As the founding president of the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC), Comrade Hassan Sunmonu’s knowledge of Organised Labour is encyclopaedic. This week, NLC turned 40 and the unionist spoke with MOSES JOHN on how NLC challenged the policies of successive military governments, the union’s travails to get acceptable minimum wage for workers and the impatience of some labour leaders which led to the division in the Congress.
As the Nigerian Labour Congress(NLC) turned 40 this week, can you reflect how the congress has metamorphosed over the years?
Myself and the pioneer General Secretary of the Congress, Comrade Aliyu Dangiwa, did our best in the first six years which is three years tenure. That time, we operated under both military and civilian regimes, so it was not like now where it is civilian regime throughout. At that time, you could be locked up just at the whims and caprices of any military leader who thinks you are a threat. You can be locked up for months or even years but today it is not like that, so those were the kind of circumstances under which we operated.
Why was the different labour unions restructured and put under one umbrella?
We had of to 5,000 but now it is called industrial unions and they are 42 of them that constitute the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC). At that time, we have no faction, because we had four labour centres that merged; they formally called special conferences to dissolve themselves, surrendered their certificates, before the current Nigeria Labour Congress could be founded on the 28th of February, 1978. Don’t also forget the fact that the name which government wanted the centre to be called was Central Labour Organisation (CLO).
That was why it was the only item on the constitution that was drafted at the NLC inaugural conference in Ibadan on 28th February, 1978. That was the only thing we could amend because it was a one day conference. If we had wanted to amend the constitution, NLC wouldn’t have been formed that day so the only thing that changed was the name of the organisation. This was because in 1950, the movement agreed that the name be called Nigeria Labour Congress and so that name was maintained instead of CLO as proposed by government.
From there, we started from a building that was hired for us by Federal Government in Ikorodu road; number 42, Constitution Avenue was our National Secretariat that time. Then our team also discovered one of the asset that we inherited from one of the merging labour centres that time, that is Nigeria Tailor Congress (NTC). It had a building at 29 Olajuwon street, Yaba, Lagos, which has not been completed then. So, we got hold of the building. In fact, it was taken over by government, but we fought and we got the federal government to reconstruct the building and we made it our national secretariat. Then we were given one million naira subvention and what NLC did at our first NEC meeting, was to decide on how to share the money. The NEC later decided that each of the 42 industrial unions should be given N10,000, don’t also forget that one naira that time was more than one dollar, which brought the total to N420,000, and the balance of N580,000 from the one million naira was given to NLC.
We then started to launch States Councils of NLC, we use to have 19 states then. So we went round and launched the state councils of NLC which was very appropriate then because the industrial unions as at then was not able to establish offices in the 19 States. So it was the Nigeria Labour Congress that was helping the industrial unions take off as well as servicing their members in all the 19 states. Also this was because they didn’t have money and manpower to do that then. Also part of what we did during our first and second tenure was bring dignity into the labour movement. The reason was that the perception of majority of Nigerians then was that, Labour can only agitate when workers where lay off; we also brought respectability to the trade union by employing graduates on full time. For instance, Aliyu Dangiwa had a Masters degree, his own deputy had a doctorate degree in Economics. In fact, all the staff of the Secretariat where graduates, one of them in charge of Education, Dr Taiwo had PhD in Education.
What were the circumstances that led to unionists being admitted to National Institute of Policy and Strategic Studies(NIPSS) courses?
I remember that I was invited to give a lecture at NIPSS, Kuru, Jos on March 8, 1980. After subjecting me to about one and half hours of question and answers, I then ask them that who was a trade unionist in this class but non of them raised his or her hands up. I told them this institute was standing on two legs, and as long as is standing on two legs, it cannot be stable so you need the third led so that it would be a tripod. After that, from 1981, the National Institute for Policy and Strategic Studies (NIPSS) asked NLC to nominate candidates for participation.
That is why since that time, NLC and its affiliates have been participating in NPSS and since then.
What will you say have been NLC’s achievements in the last 40 years?
We fought for May Day, because it was not a public holiday before, it was during our time that we agitated and it was granted in honour of workers’ sacrifices in nation building. Also there was no minimum wage, by law then in the history of Nigeria until May 1981 when we have to go on strike and we finally got minimum wage. At the continental level, we are very active, both regionally which is OTUWA. It was founded in 1984 and also we have been contributing to national discourse.
You know we are not like politicians who want to sit-tight in office or like the president who wanted to do third term. In fact, we were considered as people who did well and even proposed to amend the constitution so that we can run another term but we said no. From there, Ali Ciroma succeeded me, we opposed to International Monetary Fund (IMF), Structural Adjustment Programme, it started during our time and Ciroma who succeeded me continued the fight, so much that Babangida tried to distabilise the NLC as a result of our opposition to these policies. We fought it to stand still, Babangida was even trying to subject it to national debate and the Nigeria people with their majority, rejected it.
Kalu Odika Kalu was the finance minister at that time and championed the campaign on behalf of federal government while the NLC was campaigning against it on behalf of the people. We did our best but is good that after 40 years we are still alive, even though we lost a number of people.
Can you compare the NLC during your time and the present union?
The situation in 1978 is not the same thing as the situation today. I was telling you that the N1 million subvention we were given was like one million dollars. Look at the purchasing power then and now, there are difference. One thing most Nigerians don’t understand is that the members and leadership of NLC do not come from the Mars but they are part of Nigeria society and the people. Let’s even talk about politicians; our founding fathers, can you compare them to the present politicians? I remember the former vice Chancellor of University of Ife, Dr. Abimbola who was Senator at that time, he said then it was only allowances that were given to them and not salaries but what do we have today? So when you are making comparisons, you also have to put the indices of what was happening then and now. Today, are our children respecting their elders, teachers and even their parents? They think they’ve known everything, they are referring to the older people as analogue while they are digital and the digital people are stealing the country dry.
NLC has been factionalised since the last delegates’ conference. What efforts are elders like you making to unite the union?
Let me say that this reminds me of one our proverbs that says a hunting dog that is destined to be lost, will never hear the whistle of the hunter. All of us as veterans, we were there at the International Conference Centre, venue of the last delegates’ conference. We didn’t sleep for 36 hours and when the whole thing ended in crisis, we were the ones that asked the outgoing executives to summon an emergency National Executive Council (NEC) meeting and that led to the peace initiative that we initiated.
I was the chairman of that initiative, Comrade Adams and other veterans were members of that initiative and we worked for 15 good months and we came with an understanding that since Ajaero claimed it was during sorting out of the votes cast that he was rigged out and that he had a video evidence. Dangiwa was the returning officer, I was the one who swore in the Wabba-led exco and up to the 15 months we met, Ajaero didn’t come out with the evidence, so his claimed was a lie and we cannot support lies.
And immediately the Wabba team kicked off, they went and inaugurated their own NLC in mainland hotel without any conference. They just put their names and said they have elected themselves at their various meetings and we know that NLC is only one. After that, they resorted to say they are United Labour Congress of Nigeria (ULC) and I say they can’t answer United Labour Congress (ULC) because ULC is one of the four labour centres that surrendered their certificate after dissolving themselves that give birth to NLC, so they can’t bear that name. Even God Himself dislikes an individual to be arrogant.
I know in the Holy Qur’an as a Muslim, the way you even walk cannot be as if you are the owner of the earth. May be because your union is rich and so what about that? This was a man, if he was patient, he could have led the NLC for eight years. Look at Comrade Adeyemi, he was shut out in one of the conference, we also made conciliation between his union and the NLC and today he came back and he is one of the deputy presidents.
Why is Ajaero in the hurry? Why should our colleagues from the east in particular be like that. Ojelil was to succeed me, but at the Kano conference in February 1981…it is good to also relate some of this things. Before then, he went to the UNN and when he returned, he said he knows better than Sunmonu. I had my HND certificate 50 years ago and then he was not a graduate and in fact he was even back by the Federal government then. But I was elected. If he was patient, he would have succeeded me. So our colleagues from the east have not been patient and is only the patient dog who eat the fattest meat.
What is the way forward for a formidable NLC that can protect the welfare of workers?
The way forward is to go back to the drawing board, using our culture and what our religion teaches us. Because when you take Islam for instance, not the Boko Haram because they are not Muslims, they are criminals and murderers because that is not what Islam said. When you take Christianity, even traditional religions like Ifa or Ogun, the worshippers of ion. If they swore about something, it is true, but today how many Muslims and Christians swear with the Qur’an and Bible while telling lies? So let go back to culture because our culture does not accept stealing, a family where they have thieves, they would not marry to them in the community because stealing is an abomination in our tradition; so where did we get all these stealing from because its not part of our culture. So lets go back to our culture by preaching peace, even though not all aspects of our culture is good. Also, the tenet of our religions and upbringing of our children because a whole nation is a summation of individual families that make up the nation.