“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.