Nigeria: Trade unions face legal onslaught

Unions must defend rights

9 September saw the Nigerian Senate pass, in double quick time, a draft law that, if implemented, would severely weaken Nigeria’s trade unions. Only 36 of the 109 members of the Senate, that is less than a quorum, passed the draft of a law originally proposed by President Obasanjo. Not even the chair or members of the Senate’s own labour committee that worked on the draft were present. In fact, this draft law was the fastest to be passed so far in the history of the Senate in this current Nigerian republic.

While some of the worse features of Obasanjo’s original draft, for instance, the powers given to the Labour Minister over the formation of trade unions, have been removed, the senate’s version still largely retains its undemocratic and anti-labour character. For instance, it outlaws picketing and makes it illegal for the workers in the so-called essential services, which include education, health, electricity, air traffic control and aviation, communication and water services, to go on strike. In order to ensure strict compliance to the bill as passed by the senate, it prescribes six-month jail term or a N10, 000 (£ 43) fine or both for the violators. The draft will only become law after it has been passed by the House of Representatives.

Although the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC – the main trade union federation) has held protests and rallies against this legislation, in some areas, most of which were met with police brutality and repression, the labour leadership has not done much to educate rank and file workers and mobilise them for action. Often these rallies were poorly attended due to a lack of mobilisation. Really the NLC leaders are relying on the goodwill of the Senate and House members to defeat this assault on workers’ rights.

President Obasanjo launched this attack just after the general strike and protest led by the NLC against the hike in fuel price last June. This was the fourth general strike in four years and the government decided to take action against the trade unions that were making its neo-liberal policies different to implement.

When last in Europe the vice president, Atiku Abubakar, complained that the NLC was the main obstacle facing the regime’s economic policies. Adolphus Wabara, the Senate President, echoed this point of view when he stated that the Nigeria’s creditors refused to grant debt relief because of the general strikes and protests led by the NLC. This draft law is an attempt to break up the trade unions and make protests legally more difficult, however it is one thing to pass a law and something completely different to implement it. A most significant feature of every one of the general strikes is that the protest won the support of the vast majority of Nigerians, a change in the law cannot stop the mass of workers, poor and youth when they decide to take action.

Protests against this draft law will continue. Already this forced the Senate to delete some of its most provocative and anti-democratic features. A determined campaign could stop this whole attack and a national day of protest action should be the next step. However it is clear that both imperialism and the Nigerian ruling class will return to the attack as they rightly see the workers’ movement as a key obstacle to their policies and as a potential rival to their rule. Being incapable of developing the country Nigeria’s rulers repeatedly have to rely on repression to continue their rule. The answer from the labour movement has to be both a defence of democratic rights and a serious socialist struggle to break with capitalism.

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September 2004