Who Will Save Nigeria’s Working Class?

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IT is pretty clear from prevailing socio-political and economic settings that the working or labouring class in Nigeria is not anywhere close to any escape from the vicious grasp of penury and deprivation orchestrated by a breed of manipulative and repressive leaders. In the frontline of aggressors in the current dispensation since 1999 are Nigerian governors, flanked by self-serving presidents and legislators at federal and state levels.

Governor Nasir-el-Rufai

Though we are told Nigeria operates a democracy, but this trinity of political authority literally operate as potentates with a mentality perhaps comparable only to slave masters. They drive the levers of power with personal agenda and usually stand together, irrespective of party affiliation, in opposition to matters that relate to not just the welfare of working people and by implication the development and economic survival of the country.

For them and their underlings, there is never a bad time as they have unimpeded access to state resources which they dispense as they wish. Their collective narrative for the underdevelopment of our society has perpetually been hinged on the working class whose slave wages (and pensions) are but a tiny portion of our commonwealth that they (the leaders) commandeered since political independence. It is not that these slave wages are paid as and when due.

As he greatly relishes being seen and described as a ‘technocrat’, el-Rufai consistently lent himself as a willing tool for the marketing of World Bank and IMF policies which more than anything had entrenched in all our presidents, governors and legislators at all levels the ideology of distancing state and governance from national development and above all the welfare of the people. That is why an el-Rufai could nurse the audacity to, when workers were out on the streets demonstrating against further impoverishment of his people; recommend to the Nigerian Governors Forum (NGF) the prospect of increasing the pump price of petrol to between N385 and N410 per litre. As a tyrant who takes delight in oppressing his subjects, or a fascist who takes delight in utilising fear as key tactics, it does not bother el-Rufai to look beyond those World Bank and IMF terminologies that he loves articulating on such occasions to the existential predicaments that past subsidy removals have wrought on the population.

Most of the governors now claim they cannot pay the new national minimum wage because the states lack the resources, or that the workforce is over-bloated and ‘must’ be ‘right-sized’ or ‘downsized’ or that the recurrent expenditure is so huge that they are only able to pay salaries at the expense of infrastructure development; and so on and so forth.

Narcissistic Nasir el-Rufai, or ‘Hell’ Rufai, as the NLC has satirically christened the Kaduna State governor, a man with a Man-Mountain ego imprisoned in his petite frame, is at the moment the man leading the charge against working people. He has emerged with a formula that will certainly further deepen existing inequalities, and increased the trauma of the working class majority, most of who, in the context of prevailing inflation, are half in this world and half in the great beyond. As the Emperor of Kaduna, he offered his state as the testing ground for one of the greatest onslaughts against Nigeria’s working people.

When in November 2017 he began the experiment with the sacking of almost 22 thousand teachers, and about 7 thousand local government employees soon after; el-Rufai assumed he had succeeded in cowing workers to eternal submission because he faced little resistance from organised labour. Perhaps, he will be regretting now for not going straight with purging the entire civil service of the undesirable elements called public servants. He no doubt felt justified when President Buhari and a few others not only backed him but heaped praises on him for ridding the education system of incompetent teachers.

The initial half-hearted resistance by labour and the praises from the President and some quarters laid the foundation for an ambitious programme in which the governor further pummelled local government employees and came out with a blueprint to massively retrench between 60-70 per cent of the state’s workforce; a plan which labour maintains is against civil service procedures and called him to order with a warning strike and street protests that literally grounded the state.

While the faceoff between Emperor el-Rufai and the NLC may have truly tested the will of both sides, what is obvious in the aftermath of the resistance that was ‘apprehended’ by Dr Chris Ngige, Minister of Labour and Employment, who had remained silent and watched from the comfort of his office in Abuja as el-Rufai pounded workers to a pulp is that organised labour has latent powers that remained untapped even as working people continue to be at the receiving end of decades of impunity of the ruling class.

El-Rufai and his colleagues never bothered to ask themselves why and how at a time of an unprecedented Covid-19 pandemic, when leaders in advanced democracies who initiated and marketed neoliberalism are embracing exceptional welfarist policies, they are rather preaching and forcing on their poor citizens the worst aspects of neoliberal agenda symbolised in mass retrenchment, non-payment of salaries or payment of slave wages thereby potentially forcing many to their early graves while they’re among the highest paid leaders in the world, in addition to the looting they carry on.

That a once powerful but now highly degraded NLC under Comrade Ayuba Wabba could achieve the Kaduna feat by putting el-Rufai under tremendous pressure until he (el-Rufai) succeeded in pleading with those who now determine the course of struggle of organise labour to ‘apprehend’ the resistance is a positive sign that with the right leadership, there is still a future for the working class. In other words, while the ‘apprehension’ and the subsequent suspension of the warning strike by Comrade Wabba remains questionable within labour circles, as it is now assumed that the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) reached between the Kaduna State government and NLC technically granted el-Rufai all he craved for in his ‘Public Service Revitalisation and Renewal Programme’ using the “principle of redundancy” as stipulated in Section 20 of the Labour Act, the mass action may have served as a significant warning to states intending to go the el-Rufai route.

It definitely must have better served the interest of workers if Wabba had mustered the courage to ignore the ‘apprehension’ of the warning strike and streets protests, especially at a time that the attention of trade unions from across the African continent and the world were drawn to the repressive and tyrannical manner that el-Rufai was responding to the resistance. The civil disobedience definitely would have served its ultimate purpose if Wabba had allowed it to continue while discussions were ongoing at the same time. Apart from making a strong statement about the mass commitment to the cause that gave rise to the resistance, it would have deflated or dented the aura of supremacy and impunity that el-Rufai had arrogantly displayed throughout his ‘technocratic’ career, and which he brazenly manifested in his post victory broadcast last Friday.

Throughout his public service appearances, el-Rufai has been able to consistently demonstrate a penchant for what, generally, could best be describe as cruelty or tyranny. By his utterances and actions, el-Rufai perhaps sees himself as the best that may have ever happened to whichever institution he superintends, perhaps even a philosopher-king, which according to Socrates “governs solely on the basis of the good of the polity as a whole”, but which he (Socrates) also acknowledged would be extremely hard, if not impossible, to bring about in practice.

In the last 17 years or so of el-Rufai’s presence in public service, he has been able to sufficiently showcase his uncaring, insensitive and absolute lack of empathy as the hallmarks his leadership quality. At the Bureau of Public Enterprises (BPE), he not only oversaw the auctioning at giveaway prices Nigeria’s valued assets and sent off workers with reckless abandon on the excuse that “government has no business in business.” But almost two decades after these public companies were sold to private hands, what has become of them? Not one of them is functional at the moment!

It is clear that the challenge before the working class, and to a large extent now some section of the elite, is not only the prodigality of the ruling class or competence, but the lack of common-sense, or if you like, native intelligence. Common-sense definitely would require answers to some basic questions that many Nigerians continue to ask.

As he greatly relishes being seen and described as a ‘technocrat’, el-Rufai consistently lent himself as a willing tool for the marketing of World Bank and IMF policies which more than anything had entrenched in all our presidents, governors and legislators at all levels the ideology of distancing state and governance from national development and above all the welfare of the people. That is why an el-Rufai could nurse the audacity to, when workers were out on the streets demonstrating against further impoverishment of his people; recommend to the Nigerian Governors Forum (NGF) the prospect of increasing the pump price of petrol to between N385 and N410 per litre. As a tyrant who takes delight in oppressing his subjects, or a fascist who takes delight in utilising fear as key tactics, it does not bother el-Rufai to look beyond those World Bank and IMF terminologies that he loves articulating on such occasions to the existential predicaments that past subsidy removals have wrought on the population.

El-Rufai and his colleagues never bothered to ask themselves why and how at a time of an unprecedented Covid-19 pandemic, when leaders in advanced democracies who initiated and marketed neoliberalism are embracing exceptional welfarist policies, they are rather preaching and forcing on their poor citizens the worst aspects of neoliberal agenda symbolised in mass retrenchment, non-payment of salaries or payment of slave wages thereby potentially forcing many to their early graves while they’re among the highest paid leaders in the world, in addition to the looting they carry on.

In the face of the false narratives of lack of resources to pay the N30,000 new national minimum wage of pension or total lack of capacity to even pay the previous minimum wage of N18,000; we have never heard about lack of capacity to pay the governors, commissioners, special advisers and the plethora of aides, some of which are aides to aides; and all or most of these dispensable political appointees add literally no value to governance. But as we speak, many states are not only in arrears of monthly salaries to civil servants, they’re also not paying pensioners many of whom are dying of ailments that could be cured with cheap over-the-counter prescription drugs. Rather than creatively devising ways and means of solving the challenge of the so-called resource scarcity, governors always automatically prefer the remedies of mass retrenchment or reduction of a wage that is incapable of decently only feeding a working family of no more than two in a month.

It is clear that the challenge before the working class, and to a large extent now some section of the elite, is not only the prodigality of the ruling class or competence, but the lack of common-sense, or if you like, native intelligence. Common-sense definitely would require answers to some basic questions that many Nigerians continue to ask.

Why do we for over 30 years keep importing refined petroleum products when the wisest thing to do is to enhance our refining capacity to a level that we can satisfy domestic consumption and as well export globally? When we talk about subsidy on petrol, what are we really subsidising? Incompetence?

Should we really continue with the current system of security vote which is opaque and unaccountable, and when there is absolutely no security? Is there no better way of dispensing these huge sums that just a few officers know the right figures?

If there is really no money to hire and pay workers, and constantly train and retrain them, do we then really need a bicameral legislature at the federal level or even a federal and state legislature that sits every week to engage in discussions that largely has little or no bearing to our existential challenges, and which can be done on part time bases, if we must have them? Or can’t the number of aides that a governor or a president as well as ministers and commissioners are allowed to have be statutorily pegged?

Do we need to be awarding contracts to foreign or local firms that are often not executed when a coordinated and empowered public workforce can carry out most of the jobs we contract out in billions? If colonial administrators were able to recruit ‘natives’ to do the huge construction jobs that enabled our exploitation, are we not better placed as free citizens to even do better? If we have the capacity to institutionalise a military machine made up of the Army, Air Force and Navy as well as the police and other paramilitary organisations, how difficult will it take a serious and willing leadership to incorporate a consortium with capacity to do anything with the resources and reach of the state?

Is it difficult to really legislate on and end the impunity of the crass stealing that goes on daily at all levels of governance? For instance, can we have a justice system that puts priority on punishing heads rather than junior public officers for frauds committed under the supposed supervision of bosses?

It is been a long time, perhaps when our generation was in secondary school in the early ‘80s that we kept hearing that the way our leaders carry on in governance points to the inevitability of a revolution; either peaceful or bloody. I don’t know if the current daily bloodbath everywhere and every day in the country have fulfilled that day or if the bloody occurrences still point to the path to that prophesy. But in all of this, who will save Nigeria’s working people now that we have not had one?

Onah, is Editor-in-Chief of National Record. Reactions to this column, which is published every Wednesday, can be sent to: 0803 320 9749, via sms and whatsapp only or email @: [email protected].

Articles by the same author:

Reworking Achebe’s ‘Where the Problems Lies

Buhari and the Wages of Corruption

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