknowledge with their presence in an event, which must make them feel very uncomfortable.

They are mixing with the most conscious segment of the oppressed classes. On the other hand, the sanitized celebrations also represent the incorporation of the dissent which labour represents in our neo-colonial, capitalist society.

The fact that this year, members of the Democratic Socialist Movement (DSM) were arrested while distributing leaflets at the Eagle Square, while the labour aristocracy mixed it up with the ruling elite, further illustrates the depth of the incorporation of labour.

It was also poignant that Goodluck Jonathan issued the labour movement a sharp riposte on the issue of the pervasive corruption within the Nigerian state system. NLC President, AbdulWahed Omar, in his address had pointed out that: “corruption remains the most serious factor undermining the realisation of our economic potential. Government must not only make commitments to fighting it, government must demonstrate this commitment by its actions, by its style and by its body language”.

Even the most optimistic person knows that Omar was talking over the head of the denizens of the ruling elite present at the rally, because as someone ingeniously observed not too long ago, with the characters running Nigeria today, corruption has become the fundamental objective and directive principle of state policy! Well, even the NLC president’s tepid position was not left unchallenged by Jonathan.

“Labour has been in the forefront of the demand for good governance and the increase action [SIC] against corruption…at the core of this perpetration are the senior and junior members of labour unions. Greater attention to peer review action on the part of labour will be much appreciated”.

In essence Goodluck Jonathan seemed to be saying that yes, members of the ruling elite that he leads are bandits and thieves; but in the labour movement, there are also senior and junior hardened thieves! The wheel of corruption resembles that at a casino, and in Nigeria, many hands are participating in the spinning!

The challenge about labour’s participation in corruption merely reflects a far more fundamental challenge about the place of the labour movement in our national condition. It is a situation which all patriots, but especially those who adopt a working class perspective in the struggle for our country, must interrogate.

I write from the perspective of having spent most of my life in the working class movement and also as a militant in the Nigerian socialist movement. Increasingly, our movement has lost a significant amount of prestige and influence as a result of many factors: objective and subjective.

The collapse of the world socialist system in the 1990s saw the triumph of the world capitalist system and the consolidation of the powers of the bourgeoisie and international imperialism. Neoliberal policies imposed all over the world saw reforms of industrial relations which targeted the weakening of collective bargaining; the casualisation of labour; the erosion of union power and the drop in union membership.

The structure of the capitalist system also evolved and the growth of the service sector enhanced petty-bourgeois, consumerist values and the decline of proletarian, class-consciousness.

Casualisation of labour

Nigeria was not spared from this movement; the closure of industry reduced unionized workers while casualisation of labour became a major element of the struggle waged in the past decade by the Nigerian trade union movement.

Union leaders have become more and more an “aristocracy of labour”, unable or unwilling to take struggles to conclusions that helped to heighten class consciousness, seemed to be examples of the subjective problems which face the Nigerian working people. Many militants still hold a grudge against the NLC leadership for the manner it abandoned the mass action against fuel price hike in January 2012.

But far more central, is that Nigerian working people have continued to abandon politics to the most irresponsible ruling class on the African continent. Yet, we cannot arrive at liberation of our country only by trade union struggles that do not weigh in with political action.

The Nigerian Labour Party is only “labour” in name. It has no class content; not even the most minimalist social democratic ethos. It has been run largely like a mercantilist sect, without principles. It is part of its absurdity, that it has become platforms for characters that do not share the aspirations of the Nigeria working people and the poor.

Was it not the party that a controversial character like Nnamdi ‘Andy’ Uba used as gubernatorial platform not too long ago? When he was thoroughly beaten in the race, he dropped the Labour Party and returned to where he belonged, the PDP. That cannot be the party dedicated to the liberation of Nigeria!

Nevertheless, working people must be central to any serious effort to challenge the reigning orthodoxy of theft; corruption; neoliberal capitalist plunder and the manipulation of the fault lines of ethnicity and religion, central to Nigerian ruling class politics.

The crises phenomena that hold Nigeria in bear hug today reflect the failure of all the pseudo-solutions offered by the ruling class. These characters can only lead us to perdition. The working class must translate from class-in-itself to national liberator at the head of a powerful political force of the poor and the oppressed of Nigeria.

The fact that we are so far away from this realization threw the dampener into the sanitized May Day rallies of last weekend. We have to offer the rays of hope for national liberation to the mass of the Nigerian people if we don’t want to be consumed by the anarchic wave sweeping the country!

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