Commendable or shoddy, astute or shady, apt or pretentious; the range of possible opinions are diverse and depending on the inclination of the observer, can be regarded as valid for many aspects of Nigerian labour unions. Pointedly, unions in Africa’s largest economy are undergoing something of an identity crisis, one that is little discussed and has important ramifications for an economy searching for a sense of direction after barely making it out of the throes of a debilitating recession.
For most people, the incontrovertible gold standard of conduct for unions is that they should not be viewed, and employed as an avenue for self profit and personal aggrandisement. However, the Nigerian experience seems to suggest that corruption abounds among trade unions to a degree almost unparalleled in any other private association because trade unions have acquired from society and the law, immunities accorded to no other private association. The utilisation of these special privileges which trade unions enjoy are to be found in the policies and conduct of the federal government over the years. This seeming obeisance to the idea that unions must be courted and in some cases, controlled cuts across all shades of the political spectrum, military and civilian; put simply the government in charge has always thought it expedient to align itself and find a way of reaching out, even making compromises with the trade unions.
Furthermore, Nigerian union leaders appear to be far from sold on the idea of permitting the full democratisation of trade unionism, often being coercive in imposing their own ideas and brandishing union members or fellow officers who resist their management style, offer alternatives to their doctrine or represent a leadership challenge as “enemies of the labour movement” who must be taught a lesson, and in the face of continued opposition, be exterminated. A perfect illustration of this is the ongoing tussle within the Petroleum Equalisation Fund Management Board (PEFMB) of the Petroleum and Natural Gas Senior Staff Association of Nigeria (PENGASSAN), a fight that has been raging for the past twenty months and is worth examining in some detail.
On 30 November, 2015, the incumbent chairman of the PEFMB, Comrade Matthew Duru, ran for re-election at the Branch Executive Committee (BEC/BECOM) elections with one desire, all of his cronies should return with him to the helm of running arguable the country’s most influential union. Other interested actors were unenthusiastic with the idea because it would mean that all but two of them would have to step down within the following 12 months – for a 36 month term – as the elctions will be the platform to have all non-Duru affiliates promoted to a level above PENGASSAN membership. The chairman’s stance, already controversial in its intricate design, was deemed contrary to the association’s constitution and the elections were truncated by the zonal returning officer.
On 4 December, some “concerned members”, led by Comrade Seyi Gambo, wrote to the group’s central working committee to help rectify the discord and on 22 December, PENGASSAN’s acting general secretary replied, ratifying the actions of the zonal officer.
On 16 January of the following year, the concerned members filed a suit at the National Industrial Court in Abuja seeking the legal protection of their interests on the basis that the body’s National Executive Committee members had taken a decision over which the central working committee was yet to decide. Four days later, the court granted an order asking PENGASSAN and all parties in the suit to maintain the status quo until the substantive issues raised in the suit had been legally determined.
At a zonal executive council meeting in Lokoja on 4 February, the zonal chairman said he had been directed by the central working committee to resolve the matter outside of the courts by calling together the two factions – those in support of the BECOM and the Concerned Members. However, when the zonal chairman visited PEFMB on 12 February, he only met with BECOM.
On 12 April, the zone set up a reconciliation committee headed by Comrade Idris Kutigi. But, according to the Concerned Members, although an official letter communicating this development was promised, it was never sent, hence, the committee was unable to commence its duties. On 12 May, PENGASSAN’s national executive committee released a communiqué suspending all the Concerned Members who had instituted the litigation – and for whom there was a subsisting court order mandating that the state of things within the body be maintained. A week later, the faction, after unsuccessfully attempting to get executive committee to rescind its decision, filed a contempt motion against all the NEC in court. The court, unsurprisingly on 26 May, ordered PENGSSAN to recall all suspended members. The Concerned Members subsequently withdrew their contempt motion but were not recalled by PENGASSAN.
Almost a year later, 25 April, 2017, the court finally sat to hear the report of the attempt at an out-of-court settlement. With their suspension still in place, the Concerned Members reinstituted their contempt motion. In August, the Concerned Members were notified of an agreement between BECOM and the PEFMB in which any staff member who had subsisting litigation against either the union or organisation would be denied benefits negotiated by the union. The Concerned Members protested against the policy being applied retroactively, stating that applying such to a matter already before the courts which are constitutionally required to adjudicate over any dispute between individuals was sub judice – legal speak for any matter under judicial consideration and thus prohibited from public discussion elsewhere.
In the face of this and amid consistent pressure from other colleagues outside of the faction, several members of the Concerned Members faction except two pulled out of the court case. In September, PEFMB paid all staffers their Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) arrears – management (non-union members), senior staff (non-union members), senior staff (PENGASSAN members) and junior staff (other union members) – except for the two Concerned Members who refused to withdraw their pending case.
The two members have since cried foul, denouncing the union’s underhand coercion tactics. The case which they have resolutely chosen to stand behind was adjourned by the courts to 27 October. Maybe, when the court does sit they may find a measure of the justice they seek.
PENGASSAN is hardly alone in struggling to get rid of its in-house fires. The Nigerian Labour Congress (NLC) used to be the exclusive ruling body for the various affiliate trade unions before the evolution of the Trade Union Congress (TUC). Having made its peace with the TUC, it is now vigorously fighting the emergence of another association very much in the ascendancy – the United Labour Congress of Nigeria (ULC). Until the emanation of ULC as the third force, the NLC and TUC had found a way to tenuously chaperone the cause of Nigerian workers.
The ULC counts among its affiliates such leading lights as the Nigeria Union of Petroleum and Natural Gas Workers (NUPENG), the Electricity Workers, Nigerian Union of Mine Workers (NUME), the National Union of Banks, Insurance and Financial Institutions Employees (NUBIFE), the National Union of Electricity Employees (NUEE), the National Association of Aircraft Pilots and Engineers (NAAPE), and the Association of Nigerian Aviation Professionals (ANAP). . These unions control vital sectors of the economy, as a result the ULC would hold sway in the power, financial, aviation, education, telecommunication manufacturing and petroleum sectors among others.
The ULC’s emergence is a by product of a two-year-old sovereignty skirmish between the Ayuba Wabba and Joe Ajaero led factions that has rocked the NLC to its foundations during the dying months of Goodluck Jonathan’s government and the entire lifetime of the Muhammadu Buhari administration.
Ajaero, the factional president of the NLC had refused to step aside for Wabba, arising from the impasse that rocked the NLC, in the wake of the disputed outcome of a hard fought March 2015 National Delegates Conference in Abuja. By 17 December, the open hostility between the duo got to a head, prompting the Ajaero faction to split from the NLC, announcing the formation of a new labour union, alongside some disgruntled affiliates of the TUC and other industrial unions that were neither aligned to the NLC, or TUC.
At stake is access to pools of resources running into the hundreds of millions of naira funded by lucrative membership subscriptions, significant political patronage and access to the corridors of high power, a cosy relationship with a mostly uncritical press and consequently, outside national influence. In simple terms, the country’s unions have become just another theatre in the never ending quest for power. As with all moonshots at power from time immemorial, such contests are rarely ever fought within moral and ethical boundaries, thus, providing the perfect environment for the commission of corrupt practices.
Most union leaders probably started out as conscientious, down to earth people, genuinely concerned with advancing the economic rights and interests of employees often at the short end of a lopsided power dynamic but get side-swiped with occupying the corner office and perpetuating their hold on power. It is very much the age old tussle between power and virtue, relevance and significance. For those who remember the 1980s and 1990s, often hailed as a golden age of activism in Nigeria, the current state of play makes for sobering, gut wrenching reading.
For observers concerned about the vitality and health of unionism in a country where opposition voices are few and rarely rise above the humdrum of an increasingly raucous national conversation, a fractured labour movement is yet another minus in Nigeria’s long march to national development.