In Nigerian labour and unionism, Joe Ajaero stands as a prominent figure, and his ascent to the Nigerian Labour Congress (NLC) presidency has garnered significant attention, though not without criticism.
Born on December 17, 1964, in Emekuku, Imo State, Ajaero’s journey began with a thirst for knowledge that led him to the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, where he obtained a bachelor’s degree in education in 1990.
His passion for journalism took him further, as he pursued a postgraduate diploma in Journalism at the Times Journalism Institute in 1994. Ajaero’s commitment to continuous learning is evident through his numerous certifications, including one from the International Professional Practice Partnership in Cape Town, South Africa, in 2003.
In 2023, he added a Law degree from Baze University, Abuja, showcasing his dedication to expanding his expertise.
Ajaero’s career trajectory began as a research officer at the One Mechanized Infantry Division Nigerian Army in Kaduna during his National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) year from 1990 to 1991.
Transitioning into the world of journalism, he served as a reporter, correspondent, and assistant news editor at Vanguard Newspapers from 1992 to 2001, gaining valuable insights into the power of communication and information dissemination.
In 2001, Ajaero took a pivotal turn in his career by joining the National Union of Electricity Employees (NUEE) as the Head of Training/Information, allowing him to engage deeply with labor issues. Since 2005, he has held the position of General Secretary of NUEE, solidifying his commitment to the welfare of electricity workers and their rights.
In 2015, Ajaero made headlines by forming a parallel executive within the Nigerian Labour Congress (NLC), describing it as reclaiming his “stolen mandate.” His dedication to workers’ rights and fair representation is a cornerstone of his leadership style.
On Wednesday, February 8, 2023, Ajaero made history by emerging unopposed as the National President of the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC). Since his emergence as the NLC head, the union has threatened to strike on multiple occasions.
Assessing Ajaero’s NLC leadership
Opinions on Joe Ajaero’s leadership vary widely among industry leaders and concerned Nigerians. Ajaero’s vocal opposition to the fuel subsidy removal has sparked a series of labour-related developments, including threats of nationwide strikes to address the rising cost of living. Some view his actions through a political lens, speculating about broader agendas.
Critics argue that Ajaero’s approach, marked by a lack of trust in public officials and reliance on outdated socialist principles, may hinder constructive policy discussions. Despite differing opinions, Nigeria’s legal guidelines for industrial actions are clear and calls for leaders to prioritise the people’s welfare over personal or political interests remain central to shaping policy outcomes.
Some Nigerians have accused the labour activist as front-loading the interest of the masses while indeed the ultimate goal is to “make personal gain.” They cite his role during the power privatization exercise in the power sector some years ago. Some have even gone ahead to say that the NLC’s push may not go far and that the negotiators may eventually throw the long-suffering Nigerians under the bus as they have always done. The current NLC struggle is not helped by its alliance with the Labour Party, which may have painted whatever push in the colour of politics.
Speaking to BusinessDay recently on Ajaero’s disposition and the manner he goes about his activism, a private sector operator, who chose not to be named, said: “This situation is really a window into the character and personal biases of Joe Ajaero himself and his desire to achieve political objectives through the instrument of pseudo-trade unionism. Matters are complicated by the overt stated relationship between the LP and the NLC/Organised Labour. When LP says it is backing the NLC what is their objective? Didn’t PO campaign on the same policy initiatives that BAT is now pushing? Is this Ajaero pushing back against stated government policy (take out the subsidy, let the Naira float, etc) or it is about a genuine move to preserve workers’ conditions of service? If so, why talk about “shutting down the economy” (did he really say this)?
Read also NLC, TUC suspend strike for 30 days
“None of this justifies shutting down the entire country. In any event, let us not forget that the NLC IS NOT a trade union itself. It is an umbrella body of trade unions. Therefore, if there is to be a general industrial action the members of the individual trade unions under the NLC MUST meet and vote for the declaration of a trade dispute first before going into industrial action. These are the requirements of the Trade Disputes Act. Even then, certain trade unions like those for electricity, health and emergency services workers, cannot go on strike except in very limited circumstances.
“If these considerations are not present, as I believe they are not, a general strike would be an act of illegality and if it is aimed at shutting down the economy, that arguably goes into the realm of sabotage. As always, Ajaero is trading on the popular negative sentiment that the general populace has against their leaders. So, the call on our leaders is to always act in good faith, with no personal or pecuniary interest in specific policy outcomes. If they adopt this, the NLC has neither a moral or a legal basis for this sort of action. The law (both legislation and court decisions) is clearly not on the NLC’s side. The Federal and State Governments need to stand up to the NLC.”
As one concerned Nigerian said: “Only time will unveil the true impact of Joe Ajaero’s presidency on Nigeria’s labour landscape.”
Some others who spoke with BusinessDay said that the NLC under Joe Ajaero may have lost the usual steam as a result of the reluctance of the South-West chapter of the union to align with the activities of the group because Bola Ahmed Tinubu, being a South Westerner, is the president of the country.
A local government staff, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said: “If you look at the history of successful NLC strikes, such strikes were being championed in Lagos. In those days, all the motor parks, shops, offices, banks, including the seat of government in Alausa were locked at the command of the NLC and everybody felt it. Today, the bus drivers are not interested because those who control the parks are not part of the NLC for obvious reasons. Again, the propaganda has been sown and many people bought it, that NLC is working for Peter Obi. These are the issues; it is not about Joe Ajaero or no Ajaero. If for instance, the president of this country was to be a PDP member from the North or any other place, you would have seen the vibrancy of the NLC and the effectiveness of the strikes. It is all politics my brother.”
Timeline of NLC’s strike threats under Ajaero
July 10, 2023: The Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) announced a nationwide strike for July 10, 2023, in protest of the rising cost of living and the government’s failure to address the demands of workers.
July 14, 2023: The NLC issued a strike notice to protest the Federal Government’s removal of fuel subsidy and the resultant increase in the price of petrol.
July 18, 2023: NLC announced nationwide indefinite strike action to protest fuel subsidy removal.
July 25, 2023: NLC suspended strike after the government agrees to meet some of its demands, including a 25% increase in the minimum wage.
July 27, 2023: NLC threatened to strike over removal of fuel subsidy.
August 4, 2023: NLC gave the Federal Government a two-week ultimatum to address concerns over fuel subsidy removal.
August 5, 2023: The NLC threatened a nationwide strike over the government’s decision to increase the price of fuel.
August 18, 2023: NLC issued a strike notice to the Federal Government over fuel subsidy removal.
September 1, 2023: NLC postponed strike for two weeks to allow for further negotiations with the Federal Government.
September 15, 2023: NLC extended strike postponement by one week.
September 15, 2023: The NLC threatened a nationwide strike over the government’s refusal to increase the minimum wage.
September 22, 2023: NLC issued a fresh strike notice to the Federal Government over fuel subsidy removal.
October 1, 2023: The NLC threatened a nationwide strike over the government’s failure to address the issue of insecurity.
October 2, 2023: NLC suspended planned strike for 30 days after reaching an agreement with the Federal Government.
October 3, 2023: The Federal Government made some concessions, including a temporary wage increase for government workers and a three-month income subsidy for poor households. The NLC and TUC agree to suspend the strike for 30 days to allow for further consultations.
The labour union anticipated a substantial increase in the National Minimum Wage, aiming for it to rise from the current N35,000 to somewhere between N100,000 and N200,000.
This substantial hike is seen as necessary due to the escalating cost of living in the country. The NLC had initially planned a strike over the rising costs of living crisis following the removal of fuel subsidy but called it off after negotiations with the government, which resulted in an agreement to establish a committee for a new minimum wage and an additional N35,000 payment for federal workers for six months to offset the fuel subsidy removal effects.
Ajaero emphasised that the N35,000 increase should not be confused with the new minimum wage, which labour leaders may demand to be as high as N200,000, considering factors like inflation and the cost of living in the negotiations.