Secretary General of the OATUU, Owei Lakemfa
Secretary-General of the Organisation of African Trade Union Unity (OATUU), Mr. Owei Lakemfa, in an encounter with Linda Eroke unveiled the agenda of the newly-inaugurated executives, with security as the priority
“We are committed to the unity and solidarity of workers in the African continent. Another major objective we are committed to is the fast-tracking of Africa’s economic integration, increase in the inter-African trade and the adoption of basic needs development programmes as alternative to the ruinous neo-liberal economic policies”. These were the words of the newly elected Secretary General of the OATUU, Owei Lakemfa.
Lakemfa, a former Acting General Secretary of the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) was on December 7, 2012 in Algiers, Algeria elected as Secretary General by 43 Africa countries at the 10th Congress of the OATUU.
The emergence of Lakemfa as the secretary of the African workers union did not come as a surprise to many who affirmed that his commitment to the struggle over the years is not debatable going by his pedigree in the labour movement.
Speaking on the activities of the organisation, the renowned trade unionist said: “The Organisation of Africa Trade Union Unity (OATUU) is the umbrella labour organisation for all African workers. It has 54 members by the last congress which was held in Algiers from December 1 to 7, 2012. At that conference, we admitted the 55th member-country and that is South Sudan, so there are now 55 countries in the OATUU.
“Until 1973 there were four central labour organisations in Africa, almost like the OAU used to be before it became Africa Union today. Africa was divided into four centres depending on the ideological lineage, so in 1972 there were moves to unite all the central labour organisations in Africa, and this move was championed by the then Nigeria Minister of Labour, Chief Anthony Enahoro and of course all African workers bought into it, so in 1973 OATUU was founded.
“In 2013 it would be 40 years that we have existed as a unified Africa labour centre. In Nigeria, we have the Nigeria Labour Congress, which is an umbrella organisation of various trade unions so also at the African levels, an umbrella organisation called OATUU where you have various African countries”.
On how the organisation is being funded, Lakemfa explained that the organisation gets its funding mostly from the member countries. “We have 55 countries now and they pay an average of $3,000 to $5,000 because we are very moderate about it but there are countries which go above that and make contribution to OATUU. Some unions pay $10,000 like the NLC, the Sudanese workers, Algeria Workers and a host of others. There are also some of them that give special grants; we also get support from African Governments who are making sure that trade unions are not influence by external forces but they are not increasing”.
He further disclosed the intention of the union to seek subvention from the African Union (AU) for the development of the region warning that “if we do not ensure the development of the region then we are in trouble. And we believe that trade unions being natural centres of democracy, because trade unionism is voluntary, so when you have huge army voluntary members of trade unions across the continent and they are also the most active because an average worker is an active youth between ages 18 and 60. So if organisation like OATUU is involved in programmes which African Governments are initiating, then the issue of integrating Africa is easier”.
Emergence as OATUU Secretary-General
Speaking on his emergence as Secretary-General of OATUU, the elated Lakemfa did not fail to recognise the support he received from most African countries. He explained that “The election came a bit as a surprise in the sense that I was overwhelmed that there were African countries that looked around and thought that I should be put forward especially the labour centres in east Africa led by Confederation of Trade Union in Kenya (COTU).
“So I was overwhelmed that I would be in Nigerian and some countries would come together and say if we are going to move OATUU forward beyond what is it now, then we need a person like a Nigerian. At the conference, although there were various forces but at the end of the day some general consensus was reached and by the sixth day, I emerged unopposed. That also means that Africans, on their own, can organise elections and succeed”.
On how the news of his election was received in his home country, Lakemfa said: I was surprised that before I came back to Nigeria it was widely carried and reported beyond my imagination. In fact, when I was in Algeria, within a day or two I started receiving calls that it was everywhere in the news both print and broadcast, and one of the early callers was the Federal Government and I was surprised about that.”
He attributed his achievement in the labour industry to the NLC, which gave him the platform to serve the working class. He said: “Let me say that my election was because I have been exposed both locally and internationally by the NLC, so it was not because I sat somewhere in Abuja and emerged as Secretary of OATUU.
Lakemfa, while extolling the virtues of past labour leaders said the forebears of Michael Imuodu and Hassan Sunmonu upheld the principles, personal and collective moral authority and a passionate commitment to the working class.
He recalled that “Hassan Summon, a founding president of the NLC and was elected on February 28, 1978 at the inaugural meeting of the NLC in Ibadan, adding that “he built the foundation of the congress”. “When he went outside the country in the Africa level, he became a legend in Africa and years ago when I started attending the International Labour Organisation (ILO) conference in Geneva, he was also a legend even at the ILO level.
“So, I think when leaders of OATUU are leaving and the need to replace this pan Africanist came, they thought that the country that produced Summonu must be a good country. So the fact that he was there was not a major issue because they could have wished that Summonu and his team should continue.”
Another factor responsible for his election, he said, was that “Nigeria has played a positive role in Africa especially at labour level. There are lots of countries that supported African trade union at the continental level, but I will tell you that Nigeria is a leading country in that respect. Right from 1986, the Federal Government has joined other countries in Africa to give subvention to workers so as to function well, don't forget that we are based in Accra, Ghana.
“Nigeria has joined these countries such as Sudan, Algeria and others and Nigeria has become a pillar of support and I am sure that the African countries also put that into consideration that Nigeria is very reliable country. In fact under the leadership of President Goodluck Jonathan, Nigeria has now increased its support for Africa trade union.
He added “I think my contribution at the International Labour fora contributed. Also, the election shows the other side of Nigeria, some people think that Nigeria is not a trustworthy country as a result of advance fee fraud known as 419 and other things but I think if the entire Africa continent will decide that for a major position like the general secretary of OATUU Nigerian should lead them, I think it is a major achievement for our country.
“And don't forget that it is an ambassadorial position because OATUU are diplomats in Ghana and in Africa and we are part of the African Union because we have a seat in AU to the level of the Summit of the Head of States. We are also at the ILO Governing Council having the same status with ITUC”.
Challenges Facing Africa
On the agenda of the trade union, Lakemfa said the African union will make security issue the centre of attention within the next four years. He said “We are meeting in the next few weeks to map out programmes and the things we will do in the next four years. One of the things we want to focus on is the issue of security in Africa. You have countries like Congo where the workers cannot go to work due to war, in Somalia you cannot talk of a systematic work because of the crisis.
“There is also Northern Mali that is under siege. We also have problems among African countries that are affecting workers such as the issue between Ethiopia and Eritrea. So you find out that countries like Eritrea need a lot of youth in the Armed forces; that means there will be fewer hands to work.”
He further spoke on the issue of food security which he said has been a major problem to the union. He noted that “another problem is the issue of integration, because we know that, because at individual country we won't make any impact. If each strong country in Europe can come together to form European Union (EU) then we don't have any excuse.
“That also affected us even in securing partnership agreement with these countries because Europe comes as a block and then we have problems, so they go and have separate agreement with South Africa and others and these things affected us.”
The OATUU Spokesman suggested some kind of economic merger and more trades in Africa, adding that “if we can open our borders to our people, it means the informal economy will develop. Do not forget that most of the workers in Africa are from the informal economy. We also found out that given the erroneous ideas that having more freedom means multiplying labour centres”.
He explained that trade unionism is built on the three foundation of unity of workers and solidarity, stating that “when you have countries having double labour centres I think that is a dangerous trend. So you found out that our neighbouring country like Benin, moves from one labour centres to five; also Senegal now having nothing less than eleven, it was so bad in Congo that we do not know the actual numbers of labour centres.”
He explained that the thinking of the union is to get the “labour centres in serious countries to have a common agenda, work together, have common programmes and possibly go into merger. Nigeria is one of the unique examples where we have the NLC and Trade Union Congress (TUC) but in terms of work, you can see that they work together. It is very unique because you cannot find this in any African country.
“Even at the Nigeria level we want to encourage both the NLC and TUC to work towards having one movement because having two does not make sense.” He added that “Part of the problems was that opportunists are coming to Africa and are dividing us and they think that if you have a labour centre and it is not their client, then they must form another one. So you find some unions and labour centres in the international arena pumping money to Africa, dividing labour centres into fragment.
“Some of them may be they may have about 300 members as a labour centre. Some of the things we are also planning is to have trade unions that are independent of both the Government, employers and that of external forces because external forces are responsible for the multiplication of Labour centres we have in Africa now.
He pledged that OATUU would ensure the independent and protection of Africa workers noting that “part of OATU mandate is to make sure that there is social justice in our continent not just for workers but for Africa people. Part of own programmes will include developing an alternative to the new liberal policies that we have in Africa. We in Africa have followed a particular development agenda which has shows itself in various ways including our Structural Adjustment Programme, poverty alleviation and so on.
“But we discovered that these policies have rather impoverished the Africa people. We have become poorer for it, even the countries that this programmes originated from are in trouble so why should we go through same ways. So we intend to also increase consciousness of the Africa people on the Pan Africanist ideas that our forefathers develop, so we are not looking for anything new”, he added.