Gov el-Rufai versus Labour: Who blinks first?

By YUSUF ISHAKU GOJE

Many homes woke up on the 16th May, 2021 in Kaduna enveloped in total darkness. This is nothing unusual, but only that this time around it signaled the commencement of the side-wide five day warning strike declared by the Nigeria Labor Congress (NLC) and her affiliates against the Kaduna state government, which officially started on Monday, 17th of May. The social media space, through out the previous week, was awashed with official letters by various affiliates of the Congress notifying their membership to join the strike. The grouge of the labor unions is the recent sacking of local government staff and the declared intention to lay off more civil servants by the State government.

In its characteristic disposition, the State government has come out to clarify its position and dare the unions. True to character, it has declared the NLC President, Comrade Ayuba Wabba, wanted for prosecution. During the first day of protest, the unions had also come out to dare the government and debunk some of the justification for its unpopular decision to rightsize the workforce.

This has set the stage for a prolonged showdown between the Kaduna state government, known to be dogmatic, and labor, who are desperately in need to win back its public goodwill. This is more so because the Governor of Kaduna State, Mallam Nasir Ahmad El-rufai, is infamously known not to back down after taking a decision, especially when dared, no matter the opposition or consequences.

Therefore, it was no surprise that the government declared it will not succumb to blackmail; and has unequivocally affirmed that “the conditions that compel it to rightsize are not altered by the NLC’s campaign of economic and social sabotage.” Consequently, this has placed labor in a tight corner. How will it sustain the present public solidarity? As just one day after, the support seems to be waning due to the resultant suffering. The absence of electricity, scarcity of fuel and shut down of economic activities seems to be changing the narrative among the biggest victims, the innocent masses.

Will labor back down as it did in 2017 or take the industrial action to a logical conclusion. Recall, the state government had the upper hand in 2017, as it stood firmly by its decision, and all hell was not let lose. The credibility of the Labor union was bruised as they chickened out without as much as a slap on the wrist. It appears the ongoing strike backed by a protest offers an opportunity for the labor unions to get back at the government and win back public trust.

On its part, the government seems to be over-confident as it has not shown any determined interest to invite the unions, except a faction of Trade Union Congress, to the dialogue table. Rather it has opted for the option of issuing out threats, name calling and arrest warrants. In one of his tweets, the Governor responded to a tweet supporting the shutdown by stating that, “FATHERS OF ALL HYPOCRITES: Kaduna will wait for you all – the invisible PDP & affiliates like the hypocritical NLC that is yet to implement the National Minimum Wage Act, 2019 for its own employees.”

Interestingly, many have come to see the move by NLC to shutdown the state as serving the Governor in his own coins. Time has not eroded the recent history of the conspicuous role he played during the Subsidy protest led by labor unions during the former President Jonathan tenure in 2012. This have been attributed to have played a major role in de-marketing the former President, who subsequently lost the 2015 general elections.

Also, it has been alleged, even though without evidence, that it is pay back time for his political rivals, who have cashed in on the labor action to pay him in his own coins. As the conspiracy theory holds that the Mallam of Kaduna was said to have clandestinely supported the campaign of calumny and had a hand in targeting the investments of the Asiwaju of Lagos during the End SARS protest, to weaken his political base.

It is believed that the Asiwaju of Lagos and many other enemies of the Mallam of Kaduna have taken advantage of the labor action to de-market and politically weaken him. As this is said to be a series of strategic political maneuvers; which is no coincidence that it is unfolding just after the recent suspension of a favorite ally of the Mallam of Kaduna from the helm of affairs at the Nigeria Ports Authority (NPC), who presently has been placed under investigation.

This political interpretation, as also advanced by some of the media defense machineries of the government, is hinged on the fact that labor, if there was no political motive, would have done similar kind of mass mobilization and action against other governors that have reversed back the minimum wage or still owing salaries for months.

Regardless of the political and egotistical conspiracy theory being manufactured as the covert reason for the mass action by labor, the regrettable reality is that it is the poor masses that will bear the ultimate brunt of the shutdown. Already, the electricity blackout has affected small businesses, with access to alternative power especially fuel becoming difficult as many filling stations are shut. The resort to black market has inflated the prices of services including transportation leading to unbearable hardship just two days into the warning strike.

The state government has the biggest role to play in bringing the shutdown to an end, since labor has already indicated interest to dialogue. It should then come down from its high horse and opt out for negotiation. This is no time for threats or arrogant posture, as public interest must be put first.

Agreed, the fiscal reality has shown that running an over bloated civil service is not sustainable in the face of dwindling revenue and rapid population growth. However, throwing out workers, regardless of the justification, at a time like this without a timely social protection intervention will be equivalent to creating a problem to solve a problem.

The government should swallow the humble pie, which is the hallmark of selfless and compassionate leadership, and invite all the labor unions officially to the table to arrive at a mutual agreement with a win-win outcome. Ego should be put aside to stop the huge and unquantifiable socio-economic loses being suffered especially by the poor as a result of this elite grandstanding.

For a state already hit hard by insecurity, unemployment, poverty and inequality this is the wrong time for this to be allowed to happen. The state government should take the higher ground and blink first, not for the sake of labor leaders or opponents, but for the million of poor masses they promised to put first during their campaigns.

We wait to see who blinks first!

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