The Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) became 40 years in existence, MOSES JOHN speaks with Comrade JOHN ODAH on the journey so far. Excerpts
NLC at 40, journey so far
It has been a story of struggle that has its ups and down; a story that Nigerian workers have had their moments of triumph, moments where they fought , and moments in which the resilience of the working people of this country. These showed clearly that as an organised force, we will continue to move from strength to strength as long as we remain focused.
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 highlights 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 governments of the PRP, declared May Day 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 Day 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 was removing subsidy on social services, increasing cost of education and health care.
The Ciroma leadership fought and stood with the students, when in May 1986, the Ango Abdullahi leadership in Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria called on police who came in and killed scores of students protesting the expulsion of their student leaders. The NLC wanted to carry out a national protest in solidarity with the students and the Babangida government responded by closing down NLC offices in all the states, and arresting Ciroma, Dr. Osunde who was the General Secretary, Stephen Oshidipe, the National Treasurer and Salihu Mohammed who was then the Head of Information.
Babangida-imposed NLC administrator
The intended action was to show the solidarity of the Nigerians workers with the students and all oppressed members of the Nigerian society. After that, the Babangida government used the seeming crisis between factions in the NLC not to recognise the re-election of Ciroma and imposed an administrator on the NLC in February 1988.
He was there for 10 months and in December 1988, a new election was held and Pascal Bafyau became President of the NLC. Two years into his second term, the contradictions surrounding the annulment of Abiola’s election as President came, the Babangida government set aside and Shonekan, who was the interim leader, was also pushed aside by Gen. Sani Abacha who became the maximum leader.
One of the things Abacha did was to proscribe NUPENG, PENGASSAN and NLC. This was the case for four years until Abacha died in June 1998.
The Abdulsalami government that took over unbanned the NLC and the congress was able to organise an election at the end of January 1999, that brought in the Adams Oshiomhole- led executive. Oshiomhole started by trying to restore the lost glory of congress, partly because of the leadership style of its past leaders and the viciousness of the military administration.
Obasanjo’s effort to weaken NLC
In the eight years that Adams was President, the NLC had series of street battles with the Olusegun Obasanjo administration over the government’s 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 disorganise the NLC and remove from it as the only status of central labour organisation in the country.
We went to the National Assembly and as a result of our advocacy, it was not possible for him to get exactly what he wanted. What he succeeded in doing was to scuttle the efforts to make the TUC join the NLC because we were in an advanced talks with them.
The TUC was presented as a body that was going to checkmate the militancy of the NLC. But as history has shown over the last ten years, what we have tried to do was to reach out to the TUC to ensure that they didn’t do the bidding or what government had intended by amending the law to have them registered as a Labour Centre.
After Adams, there was the Omar leadership which had its ups and down. But like the Adams leadership, we won a national minimum wage after protracted discussion with the government of the day. That leadership can be credited with winning the present N18,000 minimum wage which President Goodluck Jonathan signed just before the 2011 elections.
Of course, the current leadership took over in 2015 from Omar and even though Ajaero and Achese refused to be good sportsmen by refusing to concede defeat and tried to float an alternative NLC and now formed a new centre.
But the truth of the situation is that NLC remains strong and standing, even though the perception of the public is that we are divided which is unfortunate. But in the life of an organisation, these things happened and as part of the veterans, my hope is that our colleagues who are trying to continue the division within the labour movement will see reasons and reunite with the NLC.
Why the celebration
I think the fact that NLC has survived all these forty years despite the imagination of various government to crush it, is enough reason to celebrate. NLC needs to celebrate also to carry the message that it is when you struggle that you can hope about getting victory. Victories that all over the world the working people want, have not been won on the platter of goal.
So, yes in period of recession, gross mismanagement of national economy like we currently having in our country, the working class has always be at the receiving end.
So, I think what this celebration will show is to energise the working people to encourage them and reaffirm that, in the organisation lies the strength of the working masses of this country, hence the need to protect and defend their organisation as NLC. So the message of 40 years of NLC is for workers to be vigilant, steadfast and defend their organisation.
NLC after 40 years
Well , as programme for the celebration is lined up, there is going to be a number of activities, and these include; three lectures on “NLC yesterday, today, tomorrow and the future of work as well as labour, politics and governance.”
Three different topics NLC has selected and highly informed people to talk on, the massage that would come out from that hopefully be translated into concrete action by workers and the leadership of NLC.
The 40 years celebration also provides the NLC an opportunity to look into the future, the challenges it is currently facing and therefore work on the strategies to overcome the challenges and plan, so that the next ten or twenty years and more, it would become a stronger or fighting organisation that when it mobilises its membership, they will be able to respond to the call so that it can be able to defend the interest of the working people.