*Photo: Prof Kehinde Yusuf*
Whenever things are entangled, seeking to disentangle them is the normal course of action. This happens when the respective entangling things are easily discernible.
However, sometimes, those things are so similar and yet so different that disentanglement becomes herculean. To describe such complex, ambivalent and confused situations, the idiom called to service in Yoruba is “Esè eégún ti dàpò mó t’èèyàn.” (‘The masquerade’s legs are entangled with human legs.’)
The masquerade, by the way, is believed to be a sacred being from the extra-terrestrial habitation of the revered ancestors, while the human being is earthly and non-sacred. So, how do you extricate a sacred set of legs from a mundane one without offending the ancestors?
A series of such confusing spectacles marked the last nationwide strike of the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC), otherwise called the Ajaero Strike, which started on Tuesday, 14 November, 2023 and was planned to be total and indefinite. Incidentally, the strike was suspended on Wednesday, 15 November, 2023, after negotiations between the NLC and the government. In spite of the suspension, questions relating to the strike remain nagging.
First, the entanglement of the masquerade’s and human legs happened in relation to who exactly Joe Ajaero was. In his visit to Imo State, was he a citizen of the state who had visited as a chieftain of the opposition Labour Party (LP) with the aim of promoting his political party in the then-closely approaching governorship election in the state or was he the National President of the NLC who had gone there to promote the welfare of members of his trade union? This ambivalence may have caused him to be beaten up by people who were presumed to be political thugs and who probably thought they were contending with a threatening rival political party member rather than a sacred, masquerade-like labour union personage. It is in reaction to the assault on Ajaero that the NLC and its sister union – the Trade Union Congress (TUC) – declared the indefinite and total national strike.
Second, the masquerade’s legs phenomenon was manifested in who the aggressor was. Ajaero was beaten in only one out of the thirty-six states, and revenge was being exacted from all of the thirty-six states and the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja. This violated the principle of justice encoded in the saying, Ìka tó bá sè l’oba n gé. (‘It’s the finger that errs that the king cuts.’) In prosecuting the strike, one finger erred, but thirty-seven were cut.
Third, the ambivalence and confusion were related to the real motive for the strike. Was the strike declared to get restitution for the injuries of Ajaero or was it declared to wreck the economy or destabilise the All Progressives Congress (APC) national government by LP stalwarts hiding behind the unionist screen?
Note, by the way, that while Ajaero and the NLC were vociferous in claiming that the APC-led government of Imo State had been mistreating the workers in the employment of the state, the workers themselves were adulating the governor. A situation was therefore created in which, as the saying goes, “Alára l’ára ò r’òun, o ló kú àìsùn, ó kú àìwo.” (‘A person says they’re not feeling any pain, but you’re telling them, “Sorry for the sleeplessness the pain is causing you.”’)
Granted that there could even have been a few areas in which the state government was defaulting in relation to the welfare of the workers, the NLC should not have created a situation in which it would be crying more than the bereaved. In a more picturesque way, a Yoruba proverb says, “Elékún n sunkún, Láróyè n sun èjè.” (‘The person who has a problem is shedding watery tears, but bloody tears are streaming down the cheeks of Laroye the sympathiser.’) Incidentally, Laroye is another word for Èsù, which some people translate into English as “the Devil”.
The Ajaero strike showed that the NLC has immense potentials to wreak indiscriminate havoc on the nation. Did it therefore set out of its own volition to undermine the government or was it recruited to do the hatchet job for woebegone opponents of the Tinubu government, in the light of the failure of the President’s opponents to remove him from office through the courts?
This question is important, because, in public reactions after the Supreme Court judgement affirming his victory, statements had been made which suggested the willingness to use extra-judicial means to settle scores with the President.
Fourth, the masquerade’s legs syndrome was reflected in the joining of the strike by some academic affiliates of the NLC. This seeming headfirst joining of the Ajaero strike raises a number of very critical questions. The most important ones here are: What role should academic staff unions play when they affiliate with NLC or TUC? Should they submit zombie-like to the two unions’ directives or should they provide the intellectual compass to the umbrella unions? The academic staff unions listed as joining the Ajaero strike are the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU), the College of Education Academic Staff Union and the Academic Staff Union of Polytechnics. The Punch, in its 15 November, 2023 edition, reported the National Association of Nigerian Students (NANS) as saying as follows about the strike: “It is with a heavy heart that we, as the apex student body in the country, address the irrationality, disregard for the court of law, and apparently misplaced priority demonstrated in this action.” Did this not amount to the tail wagging the dog?
With respect to ASUU, one observer remarked that he could not remember the last time ASUU joined an NLC strike. He then wondered whether ASUU’s decision was not motivated by the fact that, since it had become impolitic for it to directly embark on a strike considering the badly-prosecuted 2022 strike, ASUU found it convenient to jump on to the bandwagon of the NLC strike. He therefore seemed to have been suggesting that ASUU’s case was like that of the monkey itching to climb a tree, and then finding a ready excuse when its in-law’s club got stuck in the branches of the tree. The monkey rushed up the tree without thinking twice, and oblivious of the fact that there could be ants with very painful bites awaiting it in the tree. In this regard, our people admonish the monkey as follows: Ìjímèrè, só’gi gùn ko má baà gungi aládi. (‘Monkey, beware of which trees you climb, so that you don’t climb an ant-infested one.’) Going forward, academic staff unions need to be more circumspect about which kind of strikes to join or to declare.
Fifth, ASUU put itself in an ambivalent position by joining the strike. When the last ASUU strike was called off on 14 October, 2022 and lecturers were paid half-salary for that month, one of the complaints of ASUU was that lecturers had, by that government action, been reduced to daily paid or casual workers. Specifically, in the Daily Trust of 8 November, 2022, the President of ASUU, Professor Emmanuel Osodeke, was reported to have declared as follows about the ending of the strike: “This we believe, as a union of thinkers, intellectuals, and patriots, will not only aid the process of amicable resolution of the crisis, but will also set the tone for smooth industrial relations between Government and Nigerian workers at large. Unfortunately, the response of government towards ASUU’s demonstration of trust was the so-called ‘pro-rata’ payment for eighteen days as the October 2022 salaries of academics thereby portraying them as daily paid workers!” Now, has the manner in which the union joined the Ajaero strike been sufficiently elevating or ennobling?
When the Ajaero kind of strike occurs, it is helpful to recall the most comparable events in other climes. After all, as our people say, “Oun tó jo’un làá fí wé’un; èpo èpà ló jo pósí èlírí.” (‘Let’s compare likes with likes; it’s the groundnut shell that resembles the midget mouse’s coffin.’) Moreover, it is necessary to appreciate the wisdom in the proverb, “Afogbón-ológbón-sogbón ni ò jé kí á pe àgbà ní wèrè.” (‘It’s learning from other people’s experience that prevents an elderly person from being called a fool.’)
Once upon a time, there was a very powerful trade union called the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) in Great Britain. It had a very charismatic, controversy-courting President called Arthur Scargill. At a point, the NUM was so powerful that it caused the fall of a government. The Secretary of Education in that fallen government was called Margaret Thatcher, and she bided her time. Then she became Prime Minister. The NUM struck again in the early years of her government. The new government buckled and yielded to the demands of the union. Encouraged by this manifestation of power, the NUM embarked on another strike a few years later. This time around, like a ram that had stepped back to re-energise, the government came back charging. It confronted the union, and though the workers remained on strike for a few days short of one whole year, they got no concession from the government. With the government firing on all cylinders and with the strike debilitating the workers and their families, a pitiable Arthur Scargill had no choice but to announce the end to the strike.
Does NLC look like the NUM? Does Joe Ajaero look like Arthur Scargill? Does President Bola Ahmed Tinubu look like Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher? Labour unions are immensely powerful. With that power, a properly-focussed union can earn remarkable benefits for its members. And it is when they are preoccupied with seeking such members’ welfare gains that they are on the most solid ground. In contrast, trade unions are on the most slippery ground when they venture into such adversarial environments as politics, in which all is fair as in love and war.
It is hoped that, as the NLC and the TUC relate with the Nigerian government, push would not come to shove. True, labour unions are powerful. But it is not a zero-sum game. That labour unions have power does not stop government from being powerful or from being more powerful. As the saying goes, “Tí irin bá kan irin ìkan á tè.” (‘When a rod encounters a rod, one must bend.’) In their agitations, the status and motives of NLC and TUC must be clear at all times. It must become unnecessary, going forward, for the question to be asked, “Are the NLC and TUC workers welfare outfits or are they the labour wing of the government’s detractors?” Let the human legs be clear and let the masquerade’s legs be clear. Entangling them can only cause agony. Those who have ears, let them hear.