The President of the Nigeria Labor Congress (NLC), Comrade Ayuba Wabba, spoke with reporters in Lagos on the clamor for the restructuring of the polity, the controversy over governors’ security votes, and the plight of workers in the face of the current economic recession.
What is your take on the clamor for restructuring?
For the organized labor, we look at Nigeria as one. A big part of the challenge we are having in this country is not about restructuring; it is about good governance. Many other countries that were at par with us before have surpassed us; and part of the frustration Nigerians are having is that our system have not been able to deliver, especially to meet our expectations as citizens. Even if you restructure without good governance there will be crisis. The NLC is not in support of any idea that will polarize us. We will only support an idea that will promote cohesion, unity and harmony. The NLC is a pan-Nigerian organization and we will always advance issues that will unite us, and not issues that will divide us.
Are you in support of scrapping of security votes, to enable state governments meet up with their obligations?
Security votes should be abolished. What do these governors do with billions of naira they collect monthly as security votes? More so, the money is not even accounted for; security votes negate principles of transparency and it promotes corruption. If a state is not at war, why should a governor collect N1 billion monthly as a security vote? This is nothing but corruption, another avenue for looting. Rather than just lament about the evils being perpetrated against workers by the political elites, we have resolved to educate workers. The leadership of the NLC is now enlightening workers now about the enormous power they wield using their hands, through the ballot box. What do I mean by this? We are now telling workers that they can also use their voting power to remove bad leadership. The population of Nigerian workers is over 10 million and how many of these politicians got elected with 10 million votes?
How many states are defaulting in payment of salaries and pensions?
It is very unfortunate that workers and pensioners are the worst hit by the recession. The situation could have been better managed, if our political leaders, especially state governors, had got their priorities right. But, they do not accord payment of salaries and pension the priority it deserves. Let me state here categorically that the Federal Government has been making efforts to assist the states with regard to payment of outstanding salaries and pensions being owed workers. In the first tranche of bail-out given to the states by the government, more than 26 states benefited. But the irony of it all is that the more Federal Government gives them bail-outs, the less you understand what the states do with the money. A lot of states have been diverting bail-outs meant to pay outstanding salaries and pensions to other things, and this is why we are in the present situation. If governors have not been diverting the bail-outs, the issue of owing workers’ salaries and pensioners would have become a thing of the past. This is why the NLC is now insisting that before Federal Government gives further bail-outs, the states must be made to account for how the previous ones were utilized.
There was a report recently about how a governor diverted three million dollars from the bail-out fund to build a five-star hotel in Lagos. This is very unfortunate. This shows the high level of irresponsibility being displayed by our political elites. It shows clearly that the issue is not about the availability of resources or not; it is about governors getting their priorities right. Many states owe workers salary arrears and pension, but Kogi State is the worst. The state government owes workers between eight and 15 months’ salary arrears. The state government hid under the verification exercise it did to delete some workers names from its payroll. But, the workers affected are not ghost workers; they are bona fide civil servants in Kogi State. The so-called verification exercise was a sham; it was a ploy to reduce the state workforce. The NLC is not taking this issue lightly with the government. During the last May Day celebration, the workers protested against this injustice by the state government. What is happening today in Kogi State is a big threat to the survival of workers and pensioners. The situation in Kogi State is peculiar. I don’t know why workers and pensioners there are being treated like that. With the way things are going, with series of other social upheavals like kidnapping, abduction, armed robbery and other vices being recorded almost on a daily basis, Kogi State is gradually falling into what some people will describe as a failed state.
In the North-central zone, Benue State is also another bad case. Benue is one of the states that diverted the bail-out meant to pay workers salaries, according to the ICPC. About 10 states are defaulting in the payment of salaries and pensioners. Bayelsa State is also on the list of debtor states. The state owes pensioners, teachers and civil servants. In the case of Osun State, the state has been paying workers on the basis of percentage and that has also brought pains on workers. The same thing applies to Oyo State. Ondo State also has accumulated salaries that have not been paid.
Jigawa State is one of the states that does not owe. It is interesting to note that the state has not collected any bail-out from the Federal Government. The state pays salary and pensions of workers as at when due. So, you can see that it is a matter of state governors not according payment of workers’ salaries the priority it deserves.
It is difficult to give an exact figure, because we don’t have a reliable data bank. But, definitely, many workers and pensioners have lost their lives as a result of being owed. Even at verification centres set up by some state governments, several workers and pensioners have lost their lives while waiting on the queue to be verified. Even at a time in Kaduna, several workers lost their lives when there was a bomb explosion near one of the centres, but where some of these tragedies occurred, including that of Kaduna, the NLC has insisted that the families of the workers that lost their lives must be compensated. We will continue to fight for these workers and pensioners until their families are compensated.
How true is it that the NLC has asked the Federal Government not to release a fresh tranche of N500 billion bail-outs it promised states?
Yes, we insisted that the state governors should give account of how they used the first bail-out. We have found out from both EFCC and ICPC reports that some state governors actually diverted the bail-out. This is not only unpatriotic, but very shameful. Some of them put the money in fixed deposits, where they now collect huge interests, while workers continue to wallow in hunger. Some of them awarded bogus contracts that don’t have meaning or relevance to the life of citizens. This is why we insisted that the Federal Government should not release another bail-out without accountability being followed. Those governors that had earlier received the first bail-out should be made to account for how they utilized it before they are given another one.
How realistic is your demand for N56,000 minimum wage, in view of the current economic recession?
I said it earlier that the issue of payment of salaries and pension as at when due is about states getting their priorities right. Secondly, the recession is not an excuse at all. All over the world, economies bubble and also get burst. Everything is about planning and having foresight; these are what our leaders’ lack. In 2011, we signed a minimum wage of N18,000, but it was mutually agreed that after a period of five years that there would be a review – this was mutually agreed to by all parties. If you also look at the present economic challenges, inflation is soaring with the attendant results – some of these include high cost of goods and services, what all these mean is that N18,000 is no longer realistic.
Nigerian workers are passing through very difficult times. You are also aware that during the same period, the Federal Government increased the price of fuel, a commodity that determines the price of nearly every other commodity in Nigeria. Fuel price was increased from N86 to N145. Not only that, electricity tariff was also increased by more than 50 percent and workers salary has remained on the same spot. So, how do you expect workers to cope with these challenges?
What has been the government’s response?
The Federal Government has agreed in principle. A technical committee to work out the detail has been set up, and the NLC participated fully. The report of that committee has been transmitted to the Presidency. We are expecting that the Federal Executive Council to approve the recommendations of the committee. The ball is in the court of the Federal Government.
There are fears that the factional crisis in the NLC might hamper the negotiations…
We don’t have factions in the NLC. The union is one united body. Those people you are even referring to have openly stated that they are not a faction of the NLC. Convention 144 of the International Labor Organization (ILO), which Nigeria has ratified, explicitly states that the most representative labor center would negotiate on behalf of the Nigerian workers, and today NLC is the most representative labor center in the country; there is no dispute or controversy about that. That’s why NLC and TUC have come together to negotiate on behalf of the Nigerian workers. Nigerian workers know their true leaders.
All through history, workers do not get anything on a platter of gold; it has always been through struggle that our demands are met. But we will not relent until we get what we want for Nigerian workers.