The underlying issue in the ongoing face-off between the Governor of Kaduna State, Malam Nasir El-Rufai and Nigeria’s labour unions headed by NLC President, Ayuba Wabba is, for me, not a matter of industrial dispute at all. Rather, it is one of the oldest and most fundamental issues in Nigerian governance and politics and one which as a country, we must confront and come to terms with at some point.
Stripped of all the noise and fury from either side, the issue is this: how can we generate public money and how do we spend and redistribute this public money? Few questions in government are more important than these two and although much of the debate in Kaduna State has focused largely on the question of distribution, how any government spends public money is directly and intimately connected to how much it generates in the first place.
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Into this big picture enter the small details of the industrial dispute. The state government claims that it spends about 90 per cent of the public money it receives on the salaries and pensions of its civil servants alone, who, according to the government’s press statements, are less than 10 per cent of the state’s population of over nine million people. So the solution, it claims, is to reduce the workforce via a general formula that includes compulsory retirement of officers who are 50 years old and above, or on Grade Level 14 and above, reducing the staff strength of each local government to no more than 50 workers, among similar objective measures.
The labour unions, on the other hand, are kicking against the mass retrenchment that will necessarily follow such a government policy, regardless of its economic merits or the financial circumstances of the state. In other words, while the state government is speaking about sound policy, the unions are speaking about the rights of Nigerians as workers and the obligations of a government as an employer. Yet, there is an important sense in which both sides are speaking about the same thing actually, that is, social justice.
The NLC have presented El-Rufai’s position as a penchant for “neo-liberal and anti-workers policies” designed to benefit only his “capitalist confederates”. But if we set aside all the big grammar from the NLC and the needless threats from El-Rufai too, the two camps are not only talking about the same thing, the government is standing on a far more solid ground on behalf of the people of the state than the unions. But to get to that point, we must first take a detour to look at a peculiarly Nigerian trait that often beclouds our political judgment for matters involving any government.
It probably goes unnoticed but in any face-off between government on the one hand and the media, organised labour and so-called civil society organisations, on the other, the default attitude is to see government as the guilty party. Nigerians are always right; their governments never so. This tendency is so deeply entrenched in our political psyche that virtually anyone who claims to be ‘fighting’ against the government, any government, can get away with anything, however irresponsible or implausible their position. But governments, like anyone else, can also be right sometimes, however, much we find it hard to accept.
One result of this trait is that when our unions invoke social categories like ‘the poor’, ‘workers’, ‘masses’, ‘tax-payers’, and so on, they usually mean very different things from what they say. For example, the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) likes to claim that its “struggles” are for the “poor Nigerian”. But the truly poor Nigerians no longer attend any university, be it public or private. The material conditions of life for the body and the mind, the home and the neighbourhood make it all nigh impossible for the poor to attend university. And education, as a whole, functions best on accumulated advantage, which is what the poor lack the most.
So, when the NLC talks about ‘workers’ in Kaduna State or even nationally, they are in fact talking about a very small number of Nigerians. Far more people work in the informal sector in Nigeria than all the organised labour. Such people don’t belong to any unions and don’t receive any salaries from any government and lack any protections of labour laws, including those on minimum wage. But they are also Nigerians, who, it must be said, also pay taxes in some forms. Add to them, those who have no jobs at all, and we begin to have an idea what El Rufai might be talking about, since the government must ensure that such people also receive their fair share of the public money received by the state.
The second result of this holier than thou trait in our relations with the government in Nigeria is that it compounds, indeed, confounds, public policymaking. It is a truism of public policy that inefficiencies in one area will manifest and compound problems in other areas. So, if we follow ASUU and pump N200 billion annually into the “public universities”, for example, we will not be making university education available and accessible to the “ordinary Nigerian”, as ASUU people like to claim. Instead, we will be subsiding university education for mainly the children of the middle class, most of whom attended private or some fee-paying primary and secondary schools in the first place. In short, this is not fighting for the poor but enabling a tiny minority to suck up the resources due to all.
At the same time, however, we will also be robbing the real poor, in fact, twice over. The children of the poor, whom you can find trekking long distances to get to school, if at all, with bare feet and torn uniforms, or selling ‘pure water’ and groundnuts during school hours, or more commonly in northern Nigeria, begging in the streets, or just living in the rural areas, would hardly ever make it to university. They would never learn enough to pass the entrance exams (WAEC, JAMB, NECO, etc), even should they have an opportunity to cheat, as their peers in middle and upper-class homes frequently do. In fact, many are lucky if they are able to read and write at all after six or more years of schooling.
Worse than that, we will also be robbing the poor of what the late development economist, Albert O. Hirschman calls “voice”. To continue with the example, since ASUU is the most powerful union in the education sector which emphasises only university education, the very education the poor needs the most, basic education, inevitably takes a backstage in government policy, spending or accountability. The real poor losses not just the opportunity to go to university but also a voice in the inherently competitive space of public economics. They cannot speak for themselves and have no one else to speak for them.
In politics as in life generally, those who ‘fight’ for us may also do us harm. But my real point is that nowhere else in Nigeria is this scenario of a tiny minority sucking up all the public money more evident than in the civil service. And it is to this, I now turn.