12th September, 2011
The cat and mouse game between labour leaders and the Enugu State Government came to a head on Thursday last week when security operatives placed under house arrest the President of the Nigeria Labour Congress, NLC, Abdulwaheed Omar, the leader of the Trade Union Congress, TUC, Peter Esele and other officials of organised labour.
They had gone to Enugu to organise a rally to protest the nonpayment of the N18,000 minimum wage by the Governor Sullivan Chime-led administration.
The peaceful rally was being organised after the 14-day ultimatum the labour gave the government to implement the minimum wage elapsed on 7 September.
Rather than negotiate with the labour leaders, the governor resorted to arm-twisting tactics and treating them with scorn by sending security operatives to prevent them from leaving Gold Valley Hotel, New Haven, Enugu, where they lodged. They were placed under house arrest for over three hours. Omar and others were allowed to leave after the Presidency intervened.
The action reminded Nigerians about the inglorious military era when pro-democracy activists and labour leaders were bludgeoned by the military leaders who brooked no opposition or genuine agitation of any kind. There could have been a serious breakdown of law and order in Enugu last Thursday if the labour leaders were not released.
Whoever advised Chime to take such an undemocratic and crude action did not wish him well and if Chime himself took that thoughtless action, he ended up shooting himself in the foot. You donâ€™t fight the organised labour and win. Chime must be regretting his action, which irked the labour leaders who eventually declared an indefinite strike in the state.
Our leaders must learn to be on the side of the people at all times. The huge number of workers â€“ civil servants, factory workers, electricity workers, road transport workers and civil society organisations that participated in the rally attested to the fact that workers in the state were not ready for the governorâ€™s divide and rule tactics. Holding the labour leaders hostage in order to abort the rally did not dampen the spirit of the workers who stood solidly behind their leaders. Before the rally, the governor harassed labour leaders in the state for demanding for the minimum wage.
Governor Chime should come down from his high horse and negotiate with the workers in order to end the strike which has already paralysed economic activities in the state. Whichever way he looks at it, only dialogue will resolve the issue at hand. Elected leaders like Chime should avoid taking actions that could undermine democracy. They should shed their military toga and embrace democratic and civilised methods of resolving conflict. If the incensed workers had taken violent action when their leaders were detained, it would have shattered the existing peace in the state.
It is the right of workers to express their legitimate grievances through peaceful protest. Suppressing such right is alien to democratic dispensation. The detention and harassment of labour leaders is a crude approach to resolving labour dispute and should not be allowed to happen again. Other states are already paying the minimum wage in spite of their lean resources. Why is Enugu different? The government could cut wastages in other areas in order to have enough funds to pay the hew minimum wage.