NLC: Reflections on 40 Years of Struggle

Guest Columnist: Issa Aremu


“Today, we are conscious of the necessity for the workers of Nigeria to come together and to remain under one umbrella”.

Mr. Okon Eshiett’s 1975 graveside oration at the burial of the late Chief J.A. Oduleye at Apena Cemetery in Lagos also known as the Apena Declaration

Institution building is today globally acknowledged as the hallmark of nation building. But public focus is on the state institutions. The Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) is a non-state institution that has come of age in defence of the interests of its working and retired members in line with the objectives of its constitution. Barack Obama, the 44th President of United States of America, admonished Africans during his historic visit to Ghana in 2009 to build “strong institutions” in place of strong men. If Obama was conversant with the history of labour movement in Africa including that of the NLC, he would have known that African workers despite the enormous challenges of organising have been building strong organisations with strong working women and women.

It is precisely because I am involved that I see the justification in the position that it was commendable that the national executive council of the NLC unanimously adopted the resolution to celebrate the strong labour centre at 40. The NLC has commenced a number of activities to mark its 40th anniversary this week. The historic celebration starts with the state councils’ events scheduled to end on Sunday 25th February 2018. The national level events include prayers in the mosque next Friday and in the church on Sunday which would climax on Monday February 26 with a Public Lecture on NLC at 40: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow, National Unity and Social Justice. The second public lecture takes place on Tuesday. Mr. Guy Ryder, the 10th Director General of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) is expected to deliver the lecture on The Future of the World of Work. The topic aptly coincides with the theme of the centenary celebration of the ILO. The ILO is the oldest United Nations specialized institution dedicated to regulating the World of work formed in 1919! The final activity is another Public Lecture on “Labour, Politics and Governance.

Unarguably, the NLC remains the biggest labour centre in Nigeria and indeed in Africa with over seven million organised and potential 40 million members! Indeed the NLC with seven million worker- members from 52 affiliate industrial unions is the biggest independent trade free union movement in Africa followed by the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU). There is also the Trade Union Congress (TUC) with a significant number of members. Today, the NLC is a mega labour centre in Africa. The NLC is only rivalled in terms of independence and self-assertion by the COSATU, with which it maintains robust bilateral engagement on organising, collective bargaining and international solidarity campaigns.

The Congress is also an activist affiliate of the Accra-based Organisation of Africa Trade Union (OATUU) and Geneva -based global union, the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), representing 176 million workers in 156 countries and national territories with other 311 affiliate union’s world wide. The NLC, therefore, acts national and global. At the 2017 ILO conference the NLC was re-elected back to the ILO governing council as a key player in International Labour Organization (ILO). Nigeria joined the almost 100 years old ILO in 1960 after independence.
Organisational birthdays are occasions to celebrate the past achievements and set the agenda for the future. The 40th anniversary celebration offers the opportunity to represent NLC to workers- members, more than 40 affiliate unions, the veterans, allies, friends and the beginners alike.

So what are the achievements of NLC four decades after? First is the question of history. Anniversary celebrations obviously raise the question of institutional memory. The point must be made that the NLC at 40 is the “third NLC” in history. Capitalists, employers and owners of means of production do concentrate power and form transnational organisations to maximize profits. Conversely workers and their unions saw the need to form inclusive national and international organisations aimed at maximizing labour’s welfare and curtail exploitation by capital. Under British colonialism, the first generation of unionists not only formed trade/house unions but also tirelessly worked to form central national labour organisations that could confront colonial capital with its exploitation and oppressions. The iconic visionary labour leaders and drivers of this historic organising effort included Labour Leader Number One Michael Imoudu, H.P. Adebola, Wahab Goodluck, S.U. Bassey, J.O. James, N.F. Pepple, A.I. Okwese, E.A.O Odeyemi, J.U. Akpan, R.A. Ramos, Okon Esshiett and Vincent Igwe Jack.

The first Nigeria Labour Congress first was formed in 1950. The inaugural conference of the second NLC was on December 18, 1975 at the Banquet Hall of the Lagos City Council hall, formed on the ashes of the then existing four labour centers, namely United Labour Congress (ULC), Nigeria Trade Union Congress (NTUC), Nigeria Workers’ Council (NWC) and Labour Unity Front (LUF). The second NLC was inspired by the great oration delivered by the late Okon Esshiett, who was then Director of Trade Union Institute (TUI), at the burial of the late Chief J.A. Oduleye at Apena Cemetery in Lagos in 1975.

The speech is also known as the Apena Declaration. I suggest that NLC should make that historic oration a compulsory read for all the current labour leaders if we must sustain the historic efforts at a strong united labour centre. Words from the heart could touch the hearts to ensure necessary compromises for labour unity. The efforts at new NLC were successful until the then Federal Commissioner for Labour in the Administration of General Murtala Mohammed, Major General Henry Adefope, announced the new Federal military Government’s Labour Policy of limited Government Intervention and Guided Democracy in Trade Union matters which eventually led to the wholesale restructuring of the then existing hundreds of house unions into national industrial union. In 1978, despite military intervention NLC re-emerged as a product of the independent efforts of comrades to forge a common front in advancing workers’ interests.

This year is, therefore, also a year of celebration of all 43 industrial unions in both private and public sectors affiliated to the restructured NLC in 1978?
There has been definitely a long walk to NLC at 40. With documented struggles spanning four decades, the NLC has truly “come of age” as a pan -African (and indeed global) strong institution in spite of the dissolutions of its duly democratically constituted organs by military regimes of Murtala/Obasanjo (1975), Ibrahim Babangida (1988) and Sanni Abacha (1994) (in-that-order-of undemocratic meddlesomeness in labour affairs!). The presidents of NLC to date are comrades Hassan Sunmonu (1979-1984), Ali Chiroma (1984-1988), Paschal Bafyau (1988-1994), Adams Oshiomhole (1999-2007), and Omar Abdul Waheed. (2007-2015) And Ayuba Wabba up to date. Undoubtedly, every serious labour leader brings to bear his determination, knowledge and courage to improve members’ working and living conditions.

But a leader-centred analysis says little about the logic of collective actions or inactions that characterise the daily struggles of ordinary men and women in the trade unions. With negotiated four national minimum wages since 1981, NLC has commendably provided minimum pay standard for workers. The South Africa’s labour centre, COSATU, just won the battle for minimum wage in South Africa. However with the neo-liberal policies of naira devaluation and deregulation it is clear that Nigerian workers on N125 (about $200 in 1981!) in real terms were better than workers on N18, 000 (less than $50) in 2018! The NLC in the years must contend with macro economic instability in Nigeria’s foot loose crony capitalism.

Furthermore, with 11 delegates’ conferences of NLC in 40 years, notwithstanding the challenges that trailed the last one in 2015, it is self-evident that the NLC exhibits democratic traditions and experiences than the Nigerian politicians itself.
The anniversary offers a platform for a critical and constructive engagement among comrades for a better, repositioned NLC.
Forward Ever! Backward Never!

* Comrade Aremu, mni, is a member of the Central Working Committee (CWC) of the NLC.