The national strike executed by the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) for two days last week was pointless and patently unnecessary. They indeed gave adequate notice for the start of the strike. However, not many took their words seriously to embark on a national strike for the main reason they were advancing. Earlier, for a few days in the last two weeks, we were treated to a media frenzy when the NLC President, Joe Ajaero, was reported to have been seriously assaulted in Owerri, Imo State.
He was in Owerri ostensibly ahead of a planned workers’ protest in the state. Unfortunately, Imo State was in a state of flux, in a time of an off-cycle election, with the potential for violent occurrences associated with election periods. To compound matters, the NLC president is an indigene of Imo State and a known activist of the Labour Party (LP), a political party that was a strong contender in the gubernatorial election. In effect, there could be no love lost between Joe Ajaero and the Imo State Governor, Hope Uzodinma, running for re-election on the ticket of the APC.
Somehow, the NLC president ran into a mob and was so severely manhandled that he had to spend a few days in the hospital. The leadership of the NLC was utterly piqued by the incident, for which they heaped the blame on both the Imo State Government and the Nigeria Police Force (NPF). More consultations among the labour leaders generated a list of conditions delivered to the federal government that must be fulfilled to forestall a general strike. These conditions included the withdrawal of the Commissioner of Police (CP) in the state and the apprehension of perpetrators of the attack. The government denied the allegation of culpability, and yet to regain the confidence of the NLC, decided to redeploy the CP. Then the NLC standing on that initial victory and smelling blood, decided that redeploying the CP wasn’t enough and demanded the fulfilment of all the other conditions or that the strike would go ahead. And to the surprise of many, they did.
It was a pointless and needless strike. At the heart of it is the integrity of the entire leadership of the labour unions to have allowed themselves to be led by the nose to inflict such unnecessary suffering on the nation for an occurrence that from my perspective, does not meet the threshold of the time-hallowed prescription of the injunction of, ‘injury to one is injury to all’. Agreed that the NLC President was severely beaten up in Owerri but would he solemnly swear that he was there on entirely national labour matters and not in the pursuit of partisan party affairs? After all, he is an indigene of the state and a supporter of the LP.
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The mantra of injury to one is injury to all has been used by industrial unions from the early years of the last century to engender unity of purpose among them and across countries. The motto became popular and has been used all over the world by unions to come to the aid of their colleague unions in times of crisis. However, the definition of the mantra is so elastic that unions in some instances have misused it. There is every indication that Joe Ajaero and his colleagues have overstepped the bounds of the integrity of the mantra by going on strike on a matter that was visibly local and tinted with partisan political aspirations. Taking the nation hostage because Joe Ajaero was beaten up and grounding the economy for good measure is beyond the pale.
The ports were closed, schools and universities were shut down, hospitals were abandoned, the railway coaches did not move and there was a general feeling of tension in the air. The only consolation surrounding the sorry episode was that there were unions who by their passivity indicated that they saw through the façade and did not participate. The Federal Secretariat in Abuja functioned on the first day of the strike until the workers who were in their offices were harassed by union enforcers to leave. Some of the states did not participate. The electricity union and those in the aviation sector entirely rebuffed the strike. As for the rest of the citizenry, there was only anger and frustration on the grandest scale. I am not surprised that the strike ended in that abrupt manner.
The expectations were that the NLC would be a catalyst for a protest against some of the policies of this government that have been deemed to be not well-thought-out, ill-timed and hard on the common citizenry. I refer particularly to the removal of subsidies on petroleum products and the floating of the Naira the effects of which are yet to be adequately addressed by the government. These policies have severe debilitating effects on the welfare of the labour union members. Yet their leaders have left that and went on in pursuance of a red herring of the personal aggrandisement of one leader.
I hope the labour leaders will do some soul-searching and house-cleaning to enable them to return to the sole pursuit of workers’ welfare and progress.