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Soludo, Joe Ajero’s attack, and how NLC lost its way

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The Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC), the umbrella labour union in Nigeria, has lost its way and its soul. There’s an Igbo proverb that goes something like this: if you pin the strong man to the ground without getting his machete, can you get it back when he’s upstanding?

Yet another adage goes: The chicken has left the knife that killed it to make a face for the cooking pot. These proverbs capture the NLC’s precarious position as the main union of Nigerian workers and the guardian of the country’s people. Every negotiator is aware of the misery that results from entering any kind of negotiation from a position of weakness, as NLC has found itself today.

The ability to say no and stay the course for as long as it takes is the foundation of negotiation psychology, of which collective bargaining, which is the hallmark of industrial relations, is typical. Negotiators should never make threats they cannot actualise since they eventually come apart and expose their hollow and incapable nature, like what the NLC is doing of late.

Alhaji Hassan Sunmonu was arguably Nigeria’s last labour leader in the true sense of the word. The Nigerian Labour Congress was led by trade unionist Hassan Adebayo Sunmonu from 1978 until 1984 as pioneer president. He served as the Organisation of African Trade Union Unity’s (OATU) general secretary in the past as well. Following him, the others have only served to fulfil all righteousness and act as political tools in both military dictatorship and democracy, making workers and the populace into pawns of fate. Joe Ajero, the president of the NLC currently, is the same.

Ajero has been active in labour unionism. He ran for the NLC presidency before, but Ayuba Waba, one of the league’s worst presidents to date, defeated him. After Ayuba Waba’s term ended, Joe Ajero was elected to take over. He took over an NLC that had become extremely politicised. Joe served as President of the National Union of Electricity Employees (NUEE) before taking on the role of President of the NLC. To be fair to him, the Labour Party had been registered by the NLC by the time Ajero took office and had been contesting for elective offices ever since Adams Oshiohmole’s days as NLC President.

Now that it’s fully partisan, the NLC strives to leverage labour unionism to ensure the prospects of the candidates that the Labour Party fields in elections. In the last presidential election, the NLC anomalously adopted candidates running for elected offices at every level, including Mr. Peter Obi, the Labour Party’s presidential candidate.

Joe Ajero organised Labour once more to picket the Imo state government a few days before the 2023 governorship race, using the excuse that the state owed workers. Poor Joe nearly lost his life as a result of the boomerang. Today, the Labour Party has its sights set on the upcoming off-season election in Anambra State, where the 2025 governorship race is primed for next year. So, it should come as no surprise that Joe is acting out once more.

In typical fashion, Joe Ajero has charged that Governor Chukwuma Soludo has embarked on anti-worker policies and that Soludo has been persuading other state governors in Nigeria to oppose the proposed N70,000 minimum wage. Intriguingly, he also called for a labour strike and issued a week-long ultimatum over the alleged nonpayment of the N30,000 2019 National Minimum Wage, unresolved contributory pension deductions, and the termination of the N12,000 palliatives.

This is a prime example of misdirected aggression and vintage Joe Ajero. Under Comrade Joe Ajero’s direction, the Nigeria Labour Congress wasted its one and only opportunity to bend the Tinubu Presidency toward the welfare of Nigerian workers when the NLC agreed that fuel subsidy should be removed without agreeing to any preconditions, including a new minimum wage. Under Joe Ajero’s leadership, the price of fuel skyrocketed from N197 per litre to N617 in just one month, unprecedented in the nation’s history. This is a 300% increase.

All facets of Nigerian life are dependent on fuel because the country’s economy is still subsistent and grossly underdeveloped. No public urban transportation or rail system to help the besieged masses. As expected, nearly everything became more than 300 per cent more expensive. Food inflation has climbed to an unprecedented 40%, the highest in the nation’s annals.

The unplanned fuel subsidy removal first produced a false sense of availability of much money and caused hyperinflation, which has since turned into stagflation—a situation in which there are simultaneous increases in prices (inflation), little economic growth (a stagnant economy), and unemployment. While it is uncommon, Nigeria is currently experiencing both hyperinflation and stagnant economic growth.

The Tinubu administration didn’t stop there. Seeing that the NLC under Ajero is nothing but a paper tiger with rubber teeth, the government floated the naira as well, leaving the country’s currency to float without any export base or external reserves and forcing the naira to parity with other world currencies, including the pound, dollars, yuan, yen, and others. As expected, the naira’s value against the dollar surged from 700 to 2000 in just a few weeks.

At record speed, the economy was unsurprisingly disrupted and misaligned by these careless fiscal policies, which the NLC unwittingly allowed. And now the government is back with fuel subsidy, and defending the naira. But this is medicine after death because the destruction of the economy has already occurred and the harm is already irreparable at least in the foreseeable future, and this includes the depreciation of the naira and the wages of Nigerian workers, thanks to Joe Ajero’s NLC’s ineptitude, or possibly collusion, or both.

NLC needs to regain perspective by retracing its steps. The central Labour body, NLC, must avoid politics like a plague. As of today, NLC attempts to seize control of both state and federal government by fielding candidates via its Labour Party, which it registered and owns. At the very minimum, the NLC must give up the Labour Party and face labour unionism and that alone. Its partisanship has led to a severe conflict of interest and crisis, endangering Nigerian labour unionism and democracy. All workers, regardless of their political affiliations or persuasions, are members of NLC. Members of the NLC who want to play politics, including Joe Ajero, should quit and enter politics if they choose to engage in partisan and active politics; they should not serve as both politicians and labour unionists simultaneously. Both don’t work well together.

Weaning NLC of politics is urgent to prevent it from eventually losing its essence and fading away entirely.

Like in Imo, Joe Ajero’s gamble in Anambra is very likely going to fail. First of all, there’s no rationale behind it. Two, Ajero is aware that he is only playing politics. If not, Ajero and the NLC ought to have concentrated on the about seven states that still do not pay the N30,000 minimum wage, the states that underpay each month, and the numerous other states that owe arrears in salaries and pensions. It is admirable that the government of Soludo pays salaries on the 25th of each month and pays the current minimum wage. Additionally, the Anambra government does not owe money for salaries or pensions.

Despite what Joe Ajero claims, Soludo’s administration is arguably the most pro-labour in Nigeria. In just its two years of existence, the Soludo government has hired about 10,000 workers in a variety of positions, from medical doctors to teachers. Finding another state that has done this in less than two years is difficult.

Shortly after assuming office in December 2022, Governor Soludo made history by becoming the first governor in Nigeria to approve a 10% salary increase for personnel without any persuasion from NLC or workers, thus demonstrating his commitment to improving the financial stability of state employees.

As the pain of the fuel subsidy removal increased, Soludo began providing palliative payments to the Anambra state workers before most state governments could, a move that should be applauded by Joe Ajero and the NLC. The enormous financial burden it constituted forced the government to stop at some point. However, Joe asserts that regardless of the state’s inability to continue, Anambra state must continue to pay it. Joe and NLC are threatening a strike to force Anambra state to keep paying; yet, they haven’t even asked other states not paying palliative stipends to pay.

Industrial strike action is not warranted, even with regard to the pension deductions, which are still pending final reconciliation. For its labour-friendly measures, NLC should have sought a meeting rather than calling out a strike.

However, even the most tenuous of justifications are used by the opposition in the state to construct a mountain out of nothing and the NLC/Labour Party is a part of the opposition’s larger scheme to undermine the Soludo administration. In this light, it makes sense that Joe Ajero is launching a strike in Anambra, where there are no workers or pensioners owed, rather than in states where the minimum wage is still unpaid, where full salaries are not paid each month or where there are arrears on pensions and salaries.

The opposition is playing desperate politics given its weak position against the Anambra 2025 governor’s race. Their antics are in plain sight and what Joe Ajero is doing is an integral part of it.

Dr Law Mefor, an Abuja-based forensic and social psychologist, is a fellow of The Abuja School of Social and Political Thoughts; drlawmefor@gmail.com; Twitter: @Drlawsonmefor.

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