By Owei Lakemfa
IN 2011, we in the Trade Union Movement were worried that the new National Minimum Wage of N18,000 consented to by the Federal and State governments, and signed into law the previous year, was not being implemented.
Negotiations had gone pretty well with the Federal Government, but had hit a brick-wall when its team said on a note of finality it had reached the limit of the wage bill it could shoulder. We needed an additional N2 billion. Labour met directly with then President Goodluck Jonathan and he directed that the additional fund be added to the Federal wage bill.
We met the Nigeria Governors Forum chaired by then Governor Chibuike Rotimi Amaechi. We had a surprise at the meeting. A handful of the governors led by Sullivan Iheanacho Chime of Enugu State became our advocates. They argued that N18,000 was too small a National Minimum Wage.
Our team and governors reached an agreement that states should pay the new wage. However, in many states, we had to organise strikes to force the governors to implement the constitutionally sanctioned wages.
There was a stalemate by both sides in Adamawa State and Labour had to send a team to Yola. When we touched down at the airport and found a huge number of striking workers waiting to receive us, rather than take the buses available, we decided to walk through the city.
Next day, Governor Murtala Nyako agreed to meet our team from Abuja but not with the state labour leaders. When we refused, he buckled.
At the meeting, he said he monitored our protest march through Yola and at various times he thought of sending “Jaguda boys” (thugs) to scatter the march, but constantly received reports that the man from Abuja(referring to me) was a gentleman. I thanked him and asked whether he also contemplated the implications of such an action. He laughed and said there are various ways thugs are used.
He gave an example of how he set thugs upon an overbearing delegation from the ruling Peoples Democratic Party headquarters. He invited me upstairs to his office while his officials and the local labour leaders sorted out their stalled negotiations. I politely told him we should first sort out the dispute. He asked me for the details. I summarised them, and he said he approved them in principle.
The main shock we had was with Governor Chime who had argued the new wages were too low. His administration refused to pay! We decided to intervene from Abuja. In the aircraft, Chime recognised then NLC Vice President Isa Tijani and promised us a contest in Enugu.
Very early next morning, a large number of soldiers, policemen and secret security officers took over the gate of the hotel we lodged. Nobody was allowed in or out. In effect, we were being detained.
I placed a call to the then Secretary to the Federal Government, Senator Anyim Pius Anyim. My report sounded incredulous to him. He asked whether I was sure. I told him that from the window in my room, I could see the long convoy of the security men. Anyim, an amiable former President of the Senate, muttered: “Chime, Chime”, and the line went dead. Shortly afterwards, I could hear the screeching of tires. I looked out and the convoy was furiously driving off as if chased by the devil.
I called the Senator to thank him. It was a clear demonstration by the Jonathan administration that it would not condone the misuse of the security personnel by the governor. Then, truck-loads of thugs arrived to replace the security men; Chime was not about to accept defeat. Once again, within an hour, we were under siege, this time by the Governor’s thugs.
We sent a message to the local labour leaders to redirect workers from the announced rally venue, to our hotel. Soon, we had a large number of workers occupying one part of the road, and the thugs, the other. I told the workers that given our large number, we could overrun the armed thugs. Like lightning, we set upon them. Within minutes, we had put the thugs to flight and I had some of them brought before me as prisoners of war.
They were badly shaken and shivering. I assured them that unlike the governor, workers are civilized people and would not harm them, but that we would hand them over to the police for prosecution. With the Federal Government withdrawing the security men and his thugs completely overran, Chime had no more forces to put on the streets of Enugu against us.
In 2004, during a general strike against the removal of fuel subsidy, I headed a convoy of labour and Pro-Labour Civil Society activists to monitor the strike in Lagos State. We took off from the NLC Sub Office in Tejusoho, and crossed Ojuelegba towards Lawanson. Then, I changed my mind and decided that we turned round to go towards Lagos Island on to Mile 2-Iba.
I had not realised that thugs had attacked the tail end of the convoy, so in turning around, we were faced by ferocious armed men. I managed to escape to a petrol station opposite the Police Area Command at Barracks. There were contingents of armed policemen and I approached them to report we were being attacked and sought their intervention. They played deaf and dumb. So I realised that the attack was a coordinated one carried out with the connivance of the police and possibly, the Obasanjo administration.
We had no choice but to wait, first to receive our injured comrades and convey them to hospitals. Secondly, to account for everyone, and thirdly to review the situation.
We concluded that there might be more thugs in various parts of Lagos who may waylay us. So the best option was to use the rest of the day to mobilise so large a convoy, that it can smash teams of thugs.
The next day, we rolled out, smashing any group that stood in our way starting from Ojuelegba. But our main encounter was on the Iba Road. With that, we asserted workers control over the sprawling city.
Imo State Governor Hope Uzodimma, his men and the police who labour accused of being complicit in the murderous November 1, 2023 attack on NLC President Joe Ajaero, must give peace a chance. To start with, they must realise that no group has monopoly of violence. Secondly, the Tinubu administration must send out a clear message, like Jonathan did, that the military and police would not be used to settle disputes. Thirdly, all those who funded or participated in the attack against the labour leaders in Imo State must be brought to justice.
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