Nigeria will be 60 years old in two days’ time – a momentous age by anyone’s measure of longevity. Unfortunately, as I noted during the country’s independence anniversary in 2010, an adult who attains mid-life but still shows physical signs of immaturity should be pitied, not celebrated.
The forthcoming independence anniversary could be disrupted by nationwide industrial strikes by various labour unions. This means the yearly arm-wrestling tournament between organised labour and the Federal Government is about to get underway. In the current dispute, numerous labour unions have given the government notice of their intention to go on strike.
If the strikes go ahead, regardless of last-minute court injunctions restraining the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) and the Trade Union Congress (TUC) from dragging their members out of offices, the strikes will pose a major headache for the government.
Last week, the voices of defiance rose and fell, with threats that, if the government did not appease the restless workers, it should expect to experience disruptions in various areas of national life. Leading the chorus of angry workers is organised labour, under the auspices of the TUC. Last week, the TUC issued a series of demands on the government requesting the reversal of the recent rise in prices of electricity, petroleum products, and all other social services. The TUC also asked the government to provide basic and quality healthcare and education for all, as a way to alleviate the difficulties being encountered by impoverished citizens.
The TUC cautioned in its letter of September 14 that was directed to the government that, if the government did not respond to the requests made by organised labour, the nation would be blanketed by industrial action and national protests scheduled to commence any time from Wednesday, September 23. That date has come and gone. The strikes did not start as expected because the government organised a last-minute meeting with labour leaders late last week.
Before the proposed action by organised labour came to public attention, members of the Joint Health Sector Unions (JOHESU) and Assembly of Health Care Professionals had announced the commencement of a nationwide strike from September 13, 2020. They said their action was the unintended consequence of unsatisfactory outcomes of their meetings with the government.
Even as all these threats were evolving, members of the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU), who had been on strike for months, flagged the likely commencement of another stage of their strike, if the Federal Government did not return to negotiations. Professor Abiodun Ogunyemi, national president of ASUU, said: “If government refuses to negotiate with us, we will unfold our next agenda…There is a deliberate attempt to kill university education in the country. Some universities use stoves in their laboratories instead of burners, and buckets to fetch water to perform experiments. It is as bad as that.”
He said although ASUU had signed a memorandum of action (MoA) with the government, which was intended to enhance facilities on campuses, as well as improve students’ wellbeing and safety, recognise and promote academic staff, and enhance the welfare of staff, all the agreements had been violated.
These acrimonies arising from growing economic hardships do not represent a conducive environment for celebrating Nigeria’s landmark independence anniversary. At this age, an independence anniversary of this significance should be utilised to showcase, recognise, and respect the contributions that workers have made to the development of their motherland. The issues must be resolved quickly. Tempers must be calmed. The art of diplomacy must be deployed to resolve all outstanding matters.
Today, everyone is complaining about the soaring prices of foodstuff, the rise in electricity tariffs, and the phenomenal increases in prices of petroleum products, among other grievances. These have not been helped by the plunge, in the world market, of the price of crude oil, Nigeria’s main foreign exchange earner. Similarly, our national currency, the naira, has lost significant value and continues to fall, making imported food items expensive. In the face of these experiences, the welfare of citizens has taken a hit and the future looks grim.
Nigeria is one of those countries where the population of angry people far exceeds the population of level-headed citizens. It is a country where the number of poor and hungry citizens has surpassed the number of people who have sufficient food to eat. This is a deadly mix of the country’s population. And it is a recipe for disaster.
Unfortunately, we are led by members of a political class who are shielded from the difficult experiences that citizens go through every day. They don’t live in our own world. They cannot see what we see. They don’t shop in the same market as we do. They don’t believe that prices of consumer goods have soared beyond the reach of ordinary people. But they like to talk roguishly about how we weathered previous economic recessions and are toughened enough to withstand present and future economic shocks.
We might have been hardened by difficult and testing times in the past but the current difficulties aggravated by COVID-19 pose a major threat to our survival. It cannot be solved by hope or political indolence.
It is true that life has been reduced to a state of nothingness in Nigeria. There are economic hardships. People’s standard of living has fallen. There are security challenges. Kidnappers, herdsmen, and terror groups have infused fear into the minds of citizens. There are corruption allegations of monumental proportions. The quality of primary, secondary, university, and polytechnic education has plummeted and is still falling. Federal and state roads are in a state of disrepair. Quality healthcare services are non-existent. All these and more have contributed to the hopelessness of life in the country. A redeemer is required urgently but there is none in sight.
Nationwide industrial strikes may improve or exacerbate the socio-economic conditions of everyone. There is no guarantee that things would go well. The impact could be far-reaching. In that case, no one would be spared, the rich and the poor, the government and the governed, leaders and followers, men and women, adults and children would feel the effect. And this is why it is in everyone’s interest that the thorny issues that constitute the grounds for the strikes are resolved urgently.
Additionally, many people may not be persuaded that strike is the only alternative available to labour leaders to resolve their differences with the Federal Government. There must be other avenues of engaging the government in productive dialogue. To what extent have labour leaders explored those options?
Yet other people might wonder why labour leaders who have remained silent in the face of clear evidence of gross corruption by public officers have suddenly woken up to campaign for the interests of citizens. Why have labour leaders not protested large-scale corruption at the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) and other agencies of government, including the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC)? Why have labour leaders shut their eyes to sickening abuses of human rights that are taking place in various parts of the country?
These are the kinds of moral questions that leaders of organised labour must confront, if they want to remain credible, relevant, and upright in the eyes of the people.