· Hounds Trade Union Leaders
The Rivers State government has since the beginning of this year intensified a coordinated crackdown on organised labour following consistent pressure and agitations by trade unions for the implementation of the new national minimum wage and other labour related issues in the state.
National Record findings reveal that the State Governor, Nyesom Wike, in his determination to silence organised labour, used the state bureaucracy and security agencies to hound the state executive council members of the Rivers State Councils of the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC), the Trade Union Congress (TUC) and some chapters of NLC affiliate unions.
Comrade (Mrs) Itubo
An open manifestation of the crackdown occurred on the night of Sunday, 2nd February 2020 when, at about 9pm, the state secretariat of NLC was sealed by security agencies on the orders of the state government on the allegation that the building needed to undergo proper integrity test and therefore must be closed for officials to carry out the exercise.
This action, our correspondent gathered, happened three days after the issuance of a press statement by the NLC State Council on Thursday, January 30, 2020 in which it called on the Rivers State government to among other things set up the mechanism for the immediate implementation of the new national minimum wage in the state.
According to Comrade (Mrs) Beatrice Itubo, the Rivers State Chairperson of NLC, the state government has no genuine reason to seal the secretariat. “The issue of minimum wage came up and we had to talk to the government urging them to set up a committee to negotiate a template for an agreement for parties to sign.
“They government threatened us that we were going to live to regret our audacity to give directive to them. Before we know what was happening, on the night of Sunday, 2nd February, the security guards at the secretariat called to inform us that security officers have sealed the place.
“It was on the following morning, being Monday that an official called to inform me that that there are some issues with the process of approval for the building and that they wanted to do integrity test on it. Since that time till today, nobody has entered into that premises as they have not opened the place. But we know why and where this is coming from,” Comrade Itubo stated.
Interestingly, the State Secretariat, National Record gathered, was commissioned only seven months ago on 25th September 2019 by Governor Wike himself.
Our findings also indicate that upon hearing the news of the shutting of NLC’s state Secretariat, the President of Congress, Comrade Ayuba Wabba and his TUC counterpart, Comrade Quadri Olaleye, paid a courtesy visit on Governor Wike to mediate and resolve the disagreement between the government and organised labour in the state.
According to Comrade Itubo, Comrades Wabba and Olaleye informed their respective state councils when they arrived Port Harcourt on their mission and invited the state leadership of both centres to accompany them to meet with the governor. However, when the state leadership of organised labour went to Government House, they were barred from participating in the meeting. “When they came and we went with them to the Government House, the state governor said he didn’t want to see especially me; that I had done this, I had done that; so we left.
“At the end of the day, they told us that they have agreed and that after two days, the State Director of the DSS will come and lead us to meet and resolve the issues and thereafter the state secretariat will be unsealed immediately, and that the unpaid check-off dues which was, and is still, part of our demands will be paid.
After they left, we waited for forty-something days and nothing happened. We called them at the national secretariat and briefed them on what was happening and we were directed to begin mobilisation, and that we will get their full support. We met at the state and we declared a 3-day warning strike. At the end of the warning strike, they started hounding some of us members of the state leadership of NLC. They went to arrest the state chairperson of the Judiciary Staff Union of Nigeria (JUSUN), Comrade Wachukwu Anthony, and I raised the alarm on that on a live programme on AIT. As I speak with you now, they arrested him and have arraigned him in court,” Comrade Itubo told National Record.
Comrade Wachukwu’s crime, the NLC chairperson stated, is that he complied with the directive of the state council to embark on a warning strike by shutting down the courts. “Of course the courts were not shutdown, the courts were open but the workers were on strike and if they were on strike, there was no way the courts could sit; lawyers were there, judges were there, but there were no workers to give them files, to operate the courts; so everybody left.
“So, the police arrested Wachukwu, took him to court and we facilitated his bail. The case is coming up on 4th of May and we have communicated this to our National Secretariat. With this lockdown now, there is little or nothing much that the national leadership can do,” Comrade Itubo said.
She added that the issue of minimum wage goes beyond mere implementation. She said up to this moment, there is still no negotiated template upon which a new minimum wage is to be paid. “We are saying that we want minimum wage; but if you want a minimum wage, there must be a template, there should be an agreement signed; if tomorrow government comes out to say it is no longer paying the wage, what are we going to hold on to as evidence of an agreement?
“These are the issues that we said we needed to sit down on with government so that we have a collective bargaining, and when we bargain and agree, we must sign, but for now, there is nothing. Because of the lockdown, there is nothing we can do but the lockdown will end.”
Trial of Wachukwu begins today
Barring last minute changes, the trial of Comrade Wachukwu Anthony, the State Council Chairperson of JUSUN, is billed to commence today, Monday, May 4, 2020 before a Magistrates’ Court in the Port Harcourt Magisterial District on a two-count charge of misdemeanour preferred against him by the State Commissioner of Police.
In the case with charge No: PMC/514c/2020, titled; “Commissioner of Police Vs Wachukwu Anthony ‘M’ 45yrs” the charges read:
“That you Wachukwu Anthony ‘m’ and other at large on the 27th day March, 2020 at the office of the Attorney General and Commissioner for Justice, Rivers State at the Ministry of Justice, State Secretariat Complex, Port Harcourt within the Magisterial District did conspire amongst yourselves to commit misdemeanor to with: Conduct Likely to Cause the Breach of the Public Peace and thereby committed an offence punishable under Section 517A of the Criminal Code Cap. 37 Vol. II Laws of Rivers State of Nigeria, 1999.
“Count II: That you Wachukwu Anthony ‘m’ and other at large on the same date and place at the aforesaid Magisterial District did conduct yourself [sic] in a manner likely cause [sic] public peace by shutting down the Judiciary Complex and thereby committed an offence punishable under section 249(d) of the Criminal Code Cap.37 Vol. II Laws of Rivers State of Nigeria, 1999.”
Speaking with National Record in a telephone interview yesterday (Sunday, 3rd May, 2020), Comrade Wachukwu stated that the circumstances surrounding his arrest and trial were ploys by the Rivers State Attorney General and Commissioner of Justice, Professor Zaccheus Adango, to please Governor Wike.
“It is a kind of eye-service to show to the governor that he is doing his work; that he is the best; that he is a professor of law, that he knows what to do. If he wants to show that he knows his work, the order he is claiming to have gotten, the order restraining labour from embarking on strike is a kangaroo style order that cannot work.
“In any case, nobody was served with any court process. He was trying to be wise by half because where will his order be served when he had already sealed the offices a day before in the name of some integrity test on the building. So having chased labour out of its offices in the name of integrity test, where will the order be served? That is logic turned upside down, the plot doesn’t hold water.
“My offence as chairperson of the State Council of JUSUN is that I complied with the directives of organised labour in Rivers State by asking our members as an affiliate to sit at home from 24th March, 2020. My union complied 100%, our compliance was total,” Comrade Wachukwu stated.
He stressed that the government was very bitter because it had gone out boasting that nobody is capable of testing its will by shutting down its activities. So when we did it, they saw it as a big dent on their ego,” Comrade Wachukwu stated.
He revealed that the Attorney General had plotted to arrest him earlier before the warning strike by inviting him to his office. He said he avoided the arrest in the office by mobilising all members of JUSUN’s state executive to accompany him there. According to him, the Attorney General summoned him just to intimidate him as he couldn’t even identify him let alone say anything to him after he had identified himself to the commissioner.
According to Comrade Wachukwu, after glaring at him for a long while he asked him and his exco to leave his office. He said it was while they were on their way back from the Attorney General’s office that they were accosted and he was arrested and first taken to Government House from where he was dragged to the office of the Commissioner of Police, from where he was again bundled to the state CID.
At the state CID, Comrade Wachukwu said he was detained for two nights after he was asked to write a statement. It was after the two nights that they took me to court. “When he tried to call me during the strike, I told them we cannot compromise the struggle; that is what pained them; that I refused to dance to the tune of the government.
While corroborating the assertion of Comrade Itubo on the integrity test, Comrade Wachukwu said the building was only commissioned recently and was not up to two years for anyone to raise issues on its integrity. “That property belongs to labour. What happened is that we had a building there before. The government of the day came, demolished the building and erected a better one for us, but the property itself belongs to labour,” Wachukwu revealed.
He said he was first arraigned on April 1, 2020 when the state mobilised ten lawyers to intimidate the magistrate to remand him in prison without bail option. “That plot didn’t work but the bail condition was made so stringent. But all the unions came together to ensure that the conditions were quickly met and I was bailed. The matter was the adjourned to 14th of April, 2020.
On that day, the entire labour movement in Rivers State filled the court premises. My case was the only one in the court that day but the hall was filled, in and out. When the magistrate heard the news of the mammoth crowd, and noting that it was only one matter, he didn’t show face and it was now adjourned to tomorrow” [that is today], said Wachukwu, who told our correspondent that members of organised labour have assured that notwithstanding the partial lockdown in Rivers State, they will turn up in mass for solidarity at the court.
Other issues in Contention
Apart from the issue of the implementation of the new national minimum wage and non-remittance of check-off dues from the state government, there were other points of disagreement between organised labour and the state government.
These include the appointment of a contract Head of Civil Service of River State, the non-implementation of promotion and annual incremental benefits/steps across board in the State Public Service since the assumption of the present administration in 2015 and outstanding salary arrears for March 2016 and October 2017.
Other areas of conflict include the non-payment of gratuity and terminal benefits to retirees and pensioners since the inception of the present administration in 2015, failure of the State government in paying its statutory counterpart-fund into the Contributory Pension Scheme (CPS) and the non-implementation of a benefits scheme, and the One hundred million naira (N100,000,000) Revolving Housing/Car Loan Scheme, which was instituted by the administration of former Governor Peter Odili to enhance the welfare of workers in the State Public Service.
Organised labour is particularly irked by what it described as continuous illegal occupation of the Office of the Head of Service of the state by Mr. Rufus Godwin who though has since reached the statutory age of retirement but is still occupying the office as a “contract Head of Civil Service.”
The leadership of organised labour in the state argued that the decision of the State government to contract the sensitive position of the office of the Head of Service negates the provisions of the civil service rules just as it negatively effects the career progression of others in the civil service of the state
The unions therefore demand the “immediate removal and termination of the contract of engagement of Mr. Rufus Godwin as the Head of Civil Service of Rivers State, and other retired Permanent Secretaries and Heads of Ministries and Extra Ministerial Departments to pave way for career progression and enhance industrial peace and harmony in the State Public Service.”