By Michael Oche, Abuja –
Next February, the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) will be 40. But as their popular slogan goes, “the struggle continues.” For Nigerian workers it appear victory is far from being achieved. From various contending issues, such as nonpayment of salaries, increase in minimum wage, unilateral sack of workers, hike in cost of living and other issues that has to do with good governance and workers welfare, Labour has consistently been at loggerheads with government for four decades
When the Nigeria Trade Union Congress (NTUC), Labour Unity Front (LUF), United Labour Congress (ULC) and Nigeria Workers Council (NWC) in 1978 decide to merge together to form the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC), their major objective was to protect, defend and promote the rights, well-being and the interests of all workers, pensioners and the trade unions.
Though opinions remain divided as to what the NLC has achieved in the last forty years, but even the worst critic of the labour movement agrees that the NLC has been a rallying point for Nigerians who feel oppressed. From its first president, Hassan Adebayo Sunmonu who was president from 1978 to 1984 to the current president, Ayuba Wabba, the NLC has been fighting a series of battles to protect and defend workers’ rights.
“There had never been anything that Labour got on a platter of gold since the history of the labour movement in Nigeria,” NLC President, Ayuba Wabba, said during an interaction between labour leaders and workers in Port Harcourt
From being teargas, to some of its leaders being arrested, the history of Labour movement in Nigeria in the last forty years has been written in blood and sweat of those they now refer to as “veterans.” Without a doubt, the road has been rough for Nigerian workers.
Over the years, government and employers have loathed the NLC for its insistence to always stand by Nigerians and resist high handedness by both government and employers.
Naturally and in view of the difficult task of negotiating and efforts to wring out the best deals and packages for its members, any or indeed all approaches of demands by NLC from employers of labour in Nigeria are most times construed to be confrontational or antagonistic to say the least. Yet it’s a job that has to be done if unwarranted exploitation of workers must be curtailed or avoided completely.
In its four decades of existence, the NLC has survived attempts by various military and civilian government to dissolve it. Most significant of such challenges have been direct assaults on its existence on two occasions. Ten years after its formation in February 1988, the Congress was dissolved by the military junta of General Ibrahim Babangida, a dissolution that was to last 10 months. In 1994, the regime of General Abacha again assaulted the Congress when it dissolved it and placed it under the administration of a Sole Administrator for four years. However, even civilian governments had also made serious attempts to destroy or weaken the NLC. In the Second Republic, a bill was proposed to pave the way for rival organisation. A more desperate offensive was launched by President Olusegun Obasanjo’s in 2004 to completely annul the NLC through some draconian amendments to the Trade Union Act.
In recent times, The NLC has led several general strikes protesting the government’s fuel price policy.
In the industrial relations sphere, the early NLC caused the enactment for the first time of a national minimum wage legislation. That action represented an unprecedented progress in the development of wage administration and the efforts to develop a living wage and living pension. The Anti-SAP Campaigns of the 1980s spearheaded by the Congress helped to galvanise a mass movement in the nation, resulting among other things in the formation of a broad alliance with the Student Movement and the Academic Staff of Nigerian Universities.
In the period, the NLC’s slogan was Nigeria Not for Sale. This became the battle cry of the working class and entire progressive movement as they resisted the attempt to sell off all national assets. Worthy of note is the long-drawn struggle over petroleum products pricing. Before its first proscription, Congress had started to lead opposition to petroleum products price increases. Probably more than anything else, this struggle has come to define the public perception of and identification with the Nigeria Labour Congress.
In September 2004, the NLC gave the federal government an ultimatum to reverse the decision to reintroduce the controversial fuel tax or face a nationwide protest strike. The strike threat was made despite the fact that a Federal High Court judgement in an earlier dispute had declared the organisation lacking legal power to call a general strike over government policies.
Following the announcement of the strike plans, the NLC claims President Adams Oshiomhole was arrested October 9, 2004 at a protest at Nnamdi Azikiwe Airport. According to the organisation, Oshiomhole was “abducted by a team of operatives of the State Security Services (SSS) numbering over fifteen, who overpowered him, wrestled him to the ground and bundled him into a standby Peugeot 504 station wagon, which bore no licence plates. The State Security Services called the claim “sensational and inaccurate reporting”, saying that the NLC president had a misunderstanding with field operatives, but that the matter was soon resolved. A presidential spokesperson claimed that Oshiomhole was only invited for a “chat” at the airport, no arrest having taken place.
In 2015, the NLC faced one of its major crisis, following its National Delegates Conference (NDC) which held in March of that year. Joe Ajaero, the general secretary of the National Union of Electricity Employees (NUEE) who lost the election to current president, Ayuba Wabba refused to accept the result and chose to form a factional group. All interventions made by those sympathetic to the labour movement, including former Edo State Governor Adams Oshiomhole and other past labour leaders, yielded no positive results.
However, under the current leadership of the NLC led by Comrade Ayuba Wabba, the Congress has continually been a vehicle for the struggle for the liberation of the oppressed workers of the world and of the Nigerian nation.