The Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC), representing the nation’s organised labour movement, is 40 this year. It is rolling out the drums for celebrations. They began yesterday and would run through the first week of this new month. Mr. Peter Adeyemi, Chairman of the Anniversary Organising Committee, said on Monday the objective was “to celebrate forty years of struggle and perseverance, highlight Congress’ history and accomplishments” as well as today’s challenges and roadmap tomorrow.
President Muhammadu Buhari has been the first to felicitate with the NLC. And he did so in language that would make the heads of its leaders dizzy. He said 40 years is “a milestone”, which is true. He described it as “a vibrant labour union” that “has lived up to the expectations of its founding fathers.” Again, he said the union has protected the interest of the Nigerian worker through “vibrant engagements” with employers. It has “burgeoned into a mature and focused umbrella for workers”, and has been consistent in advocacy and negotiation.
If the present leaders of the NLC admit the truth, they must wonder whether the President is not referring to a different labour union, perhaps the Polish shipyard workers union which, in the 1980s, overthrew a government and was subsequently elected into government. It is true the NLC had its days of glory too. It had courageous national leaders like Alhaji Hassan Adebayo Sunmonu, Alli Ciroma and Adams Oshiomhole. The first one went on to become President of African Trade Union Congress.
Politically, NLC tried, with some measure of success, to mainstream workers in national politics. In 1999, it formed the Labour Party that in 2007 produced an elected governor, Mimiko, in Ondo state. Its one time national president, Oshiomhole, also was a two-term governor of Edo state, though not elected on the platform of Labour. However, it lost the only state it controlled when Mimiko ditched the party for the ruling PDP at the time. Today, Labour, as a party, only exists in INEC’s archived files.
The NLC’s biggest setbacks came in the years of military rule. Twice, former President Ibrahim Babangida banned it – March and December 1988, and Gen. Sani Abacha in 1994-1998. However, the union bounced back from its reverses to become indeed a vibrant voice of Nigerian workers under Oshiomhole as its national president. The present national minimum wage of N18000 was negotiated by his team. That is over a decade ago. It is only now that attempts are being made to renegotiate it. Even then, the initiative is that of the government of the day, not NLC’s.
If this is evidence that NLC has lost its vibrancy, more is to come. In February, 2015 the union was unable to hold a successful delegates conference in Abuja. A rescheduled convention produced a national executive council led by the incumbent president Ayuba Wabba that was not accepted across board. Three years on, NLC is still a divided house. Little wonder that twice it attempted to mobilize workers to march against perceived anti-worker government policies but failed dismally. It is against this backdrop that we welcome this marking of 40 years of NLC, not so much an occasion to celebrate itself as a time for sober reflection on what has gone wrong and how to reposition Labour to play the role expected of it. Luckily, there are icons like Sunmonu, Ciroma and others still living and ready to lend their wealth of experience in that direction. Good luck.