By ISSA AREMU
May Day celebration started in Nigeria with the declaration of the Labour Day by the then progressive Peoples Redemption Party (PRP) of Balarabe Musa and late Abubakar Rimi of Kaduna and Kano States respectively in 1980. President Shehu Shagari legitimised the Labour Day as a public holiday the following year, 1981. The season of May Day celebrations offers an opportunity to assess the working and living conditions of the working people globally. But also importantly, at this time, we are even encouraged to critically examine the performance of trade unions, organisations formed by workers with the main aim of ensuring dignity of labour at national and global levels. Organisation of African Trades Union Unity (OATUU) is a pan-African organisation of African workers. The inaugural congress of OATUU held in Addis Ababa in April 1973 under the auspices of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) and chaired by Nigeria’s diplomat Peter Onu. Delegates were drawn from 31 countries in the continent including Nigeria.
OATUU’s formation was a product of legitimate ideological contestations as well as cooperation between African trade unionists dating back to 1940s. The premier continental labour movement marked its 40th anniversary recently. The formation of OATUU brought to the fore the significance of trade unions in Africa. In contemporary Africa, some anti-democratic governments take delight in keeping labour at arm’s length and even dare to undermine unions as a whole. For instance, the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) executive was illegally dissolved by the Nigerian military dictatorships in 1988 and 1994 for resisting arbitrary fuel price increases and for demanding democratisation. Just last year, in Swaziland, the only national trade union centre was outlawed by government for demanding multiparty democracy. African history however reveals different dispositions of post-colonial African governments towards trade unions. Irrespective of their ideological persuasions, Africa’s founding fathers (and mothers too!) appreciated the role of labour in anti-colonial struggles. They saw unions as valued partners in post-colonial development agenda.
Remarkably too, scores of nationalists and patriots who fought for independence were tested trade unionists in their own rights. Notable historic figures included late Ahmed Sekou Toure of Guinea, a trade unionist turned a political activist. He singularly mobilised the Guinean people for independence and terminated French colonialism in 1958 in a French referendum. That was a heroic feat given that the likes of the late Félix Houphouet-Boigny of Ivory Coast voted for continued French rule. The late President Julius Nyerere and former President Kenneth Kaunda were all unionists who fought against British colonialism in Tanzania and Zambia respectively. Late Tom Mboya led Kenyan trade union movement but was also in the fore front of the struggle for Kenya’s independence. Late President Modibo Keita of Mali, President Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, Hamani Diori, the founding President of Niger, late Nnamdi Azikwe, late Chief Obafemi Awolowo, Mallam Aminu Kano and of course, late Pa Michael Imoudu were all union organisers who brought to bear their respective trade union skills in contestation and negotiation to lower the British Union Jack. Even in later day liberated territories of Namibia and South Africa, trade unions were the torchbearers in the battle for freedom.
In recognition of the historic positive roles of African trade unions in 1973, OAU encouraged and consummated the formation of the OATUU. The government of Osagyfo Dr. Kwame Nkrumah was even exceptionally appreciative by building a six-storey building, “Hall of Trade Unions” for the Ghana Trades Union Congress. It is not by accident that OATUU has it’s secretariat in Accra until recently headed by Alhaji Hassan Sunmonu, the founding President of Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC).
The selling point of OATUU is the unity of Africa’s trade union centres. African workers had always desired a continental organisation as countervailing force to governments and employers who were equally organised at continental levels taking decisions that impact often negatively on jobs, wages and pensions among others. Trade unions were not immune from the ideological divisions of the Cold War era. Indeed they were ideologically opposed to the defunct All African Trade Union Federation (AATUF), the African Trade Union Confederation (ATUC), and pan-African Workers’ Congress. OATUU is an offshoot of these centres.
Sadly, there are no discernible perspectives on OATUU at 40. Not long ago, African media uncritically downloaded the mantra according to President Barack Obama; Africa needs strong institutions not strong men. How can we build strong institutions in Africa, when we even lack knowledge of our institutions? OATUU with its secretariat in Accra (interestingly where the American President delivered his sermon in 2009) had been a strong and tested institution with committed selfless working men that included, Denis Akumu of Central Organisation of Trade Unions COTU (K) in Kenya, Hassan Summonu of NLC among others.
OATUU, despite challenges of governance (military dictatorships in many countries until the latest democratisation) and unfavourable economic climate (SAP) had made positive impact on the lives of African working men and women. Proudly African, it has helped affiliate (South Sudan reportedly being the newest 55th member) to build capacity, especially in economic literacy. We must credit OATUU and other progressive organisations with the African debt cancellations and debt write-offs at the turn of the century. As far back as late eighties, at a time it was fashionable for SAP-imposed military regimes to outdo each other in slavish diligent repayments of dubious debts (even as they denied minimum wages and employment at home!) to its credit, OATUU called and pressured for the unconditional and total cancellation of Africa’s debt. It has also been counted on the labour market institution building in the continent. OATUU played a decisive role in the transformation of hitherto top-down OAU Conference of Ministers of Labour and Social Affairs into a more participatory present day Tripartite OAU/AU Labour and Social Affairs Commission.
Structural Adjustment programmes (SAPs) of the 80s collapsed due to the great struggles of OATUU’s affiliates notably NLC of Nigeria and TUC of Ghana. In particular, NLC since 1988 had been resisting incessant fuel prices increases and leading “SAP riots” even at the risk of the illegal dissolutions of its executive twice under Gen. Ibrahim Babangida and Sani Abacha dictatorships.
With the support of the Chinese, OATUU has also built a Labour College in Ghana. Rightly, many would question the independence of OATUU if African workers and governments cannot build its infrastructure. If OATUU’s affiliate unions independently built their offices, why not OATUU? There must certainly have been some disconnect! OATUU should avoid the pitfall of the dependency mentality of African leaders who preside over capital flight and corruption in the continent yet still rely on the Chinese government to rebuild African Union (AU) secretariat in Addis Ababa. Let us copy the OAU founding fathers that based on self-reliance built the old secretariat of African resources. Let’s us copy not ape China.
Cooperation and partnership, not servitude! In the next 40 years, OATUU must consolidate on unity of actions in defence of rights of African workers. We are again sadly back to proliferation of trade union centres this time without ideological claims of the old but comfort zones for labour aristocrats. OATUU must also deepen its internal democracy. Its last congress in Algiers recently was more of hearsay and murmurs compared to the open democratic contestations and participation that characterised the election of Alhaji Hassan Sunmonu in late 80s. OATUU that was loud in the struggle for enthronement of democracy in the continent must reduce its own internal democracy deficits. Brinkmanship alien to trade union movement must give way to comradeship and continental solidarity. Long live OATUU!
•Aremu is the Vice-President and Chairman, International Committee of the Nigeria Labour Congress