Governance and spreading pandemic of strikes



All of a sudden, the nation among several other woes, has entered another season of strikes with its attendant social and economic consequences. Currently and concurrently, there are at least, three strikes by major associations of workers, namely the National Association of Resident Doctors, the Academic Staff Union of Polytechnics and the Judiciary Staff Union of Nigeria. There is no evidence that more unions are not about to commence their own strikes since several of them have either merely suspended strikes or have carried out warning strikes. Obviously, a concert of strikes with paralysing effects on the economy and social life can only add to the burdens of the citizenry already reeling under the effect of pervasive insecurity with rising death toll as well as the whiplash effect of a mismanaged economy indexed by a soaring debt-overhang and an unprecedented inflationary upswing galloping towards 20 per cent. When you inspect the advertised grievances of workers and take them along with the narrative of events preceding the strikes, common denominators are the failure of the political establishment to keep promises earlier made to the workers to redeem specific obligations arising from agreements earlier reached with the unions and the failure to heed signals of industrial unrests.

Judicial workers, to take an illustration, refer to the continuation of a “suspended strike” apparently because little or no progress has been made since 2018 when the strike was suspended; while the staff of polytechnics allude to the non-implementation of demands and grievances publicly aired dating back to 2014. The doctors, of course, have long lamented the worsening conditions of their welfare underlined by failure to pay long-overdue arrears and allowances.

Interestingly, once a strike commences or is about to commence, a beehive of activities centred around the Minister of Labour and Employment, Dr. Chris Ngige, ensues with the goal of ensuring that the strike long predicted does not take place. This resembles the ostentatious mobilisation of police and other security activities after bandits or criminals have struck. The simple question to ask is, why didn’t this frenetic response happen long before rather than on the eve of the declaration of strikes? By this attitude, government itself is teaching the lesson that without the actual or imminent commencement of the strike, the workers are actually wasting their time by giving ultimatums, embarking on warning strikes, holding press conferences and seeking to win public sympathy in respect of their plight. This is the correlate of a culture of brinksmanship which rather than respond to advance warning systems, waits for the onset of crisis to defuse time bombs that have been ticking away for years. Needless to say that this is one more characteristic of a political class that lives only for the day, takes the future for granted, lacks surveillance techniques to monitor burgeoning social volcanoes and does not engage in medium-term or long-term planning. But that is perhaps a matter for another day.

Contextually, we are dealing with the consequences of promises long articulated but not kept, of acute discomfort arising from a surging inflationary rate which makes nonsense of the workers’ take-home pay as well as a style of governance that does not pay attention to procedures or adjudicatory mechanisms, jerking awake only when emergencies have arrived at the door. It is somewhat comforting that efforts are being made to resolve the grievances or at least some of them that have produced the strikes, one wishes however, that this enthusiastic responses have come much sooner to avert the lockdowns that have come in their wake. Hopefully, some day, we will learn to act proactively rather than as is the case too often after the horse has bolted from the stable.

Yinka Odumakin and Innocent Chukwuma

The passing recently of two giant civil society activists, Yinka Odumakin, the National Secretary of Afenifere and Innocent Chukwuma, founder of the Non-Governmental Organisation, CLEEN Foundation and until recently a resident representative for West Africa of the Ford Foundation, leaves a gaping hole in advocacy, human rights activism, and contestations over the architecture of policymaking. Both of them were active in the seminal civil society struggles of the anti-military years and came close to paying the supreme price for their engagements. Odumakin was a regular guest of State Security Services in the military years and reportedly met his wife, Joe, another activist, in one of his several detention experiences. Similarly, Chukwuma recalled to me after reading my piece on the late Walter Carrington, a former United States Ambassador to Nigeria, how on one occasion, he narrowly escaped death when the police stormed a meeting in which Carrington himself and other anti-Abacha protesters were meeting. Odumakin spoke in a direct and forthright manner about the Nigerian predicament sustaining over the years and in different newspapers’ pithy columns on such matters as power dementia, leadership ineptitude, the widening gap between the rich and the poor, governance dysfunction and his principal focus, the eroding place of the Yoruba in the national firmament. This was in addition to articulating in memorable write-ups and press releases, the position of the Afenifere on national issues. It was in a sense, a life devoted to activism and especially, regional justice in the context of a skewed and unbalanced federation. The outpourings of grief and obituaries that trailed his sad death testify to the political impact of a life devoted to a struggle for a better Nigeria.

Less voluble, less visible than Odumakin, but an equally resolute fighter, Chukwuma can be described as a campaigner for civil liberties in the rearguard in comparison to Odumakin who stood in the vanguard. For example, the CLEEN Foundation became popular because of its peculiar focus on such matters as security, police reform matters and access to justice in West Africa. Beyond that, he sat on the boards of several civil society organisations where constructively, he helped to develop their identities, facilitate networking and to help them build a plank for governmental reforms. His service at the Ford Foundation is in the same league with that of other intellectuals such as Professors Richard Joseph and Julius Ihonvbere who employed the opportunity of an international Non-Governmental Organisation and donor group to expand the possibilities of civil society advocacy, scholarly research and the quest to salvage a country in disrepair and distress. I was looking forward to reading Chukwuma’s memoirs for which he told me he had obtained a fellowship to complete the write-up at the University of Oxford, England. Sadly, this is no longer possible.

 Unhappily, the burning national matters for which the two of them relentlessly fought are still very much around, in some cases, getting more and more vexed and fraught. To cite an example, the lost opportunities for police reforms and the temporising over restructuring have landed us in a mess in which criminals are giving security institutions a good run for their capacity. In the same vein, the failure to restructure has produced a species of agitations which has turned some campaigners into neo-secessionists illustrating the ancient epigram that no one can cross the same river twice. There is no better tribute than to carry forward the epic struggles for which they lived.

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