After a long period of shying from its avowed objectives of promoting and protecting the interests of its members and affiliates, the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) let out a flicker of “Aluta!” when it issued a notice of a nationwide protest over the lingering strike by the Academic Staff Union of Universities and other unions in Nigeria’s public university sector. While NLC stayed aloof and played possum, it was right to ask of the utility of a congress whose favourite refrain is “solidarity forever” yet couldn’t fraternize with distressed comrades forced to down tools for five months running. With the due date of the two-day protest inching closer, the Federal Government has since entered panic mode, apparently using all manners of tricks to dissuade the umbrella body of workers in the country from defending public universities. We cannot but question why the labour congress waited till this time to protest against the government’s careless treatment of ASUU and other unions in the tertiary education sector. Ordinarily, organized labour should be citizens’ voice against marginalization, poor economic policies that are perceived to bring hardship upon the people, oppression, or welfare of workers and others. Unfortunately, NLC had been playing possum on these noble roles.
Since NLC sneezed, the Buhari government started making frenetic moves towards resolving the crippling of activities in public universities. This exposes what Labour could have been doing for Nigerians as a watchdog to the Federal Executive Council. The congress has miserably failed in the vital role, leaving Nigerians at the mercy of an insensitive government. To better appreciate the impact of NLC’s latest intervention, consider that Buhari, who recently placed the burden of resolving the over five-month-old strike on ASUU, has now turned around to give his ministers two weeks to resolve the strike. Also, within the past 48 hours, the federal government has moved from declaring NLC’s solidarity protest with ASUU as “uncalled for and illegal’’ to appealing for the demonstration to be cancelled, explaining efforts being made to resolve the impasse. No doubt, this exasperating disruption in public university’s academic calendar would not have lasted this long if the organized labour hadn’t given itself away as a toothless bulldog.
In April this year, the NLC had issued a 21-day notice with a threat to embark on a national strike unless the government convened a high-powered panel chaired by the Secretary to the Government of the Federation or the Chief of Staff to resolve the lingering dispute between the Federal Government and ASUU. Not only was nothing heard from the NLC again at the expiration of the 21-day notice, the nationwide protests that the NLC threatened to stage in the intervening 21-day ultimatum never happened. The NLC leadership didn’t even consider it necessary to explain the no-show to millions of Nigerian students already looking towards the NLC for leadership in their quest to put an end to the shutdown of the universities. NLC could not even be bothered by the May 22 statement by the National Association of Nigerian Students (NANS), accusing it of negligence to the plights of students and lecturers.
It calls to wonder what has sedated the NLC that it allowed the government to get away with blue murder all this while. Nigerians have never had it this bad, yet organized labour hasn’t deemed it fit to apply the right pressure on the government. The NLC of yore wouldn’t have carried on as if all was fine in the face of galloping inflation, widespread insecurity, pervasive corruption, and a weakened naira which has led to prices of goods and services hitting the roof. The glorious days of labour activism date back to the colonial era when workers collectively defied British imperial rule, using the June 22, 1945, general strike and other demonstrations to demand the respect of the rights of Nigerian workers and people to decent work, just wages and actualization of self-government was a defining moment in Nigeria’s history. Organized labour has since then been the rallying point for Nigerians, being in the vanguard against capitalism and neo-liberal and anti-people policies of successive governments. In the heady days of military dictatorship in the country, NLC stood up to the jackboots in brave defense of citizens’ interests. What then changed with the current crop of labour leaders? How did they allow those in positions of authority to enervate them while average Nigerians get the short end of the stick? NLC is one institution that must not catch the resignation to fate bug that has attended the cruel and flawed policies of the Buhari administration.
In the face of the prevailing circumstance, Naija News welcomes the move by the NLC to redeem itself by forcing the hand of the government to reach a compromise with varsity workers. Of course, NLC and the TUC are no meddlesome interlopers as far as ASUU’s standoff with the government goes, neither can anyone in good conscience accuse the organized labour of crying more than the bereaved. They have children and wards who have been vegetating at home and whose future is being shortchanged by this prolonged strike. Even those who are yet to have grown-up children have a stake in ensuring that their little ones are not denied the sound education that public universities can offer when they grow up. Minister Lai Mohammed and those calling on NLC to mind its business will do well to identify the average Nigerian worker who can send their young ones to private universities or afford them overseas scholarships. Every other day on social media, members of the ruling elite pose for photographs during their children’s graduation ceremony from Ivy League universities in developed countries, rubbing such sights in the face of lowly Nigerians. Yet, the government would want the organized labour to look the other way while local universities are shut indefinitely. Naija News regrets that the NLC is joining the fray this late, but better late than never.
ASUU has been on strike since February 14, 2022, to press home its demands, including the government’s investment in the nation’s university infrastructure, better welfare of academics, and payment of members’ salaries through the recommended University Transparency and Accountability Solution (UTAS), rather than the government-preferred Integrated Payroll and Personnel Information System (IPPIS). The NLC had on July 17 announced that it would kick off a nationwide protest on July 26 and 27 to pressure the Federal Government to resolve the five-month-long strike by ASUU and other university-based unions.
As the NLC, TUC, and their brethren rouse from their slumber into planning a protest for next Tuesday and Wednesday, the federal government will be well advised to do all it can so that normalcy can return to the nation’s tertiary institutions. Those in authority don’t need to be reminded of the consequence of the labour unions hitting the streets at this time of so much frustration, desperation, and hopelessness in the country. The government need not be reminded of how a well-intentioned #EndSARS protest shook the country to its very foundation. With NANS expressing eagerness to join the NLC protests, all efforts must be made to ensure that Nigeria does not relapse into chaos and lawlessness, as was recently the case in Sri Lanka. Nigeria cannot afford such destabilization at this time.
It is for this reason that Naija News calls on the Buhari government to heed the warning of its own Secret Service by doing all it can to put the NLC protests at bay. This shouldn’t be done through intimidation, as insinuated by the Minister of Information and Culture, but through negotiations that will lead to a solid agreement enabling emotionally-drained undergraduate and postgraduate students to return to the classrooms. According to the ASUU President, Prof. Emmanuel Osodeke, “the strike can end tomorrow, we have finished the negotiations, let the government call us this night that we should come tomorrow and sign the agreement, we will be there. Let government tell us they have finished testing the UTAS, we have accepted it. By tomorrow, we will call off the strike.” If this is the case, we don’t see why it should take the government two weeks to resolve the strike. President Buhari must lead the charge to resolve this strike rather than passing the buck to subordinates whose hands are tied. Considering that the NLC is bent on having their nationwide protests, this newspaper can’t but reiterate the warning by the authoritative Economist magazine that “a wave of unrest is coming.” If the demonstrations must hold, we urge all parties to take extra care in ensuring that hoodlums and political thugs don’t turn an otherwise peaceful protest into an upheaval. This is because it can be deleterious and disastrous when hunger interfaces with anger.