By Owei Lakemfa
Once the Muhammadu Buhari government had failed to get striking lecturers in our public universities back to class, I knew it would head for the National Industrial Court, NIC, shopping for an injunction. Tragically that is what governments in the country and rich employers have turned the NIC into: a fishing pond for injunctions against employees and labour unions they consider recalcitrant.
The NIC with the regalia of the judiciary was established in 1976 primarily as an industrial court to promote reconciliation, arbitration and the justice of a case rather than an unnecessary reliance on technicalities for which the regular courts are known. Ordinarily, the NIC is an appellate court where trade disputes arbitrated by the lower Industrial Arbitration Panel, IAP, are referred.
But government has no respect for the NIC’s appellate status; it treats it like the court of first instance and, in my experience, as a court lower than the High Court. So rather than go to the IAP over trade disputes such as the one with the Academic Staff Union of Universities, ASUU, government simply goes to the NIC as a place to whip associations like those of doctors, lecturers and other workers into line.
A trade dispute is a disagreement between the employer and the employee. In the case of public universities, government is an employer engaged in a dispute with the lecturers who are its employees. But rather than settle the dispute through reconciliation or go for arbitration, government goes to the NIC to help it arm-twist the lecturers by ordering them back to work.
Unfortunately, the NIC which never protests its misuse as a court of first instance, orders the lecturers who have not been paid for seven months, and whose primary demand is that government implements an agreement it signed 13 years ago, back to work. The NIC should know that when government comes before it in a trade dispute, it does so as an employer and not a sovereign, therefore, it should not nod like a weather cock to every request by government.
Trust is the fulcrum on which arbitration is based; so the presentation of the NIC as a partisan arm of government cannot but lead to the erosion of its credibility. When the Olusegun Obasanjo administration used the NIC to issue frivolous orders restraining labour from going on strike over its incessant and continuous increases in the prices of petroleum products, it was challenged by the trade unions who openly defied the orders.
As labour in January 2012 mobilised the populace for indefinite street protests against the January 1, 2012 fuel price increase from N65 to N141, it was conscious that the Jonathan administration having run out of options to get labour to back down, would run to the NIC for an order barring the protests.
So we stationed people in the NIC to be on the alert because we knew it would be an ambush as we would not be put on notice. When as the then acting General Secretary of the Nigeria Labour Congress, NLC, I got information that the NIC was rolling out the order in accordance with government’s wishes, I ordered an immediate evacuation of the NLC headquarters. By the time the NIC order was brought early next morning, not even a fly could be found by the bailiff to serve the order. It was a case of ‘cunning man (conman) die, cunning man bury am’ .
The bailiff was followed that morning by hired thugs who broke into the NLC offices to loot. When government in desperation publicised the NIC order, we replied that neither labour nor the Nigerian people would obey a “black market” injunction.
It is not just government that abuses the NIC, private employers also do. Just two examples. An Indian company, AIRTEL, bought out Zain mobile services. It then decided to turn the Nigerian staff into casual workers. As part of the casualisation, salaries were cut by 60 per cent, annual leave reduced from 36 days to six days and the five-day work week increased from five to six with an eight-hour shift duty.
When the workers protested, 300 of them were sacked in Abuja alone. When the NLC appealed to the company to rescind its anti-worker decisions, it produced an NIC order restraining the NLC from interfering. But when the Congress began shutting down AIRTEL services beginning with five million lines in Abuja, the Indian directors and their lawyers rushed down to the NLC asking for a truce.
I declined to have a meeting with them. Rather, I told them to go get the NIC to save their business. After long pleadings, I told them NLC officers were too busy for such a meeting, but if they don’t mind, they could meet our middle level officials who will report back to me. Needless to say, they accepted all NLC conditions.
The Union Bank had management problems and Mrs. Funke Osibodu was brought in to run the bank. Soon there were disagreements with the union, including on the staff pension contributions. Over these, the management dismissed 13 labour leaders. When the senior staff union, ASSIBIFI, protested against the sack, union branch leaders were punitively transferred across the country. The management also illegally banned ASSIBIFI and seized the union offices.
When the NLC tried to engage the management in discussions, the bank management produced an order it had obtained from the NIC without putting the union on notice. In it, the NIC restrained the NLC from picketing or disrupting the operations of the bank. As if on cue, a senior official of the NLC announced that Congress had heard about the NIC order and would comply.
Also, soldiers and armed agents of the State Security Services, SSS, dressed in black and hooded like Ninjas were deployed to the bank premises. On February 14, 2011, Congress sent the Union Bank management a Valentine gift by ordering workers across the country to go to all branches of the bank ‘to open accounts’. The surge of workers in the bank branches led to their automatic shutdown and the management begged Congress and agreed to all terms.
The image of the NIC has not always been so, but, noticeably, it began to suffer the present calamity when government and lawyers connived to oust representatives of Labour and employers from the membership of the NIC. These representatives like Bernard Obua, former NLC Deputy General Secretary, had acted like a buffer protecting the NIC against crass legalism, government pressures and dictatorship, and insisting that its decisions should be based on the praxis of industrial relations, conciliation, arbitration and social justice; the primary reasons why the IAP and NIC had been established. So, the NIC lost its innocence.