There is some relief that the Nigerian Labour Congress, NLC, has suspended its protests over what it calls anti-people policies of the government after a meeting with President Bola Tinubu on August 2. I would imagine that the president must have convinced them as he pointed out in his July 31 broadcast, that “I came here to help not to hurt the people.”
Tinubu inherited a devastated national economy, and he is forced to take tough decisions that are tough on the country and the people. He has no option if the damage done to the economy must be repaired and the economy repositioned to grow once more, not with other people’s money but through our collective sweat as citizens.
In his broadcast under reference, he achieved two objectives critical to our form of government. He initiated a dialogue between him and the people when he said in the first paragraph of his speech: “It is important that you understand the reasons for the policy measures I have taken to combat the serious economic challenges this nation has long faced.”
Dialogue between the rulers and the ruled is a cardinal principle of democracy. Dialogue promotes understanding between both parties and provides a peaceful rather than a heated atmosphere that allows policies to work. He is not contemptuous of the people and does not intend to treat them with arrogant disdain. Cast your mind back on Buhari.
He did not initiate the removal of the contentious fuel subsidy. He was forced to implement what the Buhari administration initiated in a manner that it became a booby trap for him. But as I pointed out in an earlier column, he chose to take up the challenge rather than cower in fright and continue with the anti-people policy that robbed the people to pay and sustain the lavish style of the wealthy barons of the oil cartel.
He said he took the decision to remove fuel subsidy because “I have consistently maintained the position that the fuel subsidy had to go. This once beautiful measure had outlived its usefulness. The subsidy cost us trillions of Naira yearly. Such a vast sum of money would have been better spent on public transportation, healthcare, schools, housing, and even national security. Instead, it was being funnelled into the deep pockets and lavish bank accounts of a select group of individuals.”
And this leads us to the second point, to wit accountability. He owes the people full explanation for what he does, why does it, what he intends to achieve and how the people will benefit. The framers of our national constitution knew what they were doing when they made it obligatory for the president and the state governors to be fully accountable to the people. They also imposed on the news media the duty of ensuring that they comply.
I have gone to this length to show that labour was hasty and wrong in its response to the removal of fuel subsidy. The NLC is not an opposition party that must interpret government decisions for the purposes of winning it public applause at the expense of the government. It is as much responsible for our national development as the government itself. Its leaders ought not to trade in sentiments and emotions and whip the people into the frenzy of seeing the government as an enemy of the people against the people. Public protest has its uses, but it must not be used to aggravate a grave situation such as we are in. This government is only two months old. It could not have turned the economy heading for the south back so soon.
The right of the NLC, like that of any other labour union, to fight for and protect the interests of its members is recognised by convention and our labour laws. That right includes calling its members out on strike to force the government to accept its demands on behalf of the people. The labour leaders did not bother to listen to the president’s explanation. Instead, they chose to wave the banner of a strike action that they later downgraded to protests to achieve the same purpose of forcing the government to roll back its tough policy and take the nation back to where we were and continue to suffer while the barons sing to the banks.
I have argued here and elsewhere that a strike action is a powerful weapon in the hands of labour. It cannot be used too often or too carelessly because it has unintended consequences and is known to sometimes hurt the people it intends to protect. A public protest may start peacefully and end violently. Our history of public protests provides ample evidence for this. Chaos unleashed on the country in pursuit of narrow labour interests serves neither the interests of labour nor of the country.
Labour should strive for good governance not just protest policies it does not appear to understand. Labour has no history in this country of holding our public officers to account. Where was labour when civil servants and pensioners were not paid for years in at least 27 states? If its statutory responsibility is to protect the interest of workers, then labour failed in its duty. The civil servants and pensioners were not paid for lack of money; they were not paid because the thieving state governors chose to live their false life of wealth and luxury to the hilt. NLC has a branch in every state capital to keep an eye on the welfare of its members. The congress did nothing while its members lived in penury and died in penury.
Where was labour when Buhari was piling up debts on our lean financial resources? Where was labour when the former accountant-general Idris helped him to N108 billion from the national treasury? Where was labour when the last administration was captured by the oil cartel and was forced to assuage them with the so-called palliatives that made them wealthier? Has NLC leader Ajaero ever sought to know who benefitted from the money given to select people as palliatives and what difference it has made in their lives? Has he ever interrogated the administration of the palliatives regime?
Labour leadership is clearly not what it used to be. Those of us who are old will recall the labour leadership of Chief Michael Imuodu, fondly called labour leader number one, and the other great labour leaders who used strikes or strike threats not to blackmail the government but to persuade it to come to the round table because dialogue trumps destructive strike actions.
In contrast, our current labour leaders use the threats of strikes not to frighten the government but to be settled by government and leave their members holding the short end of the stick. When they call their members out on strike, they achieve nothing because they are compromised in more ways than one. The military took advantage of their compromise to render labour and its leadership impotent and watch the camel saunter through the eye of the needle.
In his July 31 broadcast, Tinubu laid out the broad economic and social policies of his administration. I do not recall anyone before him who did anything similar. They point the nation to the right direction as it struggles to pull itself out of the Ajegunle gutter into which Buhari pushed it. Labour belligerence at times like these is impotent rage. My advice to labour? Listen to the president; shield your blunt swords. It is a rough ride for our country and us.