Mazi Sam Ohuabunwa
Labour Day, minimum wage brouhaha & the political space
I was enthused when I heard Pastor Poju Oyemade of the Covenant Christian Centre talk of political cats and dogs at the Platform which he convenes every year on the 1st of May. By the way, that day is usually observed in Nigeria as public holidays in commemoration of Labour Day or workers’ day. This year’s May Day was very eventful and for me there were a couple of issues that drew my attention.
The First was the issue of minimum wage for workers in Nigeria. The Nigerian Labour Congress (NLC) was pitching for a new minimum monthly wage of N56,500. Some other labour leaders were demanding more, up to N90, 000 and there were arguments back & forth. Some commentators insisted that the demand was unrealistic. To Triple or quadruple minimum wage at one go would drive inflation up. What of the ability of employers, especially the state governments to pay? They cited the huge unpaid salary backlogs in many states despite several bailouts and wondered what would happen if such states had the burden of paying salaries and other worker emoluments at such new rates. One commentator specifically cautioned that the total financial implication of whatever rate is finally agreed must be painstakingly determined by all parties to avoid a possible reign of strikes and disruption of the economy that would arise if employers find the burden unbearable. He reminded us that the real impact of the new minimum wage would be on benefits, as much of the benefits- housing allowance, transport allowance, leave allowance pension contribution etc are all linked to basic salary. Our attention was drawn to the fact that the minimum wage applies to all-public, private and NGOs, therefore much of the argument that the states will be in a position to pay if they reduced security votes or became more efficient does not apply to the private sector where most of the SMEs are gasping for air. Some others cautioned the federal government not to use the minimum wage as political bait as the reality will dawn after the elections. Over 70% of the federal government budget is spent on recurrent expenditure with salaries and emoluments contributing the lion share. Certainly any steep rise in the minimum wage will worsen the ratio and so the FGN must be very rational in coming to a new minimum wage and must avoid playing to the gallery or allowing itself to be stampeded by the fat labour leaders. For me, I agree that the minimum wage should be revised once in a while in line with changes in the econometrics of the nation but I insist it should be by negotiation between employers and employees. It must never be imposed on the employers because ability to pay is a pre-requisite for salary negotiation and critical for harmonious industrial relations climate.
The second issue that drew my attention was the accusation by Governor Nyesom Wike that the labour and its leaders were selfish. He wondered why they would just focus on increasing minimum wage and other benefits for themselves and then remained silent on the daily killing of Nigerians across the nation, particularly in the middle belt by the militant Fulani cattle herdsmen. He told them that they were the same ones that participated in the ‘occupy Nigeria ‘ strikes in 2012 because of some increase in the price of PMS but remained silent in the face of the higher increase in recent times. In effect, he was accusing them of bias. They were willing tools in the campaign against President Jonathan & PDP and have failed to rise up against APC and President Buhari when worse things have happened in the polity. While I agree with the observation that the labour has not been sufficiently vocal in condemning the serial killing of innocent Nigerians including workers by herdsmen and other sundry marauders, I think that the problem is with the ineffectiveness of the opposition parties. If what is happening in Nigeria today happened when PDP was in power, the APC would have roasted them and certainly would have led a national revolt, including possible impeachment of the President. Therefore my point is that Wike should not blame the labour leaders for being apparently blind to the mayhem going on in Nigeria, but should blame his party for lacking the organizational skills to motivate the labour and the civil society to action as APC did when they were in opposition. My free advisory is that they should hire a spokesperson in the mould of my good friend- Lai Mohammed, a phenomenal social mobilizer.
The third issue which actually motivated this piece was the statement referenced at the beginning of this article. Many of the speakers at the Platform enjoined their mostly young listeners to go and get their PVCs so that they could vote in the right people to political offices in 2019. They insisted that the youth had the power to change the sad story that Nigeria had become and encouraged all to take their fate in their hands. But then Poju threw in this clincher: “If the electorate are confronted with a choice between cats and dogs, what would they do?” This got many people laughing but I thought this was not a matter to laugh about as it seemed to be at the core of some of the critical challenges we have had in making political choices at elections. What kind of candidates do we have? How do we choose between political cats and political dogs?
Who are political cats? Politicians who act like cats. Treacherous, predatory and mischievous. They pretend to be calm and conscientious but their whole focus is on the rat and they often ambush the rat and eat the food meant for the children. These are the politicians who meander and manipulate themselves to power but all they seek is for self. Quite often they take the electorate for granted and mess them up, feeding fat on their misery. Who are the political dogs? Politicians who act like dogs; aggressive, predatory, violent and poisonous. They are the politicians who make so much noise, fight and growl to get power. But their main objective is the flesh and bone, sometimes of the constituent. As dogs bark when hungry, these politicians can do anything to satisfy their needs and as dogs can turn against its owner or the family and friends of the owner, these politicians can give the lives of their opponents and sometimes friends to get to power or to remain in power. Making a choice between these two sets of predatory, self-seeking and self-centred politicians can be tough. And quite often in Nigeria, that’s the only choice we are allowed.
And that is the point Poju was making. Beyond getting our PVCs and coming out to vote, we need both to increase and improve the choices we can make on election day. That then raises the issue of how leaders emerge in our country. What must we do to allow credible and tested candidates emerge from party primaries? That is the true challenge. Anybody who has tried it will tell you that it is a very capital intensive project, especially in the main political parties. The delegates who vote for candidates at the party primaries often have one objective in mind- to maximize their take home from the exercise. Often the quality of the candidate takes a secondary consideration and that’s how we often end up with cats & dogs. Therefore the revolution will come only when can find a way to minimize the impact of money in Nigerian politics. We need to identify credible candidates in the different political parties and encourage and support them through primaries. That is our present challenge and we really need help.
Mazi Sam Ohuabunwa OFR
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