The 11th Quadrennial Delegates’ Conference of the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC), scheduled for February 9th and 10th ended inconclusively with ugly disruption of voting process to produce new leadership for the Congress early in the morning of Thursday, February 12, 2015. The issues that led to the disruption of the voting process were allegations of irregularities fueling suspicion of rigging by one of the Candidates. Claims of use of ballot papers that appear different from approved ones were also raised. Be that as it may, violent eruption of delegates resulting in destruction of ballot boxes and scattered ballot papers is indefensible, disgraceful and unacceptable.
Experiences in the Past
Perhaps, it may be argued that this is not the first time NLC is going through leadership crisis during its delegates’ conference. In 1982, in Kano, Comrade David Ojeli from the Nigeria Civil Service Union (NCSU) led a splinter group of unionists with the backing of the 2nd Republic National Party ofNigeria (NPN) federal government of Alh. Shehu Shagari to challenge the emergence of Alh. Ali Chiroma of the Medical and Health Workers Union of Nigeria (MHWUN) as successor to Alh. Hassan Sunmonu of the Civil Service Technical Workers Union of Nigeria (CSTWUN). Comrade Ojeli’s challenge was democratically defeated and all threats, including attempts to mobilize a walkout, were averted by superior internally organized response of the Sunmonu-cum-Chiroma leadership.
The second time was the 1988 Benin Conference of the NLC, which saw Comrade Takai Shamang of the National Union of Electricity Employees (NUEE), with the support of the Babangida administration, challenging the Comrade Ali Chiroma leadership, resulting in parallel conferences, allegedly producing both Comrades Chiroma and Shamang as Presidents of NLC. The result is therefore a contrived leadership crisis that justified the direct intervention of government in the internal administration of NLC with the appointment of Mr. Michael Ogunkoya as NLC Sole Administrator. That intervention arm-twist union leaders to negotiate the emergence of Comrade Pascal Bafyau (of blessed memory) who came from the Nigeria Union of Railwaymen (NUR) as NLC President.
The third instance was the 1994 dissolution of the Comrade Pascal Bafyau leadership along with those of National Union of Petroleum and Natural Gas (NUPENG) and Petroleum and Natural Gas Senior Staff Association of Nigeria (PENGASSAN) by the Abacha administration on account of their roles against the 1993 annulment of the June 12, 1993 election. These unions remained under government appointed Sole Administrators up to 1998 when Gen. Abacha died. With the emergence ofGen. Abdulsalami Abubakar, and the termination of official policy of internal interference in the administration of unions by federal government, ComradeAdams Oshiomhole of the National Union of Textile, Garment and Tailoring Workers (NUTGTWN) emerged as elected President of Congress in January 1999 following a contested election.
2015 NLC Conference
Perhaps like in 1999 and 2003, contests for leadership during the NLC in 2007 and 2011 did not lead to internal crisis. Comrade Abdulwaheed Omar of Nigeria Union of Teachers (NUT) succeeded Comrade Adams smoothly largely on account of capacity of structures to negotiate agreements and regulate the conduct of members. Why was the NLC leadership unable to deplore its internal capacity in 2015?
What is very clear in the narrative of Nigerian union leadership contestation isthat the hands of government in engineering crisis is visible and perhaps the major catalyst. Is the federal government also engineering the current NLC crisis? It will be very difficult to prove, at least not as visible as the 1982 and 1988 cases. If there is the hand of government in the crisis, it may have been overshadowed by other profound issues that must have eroded the integrity quotient that used to serve as the source of moral authority of the NLC.
Partly because of poor ethical standards in the union movement, government interests and support for contestants may have been seen as normal and in some cases even a source of strength. This may justify stories flying around that one of the candidates for one of the offices openly promote himself based on the credential that he come from the same place with Dame Patience Jonathan, the First Lady of the Federal Republic. Another is alleged to have won the support of the Secretary to the Government of the Federation (SGF) and Minister of Power on account of coming from the same tribe.
True or false, internal organ deliberations would have thrown up these issues, absolve or confirm those being accused. These are now left to speculations and at best ignored by those accused. Therefore, like the story of Nigeria, NLCgradually, systemically and systematically come to a standstill through years of value-stripping actions and perhaps deliberate subversion. Value-stripping actions on accounts of union leaders’ inability to conduct their affairs selflessly through teamwork, etc. Capacity of union leaders to internalize these values and in the process produce inspiring results that translate into union – management/government agreements manifesting in higher wages, enhanced benefits and good working conditions were factors that have elevated union leaders to national reckoning. The emergence of Michael Imoudu, Wahab Goodluck, HassanSunmonu, Ali Chiroma and Adams Oshiomhole of recent are typical examples.
The question of what went wrong during the 2015 NLC Conference that the NLC wasunable to manage its own affairs and disgracefully ridiculed the movement, embarrassed its membership and Nigerian workers, is a matter that need close scrutiny. How did we arrive at this terrible situation? The answer is not far fetched. It considerably accounts for the weak presence or near absence of the movement in policy debates and political contestations in Nigeria today.
Ethical Bankruptcy and The Lessons
Partly because today’s union leaders are alienated from the conditions of their membership, it is difficult, if not impossible to distinguish a unionist from an employer or our public officials. To a greater degree, union revenue is hardly limited to workers contributions (check off dues) that are usually about 2% of workers pay. Grants from employers and governments are today greater proportion of union revenue, far greater than check off dues. As a result, like CEOs in government and other big establishments, Presidents and General Secretaries of Unions live lavishly and unions have multi-billion Naira projects, which are not consistent with values of collective agreements negotiated by union leaders. Most of the unions with vested interests of fielding candidates for positions in the NLC were reported to have paid hundreds of millions of Naira as check off to NLC. These were unions that struggled in the past to pay some thousands of Naira to NLC.
The consequence is that unlike in the 70s, 80s and early 90s, union leadership appears very splendid. The major unions today, with interest in the currentleadership contest, notably MHWUN and NUEE used to struggle to pay less than N1 million monthly check off. Today, both unions are reported to have paid hundreds of millions of Naira each as check off to NLC. This is not a reflection of membership recruitment or wage realities in each of the sectors. What is the source of the money? May be it is not the business of members or delegates to investigate. In which case, the mandate of the new leadership could have been surreptitiously determined.
Today, we daily face the sad embarrassment of having our labour leaders accused ofmisappropriating union resources, being unaccountable, collaborating with employers and government to the detriment of Nigerian workers. In some waysthese allegations have always been there but because of the capacity of themovement to undertake transparent collective action with robust internal debates, integrity of leadership was guaranteed. Where leaders are found wanting, disciplinary process was allowed to weed out recalcitrant leaders. For instance, financial reports were constantly presented, debated at all organs of the movement and always formed the basis of internal enquiry and decisions.Nominations and appointments into committees, projects, government statutory bodies, etc. were always debated and decisions democratically arrived at.
The 2015 Conference of the NLC clearly abandoned all these. Signals of crisis were public knowledge but somehow, the NLC leadership, perhaps ignored them. In fact, even before the Conference issues of financial misappropriations in NLC became subject of public protests especially in relation to housing scheme promoted by the NLC that many workers subscribed to. The situation led to disruption of NLC Civil Society Program with political parties at Yar’Adua Centre, about a week before the conference by protesting workers.
With respect to elections, it was clear that there were tensions with leadership of private sector unions alleging some violations of internal agreements. All these couldn’t have resulted in the disgraceful event of Thursday, February 12 if the rich traditions, conventions and regulatory controls of structures of the movement were allowed to prevail. Anyone with clear knowledge of the workings of the NLC would have expected that both the process of nominating conference Committee members, terms of references and receiving reports of their work, all organs of NLC would have met and reached some decisions. For instance, the National Administrative Council (NAC) involving elected officials and Heads of Departments of Congress would have met to agree on proposals regarding composition of membership and terms of references. The proposals would havegone to the Central Working Committee (CWC) comprising NAC members and Presidents and General Secretaries of all the affiliate unions. Once adopted, the National Executive Council (NEC) comprising CWC members, treasurers of affiliates and State Chairmen and Secretaries of NLC would have been summoned to give final approval.
Based on this, there would have been a NEC meeting to approve date of conference approve composition of conference organizing committee, credentials committee, among others. Together with dates of conference, closing dates for nomination into offices as well as procedure would have also been agreed. The conference organizing committee handles matters of logistics while the credentials committee handles issues of computing number of delegates based on unions’ financial contributions in line with provisions of Congress’ constitution. The credentials committee also handles issues of nomination. Once nominations are closed, the NAC, CWC and NEC would have met to look into the reports of both the conference organizing and credential committees. Disputes or grievanceswith respect to number of delegates allocated to unions, disqualification of nomination papers, etc. for instance could have been redressed.
In the process of debating delegates per union, Congress’ financial report would have been debated. Many issues would have come under scrutiny here. Questions of under, over subscription and sources of union funds would have been checked. There is also the issue of integrity of aspiring leaders based on records of their performance with respect to transparent management of Congress’ projects.
There is no doubt that all the organs of Congress must have met in line with provisions of the NLC constitution and convention. What then went wrong? Some of the reports indicated poor handling of debates resulting in either inconclusive debates or decisions that were hurriedly taken or imposed. Thecase of report of the credential committee disqualify the nomination papers of President of National Union of Road Transport Workers of Nigeria (NURTWN) may have been one of the cases. Inability to deliberate on such matters exhaustively open up the conference to issues that would have been sorted by lower organs.
Perhaps because lower organs were not managed properly, issues of financial report were also left open. With very strong allegations of financial mismanagement running into billions of Naira, emotions and tempers were high among delegates at the conference. It is possible with all these to have still organized a hitch free conference. This would have required some clear organization ensuring that security wasn’t taken for granted. Unfortunately, there doesn’t appear to be serious security arrangement, at least as reflected during the voting process.
It is incomprehensible that in contemporary Nigeria, elections involving assembling some 3,200 delegates in one roof will be organized without the visible presence of our regular police in the hall. Accounts indicates that it was only after the crisis leading to the destruction of ballot boxes started that not more than five policemen who looked confused and threatened were brought into the hall. This was after conference was disrupted on Tuesday, February 10 twice, first with the issue of re-opening the nomination of thePresident of NURTWN that was disqualified by the credentials committee. Followed by refusal of the NLC leadership to allow for debate on the NLC financial report.
What needs to Done?
What is very obvious is that the NLC conference was set for the disastrous outcome that emerged. Unfortunately, the NLC Secretariat proved completely incompetent. Otherwise, how could the conference be disrupted on February 10th during the debate on financial report and the NLC Secretariat did nothing to mobilize for security during voting? On the 10th, Chairs were thrown around the hall by delegates, which should have indicated what might come during voting.
Didn’t the NLC Secretariat foresee all these? What security arrangement was put inplace for the conference? Now that we all have to deal with the shame that came out of the conference, what is the way forward? So far, the NAC has convened a meeting of NEC for Wednesday, February 18, 2015 and indications are that NEC will be requested to approve proposal for conference to reconvene on February 25 to conclude elections.
In order to ensure that everything is done to prevent repeat of the sad events of February 12, the NLC Secretariat should wake up to its responsibility. Two issues readily come to mind here. The first is the issue of security. NLC should mobilize the Nigeria Police to provide adequate security for conference such that safety of ballot boxes and votes can be guaranteed.
The second issue is the question of the ballot papers. Accounts from the disrupted conference indicated that the NLC Secretariat vacated its responsibility ofproducing the ballot papers to the conference organizing committee. This led to the abuse of the process, which produced varied ballot papers. This must not be allowed again. Congress’ Secretariat should under no circumstance abdicate such responsibility again.
The third issue is that there are allegations of some Secretariat staff on account of their support for some candidates, also fuelled the crisis. It is important that order is restored and NLC staffs are made to demonstrate high measure of discipline and commitment. This may require setting up a committee to investigate the conduct of all NLC staffs leading to the shameful event of February 12. All those found to have been culpable should be sanctioned in accordance with the NLC conditions of service.
The fourth issue is the need to protect the integrity of the NLC. With the allegations of financial embezzlement, there is the urgent need to setup a strong investigation panel comprising some of our veteran leaders to investigate the matter. The committee should be given enough powers to access all NLC accounts and report to NEC.
Beyond the NLC
The need for a strongly united union movement, especially at this point in our national life cannot be overemphasized. We are faced with the danger of an orchestrated constitutional crisis by the Federal Government with the postponement of the general elections to March 28. Clearly, the political reality that may follow such a constitutional crisis would call for broad alliance of patriotic forces across all shades of interest. The role of NLCwith a membership base running into millions in mobilizing national actions to defend our democracy will be crucial.
As lawyers would say, he who comes to equity, must come with clean hands, NLC would need to put its house in order and join forces for the democratic national rescue with strong moral quotient. This has been the credentials of the Nigerian union movement. In all our trying moments as a nation since independence, it was only in the struggle against the Yar’Adua cabal in 2009 and 2010 that NLC leadership under Comrade Omar shied away from teaming up with national patriots to contribute to the struggle for democracy. On that occasion, the struggle was to eliminate the vacuum created by the absence of sick President Umaru Musa Yar’Adu. All these are now forgotten as President Jonathan and his functionaries are publically recognized as ‘Comrades’ to NLC leaders even though at the critical point in 2009 and 2010 when they were called upon to join the forces of democracy, they were visibly absent.
In some ways, there is a lot of similarities between our national realities and realities faced by our non-governmental organizations. Like in government, our non-governmental organizations are faced also with problems of corruption, incompetence and lawlessness. Everything is about protecting the vested interests of our leaders. Organizations that are standard bearers of change or changeagents should take the extra steps to model the way forward. Rather than sweeping allegations of corruption, organizations like NLC should investigate such allegations and in the process clear leaders and throw them up as national leaders.
The objective of this memo is to offer suggestions to our union leaders regarding how best to get out of our current shame. It is my hope that our leaders pay attention to issues raised in the memo.
May God Almighty protect our NLC and Nigeria. Amin.
Salihu Moh. Lukman, a former labour leader writes from Abuja. He can be reached via email@example.com