A Tortoise Story for Labour

A Tortoise Story for Labour

Kayode Komolafe

“Alo  ni ti ijapa, abo ni ti ana e” (While the public opinion favoured tortoise’s in-law at dawn; the popular view shifted in favour of tortoise at dusk).  

The Yoruba have an allegory about the pendulum of  public opinion from which the leaders of the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) and the Trade Union Congress (TUC) should learn some lessons.

Tortoise is, of course, the villain of the piece in many stories. But the story for today  is that of tortoise and its in-law. 

One night, tortoise raided the farm of  its in-law. Having set a trap for the notorious animal, the in-law caught tortoise in the early hours with some tubers of yams. Tortoise was tied to a tree by the footpath. On the way to their farmlands, early risers spat abuse on tortoise for its shameful act. Tortoise’s act was repugnant to the observers of the scene, who found the reaction of the in-law justified at dawn. 

However, on their return from the farm  at dusk  observers still found tortoise by the wayside being tortured by its in-law. The commentary changed as observers developed sympathy for tortoise because the in-law was perceived to have overacted. Some observers changed the tone and  even embarked on the rationalisation of the theft. One observer asked:  after all weren’t the stolen tubers of yams meant to feed the in-law’s offspring?  

The pendulum of public opinion  swung in favour of tortoise. In the morning, tortoise was called a thief while in the evening the in-law was considered wicked. So tortoise had the last laugh.

Not a few persons rightly condemned  the egregious assault on the president of the NLC, Comrade Joe Ajaero. This is the least that is expected from all decent persons and institutions. Yet, the strike jointly called by the NLC and the TUC to protest the  barbaric act of Ajaero’s attackers began yesterday with all its implications for the socio-economic environment. 

Last Wednesday on this page, this reporter called for justice in the matter of  the brutal attack on  the NLC president as follows: “The assault on the president of the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC), Comrade Joe Ajaero, in Owerri last week is unacceptable.

“Whatever the dispute might be such a treatment of a fellow human being should not be permitted in any civilised setting.

“The issue here  is the dignity of the human person which is a fundamental human right guaranteed by the 1999 Constitution.

“So no person with an iota of humanity in him or her would justify this barbaric act on any ground.

“The NLC’s position  is that Comrade Ajaero was in Owerri to lead a  workers’ protest against the Imo state government over poor working conditions. In a counter-position, the Imo state government has accused Ajaero of partisan involvement in the politics of the state. The state government says  it has fully paid workers their wages.

“To be sure, a lot of questions could be raised with  Ajaero’s  mission to Owerri. Organising a workers’ protest a few days to a crucial election in a state  is not the wisest step to take by a labour leader in the circumstance. Ajaero is from Imo state. Worse still,  the reported security problems in Imo state are well known. The Labour Party, a creature of NLC, is presenting a candidate to contest the election. For clarity, Ajaero’s support for the Labour Party is legitimate. He has not violated any law by supporting the candidate of  a party formed by NLC. But that fact alone should make it clear to him that partisan motives would easily  be read to any labour action on the eve of a governorship election in the state.  This should put him naturally in an awkward  position. So a greater tact should have been deployed.

“If  Ajaero has probably  committed a tactical  error by his ill-fated mission to Owerri, those who attacked him have certainly  committed a crime. Ajaero’s error could be organisationally corrected by the NLC; but his criminal attackers should be arrested and prosecuted and there must be restitution.

“The police failed to protect Ajaero against the aggressors. The police should not  fail to bring the perpetrators of the assault on  Ajaero to book.

“The Imo state government should not rationalise, let alone, justify this brutal act. The state government should instead resolve whatever disputes it has with labour using the machinery of industrial relations.

“The federal government should move quickly to engage the NLC and the Trade Union Congress (TUC) in discussions  to avert their threatened nation-wide strike against next Tuesday  to protest the assault on Ajaero. It is a good thing  that labour has acknowledged that a  highly responsive call from the National Security Adviser (NSA), Mallam Nuhu Ribadu, prevented the situation  from getting worse in Owerri on that day.

“On its part,  labour should temper its understandable anger and  reconsider its position on the strike and opt for other less disruptive ways of seeking redress on this unfortunate  matter.”

Since that comradely advice was offered to labour leaders, Governor Hope Uzodinma has condemned the assault  publicly while apologising  to the NLC president. The Inspector-General of Police, Mr. Kayode Egbetokun, has redeployed to the Force Headquarters  the Commissioner of Police in Imo state at the time of the incident, Mr. Mohammed Ahmed Barde. The matter is also reportedly under investigation as ordered by the Inspector-General of Police. Meanwhile, the federal government has moved to secure an order of the National Industrial Court (NIC) forbidding  labour from embarking on the strike. Now, it is not advisable that  NLC and TUC should  present themselves as lawless organisations. Come to think of it, both labour centres formed by workers  are registered as organisations according to labour laws.  

The swinging of the  pendulum of public opinion is exemplified by the commentary on the labour action  by  accomplished journalist and ace columnist, Ray Ekpu, who aptly described what happened to Ajaero as “brutalisation.” But Ekpu also added the following comments: “…actions by labour must always be proportional and measured. They must never be total and all-embracing as if the aim is to destroy the country and its people, to deliver hell on earth, to bring Armageddon here and to take us to Golgotha. The statements made in recent times by our labour leaders give that wild expression…

“To continue to earn the respect and support of the public, our labour leaders must talk and act responsibly, not recklessly so that their actions can receive the nod of the watching public. They can only succeed if they do not seek to punish everybody for the sins of a few.” 

With those words of wisdom, Ekpu must be speaking the minds of many silent members of the public who would otherwise have sympathy for labour in its legitimate struggle to improve the material condition of workers.

Besides, labour should tread carefully so as not to burn its goodwill. The Imo state government has accused Ajaero of partisanship, a charge that the NLC leadership  cannot easily defend in the circumstance. It is a fact that NLC promoted the idea of the Labour Party (LP). But NLC and the LP are  two distinct organisations with different objectives as   defined by their respective constitutions and the laws under which they are registered. LP is seeking political power while NLC is only economistic, fighting for the improvement in workers’ conditions. Hence,  not all workers support the LP just as not all LP members belong to the trade unions affiliated to the NLC and TUC. In fact, the two governors so far elected on the platform of LP since it was registered  – Governor Olusegun Mimiko (for two terms) in Ondo state and now Governor Alex Otti of Abia State – were not members of any of the  NLC or TUC affiliates when they won their elections respectively.  A number of LP members  who won  legislative elections on the LP platforms in March  were not trade union members.  While Ajaero could legitimately be an LP partisan, he should not mix  his role as a party member with his non-partisan duty as a labour leader. Members of the public may  not fully comprehend the seeming contradictions in the relationship between a workers’ organisation and a political party. But, labour leaders should  develop the necessary  organisational skills to navigate the landmines that the dual status (party membership and labour leadership) might generate from time to time.

The NLC should not be corporately  used to advance any partisan interest at any level. The reason behind  this proposition is obvious: NLC or any of its affiliates will have to engage (as a social partner) all tiers of governments on a non-partisan basis. These governments are  controlled by different political parties. No government would be comfortable  negotiating with a labour organisation it suspects to be a proxy of a rival party.  Labour leaders should not  nurse any illusion that things could be otherwise. 

Above all, the federal government should engage NLC and TUC productively  to end the strike today. A solid assurance should be given that those who brutalised Comrade Ajaero would be punished according to the law to serve as a deterrent.

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