By Owei Lakemfa
The general strike on September 27 and 28 over a new national minimum wage will, going by antecedence, be the first of many strikes to come. This strike was not about a new wage per se or figures; not about agreement or disagreement, not to talk about implementation. It was merely to demand that the Buhari administration, which has an unenviable history of cancelling promises, returns to the negotiation table. If a general strike had to be called just to pressure government to talk with workers and employers on a new national minimum wage in accordance with the Constitution, imagine the struggles that will need be waged to get the new wage implemented across all sectors and levels of government.
Some have argued that this period is too close to the February 2019 general elections and therefore not ideal for negotiations, as the attention of the politicians would be focused on the elections. My response is that there is no better time than now, or better still, nearer the election date. This is because for almost all our electoral politicians, elections are about capture of state power and the resources of the country. So, elections are a consuming passion and politicians are united in ensuring everything must be done to let the election beat go on. This is the time politicians are most vulnerable, and also the season they put up shows of being nice, considerate and sympathetic to the electorate. In any case, constitutionally, a new national minimum wage is a quinquennial law; the last was in 2011, so there should have been a new one two years ago.
Historically in Nigeria, new wages flow with the political tide. The first general wage increase was in 1945, following the end of the Second World War in which our British colonial masters were battered, bruised and financially crippled. A general strike, the first in the country, followed. It lasted 45 days, with the colonialists acceding to the workers’ demands. The next one was in 1964, when after protracted negotiations under Justice Adeyinka Morgan, it was agreed in April that the region-based minimum wages in the country be increased from the subsisting N7.80 and N15.17, to N22 and N15.17. Government refused; about four months to the 1964 general elections, the workers went on a general strike. It lasted thirteen days, with the Tafawa-Balewa Government caving in to the workers’ demand.
The three-year Civil War ended in 1970 and to meet workers agitations, given the hyperinflation in the country, the General Yakubu Gowon regime granted an Interim Award based on the recommendations of a Wages Committee headed by Chief Simeon Adebo. Hence, it was known as the Adebo Award. A comprehensive Wage Review Panel headed by Chief Jerome Udoji in 1974, recommended a new minimum wage of N60. It was referred to as the Udoji Award. The military handed over power to civilians on October 1, 1979 and the new President Shehu Shagari government increased the minimum wage to N100. But the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) led by Alhaji Hassan Adebayo Sunmonu demanded a new wage of N300. It followed it up with a national strike on May 11 and 12, 1981. That strike forced government to agree to a new wage of N125. That was the first nationally negotiated minimum wage. Some opposition state governments, especially of the Unity Party of Nigeria (UPN) in the West and the Peoples Redemption Party (PRP) in Kano State, had opposed the alleged imposition of a minimum wage on the entire country, but the effectiveness of the strike, gave them no choice. However, many of the governors, including those of the ruling National Party of Nigeria (NPN), fought back by retrenching workers and refusing to pay salaries. To counter this, the NLC initiated a national campaign called Fight Against Retrenchment and Non-Payment of Wages (FAR & NOW). The campaign met with little success, and with the 1983 general elections at hand, the NLC decided that there would be no elections in the country unless wages were paid. Under pressure, politicians across all parties got together and sourced the funds to clear the salary arrears.
The N125 wage subsisted until the 1989/90 negotiations between the Babangida regime and labour, increased it to N250. After that, there were only wage adjustments and awards until the Abubakar regime, which was under serious pressure to hand-over power to a civilian administration, agreed to introduce a quantum leap to a N3,0000 national minimum wage.
In May 1999, civil rule was restored. The new President Olusegun Aremu Obasanjo promised a new minimum wage. Negotiations quickly began and on May 1, 2000, a new wage of N5,500 came into effect. Along with this was an agreement that in order to move towards a living wage, as opposed to a minimum wage, the new wage will be increased by 25 per cent in May 2001 and 15 per cent in May 2002. However, government did not implement these increases. Finally, in 2004, what should have been a total 40 per cent increase was reduced to 12.5 per cent, and haphazardly implemented.
New wages were not negotiated as scheduled in 2005. In 2008, the NLC made a formal demand for a N52,200 new wage. Finally, on July 14, 2009, a Presidential Committee headed by Justice Alfa Modibo Belgore was established. When there were no positive results, the NLC and the Trade Union Congress (TUC) called a general strike on November 10, 2010. The government raced to stop labour, disrupting the 2011 general elections. A bill was rushed through the National Assembly. In March, a few weeks before the mid-April general elections, a new national minimum wage of N18,000 came into existence. The implementation took months of strikes, especially against state governments whose governors, ironically, had signed an agreement with the NLC and TUC promising to pay. As the then acting general secretary of the NLC, I had demanded that since the national minimum wage is a constitutional matter, and a national law: “Any governor that thinks he cannot implement the new national minimum wage, should go home, resign and handover to his deputy, and if the deputy governor thinks he cannot obey the law, he should resign and handover to the speaker of the State Assembly and if the speaker says he cannot implement it, he should resign and hand over the reins of the State to the deputy speaker.”
I foresee a lot of battles ahead, especially after the Ama-Pepple Committee handling the current wage negotiations might have submitted its report. These battles would be avoidable and unnecessary, but I do not see workers getting justice from the public and private sector employers who may be reluctant to implement the new wages which like the rains, are unstoppable.
Owei Lakemfa, former secretary general of African workers is a human rights activist, journalist and author.