Nigeria Labour Congress: A Poverty Dissemination Powerhouse

By David Hundeyin

“At the time, there was no intellectual rigour whatsoever in the arguments made by people like me who supported the Occupy Nigeria phenomenon. Our arguments essentially boiled down to “Nigeria does not do anything else for us, so it must not take this one thing away from us. We are entitled to cheap fuel!”

In January 2012, Nigeria went into full-on mutiny. Then president Goodluck Jonathan had just announced an end to Nigeria’s long-standing fuel subsidy programme, which meant that petrol was set to go from N65 per litre to N145 per litre. The 120 percent increase led to a series of protests and a nationwide strike which cumulatively became known as “Occupy Nigeria.”

At the heart of the protest was the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) and its insistence that Nigeria’s multibillion dollar fuel subsidies must be reinstated, or else. A few brave souls publicly insisted that the subsidy programme was an injuriously wasteful recurrent expenditure that did nothing to fundamentally better the lives of Nigerians. Most people however (self included) took the NLC’s side.

>>>You Are Reading: Nigeria Labour Congress: A Poverty Dissemination Powerhouse –David Hundeyin

At the time, there was no intellectual rigour whatsoever in the arguments made by people like me who supported the Occupy Nigeria phenomenon. Our arguments essentially boiled down to “Nigeria does not do anything else for us, so it must not take this one thing away from us. We are entitled to cheap fuel! Something something oil producing nation, something something get our refineries working first, something something insensitive!”

The NLC of course, was no stranger to these shenanigans, having spent much of the preceding decade in a war of attrition with successive Nigerian governments over the same fuel price issue. This time however, was the throwdown; the defining point that would determine once and for all whether the NLC was interested in the long term well-being of Nigerians or it just wanted cheap petrol.

And we know how that turned out.

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It’s Not About The Petrol

The NLC is best known for a series of visually spectacular nationwide strikes between the 90s and noughties, culminating in the January 2012 fiasco. The headline issue behind most of these strikes was the fuel price, which was a conveniently local and ubiquitous issue to most Nigerians. It was very easy to get Nigerians fired up about commodity price hikes that would – at least in the short term – harm their individual interests.

The problem is however, that the fuel price protests were just a cover for a more fundamental and insidious problem that plagues the NLC. This problem uses the NLC as a disease vector to infect Nigeria’s political and economic discourse with something that leads to worse things than an unbalanced federal government balance sheet.

The problem is that the NLC’s vision of “solidarity” and “labour power” is one where the ability of people, organisations and even the country to accumulate wealth is destroyed or demonised – in other words, a socioeconomic outlook heavily influenced by communist ideas from the 1970s.

For instance, it has spent decades insisting on the continued existence of a fuel subsidy regime that is pointedly and overtly corrupt, strategically pointless and supremely wasteful. This position boils down to the idea that maintaining Nigerians in “manageable” communal poverty is preferable to providing conditions for broad-based economic uplift.

In 2001, then NLC president Adams Oshiomhole openly opposed president Olusegun Obasanjo‘s drive to open up Nigeria’s telecoms space to private capital. According to Oshiomhole, private telecoms service providers like MTN, Glo and Airtel would exploit Nigerian consumers and prevent “the poor” from accessing telephony due to expensive pricing. His alternative solution was for Nigeria to pump billions of dollars into NITEL yet again, and hope that this time would be different.

>>>You Are Reading: Nigeria Labour Congress: A Poverty Dissemination Powerhouse –David Hundeyin

It is important to note that as ridiculous and unfounded as Oshiomhole’s economically illiterate argument now looks in hindsight, it was actually taken relatively seriously at the time. Seriously enough in fact, for the decision to license the likes of MTN to become a political boondoggle as Obasanjo’s political opposition as well as interests linked to NITEL jumped on Oshiomhole’s position. They thus artificially created a wall of opposition to what was in fact, possibly the single most economically beneficial standalone policy ever made in the history of Nigeria.

Today, NITEL only exists as a memory regardless of many repeated attempts to disinter and reanimate its corpse. Time has passed an unmistakable judgment on Oshiomhole’s Communist policy positions, but clearly the real lessons have not been learned either by Nigerians or the NLC. Comrade Adams was able to ride the wave of Communist politics into public office after which he very rapidly manifested the same hyper-parasitic behaviours of the typical Nigerian politician. He still continues to be a factor in Nigerian politics at least 15 years after Obasanjo’s economic growth should have retired him.

The NLC: The Democratisation of Poverty

What organised formation with significant political influence over the Nigerian government has been more responsible than most for ensuring that the advancement and democratisation of poverty is now institutionalised in government policy? Is it the military? Is it the private business lobby? Is it the civil service? Is it the media and Civil Society Organisations?

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I would argue that while all the aforementioned groups have all contributed in some way, the single most guilty organisation that fits these parameters is the Nigeria Labour Congress, NLC. Think about it. What organisation is known for consistently and uniformly opposing any attempt by the government to right-size its balance sheet and move the bulk of expenditure away from recurrent to capital? What organisation is known for demanding a form of subsidy, subvention, intervention, ban or price control as the solution to every problem it takes on?

What organisation has nothing to say about suggested policies that could accelerate the economy by encouraging private sector growth, but is always hard at work pressuring the government to grow the number and scale of recurrent liabilities it has? What organisation has never expressed any concern whatsoever about the alarming state of Nigeria’s public finances and the growing trend of using debt to service recurrences?

Most importantly, what organisation, outside the Nigerian government itself, has done more than any other to feed underprivileged Nigerians with the notion that Nigeria is an “oil rich” country overflowing with petrodollars that could be spent providing a Saudi-style welfare state for its citizens if it so wishes? Just as importantly, what has been the net effect of these institutional actions by this organisation?

Only the NLC fits the bill on all points consistently. Even the military famously bowed to the laws of economics under Ibrahim Babangida – at least until Saddam invaded Kuwait and indirectly gifted Nigeria with a windfall that detailed its ongoing reform process. The NLC on the other hand has never broken character. If there is an economically suicidal policy proposal that involves impoverishing Nigerians under the guise of increased social expenditure, the NLC almost invariably must have had its fingerprints all over it.

Is it unfounded and emotion-driven opposition to fuel subsidy removal? Check. Is it support for Nigeria’s myriad subsidy and freebie programmes that shred its balance sheet without improving the lives of Nigerians in any way? Double check. Is it opposition to privatisation of recurrent expense liabilities like Nigeria Airways, NITEL, Ajaokuta Steel Company, PHCN, Warri, Port Harcourt and Kaduna refineries? Na dem. Is it demanding – in the year 2020 – for fuel and electricity subsidies to return even though Nigeria’s fiscal position is visible to the blind and audible to the deaf? Check that 3 times.

Eventually, we will have to ask the question – what is the point of the NLC and why does this anachronism still have a place in the Nigeria of 2020?


David Hundeyin is an international journalist and writer with an interest in economics and development. David Hundeyin tweets @DavidHundeyin.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]

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