Between el-Rufai and labour

By Issa Aremu

The sharp exchange of words in Abuja between Gov. Nasir el-Rufai of Kaduna state and Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) made the news last week. The Governor reportedly lashed out at the organised labour claiming unions “destroyed the nation more than they have contributed to it”.

Hear him: “Trade Unions have never served the country well. They have been selfish and everything is about their narrow interests. In general, in Nigeria, trade unions have been a danger to our progress and I think they should be curtailed.”

At 40th anniversary when all Nigerians, including President Buhari openly celebrated the role of labour in the struggle for independence, against colonialism, for democracy against military dictatorship, brother el-Rufai’s was exceptionally uncharitable to the nation’s workforce!

But true to Labour’s tradition of resistance against abuse, (verbal or policy wise) in a quick reaction, organized labour, pointedly described the governor “as an embarrassment” to public office, an “anti-people and a chameleon”.

Witness the General Secretary of Nigeria Labour Congress, NLC, Dr. Peter Ozo-Eson: “The country has a better moral standing than the likes of el-Rufai who has demonstrated that he is not fit to hold public office or political position. He is an embarrassment to public office in Nigeria. He speaks out of both sides of the mouth.. This is the same el-Rufai who once gate-crashed into one of NLC’s protests and pleaded to have NLC apron to be part of the protest.”

My take here is to further point out that crisis of governance is deepening in Nigeria. With “friendly fires” between him and numerous real and imagined enemies is my brother Governor really governing Kaduna state or governing serial (often self- inflicted!) crises of attritions?

Undoubtedly the relationship between NLC and Kaduna state government had degenerated since his controversial mass sack of about 22,000 teachers who allegedly scored below pass mark in a controversial competency test.

NLC and its affiliate unions in January marched in Kaduna in solidarity with the members of Nigeria Union of Teachers (NUT) amidst unprecedented military/police presence. That is expected, the world of work is all about cooperation and contestation.

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Even at that it beats my imagination that a governor in 21st century, (not 19th century colonial King Kong!) would upscale his ideological opposition to Labour almost to a full blown hate speech. It is “dangerous” (governor’s word) and certainly unhelpful to his government, his ruling party, APC (some of us voted for!) to make hostility against Labour a virtual policy. There is a bagful of El-Rufai’s Volte Face on a number of critical national issues including “Restructuring”.

He hitherto decried it only to emerge as a new restructuring enthusiast without an apology for his previous dismissal of the recommendations of 2014 National Conference which favored far reaching reform measures based on national consensus compared to the current partisan dictatorship.

It might be fashionable for the governor to relish in Labour bashing. But I recall that the governor had had mutually rewarding robust engagements with the labour movement with quotable quotes credited to both celebrating partnerships in governance.

As NLC General Secretary pointed out, I was at the barricade in Abuja during the 2010 NLC strike and mass protests against fuel price hike during which then dissident citizen el-Rufai applauded Labour for providing platform for Nigerians to oppose unpopular policy of fuel price hike under Jonathan.

I recall the on-going partnership between him, Buhari administration and Labour to revive the closed textile mills. Indeed Governor el-Rufai in 2015 in Kaduna hosted the national conference of Textile, Garment and Tailoring workers’ union (together with Comrade Adams Oshihomole, then Edo governor), with adorned face cap singing workers’ solidarity song!

Indeed there was once “a Comrade El Rufai” who rightly saw unions as allies not “dangerous” bodies. Was it all about opportunism on his part or enduring principle to make positive impact in nation-building? This then raises the issue of capacity for governance.

Its time Nigerians demanded for competence test for all governors. Many governors of course parade multiple degrees, local and abroad. But most of them lack the “real degree”; leadership and strategic training to make a democracy work for the people.

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Most governors even lack the knowledge of 1999 Constitution which informed their oath of office. Constitution defines us as citizens to be dignified, not slaves to be verbally abused. Indeed the constitution envisages dignity of labour. No private manager of a private company, no matter the provocation would ever describe his customers “irresponsible” if he wants to sell in the market!

I was scandalized that governor Rufai without measured temperament of an elected governor, tagged Nigerian doctors “irresponsible” for going on strike! Nigerian constitution and Labour laws recognize the right of any working man and woman to withdraw his or her service, including doctors in the face of violation of rights to decent work.

In May 2016, in England 37,000 junior doctors went on three strike actions and 3 years of contract negotiations with the National Health Service (NHS) on improved working conditions. Governor El rufai must be from another “ planet” (his word!) not to know that doctors’ strikes are globally acceptable practices.

Samuel Gompers puts it better; “Show me the country that has no strikes and I will show you the country in which there is no liberty.” Governor El rufai is certainly not Adolf Hitler! What should worry governor El rufai is the mass exodus (sorry, “mass strike”) of thousands of doctors and nurses abroad due to abysmal working conditions and indignities at home. APC’s restructuring exercise is dead if the likes of ElRufai lack basic appreciation of the importance of labour as a factor of development and nation building.

He betrays gross ignorance of simple labour market issues (and indeed national development) by calling for the removal of labour from the Exclusive Legislative List. He even called for “Very Low” Minimum Wage (a grammatical overkill because “minimum” means “very low!). All 36 governors receive same minimum/maximum pay in spite of their miserable internally generated revenues.

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No governor earns “very low minimum” pay! What is good for governors is good for a messenger and a cleaner. Nigeria cannot be part of the 20 leading developed economies without a development agenda that mainstreams labour motivation and productivity.

World-wide the laws which govern labour, capital and land as factors of production have significant impact on growth and development. Even predatory colonial Lord Lugard and military dictators or recent past eventually were compelled to recognize the importance of labour as a factor of production and development. The first Federal (note; not regional!) Ministry to be established was Federal Ministry of Labour in 1914. Colonialauthority as well as post-independent Nigerian governments recognized that labour was a critical success factor for transformation.

Behind the celebrated miracle of Nigeria’s double digit growth plus development in the 60s and 80s were progressive labour laws regulating minimum wages and pensions as well as collective bargaining and industrial conflicts.

Given the current high level of youth unemployment, worsening poverty, unregulated immigration, foreign investment of dubious value and underdevelopment, rampant strikes and industrial conflicts, more than ever before Nigeria needs a Federally managed (not deregulated) labour process.

Since humanity rightly banished slave trade (with prescribed punishment for slave traders!), Labour is no more a commodity to be verbally hired and fired as El Rufai gleefully threatened to summarily sack lecturers of Kaduna state University if they dare go on “ASUU strike”.

Labour markets “are socially embedded” for those that care. Labour markets harness human energies. They rely on human motivations, care, understanding, dignity and above all fairness failing which you get no production. Labour creates wealth. I enjoin governor el-Rufai to consciously cultivate Labour as partner in development process through social dialogue not endless “fire” with attendant “fury” .

Aremu is a member of the National Executive Council of the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC)

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