By this weekend (specifically Friday June 21, 2013), Peter Esele, the incumbent president-general of the Trade Union Congress of Nigeria (TUC) will be stepping down as the first among equals in the gatherings of TUC- the umbrella body for senior staff associations in Nigeria. There are more than 30 of such associations affiliated to the TUC. Esele has served two terms of three years apiece.
Seeking to step into Esele’s shoes are Babatunde Ogun, president of Petroleum and Natural Gas Senior Staff Association of Nigeria (PENGASSAN) and Bobboi Kaigama, president of Association of Senior Civil Servants of Nigeria (ASCSN). They are to slug it out this week in what is expected to be a keenly contested election at the International Conference Centre, Abuja, Nigeria’s federal capital, where TUC has chosen as the venue for its triennial national delegates conference between Thursday (June 20 and Friday (June 21, 2013).
The gathering of the ‘industrial politicians’ and the accompanying politicking should be an interesting one because of the enviable position the TUC now occupies. One thing is never in dispute: the office of the president-general of the TUC has become more recognised, attractive and influential in the affairs of Nigeria. Not with all the powers to declare strike or threaten to ground the economy and then wait for the government to call for negotiations, or on the other hand, cajole Nigerian workers to support government policies and programmes when it suites.
Esele came into national limelight in 2005, when he got his colleagues’ endorsement to step in as the president of Petroleum and Natural Gas Senior Staff of Nigeria (PENGASSAN) following the death of M.I. Okoro in the ill-fated Sosoliso aircraft which crash-landed at the Port Harcourt International Airport in 2005. He was the deputy president of PENGASSAN in the Okoro-led executive.
Following his elevation to the office of the president of PENGASSAN, where he served for one term and lost re-election bid to Babatunde Ogun, Esele vied for and got elected as the president-general of TUC in 2006, beating Peace Obiajulu, the first female president-general of the congress in a keenly contested election.
Since mounting the saddle, he has enjoyed the support of his colleagues in the labour movement both at the senior staff level and junior staff (NLC). This has seen TUC and NLC collaborating to pursue issues of common interest to the Nigerian workers.
Under Esele and Abdulwaheed Omar, NLC president, the senior/junior staff dichotomy which was visible during Adams Oshiomhole (Comrade Governor of Edo State) as president of the NLC and Peace Obiajulu of TUC, has fizzled out.
This was demonstrated in the nationwide mass rallies to protest the withdrawal of petroleum subsidy by President Goodluck led administration in January 2012. But it is also to the credit of Esele and Omar, that unionism is not all about senseless activism, declaration of war or lending of unions as a platform for self-style individuals or groups to attempt overthrowing a constitutionally elected government; that there can always be a point at which labour leaders put the interest of their country and the well-being of her economy above other considerations.
This was the statesmanship that Esele parleyed with Omar to exhibit when they suspended the January 2012 anti-fuel subsidy strike at the point it was assuming a dangerous dimension with some politicians taking an undue advantage of it amidst killings in some cities in the country.
“Our goal of declaring that strike and sit-at-home order was to drive home the point that the fuel subsidy removal would bring hardship to the already impoverished Nigerian workers. It was not politically motivated.
“So when it became clear that some people were hiding under the guise of the labour strike to pursue an agenda different from the goal we set for ourselves as a labour movement, we had to suspend it,” Esele said in a chat with BusinessDay.
However, his explanations notwithstanding, some members of civil society still contend that the manner in which the strike was suspended by the organised labour without total reversal of the fuel pump price to N65 per litre as demanded was questionable.
But perhaps one achievement of Esele in the TUC aside upgrading the national headquarters of the congress in Lagos, and putting in place well defined administrative structure is the floating of the TUC Transport & Investment Company and acquisition of over 150 high capacity buses for mass transit with a loan of about N2.3 billion from Urban Development Bank. This has led a foundation for some financial independence for the congress beyond the conventional check-off due system which labour unions in Nigeria largely depend on.
For Kaigama, seeking to be elected as TUC’s number one man would offer him opportunity to consolidate on Esele’s achievements and thus take the trade centre higher. He told journalists he would execute a housing project and consolidate on the mass transit system established by the out-going administration.
He listed part of his achievements to include spearheading the last two upward review of salaries for civil servants in Taraba State, making the workers among the best paid in the north, saying also that as a branch chairman of his union, he instituted a welfare programme for the union members, “which now stands at about N70 million.”
On his part, Ogun said if elected, he would fight to restore workers compensation and dignity. “We will ensure that the government strictly follows the regulations of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) in terms of workers wage.
“We will fight for all forms of workers. Workers in the formal and informal sectors of the economy have equal rights. It is time for the income of Nigerians workers to change. Every year we fight for increase in salary, it is not going to be like that again,” said Ogun.
Other labour leaders in Ogun’s team which christened itself `harmony team’ include; Sunday Salako, president of the Association of Banks Insurance and Financial Institutions (ASSBIFI) who is seeking election as deputy president and Ambi Karuof Textile, Garment and Tailoring Senior Staff Association of Nigeria (TGTSSAN) seeking to be elected as public relations officer.