Tuesday Column By VICTORIA NGOZI IKEANO
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Yesterday, May 3, 2021 was a public holiday in Nigeria to celebrate Workers’ Day which this year was a Saturday (May 1). If you thought last year’s Workers’ Day was unique because of the novel corona virus pandemic with its concomitant negative effects that made the day to be celebrated on a very low key, what would you say of this year’s May Day? How would you categorise 2021 Workers’ Day? The circumstances under which Nigerian workers marked the Day appeared to be worse than last year’s. Could the traditional march pasts in a carnival –like atmosphere that characterize Workers’ Day celebrations have taken place in some 24 states across the countries? Even in the relatively peaceful states, given the tension enveloping the country due to rising insecurities with insurgents, bandits, criminal herdsmen, gunmen and their likes roaming about, resulting in deaths and displacement of thousands of Nigerians would it have been morally right for workers to hold any May Day parades in any state capital and Abuja? It would have been more sensible for workers’ umbrella body, the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) and the Trade Union Congress (TUC) to totally cancel any such celebration.
How soon we can return to the carnival-like parades wherein workers from various sectors dressed in colourful segmented uniformed attires and armed with the symbols of their trades march convivially before select dignitaries at packed mini stadia or squares amidst background drums, songs and music, we cannot tell. The mood this year is somber as the average Nigerian worker grapples with the challenge of keeping his head above water in addition to catering to the basic necessities of his family, namely, food, shelter, clothing, education and healthcare. The percentage of those earning salaries is small in comparison to our total population. A higher percentage of the country’s population is either unemployed or underemployed. This puts further stress on the worker as the number of people dependent on him/her is increasing. And with purchasing power shrinking due to galloping inflation, it is to be expected that this leads to frayed nerves. So far, in the first four months of this year alone, we have witnessed a multitude of strike actions. They include those by the judiciary workers (JUSUN), medical doctors under the aegis of resident doctors association, non academic staff union of tertiary institutions. The apparently ‘strike weary’ Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) suspended their nine-month long strike early this year.
The incidence of hypertension has increased among workers of all classes and other segments of our population. Depression which we generally do not consider as a health problem and so hardly talk about, is higher in our communities now. Jobs are shrinking. Unemployment is a curse, under-employment a lesser curse of sorts while those lucky to have full time jobs now bear a greater burden – having to feed more mouths amongst their unemployed and underemployed households and families. What is more, salaries and wages are no longer regular as most workers no longer get their pay and stipends as and when due owing to general economic downturn. Even the N30, 000 minimum wage is not being adhered to by many state governments in the face of dwindling resources. Thus many workers no longer joyfully keep tab of the days of the month in expectation as there is no certainty as to when or if they would get their salaries and wages in any particular month. Thus hope is replaced by depression.
Many Nigerians seek solace in religious activities; others seek to drink away their concealed sorrows and depression but as even the price of alcoholic drinks have soared, they are now turning to local brews – burukutu, ogogoro, etc. Still others go to the extreme of smoking ‘weed’ or taking intoxicants some of which I understand are now sold over the counter in many places. All of these however, provide only temporary relief; they do not remove the underlying causes which are rooted in social and economic crises.
Notwithstanding the external pretensions, people are increasingly in need of physical healing (hypertension, depression) and healing of the soul, culminating in the seeking to answers to the great questions of life, namely, what is the goal of a life on earth; why are we here; where do we go from here; why is there suffering and injustice on earth; why are some born into earthly opulence and ‘enjoyment’ and some others condemned to a life-time of penury and earthly sufferings; why can we not all be happy here on earth from the day we are born to the day we take our last breath; why is there hatred; why, why, why…? All of us have been assailed by some of these questions at one time or other and not being able to think them through logically, we often brush them aside. They continue to crop up now and them, urging us to seek as the words reverberate in us, “Seek and you shall find”. Many endeavour to suppress these questions through diversions, by enmeshing ourselves in one form of modern day entertainment or the other. In spite of the unique times in which we live, despite the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune hitting us all, notwithstanding the tumult all around us, I still wish us all, a happy Workers Day. Why? Because of the Truth that “When the need is greatest, God’s help is nearest to you”!