The President Muhammadu Buhari administration clocks a year later this month, a political year marked by a few successes and many inconveniences for the common man, but not a single nationwide protest led by the Nigerian Labour Congress (NLC).
In Nigeria’s recent past, the NLC and its affiliate labour unions, as the presumed voice of the people, would hardly let a stretch of 12 months pass without a major protest or self-declared holiday in protest of harsh living conditions. That we have not witnessed any of such in Buhari’s first year in office, notwithstanding the perpetual fuel queues and astronomical rise in fuel pump price (even if unofficially), with the relative indexing on consumer goods, indicates some yet inexplicable amity between ‘Labour’ and Buhari.
It is perhaps a reach to say the president has bought over the leaders of the labour groups; there is presently no indication of that. Glaring, however, is the schism within that class of khaki-wearing idealists that once assumed the role of the defenders of the masses in Nigeria. It is said that power intoxicates and the quest for it within the NLC for instance has left the group an ineffectual horse with inebriated riders who have become burdens to the beast.
At the most intense moments of the fuel crisis, some Nigerians dreamily called on the NLC to announce a sit-at-home protest and I wondered which of the factional presidents – Ayuba Wabba or Joe Ajaero – would heed and how such a disunited house could bear to stand to a fight with Aso Rock without splitting into bricks and wood within days. Even in the glorious days of Labour, when Comrade Adams Oshiomhole wore proletariat khaki and had a voice that boomed hope for Nigeria’s poor, word on the street often hinted at backdoor deals negotiated in bundles of cash by the presidency under Chief Olusegun Obasanjo.
The above said, the NLC under Comrade Ayuba Wabba and its partners at the Trade Union Congress (TUC) lazily found their voice recently when they wrote a letter to Buhari to demand an increase in minimum wage from N18,000 to N56,000. Within a few days, the splinter group led by Comrade Joe Ajaero derided the Wabba group and told the nation that what the government ought to pay workers is in the region of N90,000.
It appears each of the factional NLC groups seek an opportunity for de-facto legitimacy in the heart of the many underpaid Nigerian workers with this campaign for increment in minimum wage. Sadly however, the disunity will again work to Buhari’s advantage. Government merely needs to sit back to watch Wabba and Ajaero fight themselves into another round of silence. If it has always been difficult to take labour leaders serious for different reasons, it is not any less difficult now that they seem unable to speak with one voice.
I have seen people deride the call by Wabba’s group for N56,000 minimum wage and an outright dismissal of the clamour for N90,000 by Ajaero’s group. Some have made excuses for the federal and state governments with references to the current economic crunch and global oil slump. Reuben Abati, former special adviser to ex-President Goodluck Jonathan, in a recent piece, derisively pointed out that labour leaders are no economists and may perhaps be unable to comprehend the fine details of budget planning in a recession. All of this is easy to do but we can also pause to look beyond the soiled labour leaders and gaze at the expected beneficiaries of their minimum wage demands.
A Nigerian on a minimum wage earns much less per annum (about N216,000) compared to what a governor or minister receives as allowance when he or she goes on a foreign trip. The latter class is well protected and serviced for free amidst fuel scarcity and rising costs but will eagerly tell the impoverished class to tighten their belts because of lesser oil revenues rather than excise the excess benefits that put them above contemporaries in developed countries in terms of income. That is aside the cost of official corruption to the economy, without which the treasury would be reasonably healthier.
Those who mock the clamour for better welfare for workers with the pretext of economic theories always seem to ignore that peculiar social imbalance.
Interestingly, not even Abati or any other public intellectual will reject a pay-rise at this time but are so eager to dismiss the comfort of the poor because the rich ruling class finds it an easier option while they go on to purchase the latest range of exotic auto-mobiles and tasteful furniture.
A stark truth is that N18,000 buys much less in 2016 than it did in 2011 when former President Jonathan signed the new figure into law. The N56,000 demanded today is only a few thousands higher than the N52,000 NLC proposed in 2009. So, Labour is not completely pointless in its demand.
There are understandable challenges with revenue at both federal and state levels of government, but it is primarily the responsibility of the ruling class, whose perfidious spending habits over time actually put Nigeria on its knees, to think up ways out of the quagmire. Government owes a constitutional duty to ensure the proper welfare of the citizenry, not the other way round.
The federal government has actually failed to ensure the proper implementation of even the Minimum Wage Act, 2011. Examples abound of contract staff attached to various government offices as cleaners and office assistants earning far below the prescribed N18,000. The story of Mrs Jospehine Agwu, the honest cleaner at the Lagos airport who returned some lost N12million is a case in point. She was earning N7,800 working in a federal government facility which is a violation of the law and punishable with a N20,000 fine for every day the offence subsists, according to section 5 of that Act which amended section 3 of the principal Act.
Oshiomhole, as Edo state governor, has recently shown his colleagues the way ahead. Arguments that his decision is late in coming, hypocritical and perhaps a mere political gimmick exist, but I’d rather have such politics which can actually translate into better life for the civil servants in the state.
It is left for the labour unions in the state and elsewhere to rise from their slumber and keep government on its toes to ensure salaries are paid, just as they need to continue to demand that government performs in other respects. As for Joe Ajaero and Ayuba Wabba, the watch continues.
Culled From OlisaTv
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