The new President of Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC), Comrade (Dr) Ayuba Wabba has spent two decades in the movement and successfully steered the affairs of his union; the Medical & Health Workers’ Union into being one of the most vibrant NLC affiliates. Wabba spoke exclusively to the trio of Alex Ogbu, Sola Olorunfemi and Baba Aye at the Labour House, on April 8, 2015. Excerpts:
NLC is a very important platform of the working class as the largest trade union federation in Africa and one with a rich history of struggles. But in the past few years it appears to have lost the confidence of the poor working masses. Thus, your campaign promise of “returning to the founding principles of the movement” found an echo in the hearts of working class activists within and beyond Nigeria during the NLC Convention. Could you explain what you intend to do to return the labour movement to its glorious traditions in a changing world of neo-liberal globalisation?
Globally when you look at the issue of how our movement started, it begins actually from a socialist angle, where we have looked at the issue of welfare and well-being of not only workers but even the citizens, how the primary purposes of the government should be to provide welfare and services to the entire citizens not only for the few privilege ones and where they should be able to share the wealth of nations.
I think we have actually tried to capture the challenges; there is no gainsaying the fact that in terms of prestige, there is drastic change in the way workers perceive NLC over the past few years.
This is basically because of the fact that we have not been able to engage a lot of policy issues that have direct bearing with the well-being and welfare of workers and even the citizenry. This substantially has affected our prestige before our members and I think as a member of a very reputable union this is no longer an issue we can just gloss over, it is a challenge.
Also, as a person that has been in the labour movement for over the last twenty years I think I know the tradition that we are coming from and I know most of those policies of the past, so what we are trying to do in a sense is to reinvent the wheel because already we have standards that had been set that is expected of any leadership of the NLC.
When you look at the issue of the economy, I think over the past decades we have been on top of it, there is no economic issue government will contemplate that NLC has not had its own position on, whether for or against such policy.
Usually, our interests and that of the ruling class will always be in opposite directions because, in every system be it political or economic, people tend to advance and protect their own interest. As the working class, the only organization that can be able to project, protect and advance our interest is the labour movement.
You don’t expect anybody to blow your trumpet for you, essentially, what I’m saying is that we have minimum standards and we have also in the past tried to have rules of engagement over issues that affect the working class.
We are going back to the basics, that is, our founding principles which is to represent only the interest of the workers. And I think for me this is very key for us to earn the confidence of the workers because once you earn their confidence, you are also able to earn the confidence of the employers.
But once the employer discovers that there is a little disconnect between you and your members, they will take you for granted. You will make pronouncement, the pronouncement will not hold water, and you propose an action that action never takes place.
So we are saying that once you make a pronouncement you must be able to back it up with action and see to the conclusion of the issues. We are returning to the basics where the interest and only the interest of the workers will dominate our engagement with the government and form the basis of interactions with other social partners.
Essentially, I think presently there is a disconnect between the NLC and our social partners, first, the civil society organisations, especially the credible ones and then the artisans, the market women, the professional groups and students’ unions organisations.
This will be our first step towards going back to our founding principles because you don’t need to bring people only when you have issues to confront, they have to be part of your structures of consultation and you must build a strategic alliance over time and then there must be rules of engagement for our social partners so that if issues arise you must know how to confront such because there are various interest groups which you must harmonise in the overall interest of the workers.
The area I intend to galvanise and bring back is the biting and confrontational aspect of the labour movement which is lacking now, when you make pronouncement, you must back it up with necessary action. We have responsibilities to bring back the labour culture of representing the Nigerian workers.
Barely a month after the 11th Delegates Conference of NLC, the new leadership with you as the President has hit the ground running, from the reports in the media of the recent meeting of the Central Working Committee which took decisions to reconcile with the splinter group (Restoration Group), address the Kriston-Lally housing project saga and fight for the payment of backlogs of salaries owed workers by several federal ministries and state governments across the country. Could you kindly inform the public of concise steps being taken regarding each of these important issues?
Of course it is unfortunate that after the conference our colleagues behaved that way because all through history labour elections have been adjudged to be the best, fair and credible. Some of you were around as labour journalists at the ICC on February 12th and witnessed the electoral process which our colleagues, the said splinter group disrupted during the process of the election by the time they were casting their votes.
Well, we thank God that the election was however reconvened at the Eagle Square and all necessary precautions were put in place for conducive elections. It is no longer news that even at that they tried to disrupt the process after they realised that the ballot papers for the office of the President were sorted out, and things did not appear favourable to them.
For all other positions that were sorted and counted there was no problem, their agents signed but when they sorted out the office of the President and they saw that my ballot papers was more voluminous, again, they started to disrupt the process but the security arrangement there was very tight and the process continued and was concluded.
Not only that all the processes were recorded by the major media houses, I think it is rather unfortunate for anyone to say otherwise because all the processes from accreditation to the last stage of announcing the results and winners were recorded and anyone can access those tapes.
Also, I think it is unfortunate because, even when you disagree there are ways and means of presenting those disagreements, and I think it is a major setback in our movement. We will not allow history to repeat itself because we are aware that the same union in 1988 through Takai Shaman tried to do the same thing when government sponsored Shaman and was declared by the government but that was under the military regime. Now we are under a civilian dispensation, hence no government interference can be wielded especially having participated in the process because all governmental agencies were represented, Federal Ministry of Labour and all security agencies were there and they gave their reports.
Anyway, at every level of society there are always two kinds of people, you will have the people who will conform to the tenets of society and people who will also feel otherwise but the most unfortunate thing is that the some of the energies that would have been used to attend to workers issues are now turned instead to looking now at internal ways of addressing that issue.
At our first National Administrative Council (NAC) and at the level of the Central Working Committee we met and decided that as democrats and as people who are legitimately elected, we should reach out to our colleagues and inform them of our desire to try to reconcile the issue. Actually, a committee was set up on the advice of the labour veterans who also serve in the committee trying to reach out which means we are open to dialogue, negotiation and reconciliation.
We stand on the basis of truth, because anything you do on falsehood will not stand the test of time, it is unfortunate that some of our colleagues have gone to the media to give false and fabricated information. This is not part of our training or traditions and I think for no reason on earth will I reduce myself to that level, of falsifying information.
There are things some of us cannot do but for some of our colleagues it is like a tradition and that is why it was difficult for them to build their unions because they are building personalities rather than institutions. And critically looking at those unions you will identify that whereas the individuals are blossoming and increasing in stature, the institutions are shrinking, gradually moving those unions into extinction. Well, the reality of what happens to us is that you cannot cheat nature and that is the law of nature.
Secondly is the critical challenge facing Nigerian workers which is unpaid backlogs of salaries in both public and private sectors, hence, we constituted committees across each of the six geopolitical zones to try and mobilise our members to wake up to their responsibilities because some of our state councils have also become docile, the capacity is no longer there. If my union members have not been paid for two or three months I don’t know how I can found myself comfortable.
Some of them when you ask them about it, they will tell you workers have been paid whereas they have not, so, we look at it as a very serious challenge. We took the twin issues of non-payment of salaries and casualization, the committees have been constituted across the geographical zones and they are going round to engage state governments so that the interest of the worker is not taken for granted, so that those salaries are paid, because if you allow it to go unchallenged it will be a problem to the new administrations.
We told them to go before the general elections so as to tell the workers to vote out any government that owed accumulated arrears of salaries and we told them to use their power of organising because the workers have extended families and well-wishers that we are working with. And when the in-coming governments come they won’t say they are not aware about salary arrears owed.
The third issue is Kriston-Lally housing project which we are looking into holistically, we also constituted a committee, although there are two aspects into it, one is the criminal aspect for which already investigation is on-going by the relevant security agency, and they have made a lot of efforts.
We are aware that the Kriston-Lally guy was earlier declared wanted but he has been found and arrested and he is making useful statement. They have frozen all his company accounts and also his personal accounts. A lot of efforts have been made; we are also interfacing with subscribers to give assurance that every one of them gets their money back.
Whatever it will take us as leadership, we will not allow the project to continue as it has suffered credibility problems, every worker and other subscribers should collect their money back, especially the N2.6 billion that is paid into the Kriston-Lally/NLC joint account which is intact according to the investigative panel. We want the process of investigation to conclude, then all subscribers will be refunded via e-payment into their accounts, we have gotten all the data.
This is the point we are and we took a decision that this should teach us a lesson that we are not traders but unionists whose primary focus and interest should be to protect the wellbeing of the workers and therefore we should be critical when taking decisions in future on such projects. We should not put ourselves into such difficulties by going into business with people of questionable character or businesses that are not straight forward without having maximum guarantee.
Although there was guarantee for the project, but it is difficulty when you are dealing with fraudulent people, because the main account that was advertised was Kriston-Lally/NLC where the bulk of the money was deposited which is still safe, from that account the only money that was in dispute was the withdrawal made which was being disputed by the former NLC President and Kriston-Lally of which they are the two signatories to safeguard that account.
I was reliably informed by the agency investigating the matter that the cheques to the account have been collected for forensic auditing. The bulk of the money, N2.6 billion is safe, the N110 million withdrawn was the one in dispute which the former NLC President denied he was aware of while Kriston-Lally claimed it was signed together, this is something that can be traced and confirmed.
The other one is the account singularly opened and operated by Kriston-Lally itself which some workers have confirmed to have paid into, for which he is fully liable and which is being investigated too.
There is global recession and a fall in international oil prices in the world market. This may result in further casualization of workers, unemployment and expansion of the informal economy. How would your leadership engage the government on welfare conditions and better remuneration for the workforce while ensuring the creation of more and decent jobs?
In fact proactively at the last meeting of the Central Working Committee (CWC) we have already put a team of experts drawn from the academia, most of them economic professors, and members of our movement. We are working on alternative development agenda that would be able to cushion the effect of the harsh economic policies that we are expecting.
For every challenge there must be a solution and for any problem, there must be a way out. We are trying to be proactive, we don’t have to be reacting to challenges after they are rolled out by the government, so, we will look at the challenges, look at issues, look at the indexes and look at how we can also propose an agenda that will drive the interests of Nigeria workers.
Already a committee has been constituted and very soon it will meet and produce a document by the time new government settles down it would be ready. We want to engage them on the basis of credible information and we know the challenges would be daunting but we must look at the general interest of the workers especially issues of casualization, loss of jobs which are the resultants effects of such policies are mitigated so that we prepare a road map.
These are what we have been able to do because we are aware that even during the era of Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP) in 1988, Labour was able to advance its position to confront the government, because the Capitalists will always advance their interests, you see the irony of it is that the multinational companies are still making profits if you look at the economic index.
It’s only that in few areas, especially in weak governance that the challenge will actually be felt, in other spheres the multinationals have been making profits even in Nigeria they have been declaring huge profits. The salaries of the Chief Executives in the big corporations have increased, and have multiplied over the last decades but look at the salaries of the Nigerian workers and our purchasing power it has been drastically decreased. So why is there this inequality?
I think this is something we need to engage, if there is going to be any structural adjustment programme it should applied to all, and particularly to the rich. You are aware of the jumbo pay of the legislators, which was not even captured by the circular of the Revenue and Fiscal Allocation Commission, some allowances of political office holders are not captured, but they just allocated these to themselves.
There is this challenge that the NLC has not shown adequate concern to the plight of workers in the informal sector. What will your leadership do to assist the workers in the informal sector?
Of course NLC does not have individual members. NLC has affiliates so what we try to do is to see that we enhance the capacity of leaders in these unions and convince them to build stronger unions. In the past we have tried in some sectors, where we helped to organise some private companies, but at the end of the day you find out that some of the unions are not really interested in taking over and driving this cause.
Thus, we did everything within our means to engage them formally and identify areas where we can be able to make headway and where they need support but a situation in which you try to assist somebody with a load to lift up, and that person does not put in some efforts, you can’t help him to lift the load. So the unions need to show efforts too, and in some instance we got efforts while in some other instances they didn’t show any effort.
The only thing is that the multinational companies are much bigger and well organised with resources they use to undermine unions. I want to assure you that what we are bringing on board is to increase the capacity of our affiliates and identify key areas where we have challenges and work together with them to unionise and organise such sectors.
We also have to work through the unions to stop casualization. I remember in the last dispensation we had a committee that dealt with casualization and unionisation. We made some series of headways where we held meetings with the unions which were critically affected, we even made a proposal for them actually to make available 50 members who will be used to engage various employers in case we need to picket or make a follow up, each union will be contributing to the pool which would then be at the disposal of the committee that drives the process.
We have gone up to that level, in fact, we also see the need to have contingency funds contributed by the bigger and the smaller unions to actually be the driving force to be able to engage the employers.
But I think along the line there has not been much enthusiasm to actually drive the process, so we are going to reopen that chapter, because membership issue is very important to the survival of our organisations and we are losing members through casualization, through retirement and through selling off of enterprises.
Another employer will take over the establishment or corporation and the rules of engagement set through procedural agreements will change, these are serious challenges that employers are using to actually maximise profits and undermine the interest of the workers.
Those are issues we are bringing on board in the agenda of our manifesto to challenge and fight these issues once and for all because employers will always come with different tactics to undermine the interests of the workers, especially where they don’t want collective bargaining to actually take place in their establishments.
So, going forward is for us as a new leadership to look at the challenges and carry the affiliates on board, by working consciously because they have those members we need to work together with. This is not limited to Nigeria; it is a serious challenge all over the world.
I think every segment of the social strata is actually important because in mass movements like NLC, we need to carry the people on board, we are not serving only the interests of the Nigerian workers. We are serving the interests of the downtrodden, those self-employed and the unemployed. If they have economic issues how best can they ventilate their anger except through us? And that is why it is easy for them to say ‘what is NLC doing?’ when things are not moving smoothly with them.
Even though they are not affiliates, that is to say, they are very important stakeholders, be it market women’s associations, technicians, traders associations and so on, they have their leadership at any major struggle and we use to meet with them, we have a common platform at the state level in several state councils where we meet with them to seek their opinion on challenges. We look forward soon to activate this at the national level because we are aware that the artisans have their leadership at the national level.
The NLC’s Labour and Politics Policy and the recommendations of the Dr Festus Iyayi’s NLC Committee to build the Labour Party (LP) as a viable political platform for the workers have not been implemented. How do you think your leadership can ensure the restructuring and re-engineering of the Party?
Globally in every society people seek for political power, to get economic power and advance group interests. I think that was the spirit that was used when the concept of Labour Party came about. Nobody will take political power and go to advance other people’s interest. Globally this has been the case. In most other advanced countries, we that believe in the socialist agenda, the working class and our social partners are floating parties. In UK, France, Scandinavian countries you have them and even in South Africa there is relationship between COSATU and the ANC.
That is to say that you must also ensure that your interest both politically and socially must find expression in the political leadership that would emerge; because not all the political actors know the issues and the challenges facing the masses. They will always be there because they are sponsored to be there and must protect the interest of those that sponsor them; I think it is essential to start from that point.
We understand the basis and importance of having a virile labour party that will be able to carry our manifesto and agenda with a socialist perspective. It is unfortunate that in spite of the fact that many years back the concept was initiated which brought about the labour party, but, we have not been able to carry the agenda of the party in terms of the organisation, in terms of restructuring we’ve not been able to reflect the ideology we upheld before setting up the labour party and that is what led to the challenge we are facing now.
Also, you need to get leaders that believe in the philosophy of the party to drive the party. If you don’t have persons that believe in the philosophy and you get a bourgeois person to drive it, definitely the person will have a different view and the entire process will derail.
So, for us we want to see how we can return to the basics, we are planning to have an all-inclusive stakeholders retreat to discuss majorly how we restructure, refocus and reorganise the labour party that truly can be said to be labour party with the agenda that will be able to drive it as a socialist party. We must as well look at the funding of the party; we want to go for membership drives which will bring in workers that will be willing to pay subscription to the party.
If you have a party and you don’t have way of funding it, it is as good as having no party, because a party needs to have office, structures, officers and the officers’ activities need to be catered for and if you don’t have that, then you are having something on nothing. We have seen how big parties use smaller parties as appendages. We have seen many parties that have linkages with the mega parties. When they talk you know who pays the piper.
Essentially, I think we have to re-define our intent and what we expect of it, how to build the party of our dream. Also it is critical we must look to the type of people who will be able to lead and drive the agenda of the party by leading with good example, not people that will be here today and jump there tomorrow, we should go beyond that.
When you look at the parties that are making headway now, we started much earlier than them. So what is the challenge that made us remain where we are, this is a contradiction? We have considerable number of workers, and if all the Nigerian workers registered to LP, no party will be able to beat us because we have over 10 million members in both the public and private sector unions. We should be the party to beat.
I think our major approach is to execute the all-inclusive stakeholder’s retreat that will be able to look into all these major issues including the issue of a labour college, a labour research outfit and all those things that are captured in our manifesto. As we are driving the process with our vision, we must be able to carry all the people along, the excellent document submitted by Dr Festus Iyayi’s committee would also be considered at the retreat.
I spoke exclusively with Comrade Eskor Toyo about the labour party and how they conceived the idea to register the Labour Party of which he claimed a lot of things have deviated from the initial arrangement. I think for me this is like a good beginning we need to rectify the problems because the foundation is very important for any structure. We are going back to the basics now.
You are well respected in the international trade union movement and realise the working class must be an international movement because capitalism itself is global. What is your agenda for concretely consolidating international solidarity continentally and globally?
I think it is very important first to realise that the labour movement’s strength lies in solidarity and unity. That is a key to any trade union organisation for success. What is happening globally in recent times, is the advent of ITUC where the major global unions work together to have a bigger voice to represent the interest of workers internationally. I think that has given us a lead to follow.
As you have said capital and labour don’t haves boundaries, just like capital moves into Nigeria via the multinational companies so is labour moving out and migrating also across countries, workers are not limited to work in any single country. Therefore we must be able to relate with our counterparts around the world to know the new trends of the challenges the labour movement faces.
Capital and labour almost don’t have any boundary across the globe, capital can move into Nigeria, so also is labour. Capital has entrenched interest in deregulation of labour within countries while capital can move more freely and shape the world economy.
It is high time we strengthen our bonds of unity at all levels, for labour to be able to resist capital’s power. We have tried that at the level of the Joint Health Sector Unions (JOHESU) in Nigeria. And in the West African sub-region we have initiated the West African Health Sector Unions Network (WAHSUN). Our intention is to eventually have a Pan-African health sector platform where we would be able to relate and address the issues of concern to health workers across the continent.
At the level of the NLC before now, we have been part of the formation of the trilateral alliance between the NLC Ghana TUC and COSATU. I have the idea that it is not only important to have a trilateral. The ultimate goal is to have a Pan-African platform of the movement where it is possible to gather the trade union centres from across the 54 countries in Africa to be able to relate and challenge their various governments. The governments have the African Union (AU) so there is no reason why we cannot replicate that to address policy, economic or political issues.
I have the belief that we will still drive this process using the structure of the NLC and West Africa trade Union movement, we should have the next meeting of the trilateral in South Africa. COSSATU is supposed to host but it’s having some challenges, but we will still use the ILO meeting in Geneva to reach out to them and strengthen the process and build on whatever gains we have made.
We’ve not been able to make much progress as you said but I think we can bring more unions even from East African countries to work together with us because we are in Southern and Western Africa and we have to cover all the regions on the continent to form a pan-African trade union centre from below.
But some of the challenges we may have is with the global trade unions who may feel threatened. We have ITUC-Africa and we also have OATUU, which was formed by the OAU. By the time we begin to invite people they may feel we want to undermine or form another body to challenge them but that is not the spirit. The spirit is to increase the bond of friendship and solidarity, especially now that some challenges are more pronounced in some countries than others, we should be able to extend solidarity, and share each other’s grief and moments of joy as the working class across the globe. Although the global trade union centres have more structure, we have that responsibility.
Your administration will be engaging the incoming APC Government, what are your expectations in terms of Government-Labour relationships?
Well as part of the larger society and as the labour movement in particular, we representing workers have high expectations and these expectations stem from the fact that, this would be the first time in history that the opposition is taking over power and they have promised to do more than the outgoing government.
Also looking at the APC manifesto I find out that there are areas in which we can relate and partner to bring about desired change. The first issue is that we expect they should be able to improve on issues of good governance where the issue of governance will be transparent and corruption should be eliminated or removed from our system because it is a major challenge. That is the starting point that they need to demonstrate because we need a new order of governance.
Essentially what I am saying is transparency in governance must be in place, that is to conform to best practice when you are applying for contract or job you don’t need to know anybody. That is the basis of good governance.
Two, the issue of critical infrastructure must be addressed, in Nigeria today productivity has been reduced to under 50% capacity utilisation because the critical infrastructure needed to move development, which is power, is lacking. I was reliably informed that over the last ten years Nigeria has invested over $40 billion on power running, when you look at the commensurate output in terms of having steady power supply there is nothing to show for it. When you look at the megawatts being generated I don’t think the money is commensurate to what we have.
A challenge that the new government should take as an agenda is power which can stimulate development. In fact it is a trigger that would generate more employment for young people and motivate the self-employed. The new government should take this as a priority because once you settle the issue of power; it affects a lot of things positively, making them to work effectively, including transportation. A lot of Nigerians including us believe that the issue of power must be taken serious.
Lastly, my expectation is that the new government must be able to address the issue of lack in capacity to refine locally for domestic consumption, it is very important because you are very much aware of the subsidy scam which played out, in 2012 is still inconclusive today. Hence, the government may not be able to address corruption. Year in year out they still budget on subsidy for petroleum products despite the fact that they told us subsidy has been removed, they are still paying subsidy for kerosene and petroleum products.
So the major area that they need to intervene in where changes will be very visible is to agree to start building modular refineries within two years and even the bigger refineries can be built within four years..
We need to have internal capacity to refine our products because what is happening now is that we are exporting our jobs, by importing refined products it means you are exporting our jobs to other countries because those refineries and the chains of activities they trigger would have opened up employment and eliminate the issue of corruption.
Also, the issue of welfare of Nigerian workers is important; I was reading the APC manifesto on provisions of 3 million jobs annually through public works. They have tried to capture the concern and aspirations of us workers because instead of using consultants they are to use public works because when I was growing up once a road has a problem public works will fix it immediately because public works was working.
I think we are going to support that initiative. We are already working on some policies that will fit in on those proposals; there is no way you can drive development without taking along the welfare of the workers that create the wealth because labour creates wealth.
It is important to have the purchasing power of workers increase. We are responsible for a large number of Nigerians, because these include our families. Presently, I hope you know that the minimum wage can no longer pay our transport for thirty days; you can’t talk of wiping out corruption without side by side putting in place what will make the Nigerian workers comfortable, and committed to the reality of a new regime that will not tolerate corruption.
We also expect that they should be able to engage us on major policies that would have effect on the larger polity and also the working class. It is important to carry along all shades of opinions as strategic partners in whatever change you want to bring about, for them to conform to the positive change and for them to participate effectively. These essentially are those areas we feel that if the incoming government gets things right it will be a major departure from how business of governance is being done in Nigeria.
Because people know the problems, the difference in a leader who will drive a process of change is the fact that you don’t only know the problem, you also proffer solution. I think the problem is that most of our leaders know the problems but addressing the challenge is then the major issue. Even my grandmother in the village knows that one of the problems we have in Nigeria is the power sector. It means everybody knows the problem, hence, for me to follow you as a leader you must be able to provide solutions that are workable and apply the solution. This is what will make a difference between him and my grandmother.
The leaders and the led know the problems we are facing as Nigerians, but to have the will to bring about the desired change will make the leader a distinct leader. Therefore our expectation is that they should be able to distinguish themselves by addressing the socio-economic challenges we face and bring us a new order and development that will take us to the next level.