Vice President of the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC), Comrade Issa Aremu, spoke to Labour correspondents during the union’s 10th National Delegates Conference. He gives an insight into the crisis sorrounding the post of the union’s general secretary and the possible ways to resolve it. MOSES JOHN was there.
Internal challenges and leadership crisis
We have internal challenges in the trade union movement. Don’t forget that our activities also include our internal trade union activities, and over the years NLC has been keeping to its tradition of conducting elections - apart from when we were dissolved. Even after dissolution we will return to democracy tradition to elect our leaders. Of course, since the last election, the delegate conference, we also had some challenges but all I know is that these are surmountable challenges.
In fact, those challenges have not stopped us from facing the real challenge - which is to defend the interests of our members.
After the conference all the unions have fought together to implement the new minimum wage and, for me, I found that remarkable, which means the unity of purpose of union is still there. In spite of the fact that the election produced winners and losers, all of us fought against the fuel increase; even those who didn’t join us never said they were for increase in fuel prices.
So, it means we are united. I have never seen any trade union which says the pension scam should not be condemned.
However, I also know that there are challenges. And the major challenge, which I see at the level of NLC, is the unfortunate development in which simple internal re-organization had become more externalised. Now, the former general secretary has gone to court and, if the case is in court, I am not sure to what extent I can discuss it. I am of the opinion that trade unions generally, not just the NLC, need to re-examine the movement with a view to re-inventing some of our democratic methods.
A simple internal crisis in the NLC became visible because it is the labour centre but if you also check down the ladder, there are a couple of unions that have faced these challenges in which there are problems of succession. Even for election, there are crises; it is not all unions that conduct free and fair elections. There are some elections in some unions that led to crisis but some conducted free and fair elections - like my union; we have just finished our election.
But in some unions, they have that crisis. Above all there are also problems about how to manage the full-time officers of the union especially the principal, general secretaries of the unions and some industrial unions face these crises.
I know that many unions have problem of how to handle the entry and exit of the general secretaries and I think we should use this challenge to address those fundamental issues, because it is like what I was raising about pension: that is not so much that you talk of criminals who loot the pension money, but we must have structure that will minimize opportunities for people to steal public funds. So I think we need re-structural designed and I think trade unions are champion of reforms and change.
All the greatest reforms that have happened in this country, Nigeria trade union movement has been in the forefront. The struggle for independence was led by our founding fathers. At a time it was more criminal to do so, Nigeria trade union said the colonialists must go. In fact, it was the battle of (late Mike) Imoudu for living allowance that led to general protest that made politicians sit up and resolve to form political parties. In fact, trade unions preceded political parties.
We must learn to change our method. Change strengthens traditions. So the challenges are that if the union doesn’t change, somebody will force us to change. So the major problem I tried to identify today is that there is a crisis of how to manage full time officers, especially the general secretaries of the unions.
The general picture is that general secretaries are becoming sit-tight and there is no mechanism of removing them. We have mistaken full time appointment which is to do full time work for sit-tight, which is not the same. This is historical, too, because the workers from day one wanted to elect their general secretary in 1978 when we did re-structuring.
Again because we did not do holistic self-reform, the government reformed us in its own image, because they wanted to control the trade union movement, they wanted to post general secretaries from the ministries, because it is full-time, the brain box of the unions.
Check the constitution of any union and look at other precedents, how many items; check that of general secretaries, president is not more than three or four - to preside over meetings. Yes he is the head of the organization but the real core activities is done by the general secretaries. He is the one who negotiates, who does the talking. He is the backbone.
The idea of full time and why workers take to full time officer is that the workers say they need unionism; we need union to defend us, to speak for us, fight against injustices in the world of work, improve on wages and fight against the arbitrariness and despotism of management. So, the workers now say, let us release one of us to be full-time to do the work, so they pay him. It’s is not the employer paying him now, so you can’t say you are sacking the general secretary.
That is the idea of the concept of full time, but workers have control because they are the ones who appointed you. In fact, they elected them. And today we still have that structure in my factories, all the branches we have. All the secretaries are elected but they are full-time workers.
It strengthened trade union independent. They did that up to 1978 until the government realized the power of the general secretary and if you look at all the people they banned in the past, they are all full-time officers, because they are well trained and articulate. So the government now says that we rather appoint for you from the ministry. Don’t forget the first crisis: Dangiwa was posted by the Late Yar’Adua, who was the Chief of Staff under the military regime of Obasnjo.
He put Dangiwa there to control, because Hassan Summonu who was the first president was too strong for them. The NLC said ‘how can you post for us? We must put our own’. That was how Osunde replaced him. Osunde was there, he left out of old age; he was tired and fatigue. Again, there was a gap.
Then Anigbo came in, but they had no defined structure, they just picked Anigbo. He was fantastic, also vibrant but very little articulation. Then military administration came in and they dissolved everybody. For a long time there was even no general secretary but there was a president, all presidents have been elected. You can pick it structurally; there is a system of bringing the president.
Now the real box: how do you put the general secretary? That is how John Odah, for a long time, was more or less acting before some people put pressure and Comrade Adams says we must confirm him, with all sorts of resistance, to become the general secretary. How did some of our comrades become general secretaries in their unions?
I know of a union, before the incumbent general secretary came in, they physically removed the predecessor because he (predecessor) was a sit-tight; his wife was the secretary’s typist, another wife took one other prominent position, with charms all over the office. He was sit-tight. He turned the place to his village clown.
How to address the problem
What was the response of progressive unions, including us? We must reform ourselves so that we are not deformed in the process if we give opportunity to outsiders to reform us. We said that anybody who works for the union must be made to pay dues, and also the post of general secretaries should be elective so that after four years, if he is not performing he will be removed.
The functions of general secretary and deputy general secretary are too important to be left to people who are just appointed at the mercy of one president, or few people who just appoint them. He speaks for you, negotiates and leads the rallies. The rank and file must also choose. Workers should elect their general secretaries and they must have periodic time to re-affirm.
So after the first four years, if you are elected, or three years as the case may be, if you are not performing, the workers will have the right to remove you. So what I am saying is that a democratise office of general secretary of the NLC would have removed the fiasco we have around John Odah saga.
First, if we don’t have confidence in him, we will make sure we vote him out. It is better for John Odah to lose election than to be casually removed under services are no longer required, and if you lose election, it does not mean you leave the movement, you will only step down.