The 2019 Nigerian general elections: what’s at stake for the working poor?

By Akhator Joel Odigie

With the Nigerian general election is just around the corner (16 February 2019), the campaigning is in full swing, but what are the demands of the working people of Nigeria and who is addressing them?

In the run-up to the 2015 elections, I wrote a similar piece looking at the demands of working families, and the main issues then, as now, remain: growing the economy in a way that goes beyond mere growth figures; making significant improvements to infrastructure, particularly electricity supply; tackling chronic insecurity in the country (from the Boko Haram insurgency in the north-east of the country to the intercommunal violence between herders and farmers in the country’s Middle Belt region); reining in private and public sector corruption in Nigeria, which despite being one of the world’s largest oil producers is home to the world’s greatest concentration of extreme poverty; and the expansion of social protection.

On the anti-corruption front, one of the most pressing issues in Nigeria, the ruling party at the centre has so far not taken full advantage of the solidarity of the Nigerian working people and the organised labour. Organised labour has organised several national rallies against corruption and tax evasion, and calling for government to prosecute corrupt persons without bias. Contrary to expectations, the strategy and approach of the current government are almost replicas of previous regimes. The carpet-crossing sainthood tactics to the anti-corruption war are cheap and irresponsible politics. Public looters only need to move from one party to another and overnight they are saints, deodorized and smelling righteousness.  At least, this is the case with former Governors of Abia State (Uzor Orji Kalu) and Akwa Ibom State (Goodwill Akpabio).The politicization of the anti-corruption fight is fast crippling institutions and agencies saddled and established for this purpose.

Of course, it is not only “the ogas [big men] at the top” that are corrupt. It is a systemic crisis fostered consciously to frustrate distribution justice. For instance, the persons and agencies responsible for our border integrity will shame you as a Nigerian with the outright, brazen and dehumanizing extortion they perpetrate day and night at the border routes. The Seme border is an exceptionally shameful case where toiling working poor, especially women and majority in the informal economy, are harassed, manhandled and traumatised all in the process to effect extortion. A 2016 study conducted by the Central Bank of Nigeria on Measuring Informal Cross-Border Trading (ICBT) in Nigeria revealed that the total informal trade across the selected borders during the period June 2013- May 2014 stood at N1, 090, 890.58 million (US$ 6,912.96 million), and that informal imports from Benin (Seme as one of the prominent) to Nigeria stands at N655, 612.500 million ($1,801,320). Corrupt practices distort and hamper trade.

Private sector corruption, which is actually far bigger than public sector corruption (read the African Union Mbeki Panel report on Illicit Financial Flows (IFFs) from Africa) remains business as usual. An evidence of this is the inability of the state to investigate and prosecute persons named in the leaked Panama Papers even when the Nigerian people demanded state action. The AU panel established that about half of the IFFs from Africa is perpetrated in Nigeria dominant in the oil, gas and mineral sector.

On the economy front, Nigerian households are still battling to recover even when we are told that the economy is out of recession. Many Nigerian workers are experiencing wage theft, mostly by federating states (Nigeria has 36 states) being the guiltiest. For instance, the government of Kogi state (North-Central region) is the worst and irresponsible culprit owing public sector workers over 7 months salaries

Increasing the minimum wage

Although the demands of Nigeria’s working people haven’t changed for the 2019 election but their needs are more urgent than ever before. Nigerian workers – the majority of whom constitute the working poor (own survey puts it at about 75% of the working population and majority in the informal economy), really want to see their fortunes change progressively.

Nigerian workers want to see an end to poverty wages. The struggle for the National Minimum Wage (NMW) should bring about this. This is because the “basic need basket” for a family of four calculated by organised labour was put at a minimum of N60, 000 (US$196) for basic consumption per month. The NMW should be seen for what it is and can do to stem poverty and inequality. It is primarily a wage anchor for which wages must not fall. It helps to protect the wages of workers and income of households, especially the majority in the informal economy without the support or representation of a union. It can contribute to improving the spending capacities of indigent households (although things are certainly harder for single female breadwinner households) to meet basic needs provisions.

Organised labour has been at the vanguard of demanding tax justice as part of our quest to shore up resource mobilisation capacities of the state aside being regular taxpayers through the Pay As You Earn (PAYE) income tax administration regime. For organised labour, increasing the revenue bases of government is partly aimed at defeating the argument of inability to pay. They are also of the view that resource availability will spur employment creation and the payment of decent wages, which are some of the time-tested means of defeating poverty and expanding the tax and revenue base.

Thus, workers in 2019 will not tolerate the threat of “no work, no pay” as being bandied around by the current Minister of Labour and Productivity and some state governors. Those threatening the application of this rule have never had their salaries and fat allowances delayed or unpaid. Strange still, the same persons forget the principle of “no pay, no work”. In fact, to be sounding and using threats even when parties to the negotiations (organised private sector and their labour counterpart) have reached an agreement only for the government as the other member of the tripartite negotiation process to be playing a two-faced agent provocateur bent on willfully posing threats to industrial harmony with the intent to turn around and blame it on those who take actions to defend their rights is unfortunate. Workers will not be forgiving of any arrangement that delay and deny payment and increment of wages. The latest on this is that fortunately, government has acceded to a new NMW.

Nigeria has one of the largest youth populations in the world, with at least half of its estimated 180 million-strong population estimated to be under the age of 30. This could be a massive asset to the country but the current dire socio-economic conditions – mainly massive underemployment and unemployment [both according to the National Bureau of Statistics stand at 40 per cent of the labour population] and the absence of social safety nets – are driving many young people to make regrettable choices, including embracing criminality and terrorism, the use of hard drugs and electing to undertake dangerous and desperate migration journeys through the Sahara desert and the Mediterranean Sea to Europe and elsewhere. Job creation must be beyond mere soapbox promises. Workers want to see real job creation initiatives that are devoid of political patronages. At least a minimum of 7 million new jobs in a year is estimated to be created. The current government promised to create 3 million jobs per year (12 million for 4 years). It achieved barely 2 million jobs thus far with less than seven months to her tenure termination.

Increased public spending on education to develop and upgrade employability skills and the creation of labour demand must be imaginatively considered in the job creation quests. Furthermore, genuine partnership and collaboration with other economies (like the OECD states and also south-south alliances) to mobilise support for schemes that productively engage young people could be considered. Programmes like the Erasmus plus skills development programme (an initiative that helps to take young person overseas to study with conditions of support for return and establishment) is one amongst many that could be considered.

The place of peace and security in the quest to attain stability and create spaces for productive activities cannot be overemphasized. Nigerian workers want their bread and the peace of mind to enjoy it. A 2016 Afrobarometer survey shows that 39 per cent of Nigerians consider security-related issues as one of the top three problems their country is facing. That figure two years later, as our own survey shows, has doubled and second only to economic despondency. Hundreds of workers, farmers and members of their families have lost their lives in civil conflicts and the use of lethal violence in non-civil conflict situations (such as armed robberies, extrajudicial murders and ritual killings). Nigerian workers want political leadership that is decisive, collaborative and just in tackling Nigeria’s chronic issues with insecurity. Being sensitive to class, ethnic, cultural and religious identities is critical.

The Nigerian workers, especially the working poor, in their quest to get their demands heeded will, to an extent, depend on how much loud and consistent “organised noise” they make about these demands.

So far, it is the young emerging Nigerians that want to ‘Take Back Nigeria’ that are canvassing and speaking to these demands. Others, notably the established parties and “known” candidates are relying on endorsements and parroting the usual sound bites that are not biting at the national crises and meeting the demands of the workers.

Imperatively, organised labour together with their progressive civil society allies must urgently recalibrate their efforts through mass rallies and town hall meetings to educate and sensitize their members, workers and communities of these demands and on how to use their votes to secure these demands. Nigerian workers must continue to keep hope alive, they must dream it and struggle for it so they can collectively celebrate good outcomes, soon.

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