Comrade Joe Ajaero, a former Labour reporter who has risen to lead the Labour movement in Nigeria as the President of the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC), was recently battered in his line of duty by hoodlums while in police custody. Imo State Police Command spokesman, Okoye Henry, had claimed that Ajaero was not arrested during the November 1, 2023 protest in Owerri over unpaid workers’ salaries. Henry said Ajaero was in “protective custody”. The sort of “protection” he received shocked well-meaning Nigerians. In this interview, Ajaero addresses issues that have featured between Labour and government since President Bola Tinubu was sworn-in on May 29, 2023 till date.
Why did you go to Owerri where you had this rough experience?
I went to Owerri in furtherance of my trade union activities. That’s how I move, from state to state. That’s how every trade union moves to where there are challenges. I am not the first President of the NLC, and I will not be the last. Where there are problems, either at the industrial council level or the state council level…we have 36 state councils and Abuja. Where the problem seems bigger than them, the national body wades in. We were in Kaduna on an issue like this. We were in Imo during the time of Governor Rochas Okorocha. A similar situation arose in the case of Governor Nyesom Wike in Rivers. I went to Imo because workers in the state were declared “ghost workers”.
The first set of victims told us that Governor Uzodimma said the wage bill of the state was N1.2 billion and that he was only prepared to pay N700 million. Between that time and now, it has been back and forth. But the thing assumed a dangerous dimension when the governor claimed that he had paid everybody. Had he paid something and promised to the rest when the economy improves, there would have been a way out.
The second reason we went there was the issue of violence. During Rochas’ time, he appointed someone as Chairman of the NLC, someone who was not within the hierarchy of the union. He moved into that place, took it over for over nine months. The legitimate Chairman left the state and we didn’t have Chairman. When we wanted to elect officers in Imo State this year, Uzodimma’s Commissioner for Information, Declan Emelumba, called me. They said they did not want ‘candidate A’. I said “OK, let me give you free advice. If you want candidate B, support him. If you like, give him money. NLC as a body cannot disqualify any candidate if he has met the criteria for election”.
On the day of election, thugs and the police led by a DPO came to disrupt the election. When the election became inconclusive, we appointed a caretaker committee in Imo, Abia and Osun where similar situation obtained. Some people who called themselves Elders in Imo asked us to give them two weeks; that they will talk to the governor and make peace. Even in industrial relations, we can have informal conciliators. It is allowed all over the world. Till today, those Elders have not gotten back to us. During May Day this year, Governor Uzodimma brought some people as “Labour leaders”. He sent letters to leaders of town unions and market unions so they will stand as workers unions at the Heroes Square. Our members and genuine workers went to do their own at our secretariat. The law enforcement agencies and thugs went there and beat our people, and some of them were hospitalized. They vandalized and destroyed everything. The governor of Ogun State called me on Whatsapp and said “speak to your brother”. I said “who is my brother?” Uzodimma asked, “Why are you fighting me? I said “I am not fighting you. I have not met you in my entire life. Pay workers”. We started negotiations. As we were negotiating, Uzodimma said he would like to see every paragraph. And I said “give him”. He was cancelling them. When he was done, I said “is that what you want?” We agreed to sign. Still he did not honour what he signed. People were calling me every day. People were dying. A husband and wife died because both of them were categorized as “ghost workers”. He later claimed that he did not implement the agreement because he had been very busy. It was the DSS that told us that Governor Uzodimma said he was not owing anybody. I said no, that even the headmistress in the primary school I attended had not been paid. Early this year, this lady had been invited for promotion interview which means she is in the system, contrary to the claim that she is a ghost worker. She is retiring this month, and she has not been paid for over three years. If she retires she will equally become a ghost pensioner. So when we arrived for the mass action, we talked to the workers. There were thousands of them. I told them to come back the following day for us to march together and submit a protest letter. The following day when these workers were trooping out they were being beaten up. Around nine a.m., I decided to go and talk to the press. I got there with about 20 security personnel.
The governor also sent security men and his people and they all descended there. They withdrew my security personnel and ordered my arrest. The Police Area Commander arrested me and handed me over to thugs who then had a field day. They blindfolded me and were beating me throughout. They said I should say my last prayer and tell them why I was challenging Hope Uzodimma; that they were taking me to Njaba River. Later they took me to the office of the Commissioner of Police where the blindfold was removed.
They had also arrested and handcuffed two TVC cameramen. They ordered me into another bus. The bus took me to Tiger Base, which is reputed as a very dangerous area. Later they took me back to the office of the CP. The CP apologized and pretended to be harassing the officers who were manhandling me. I was taken to the police clinic where I established contact with my people, and I was taken to the Federal Medical Centre. All the security agencies were acting out a script.
Who do you think gave the order for you to be beaten? Some have insinuated that it could have been an order from “above”, meaning Aso Villa over residual political grievances?
Even if it was an order from Abuja, it was Uzodimma who carried it out. Mr President couldn’t do this. The day we had a rally in Abuja, he sent for us. I was still wearing the clothes I wore to the rally when we went to see him. We articulated all the issues that led to the protest. The other time we gave notice for action, he came with a nationwide broadcast and offered N25, 000, and we said no. He conceded to N35, 000, conceded to not just making it for six months, conceded to not giving it only to the least paid worker. You can see that the President is open for negotiations. He did not say go and beat them up. Up till yesterday that Uzodimma was declared or appointed by INEC for a second term, he has been giving reasons why Joe Ajaero must be killed. Even after the apology that is on the internet, he keeps talking about why Joe Ajaero should not come to Imo State.
What has been your experience with the Bola Tinubu government since he assumed power? Would you say he is Labour-friendly?
I have earlier hinted you that President Bola Tinubu is a leader who believes in dialogue and negotiations, and he is capable of give-and-take. But the Bola Tinubu government is another story. There is a lot of confusion in the administration on who handles Labour matters. Over the years, right from the regime of Obasanjo, Labour affairs rested on the shoulders of the Secretary to the Government of the Federation and the Labour Minister. When Yar’ Adua came, it was Babagana Kingibe, the SGF. When Jonathan was President, it was Anyim Pius Anyim. And during Buhari’s presidency, it was Boss Mustapha. I don’t know the system of engagement that the Tinubu government is evolving. The Minister of Labour in the Tinubu government is not there. Apart from an introductory meeting in his office, he does not call the shots. The Chief of Staff to the President, Femi Gbajabiamila, calls the shots. Meetings take place in his office. He is a personal staff of Bola Ahmed Tinubu. He was not among the people the National Assembly cleared. Therefore, whatever he signs off on is strictly for his principal, not for the Federal Government of Nigeria. The second worrying signal is the use of courts. It is only in this administration that any time we serve notice of strike or protest, a competent court gives warning for us not to proceed. An Appeal Court ruling has affirmed that protests are allowed all over the world. The duty of the police is to protect protesters. Court gives order to precede negotiations, so that the negotiators will be under duress. These two or three areas are worrying signals. And they have destroyed the courts. The Minister of Labour, Simon Lalong, is a lawyer. He should know that the right to strike is an inalienable one. The Nigerian government must learn to allow the sanctity of agreements to prevail. These are some of the challenges we are having in our democratic dispensation.
There have been a number of exchanges between Labour and government is the past six months. Most of the time, Labour threatens to go on strike. Many Nigerians are saying that Labour is a sellout, and Labour should no longer be taken seriously to stand for the common man. What is your response to that?
The credibility of Labour under my watch can’t be questioned. This notion is coming from misinformation from within this government. Government and their handlers are touting the misinformation that Labour has been compromised, that Labour has been given money, to discredit some of us, which they have failed to succeed in doing. I was Secretary and Chairman of Labour in Vanguard before I pulled out and joined the mainstream Labour and, because of my interest, not because that is where the money is. It is unfortunate that 99.9% of Nigerians have not received Labour and industrial education. If my members say they want N5, 000, and we meet government, ask for it, negotiate for it and government is not ready to give it to us, we will declare a strike. And the whole country is hearing about it. If a day to the strike, government invites us to a meeting, we will attend that meeting. If the government gives us that N5, 000, there will be no strike. If we attend that meeting, and government says it cannot afford that N5, 000 and it brings out the data, we will consider that, because ability to pay is at the centre of negotiations. If the government earns N10 million and the wage bill is N12 million, the demand for N5, 000 cannot work. We may sign agreement and collect N3, 000 subject to upward review when the economy gets better. You will hear that Labour has signed agreement. These are the issues that people out there need to understand. But now they carry our burden on their heads, that Labour has been compromised. This is the way it is done in industrial relations. The essence of bargaining is to reach agreement that is implementable.
A radio analyst said Labour should have occupied the National Assembly over the N200 million cars for members of the National Assembly…
For some time now, Nigerians have abdicated their responsibilities. Labour does not have more than ten million Nigerians who are our members. Other Nigerians are shouting Labour. But they have not given us the constitutional responsibility to be the policemen of this country. When I was a student, I was a students’ union leader. That time, in 1988, Labour was dissolved. It was students – National Association of Nigerian Students (NANS) – that made sure that the country was shut down. Babangida came out to say that this was a civilian coup. There was general hardship in the country. He created DFRRI, MAMSER, People’s Bank, Road Safety, and so on, in order to create one million jobs. Nigerians came out to say enough is enough. It wasn’t Labour. In 1993 when the June 12 election was annulled, Babangida and Abacha dissolved Labour. It was the civil society groups, such as the Civil Liberties Organisation (CLO), Campaign for Democracy (CD) and independent Labour groups like NUPENG and PENGASSAN that came out. I say this because an action that all Nigerians should come out to challenge, they say Labour. During the EndSARS protests, it wasn’t Labour. The youth of this country said “enough is enough”. There may be some Labour people there. There may be students there. There may be everybody there. Everybody saw how effective the EndSARS protest was. The Buhari government was forced to make lot of concessions. People are saying, “Labour, go and seize the National Assembly”. Is it only Labour money that they are using to buy those cars? When Labour occupied the National Assembly, most Nigerians behaved as if it did not concern them. The Nigerian people elected those people to represent them. Our own members elected us to represent them. Did Labour ask you to elect those people? And all the political parties, none of their members will say “no, I am APC, PDP, I will not collect this money”. All hands must be on deck to face the challenges that confront the nation, and not to leave them to Labour alone when we already have our hands full.
How far is Labour preparing to go for the big battle ahead, the battle over the new national minimum wage? How much are you going to ask as the new NMW? I ask this against the background of the profligate tendencies of the Tinubu regime amidst scarce resources.
There was a time we said we were going to ask for $200. Then it was translated to about N200, 000. It depends on the indices which will unfold at the time we negotiate. It will be wrong for somebody to announce a figure now. Unless the issues of inflation rate, value of the Naira, cost energy, food inflation are dealt with, whatever they give as the NMW will be practically worthless within a short time. If we were paid N30, 000 and our currency was at par with the dollar or even N5 to the dollar, we are blest. The cost of living index is central. How can I buy a bag of rice for N50, 000 and collect a salary of N30,000? How can I buy bread at N1, 000 when I earn N30,000? That means me and my family will only eat bread throughout the month, no pure water, transport, rent, school fees, medicare and other necessities. If we refine crude oil here in Nigeria, the pressure on the Naira will reduce, and it is bound to positively affect the cost of energy. These are the things government must pursue. Right now, we are selling crude oil high and buying its finished product higher because we import. Government used to pay for the difference, but now it has been passed over to the people. When that time comes, all these factors will be at play to determine what we will do.
There was this question we put to President Tinubu. We asked him why he is running a bloated government. He said he was creating jobs!Who said that?
President Tinubu. He said all the people being appointed, that is a form of job creation. My colleague in the TUC now reminded him that those appointees will have their own aides, and the President said yes, it is job creation. That was how he responded to us.
Did he say it as a joke?
That was his response to us. He said nothing else on a serious note.
The affiliation of Labour to the Labour Party seems to be a tool of political blackmail, especially in the hands of the Federal Government and ruling APC, who now say you are playing partisan politics. Do you think it was a mistake for the NLC to associate itself with a political party, or have a partisan agenda?
One, it is what Labour parties all over the world do. Two, if Labour does not play politics, who will play politics? Labour is politics, politics is Labour. 419 people, scammers are now governors who refuse to pay workers their legitimate wages. Politics should be left for armed robbers?
A former IGP went to the Senate and was shocked at the number of fraudsters he prosecuted sitting in the hallowed chambers as senators. Soldiers are politicians. Two retired generals have been Presidents of this country. Are they more qualified than Labour? Bring all those people who are criticizing Labour’s role in politics and let us compare their consciousness and my consciousness and see if they can talk when we are talking. Labour’s involvement in politics started as far back as 1917 or 1918. Wallace Johnson, a journalist from Sierra Leone, was the first to set up a Labour Party in Nigeria. He lived in Lagos. In the 1930s and 1940s it took an alliance between the Michael Imoudu-led Labour, the Zikist Movement and Aminu Kano’s party, after the 1945 Nigerian Railway workers’ strike, to fight for Nigeria’s independence with great consciousness. In 1954, the same Imoudu and others set up Labour Party which existed till the intervention of the military in 1966. In 1987, Comrade Paschal Bafyau set up Labour Party that came fourth during Babangida’s political experiment.
That Labour Party merged with the SDP which won the 1993 presidential election. Frank Kokori was the National Publicity Secretary of the SDP. Paschal Bafyau was to be the vice presidential candidate of the SDP. When Chief Abiola was in detention, it took Paschal Bafyau to go to court to secure Abiola’s bail, but his supporters prevailed on him not to come out because the bail was conditional. In 2003, Adams Oshiomhole, as NLC President, set up the current Labour Party, LP. An alliance between Oshiomhole’s Labour Party and Tinubu’s Action Congress made Oshiomhole the Governor of Edo State. The same Oshiomhole later became the APC National Chairman. Each time Labour is taking a stand for the salvation of this country, you see a lot of blackmail trailing it. My colleague, Comrade Nasir Irish, is the Governor of Kebbi State; we were both Deputy Presidents. He is in the APC. Another person who was the state Chairman of the NLC is now the Deputy Governor of Niger State. Nobody says every Labour person must be in Labour Party. I have attended two political rallies. One for Oshiomhole during his inauguration as the Governor of Edo State, and the second was for the Governor of Kebbi State. Many people told me they were expecting me to be at the inauguration of Dr Alex Otii as the Labour Party Governor of Abia State. We formed Labour Party so as to provide easy tickets for struggling Nigerians who wanted to contest elections. A political party sold its presidential nomination form for N100 million! When we analysed the situation, we said we needed a political party where the son of nobody can achieve any height in Nigeria. We have achieved that. As we talk today, two Okada riders are members of the National Assembly on Labour Party tickets. A messenger, a clerk can come and we will give him form. We have no apologies for that. The Governor of Imo State, was he a messenger anywhere? Was he a clerk anywhere? If you bring a clerk here, he will know there is admin department, there is finance department, he must come to work at a particular time in the morning, and if he comes late, he knows what is waiting for him. If a person like that becomes a public officer, he will know the sacredness of certain things, like ensuring that those who work get their wages. Let me make it clear. The NLC cannot be part of any political party except the Labour Party.
However, our members are free to join any party of their choice. Indeed, majority of our members are affiliated with other parties. Peter Obi who is always being mentioned became the presidential candidate of the Labour Party before I emerged as NLC President. We will not be deterred in our effort to help make the Labour Party the party that will meet the aspirations of all Nigerians. There is fear about anything Labour. That was why when we registered a political party we called it the Party for Social Democracy (PSD). It was during our national conference that we changed the name to Labour Party. For political jobbers to be attacking us because of our legitimate affiliations, it is uncalled for.