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Social Inclusion

Solidarity in diversity

by Bimbola Oyesola
In Nigeria, trade unions are a force to be reckoned with. They span divisions of ethnicity and religion, and protect the interests of the workforce. [ By Bimbola Oyesola ]

Nigeria’s trade unions movement has a rich history. It took part in the anti-colonial struggle, and also contributed to the fight against military dictatorship. Since the beginning of democracy in 1999, the labour movement has acted as a guardian of the interests of the poor.
Though Nigeria is a multi-party democracy based on a presidential system, the opposition parties are quite weak. They do not really have countervailing influence. Therefore, the trade unions movement has become more vocal.

Nigeria has two labour confederations: the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC), which represents junior workers, and the Trade Union Congress (TUC), which is an umbrella body for the senior staff. The two labour confederations have separate memberships. They each have a number of affiliate unions in the different sectors of the economy. They have branches in the formal businesses as well as the public-sector agencies. Branches feel the pulse of the workers, and report acts of injustice to their national headquarters.

Both confederations, however, have always cooperated with civil-society organisations. They share a tradition of fighting draconian government policies, which translate into hardships for the workers and the people in general.

In ethnic and religious terms, Nigeria is a very diverse society. Religious fanaticism is a serious issue, and the government is facing the challenge of violence in the Niger Delta. The country’s major ethnic groups are Yoruba, Hausa and Igbo, and they have learned to live in harmony. However, there is always scope for agitation about marginalisation and only getting an unfair share of the national cake.

The trade unions, however, have mostly risen above such divisions. Adams Aliyu Oshiomhole, a former president of the NLC, once observed that the extent of ethnic and religious discrimination was difficult to estimate, but it was not a serious problem for the NLC: “The best testimony that trade unions are not bogged down with ethnic tension is that I have made it to the position of president – I am myself from a very small minority in Nigeria.” On the other hand, it is acknowledged that attempts have been made to stir up conflicts in labour organisations along lines of ethnicity and religion. The majority of the members, however, stick to the law of the union, according to which what matters is the location and the industry of employment. Unions have to be able to organise strikes, and therefore solidarity among the members is vital. All differences unrelated to work should be of no relevance.


Nation-wide action

Over the past nine years, the labour movement organised several nation-wide general strikes, which were supported by workers, the middle class and other strands of society. Last May, the new government of President Umar Yar’Adua was given a dose of opposition. The trade unions called for a two-day sit-at-home on May 28 and 29 in protest of his flawed election.

The real baptism was handed to the president the following month when the labour movement started an indefinite national strike, protesting against higher prices for petroleum products and a hike in the Value Added Tax (VAT). Olusegun Obasanjo, Yar’ Adua’s predecessor, had announced both measures in haste shortly before leaving office. The strike went on for four days. In the end, the government bowed to the masses, withdrawing the price hike as well as the VAT increment, and pledging not to rock the boat again for twelve months. After that triumph, Abdulwaheed Omar, the president of the NLC said: “We did what we did to make Nigeria a better place for all of us.”

Nigeria was under military rule from 1960 to 1998. With the emergence of democratic rule in 1999, the labour movement, especially the NLC, felt it had to become involved in the political process. Nonetheless, it adopted a position that was neither partisan nor a-political. In view of injustices and grievances of the workforce, however, the labour movement decided to float its own party in 2006. Last year, the Labour Party fielded candidates for elections in the Nigerian states of Lagos, Edo, Ekiti, Ondo, Osun and Kogi.

Former NLC president Oshiomhole ran for governor in Edo State, where labour formed an alliance with another party. The result of the election was grossly flawed, however, as most incumbent governors were returned due to the manipulative apparatus of the ruling party. Oshiomhole did not become governor.

The labour movement, however, has been vindicated to some extent, as some of the election results were contested in court, and then nullified by the judges. New governorship elections were ordered in the States of Adamawa and Andkogifor, for instance. Reruns were ordered for some parliamentary constituencies. Even the election of the president is still disputed, though the judiciary has so far declined to order a rerun in his case.

Until the labour law was reformed in 2005, union membership was compulsory. Whoever joined a company automatically became a member of the specific union. At the time, the NLC was the only labour confederation recognised by the Federal Government.

Indeed, the NLC was created by decree of the military government in the 1970s, and membership was made compulsory. The idea was to instil a sense of symbiotic cooperation in companies, rather than let them operate on a servant-master basis. The NLC was based on organisations workers had formed themselves.

The unions elected their own leaders in the 70s and 80s when Nigeria enjoyed a short spell of democracy. But the military returned in 1983, and the government appointed a sole administrator for the unions in an attempt to force labour to toe the government’s line. Though the state-controlled NLC was certainly not an independent organisation, it did defend workers’ rights in conflicts with employers.

In 1993, the military government of Ibrahim Babangida annulled a presidential election that had been free and fair. Many labour leaders were incarcerated, and others went underground. Large sections of the labour movement joined forces with human-rights and pro-democracy activists.


In search of new members

Today, however, people decide for themselves whether or not they want to be union members. It is a controversial issue whether that reform of 2005 was good or not. Some union leaders argue it strengthened the position of employers. “Managements are forcing their workers to sign that they will not belong to any union,” says Boniface Izok, the president of the National Union of Chemical Footwear Rubber, Leather and Non-Metallic Products Employees (NUCFRLANMPE), an NLC-affiliate. Others, however, argue that the new law has forced the unions to pay more attention to their members.

According to Peter Esele, the TUC president, one of the major challenges trade unions face today is how to get more members to join their fold. One way of doing so is to organise members in the traditional sectors of the economy. Labour laws and collective wage bargaining, so far, are mostly confined to the formal sector in Nigeria. Transport, for instance, is an informal sector to which many labour standards do not apply. Union leaders see scope for organising drivers, in order for them to fight for their rights. Once workers organise in formal groups, they can have labour laws enforced in their sector or company. As long as they do not, however, their worklife is ruled by the traditional norms of Nigerian society. Owners of small businesses in traditional sectors, of course, tend to oppose unionisation.

“We believe that an injustice to one is an injustice to all, be it a worker in the modern or traditional sector,” Izok says. “We are also extending our tentacles to the welders, farmers, market women and butchers, they are all workers and their interests must be protected.”