NLC crisis is bad example to democracy – Joe Ajaero

The crisis rocking the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) has now degenerated to a level that the once vibrant and number one labour centre has been torn into two. Since the reconvened 11th delegates conference in Abuja some three weeks ago, Nigerian workers have been divided along the linear part of a con­gress headed by two presidents, Comrade Ayu­ba Wabba, the product of the Abuja conference and Comrade Joe Ajaero, whose group held a counter-Special Delegate Conference in Lagos.

Ironically, in spite of being discredit by the main NLC in Abuja, the Ajaero group has maintained that it remains the NLC leader­ship and, therefore, not ready to bear any other name. Though Ajaero, the president of the fac­tional NLC, agreed that the present crisis is a bad example to democracy in Nigeria, he noted that it would have been avoided if the election of the NLC leadership had been free and fair. Re­lating what he considers as “my story,” Ajaero speaks more on the role of money in the crisis and some other issues.

Can you tell us about the genesis of the crisis?

The genesis of the crisis is impunity and arro­gance and the policy of ‘we can do without them.’ The whole issue started with the Unity Forum that tried to midwife a crisis-free conference, especially drawing from the experience of 2011. The Nige­ria Union of Teachers (NUT) started that process and towards the end there was a general agree­ment, which is the convention in the Congress on sharing of offices. Some offices were allocated to public sector and some to the private sector. Spe­cifically, the presidency was allocated to the private sector, and six other offices and the public sector got nine in addition to two other offices that were there by affirmative action, which if you add it, they had 11 offices. Then at the point of picking nomination form, somebody, Ayuba Wabba, from the public sector, went ahead to pick for the office of the president. Initially, the argument was that the private sector did not bring a single candidate, and the private sector’s response was that eight years ago when it was ceded to the public sector, nobody from the private sector contested, and the public sector did not equally agree on a consensus candidate.

Fidelis Ede from the Civil Service Union and Abdulwaheed Omar of the teachers union con­tested. So even if the private sector did not agree on a consensus candidate, you allowed them with their arrays of candidates to contest; then the duty of the public sector was to vote; that was how that agreement was bridged and the process started. However as luck would have it, towards the con­ference, the two candidates of the private sector, equally merged and the veterans at that point want­ed to harmonise the offices, and the same source said no, it was too late they would not agree, for they believe they were going to take it all. The issue of what led to the abortion of first election, is public knowledge. The issue of duplication of ballot pa­pers in favour of some candidates.

The second issue, despite the protest on the is­sue of regionalising and ethnicising the labour Congress, by selection of delegates from certain geographical areas, there were protests in some areas, in Umuahia, Enugu, Abuja, and there were protest letters to the Congress that were not ad­dressed. These were some of the salient issues before we got to the Eagles Square, Abuja. What happened at the Eagles Square is another thing. But let me say this. Beyond the two unions, that these protests were made, Medical and Health and the Civil Service Unions, that refused to pick delegates from the South South, South East, even South West. The Pensioners Union, at the gate of Eagle Square, stopped delegates from the South East. Mr. Chima, a retiree of the Railway, was stopped at the gate of the Eagles Square. Mr. Ubani, the President of the Pensioners Union in NEPA, was stopped at the gate of Eagle Square, because he came from the South East and he has something to do with NEPA. The issue is that of ethnic cleansing, that people from this area should be stopped at all cost.

That was not even the main issue. The issue was that at the back of the tag of the delegates of the pension union, the leadership there had written the name of Ayuba Wabba, so while they were vot­ing, they just turn the tag, and were filling it. But while they were copying it, my agent protested, and called the attention of Adams Oshiomhole. Adams went and checked about three. He saw it, smiled and left. Those were the first to vote. The rest is his­tory.

What role did money play in the crisis?

The issue is that the Congress worked based on money, but halfway it changed the policy. In the history of NLC, whether it’s based on N1mil­lion or N200,000 per delegate, the practice is that the union that paid the highest dues has the high­est delegates. That has been the history all along. Now when you equally changed rules halfway, it become a problem. If Lagos was given one del­egate by Medical and Health, and Kano was given about 60 delegates, the question then is, was that rules followed by the rule of payment of dues? If the president of the Pensioners Union in NEPA, which is one of the highest paying pension af­filiates to the pension union, is not even allowed to vote, then there is more to the issue of determining the number of delegates. I want to say this. In 2011, my union and the amalgamated union looked at this problem of monetising the delegates, and we went to that conference with a motion. I sponsored a motion, seconded by the amalgamated, saying that we should not base the election principally on monetary contributions, because one might deny the Congress of the best hands. However, if we equally remove money, there would be no money to run Congress, as the unions would not pay with­out any form of coercion.

In that case, we proffered that it should be taken side-by-side. The motion we moved then, to the effect that there must be 10 compulsory delegates from the affiliates on the basis of equality. Our cal­culation then was that if there were 40 industrial af­filiates, by the time they all have 10 delegates each, that would amount to 400 delegates. In 2011, there was no union with 400 delegates; so it was enough to neutralise even the union with the highest num­ber of delegates. This is because if you have a union with 400 delegates, it then means the union would defeat all the 40 put together. But by the time you put that 400 delegates intact on the basis of equality, it then means you can use it to neutralise the issue of one union having their way. Not withstanding all our arguments, the Congress still reduced it to five, which was okay; that was why in this confer­ence, some unions have five delegates. It was those delegates got through the constitution amendment. Some of them could not pay N500, 000 to enable them have one delegate. It then means such union couldn’t have had one delegate and that would have been dangerous, in a situation where only one union was parading about 500 delegates. That was what informed our contributions then, and it worked to some extent.

Even if it’s five delegates in 40 places, it means we have about 200 delegates that came on the equality of union to the just concluded confer­ence. So I don’t think the emphasis should be on the money alone. There should be other factors. I think they have further reduced it to three delegates on the basis of equality, which should not be. I was thinking that money will play a role, even if you give a union 10, it would represent even its whole national executives, other unions can equally get whatever, based on their payment. But let the ex­ecutives of every union appear as delegates of that conference. That would have reduced the issue of money as the only basis to consider for delegates.

What is the way out?

The crisis is man-made. Prior to that election, the veterans summoned us to a meeting and said they wanted to harmonise. The other party said it is too late. I spoke at that meeting and said that the veterans are not even saying that we should not go into election, but want to see how they can check­mate the outcome of this election. But if you are saying it’s too late, so be it. They asked us whether we would abide by the outcome of the election or whatever, and I told the veterans provided it was free and fair, devoid of any manipulation, I would accept it. However, if it was not, I would challenge it, and if I failed to challenge it, the veterans that brought some of us up will be disappointed in me, because that is what we learnt from them, to fight injustice. So we went into the election in spite of all these. I went into that election to prove a point, that even if my opponent, brought delegates from his house, I was going to beat him.

Ordinarily, by the time I started noticing all those abnormally, I would have raised issues. But the election took place, and I beat him to it. His agents can attest to that, not even my agents. It was when Abdulwaheed Omar saw my votes, and his votes, that he said that the votes of the president should not be counted. My agent tried to protest, but he was rebuffed. That was when the issue of the delay set in, with all the excuses of going into the market to buy beans and those stuff. During those hours of delay they got across to the power-that-be and another team of policemen were now mobilised. Almost everybody at the Eagles Square were taken pictures with me as president-elect. Security agents, all of them, they saw the results. Then we were waiting for the results. Then they mobilsed troops, put them where NUPENG and NUEE were staying. When policemen brought dogs and my people wanted to protest, I said no, that T didn’t want anybody to sabotage our victory.

When night eventually came and they brought the ballot box and said they wanted to open it. My agent protested again, saying the box was open; even the side was broken. Omar told the credential committee chairman that he had the right to send any uncooperative agent out. Omar was the person that carried in the ballot boxes and started sorting. When they were sorting, my agents had recorded, 1, 538 votes of the 3, 005 votes cast for presidency. The credential committee can confirm this. The total votes cast for presidency was 3, 005 votes. There were 10 invalid votes, leaving us 2, 995. It was at that time that the power supply went off. It is important we understand this. I was not even called, even after they have manipulated it, ordinar­ily, they would have been magnanimous enough. I have a report from the Abuja electricity compa­ny, which said that within that hour, there was no power outage. It was something orchestrated at the Eagle Square; that was how we now had a report, a frivolous report, announcing Ayuba Wabba, as having 1, 695. or so and Ajaero, 1, 400 or so. Even by that we have 3, 095, higher than the number of people that voted.

People are saying I should be magnanimous in defeat. I want them to put themselves in my shoe. In 2007, I ran for vice president. I lost. I came back. I did not make a comment. I became the most ac­tive member of the NLC. I attend every meeting, started paying dues. The last time, I was the second largest paying members. Then the power-that-be is threatening that Ajaero can’t be there, because in PHCN I said everybody must be paid. Is that why they are now telling me that I should just succumb to it? If I can’t fight to defend my mandate, then it means am not worthy to be a labour leader.

You have not told us the way forward to unite the warring sides

Unity is not when you have monopoly. You can have unity in diversity. The fact that you have TUC and the NLC does not mean there is division in the labour movement. Some people have equally ar­gued that the basis for our disagreement is not ideo­logical. I beg to disagree, to a very large extent. My ideological clarity cannot be doubted, or that of Issa or Achese or anyone in our group. If ideology is all about people who stand for what they believe in, we believe that this is a problem group, being foist­ed by Abdulwaheed Omar. My sin in the NLC is returning the N3 million they paid into my account. My sin, and I repeat, is not on the basis of capacity; it’s not on the basis of the tradition of NLC, in terms of hierarchy of who succeeds the president, but be­cause I have the gut to say it was not the way I was brought up, take your N3 million and they thought if I was elected, I would probe them. The NLC paid the N3million into my account and could not ex­plain what it was meant for. That was almost two years ago. I mentioned this because people must have something they believe in.

What do you think is the implication of the problem?

Any employer that negotiate with Abuja alone, do it at its own peril. Let me say this: if government decide to have its own NLC, that is government NLC. They must negotiate with workers’ NLC, or else we will do demonstration of power. Let gov­ernment have its arm of NLC, which Ayuba repre­sent; fine and good. I serve the workers; let govern­ment go ahead and negotiate with them; we will re-negotiate. Let me say this: it does not take me 24 hours to take over the secretariat in Abuja. But let me warn. History will beckon on those who un­derstands the history of the labour movement, not to play into the hands of the state, despite provoca­tion. I would have taken over the secretariat, the fol­lowing morning after the election. We would have mobilised, and would have clashed; heads would have rolled and the state would take over NLC. Is that what we want,? Such thing happened in 1988. At that time, there were two parallel conferences in Benin, and they came to forcefully take over the secretariat, and Babangida dissolved them.

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