Mr. Joe Ajaero, the thinly built President of the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC), was addressing workers at the NLC Secretariat in Owerri, Imo State, when hell broke loose. According to one account, some thugs descended on the place as he was speaking and beat him black and blue.
His face as shown in photographs resembles that of a man who was pummelled in a one-sided boxing encounter by our own boxing impresario, Anthony Joshua.
His face is swollen and his right eye is puffed up and he looks polarly different from the warrior that a labour leader is perceived to be. He is a sorry sight, evidence that his kind of business is a very dangerous business in a largely uncivilised country like Nigeria.
Ajaero said at a press conference recently, in Abuja, that while he was speaking in Owerri he was arrested by the police and handed over to thugs who beat him up, dragged him on the floor and threatened to kill him and dump his body in a river. He did not say whether his body was to be assigned to either Imo River or Njaba River but we are happy that he is still alive. Let the river deal only with the fishes in its custody.
But the police is singing a different song. The Spokesman for Imo State Police Command, Mr Henry Okoye says, truthfully or untruthfully, that when the police received a report that Ajaero had been attacked, they went there on a rescue mission and took him into “protective custody.” Is Mr Okoye saying that the police were not present at the venue when Ajaero was addressing the workers? I have no reason to believe Mr Okoye’s story.
And the Inspector General of Police, Mr Egbetokun, who was in Owerri on that day apparently does not believe that the police did an honest job, otherwise he would not have swiftly removed the Commissioner of Police, Mr Mohammed Barde, from the state. The Inspector General of Police needs to order an investigation into the brutalisation of Ajaero and other labour leaders so that such hooliganism does not become the norm. Infact, all things considered, the police failed in its duty by failing to protect Ajaero and the other labour personnel.
The mission of the NLC in Owerri was to call out the workers on a strike since according to them, the State Government was owing workers in some sectors in the state as much as 20 months’ salaries. The State Governor, Senator Hope Uzodimma, says that he is “not owing anyone.”
Since he said that, the labour leaders have failed to substantiate their claim with facts and figures. A serious matter such as a strike must always be backed by verifiable facts and figures so that people are not just punished unduly on some flimsy and untenable claims. Or so that people do not think the labour leaders are trying to push their partisan political agenda as a workers’ agenda. Infact, Uzodimma has already accused Ajaero, an Imo citizen of mixing Labour Party politics with labour activities. The timing of Ajaero’s venture a few days before the Imo Governorship election tends to lend credence to his political partisanship. But Ajaero, like any other person, has a right to participate in politics but he has no right to use labour as a shield for partisan politics.
In the Nigerian set-up the Labour Party is not owned by the Labour movement as it is in some countries such as Britain. Here it is just like any other party, not exclusively belonging to Nigerian workers. Workers in Nigeria belong to various parties and any attempt by Labour leaders to drag Labour into Labour Party may cause a split in the Labour union. That would be a disservice to Nigerian workers. Let the workers decide which of the parties they want to belong to.
As a reprisal for the harassment of Ajaero, the two major unions and their affiliates disrupted flights in Abuja, Owerri and Lagos on Thursday, November 9. They blocked the access to the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport in Abuja and grounded air travel activities there. Its members obstructed the road leading to the facility with luxury buses.
In Lagos, the affiliate unions of the NLC and TUC also disrupted flights in the two local airports. Aviation unions directed their members to withdraw services to all public and private Owerri flights. According to them the action will be indefinite. Some of the Labour leaders even said that they wanted to stop the Governorship election, which was to hold that week from holding. That is extremism. That is going out of bounds. That is courting anarchy.
Labour activities must be reasonable and measured so as to become acceptable to a large measure of reasonable people. Why should the Abuja airport be blocked when the problem in Imo State had nothing to do with Abuja? Why should the airlines be made to lose their revenue when the problem had nothing to do with them? Why should the travelling public be punished for a problem they did not contribute to? Wasn’t it enough for the labour unions to do what they wanted to do in Imo State?
Labour activities will only earn public respect if the leaders conduct their business with the guidance of the law. The rule of law is important for everybody in a democratic society, whether government or labour leaders. We must all obey the law at all times. That is the only way of having a decent society.
The National Industrial Court has stopped the NLC, TUC and their affiliates from embarking on any form of strike or industrial action scheduled for November 14. President of the Court, Justice Benedict Bakwaph Kanyip, issued the restraining order following an exparte application to that effect brought before the court by the Federal Government and the Attorney General and Minister of Justice. The intervention is to ensure peace and tranquility in the country.
Some of the labour leaders have said that the strike will be embarked upon, court order or no court order. If labour goes on strike when the court order has not been vacated that will be contemptuous of the court and an affront to the rule of law philosophy. Rule of law is the guiding philosophy in democratic governance.
It binds both the government and the governed equally. Another fall-out of this Ajaero incident is the idea of declaring the Imo State Governor a persona non grata. This is the second time a labour leader would make such a reckless statement in this country. When the Chairman of the Governing Council of the University of Lagos, Dr Wale Babalakin, had a problem with the Vice Chancellor, the ASUU leader declared Babalakin a persona non grata on the campus.
I wrote a column condemning it and happily a law professor in the university also condemned the foolhardy statement. Now a labour leader has put the label on Uzodimma. Such devil-may-care utterances bring no respect to our labour unions. It shows them to be ill-informed and reckless because no one, not even the President of Nigeria, can declare any Nigerian a persona non grata in Nigeria.
A few weeks ago, the labour leaders were invited to a meeting with the Federal Government. They said that if the Minister of Labour and Employment attends the meeting they would not participate. Their reason: Because the Minister has not implemented their earlier decisions. Haughty and arrogant behaviour, isn’t it? Wouldn’t that meeting be an opportunity to ask the Minister why he had not implemented those decisions?
If they would not attend a meeting on labour issues with the Labour Minister, who do they want to meet with? A Minister in another ministry? Or the Vice President? Or the President of Nigeria? Labour leaders are doing a very important job which they must perform with humility and a sense of responsibility.
That statement exposed the high level of needless arrogance with which they carry themselves.
Another reckless statement one hears often from our labour leaders is “We will ground the economy. We will ground the country.” Why would you deliberately want to ground the economy of your country? Grounding the economy or the country is an omnidirectional and dubious objective.
As I said earlier, 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.
Even more recently, the President of the Trade Union Congress (TUC), Mr Festus Osifo, made some controversial statements that define his mind set. He said: “Any injury to one is an injury to all.” He went further: “Injustice anywhere is injustice everywhere.” He explained: “Whether it happened in Imo or any state in Nigeria once you do this to any Nigerian worker, we have the right to fight for that particular person across the nation.”
Those one-liners seem attractive and enticing but they are fake and fraudulent pieces of arcane philosophy. You do not fight everybody who did not offend you in any way because someone had offended one person somewhere. If one person offended you, fight him and him alone. What is the wisdom or the rationale in fighting someone who did no wrong to you, who did not offend you, who did not fight you, because you are a labour leader in Nigeria?
Life is not organised like that, no one goes about fighting everybody, friend or foe, victim or victimiser. That would be madness, that would be high level rascality, that would be hooliganism of the highest order. I hope that is not the way the mind of our labour organisations works.
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.