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Of Nigeria Labour Congress and its continued relevance, By Emmanuel Ado

By News Express on 23/01/2018

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•Emmanuel Ado
•Emmanuel Ado

“The only way that we can live is, if we grow. The only way that we can grow is if we change. The only way that we can change is if we learn. The only way we can learn is if we are exposed. And the only way that we can become exposed is if we throw ourselves out into the open. Do it. Throw yourself.” -  C Joy Bell C.

The Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) hated Mr Bernard Longe, former managing director and chief executive officer of First Bank of Nigeria, because of the reforms he initiated in the bank which, at the time he took over was, literally speaking, dead. With an aging workforce that was very comfortable; that, in fact, celebrated archaic banking as a way of life; a workforce that preferred the ‘tally number’ system that kept its customers the whole day in the bank: a workforce that bluntly refused to embrace technology that made life easy. The reforms, no doubt, transformed First Bank and ensured that it remains to date one of the strongest banks. Young vibrant graduates were brought in, as the bank embraced technology, becoming in the process the first bank to introduce and implement International Monetary Transfer System in Nigeria. Longe’s Enterprise Transformation Project, “Century II” and the “Century II The New Frontier” projects were no doubt a huge factor in defining the fortunes of the bank. He was undoubtedly bold and decisive, but “wicked and heartless” from Labour’s point of view. 

Like Longe, Mallam Nasir el Rufai, Governor of Kaduna State, is in the bad books of the NLC. The congress surly hates el Rufai's guts for embarking on critical reforms - the Public Service Revitalisation Programme and the reforms of the educational sector - especially, the competency test which many of the teachers flunked. To the NLC, the reforms are “anti-people” and a high crime - treason - against their hard working members. Labour is not convinced that the reforms are compelling, nor urgent. It is an open secret that Kaduna State, the regional capital of the old Northern Region, is lagging behind other states in virtually every area: the worst being in the areas of education and health-care. But, there seems to be a tiny minority that is clearly contented with the state’s consistent 44 per cent performance in national examinations through the years. Kaduna State has firmly held on to the 12th position nationally, though it remains a local champion in the north. Is it that it would rather compete against Zamfara State, which presented 186 candidates for the 2017 National Examinations out of which only four students passed with five credits, than compete against Anambra State that is presently topping the table. 

Every organisation, entity, or even individual who refuses or fails to reform and change will definitely become irrelevant with time, locked into the past in a dynamic world where the only thing consistent is change. The  NLC itself recognises this fact, and I quote it’s take on reforms: “The New Beginning is a decisive response to the imperative of rebuilding the movement in a direction that makes it more relevant to union members and other segments of civil society, which believe in its empowering and socially redemptive vision and capacity.”  So, if Labour is mindful of the need to reform, why is it protesting just about every policy of government? Or has protesting become its way of life? This is especially so when the outcomes of its various protests have been near negative. For instance, the revelation by the Group Managing Director of the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC), that the Muhammadu Buhari administration is secretly paying subsidy on imported fuel calls for a public apology from the NLC, which had mobilised Nigerians against President Goodluck Jonathan’s administration over its decision to remove the subsidy. Labour should acknowledge that it has gotten it wrong severally! And that acknowledgement will help it move forward. Are the protests like that of Kaduna meant to remind Nigerians that it is still in existence? 

If there was one policy the NLC should have handled with some tact, it is that of the Kaduna State teachers who woefully failed the competency test administered on them by a committee that included members of the Nigerian Union Teachers (NUT), and the Teachers Registration Council of Nigeria (TRCN). The question that the committee ought not to have administered it, and the high cut-off point that the NLC is holding onto in protesting the disengagement shows the congress as lacking in elementary shame. The NLC should be scandalised rather than defending what is clearly indefensible, thereby rubbishing whatever is left of its reputation. The demonstration is a public relations disaster and very unfortunate because it has not changed anything. On the issue of the disengagement of the clearly incompetent teachers, the Kaduna State Government is on a very high rational and moral ground. The sheer number of 21,000 failed teachers out of 33,000 is enough for the NLC to have hidden its head in shame. And, if it is about check-off dues, it is going to earn more, as the government is going to hire 4,000 more teachers. 

How can the NLC demonstrate against these numbers: 83 per cent of teachers scoring less than 25 per cent in Math and literacy and Primary Two pupils averaging 14 per cent in English, and 27 per cent in Math. The primary four pupils didn’t fare any better – they averaged 13 per cent in English and 17 per cent in Numeracy, in a programme  sponsored by the DFID. The competency test of June 2017 was obviously the finisher. Of the 33,000 that sat for the examination, only 11,591 teachers (33 per cent) scored 75 per cent. The rest fell by the way side. How can the government redeem the irredeemable? That is the answer the NLC is not providing, because it prefers, as always, to defend the narrow interest of workers as against the common good of the larger society. The strike is obviously face-saving and an attempt to convince the sacked teachers that the union stood by them.

I don’t want to agree with Labour that el-Rufai is heartless, though taking the difficult decision might portray him as such. The fact remains that education is too sensitive an area that incompetent teachers should be allowed to control. And like the governor has passionately argued, “the poor are entitled to equal opportunity because it enables every human being to widen their horizon, develop skills and lift themselves up.” Audu Amba, the Kaduna State chairman of the NUT is also spot-on in his description of quack teachers as mass murderers, because they forever murder generations of children, unlike quack doctors who at best murder one or two patients. But why is Amba – who holds politicians that employ their thugs as hugely responsible for the plight of the teaching profession – resisting the disengagement of the thugs? The question is: Why strike, if a Daniel has finally come to judgment? Labour would have won friends if, for once rather than protest, it partnered with the government in addressing the rot in the sector.

In 1981, United States’ Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organisation (PATCO), a trade union, embarked on a strike that would ultimately lead to its de-certification. Late President Ronald Reagan declared the strike illegal. More than 11,000 Air Traffic Controllers ignored Reagan's order to return to work. Reagan gave them 48 hours, while the authorities made contingency plans. Thankfully, their FAA’s contingency plans worked, as about  3,000 supervisors joined the 2,000 non-striking controllers and the 900 military controllers in manning the airport towers. The strike was broken and that was the beginning of the end for PATCO. Reagan went on to impose a lifetime ban on re-hiring of the Air Traffic Officers and the Federal Labour Relations Authority de-certified PATCO. It was only in 1993 that President Bill Clinton lifted the ban on the strike participants. A Federal judge imposed a $1 million per day fine against the union. It was a gross miscalculation that it paid dearly for. The PATCO debacle is worthy of keen study by the Labour world over, who have a penchant to always over-price their indispensability. 

The defeat of PATCO was one of the most important events of the late 20th century. The tragedy of the failed Nigerian Union of Teachers strike is that they have unwittingly played into the hands of Governor el-Rufai. Will the governor give them the Reagan-PATCO treatment? Will he enforce the no-work, no-pay rule? Will el-Rufai take advantage of the failed strike to break the union and enforce more competitive work practices? Whatever happens, the NLC/NUT must take the blame for the big gamble that has backfired. Are we seeing an end to the era of Labour unions taking Nigerians for granted? Not likely, but unless Labour reforms, it will one day be history. Kaduna State – which spends more than 80 per cent of its revenue on public servants or “evil servants” as Obasanjo calls them - deserves more than it is presently getting from its less than 100,000 public servants. 

Labour’s admittance that many of the teachers are misfits, but that they were hired by politicians, is a very lame and lazy excuse. Why did Labour refuse to take up the governor on his offer to engage the 21,000 irredeemable teachers in other endeavours, like farming? Why was Labour so determined on a protest, which from all indications amounts to little beyond sound bites and pictures? In real terms, can it force the Kaduna State Government to re-engage any of the sacked teachers? And even if it does, over time can't it decide to terminate their appointments?

Labour is obviously living in a dream world, hence its uneconomic demand for wage increase, especially when many states owe backlog of salaries, unless it is to impress their members that they are working. The NLC president, Ayuba Wabba, in his New Year message to workers derided the Buhari administration for its lack of capacity to turn around the economic fortunes of Nigeria. “We are not seeing the positive impact of government’s plans for the economy. It is common knowledge that in times of economic recession, governments put funds into the economy, building infrastructure and increase social spending to re-flate the economy. Not much is being done in this direction to get us out of the economic recession.” But this reality hasn't stopped him from asking for N55,000 minimum wage. How can states fund the expected increment, which will lead to massive retrenchment? It is not sheer delusion, it is games and the NLC plays games with its members. They have some similarities with Pentecostal pastors. 

The NLC must reform and become more strategic or they will strike their way into irrelevance. It must be broad-minded in its engagement. The NLC must change its ways from being a bread and butter union, or it might suffer the fate of the American Air Traffic Controllers who were demystified. But with over 40 affiliate unions and 37 state councils, the NLC is buoyant. The cash cow unions – the Medical and Health Workers Union of Nigeria, the National Union of Electricity Employees, and NUPENG – contribute at least N1billion to its coffers. Next time when leadership crisis erupts in the NLC, kindly make the connection.

•Emmanuel Ado is a Kaduna-based journalist. He can be reached via

Source News Express

Posted 23/01/2018 8:41:45 PM


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