On Nigeria’s international labour diplomacy

When a fortnight ago in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, the Africa Region of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) meeting under the auspices of the  African Union nominated Nigeria for the titular membership of the Governing Board of the ILO, it came as no surprise to stakeholders and enthusiasts of labour. The reason is not far-fetched: Nigeria has been on a sustained rise in the global labour reckoning. In Addis Ababa, Africa literally passed a vote of confidence on Nigeria’s roadmap to repositioning the continental bargaining base in the world labour politics.  With the endorsement, Nigeria will by June 2020 when new elections hold, assume the highest representation in in the Governing Board of the ILO in trust for West Africa. It held such a position about 13 years ago.

In clearer terms, the African Ministers of Labour, Employment and Social Development endorsed the cardinal roles Nigeria has been playing in furthering the cause of the continent. They acknowledged the effective voice which Nigeria’s Minister of Labour and Employment, Chris Ngigehas accorded Africa since ascending the Board in 2017.  Indeed, the capacity to articulate and convincingly present Africa’s position on critical issues made the ILO elevate him leaderof the government side of the tripartite, though he is a deputy.

Take for instance, the events at the 331 session of  the Governing Board held in Geneva in November 2017, where African ministers came with the total  elimination of the vestiges of colonialism in the ILO as a single agenda and nominated Ngige to lead the charge.  It was a major push. Acting as the provisional leader of the region, he elicited the support of other regions to halt the overbearing role of France and Britain in the conduct of the regional meetings of the ILO.  A memorable speech he delivered that day read in part: “With regard to participation in a regional meeting of a member state from another region, it bears repeating Africa’s earlier position, adopting the principle that each member state would be invited as a full member to only one regional meeting, with the Governing Body having the discretion of inviting on a case by case basis, any member state as an observer to other regional meeting. To continue to do otherwise is to evoke   the   ugly   memories   of the colonial era. As an independent region, our concern on the total cluster liberation of our region is well articulated in our region’s Agenda 2063.” The master-slave manipulations, skirmishes and subtle intimidation by France and Britain to break Africa’s resistance predictably fell flat in the face of iron cast resolve. Africa won the battle.

Indeed,  signs that Nigeria’s International Labour Diplomacy was on the  ascent  appeared early in October 2016 at the biannual conference of the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act  in Washington D.C, United States. There, Ngige earned  an acclaim when in his address, he  urged the U.S to walk the talk on the urgent establishment of the Africa Skills Development Fund with  Nigeria, the hub of West and Central Africa sub-regions as the headquarter. Later at the Labour and Trade Ministerial Roundtable of the summit, he urged America toextend labour projects such as skills training centres and technical aids to Nigeria, privileges which some African nations enjoy. He further requested for the lifting of the embargo on Nigeria’s crude oil and cocoa. Bemoaning the dip Nigeria’s cocoa has taken, Ngige said, “I was upset that throughout discussions on agriculture, Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire were big toasts of the West and I kept asking if it is not the same cocoa that Chief Obafemi Awolowo used to build the Western Region and the same massive cocoa plantation that Chief Michael Okpara built along the Arochukwu axis of the Eastern Region. It was worrisome, hence my case for technical assistance towards the production and refinement of our cocoa to meet the export standard of the UnitedStates and the European market.”

Back to Africa, Ngige shifted Nigeria’s attention to the Africa Labour Regional Administrative Centre (ARLAC), a body set up by the International Labour Organisation in 1974 as part of its institutional framework to build the capacity of labour administrators in English-speaking African countries. With its headquarters in Zimbabwe, the South African nation, over the years, appropriated this privilege with shrewd but active support of mostly English-speaking neighbouring countries, running the organization in an imperial style for 43 years. An organization whose sustenance Nigeria has majorly contributed to, Zimbabwe did not only corner its executive powers, but also monopolized its senior administrative structures, leading to the frustration of a Nigerian official posted to its management cadre.

Earlier at the June 2016 ILO Convention in Geneva which Ngige was attending for the first time, he posted a timely warning that ARLAC must democratize or Nigeria would reconsider participation.

An opportunity came at the 43rd ARLAC Governing Council meeting and High Level Symposium on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work held at Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe. Ngige went on bridge-building, eliciting the support of West African countries as well as Egypt to break the Southern African solidarity and succeeded in pushing through full democratization of ARLAC, with Nigeria elected the deputy chairman of the body. The import of the election could be viewed from the prism of respect, trust and faith in Nigeria’s leadership role in the continent. Nigeria’s concern for Africa, and its commitment to the economic and socio-political development and above all, commitment to decent work where Nigeria has domesticated almost all the ILO conventions stand apart.

Bottom-line: It is clear that no nation can develop its labour sector, a tripartite fulcrum around which national productivity revolves, without competent leadership spurred by patriotism. In the global village we live today, sound diplomacy is an imperative tool in national interest aggregation. It weighs even more at the international stage. However, where most of the dynamics and values of labour administration border on the abstract, the end benefits of international labour diplomacy are often shrouded from non-labour experts. But these are inevitable building blocks of industrial growth, harmony and subsequent national productivity.  How would a nation grow in the void of technical expertise, of skills and manpower development and their invaluable impact on technocracy, administration and leadership? The monetary value of such will usually take a good chunk of a national budget. But from the ILO, these values come at little or no cost.

Nwachukwu is an Abuja-based journalist.

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