By Atiku Abubakar
Ex VP, Atiku Abubakar
Nigerian workers, I congratulate you for this day. I salute your courage and resilience going through one of the most trying economic times in Nigeria’s history. But these challenges are showing how resilient and hardworking Nigerians are and that your indomitable spirit and work ethic will continue to go unchallenged throughout all of Africa.
These values have been the bedrock of Nigeria’s labour movement since its beginning. A movement which started off to protect the welfare of railways workers and later coal miners in the days of colonial administrations in Nigeria. A movement that has grown in height and status as the single largest rights protection organisation, representing not less than sixty million workers in our country.
Owing to the sheer size of its membership, the labour movements in Nigeria – under the umbrellas of the Nigeria Labour Congress and the Trade Union Congress – have evolved to become the pivot of governments’ objectives of delivering good governance and providing higher standard of living.
Over the years, our labour movements have negotiated higher wage regimes for the Nigerian worker and it (labour) has remained a key component in the consideration for how much Nigerians pay on fuel and energy consumption. These are noble ideals that have ensured that Nigerians have more disposable income – an important safeguard for the kick-start of a prosperous economy.
Having been in government at a high level and being a private sector player with thousands of Nigerians on the payroll of my companies mean that I have seen first-hand the needs of workers both in the private and public sectors and the importance of the labour movement.
But as I have stated throughout my adult life, true federalism and a proper decentralisation of resources and functions away from the government at the center to the governments at the state tier of our governmental structure is key to providing the labour force what they need and deserve. I believe that our federal government will become smarter when it is smaller and more flexible in addressing the needs of our labour force.
But we must have tangible solutions to address the needs of our incredible and talented labour force. Let’s engage our leaders on the following:
1. Minimum wage: It is my firm belief that whoever works should be adequately rewarded. The reward of a service well rendered is a reasonable wage that can keep the earner sensibly motivated to put in his best. The minimum wage of ₦18,000 per month (less than $50), as is currently obtained in the country, considering the current economic reality is not only ill-motivating but embarrassing.
While it is adequate that the federal government can set the standard for the national minimum wage, such a national minimum should however not be interpreted by respective state governments (especially the rich states) as being the maximum wage they should pay to their workers but simply the baseline for them to build on.
2. Industrialisation: The continuing rate of de-industrialisation in our economy is of grave concern. Particularly our manufacturing sector which is supposed to create jobs for our productive youths, has continued to face decline as a result of unfavourable conditions imposed by the challenges of epileptic power supply, high cost of credit, and multiple exchange rate regime and in extreme case inadequate foreign exchange supply and depreciating value of the naira.
This trend must be reversed. Ability to broker the required synergy with international partners and the private sector in key sectors of the economy such as automobile, textiles, agro allied petrochemicals, fertilisers and pharmaceutical industries, building materials, milling, paper and paper products, solid minerals, iron and steel, etc., should be the basis for the 2019 engagement with the organised labour and the Nigerian people.
3. Education: Our Educational Sector has continued to suffer decline. Agreements freely entered into by the Unions and the government have experienced serious setbacks as a result of the authorities’ penchants for reneging.
This has persistently left us with a demotivated academic and non-academic Unions in the higher institution whose understandable resort to incessant strikes have rendered our institutions of higher learning comatose and pushes a substantial number of our youths out of the shores of the country in search of a more stable academic calendar and quality scholarship. This has exerted tremendous pressure on the foreign exchange of the country aided capital flight.
Funding for the educational sector has remained decimally low. The country has over the years, performed far below the international standard in terms of annual appropriation to the education sector. This problem cuts across all tiers of government. As we speak today, the Central Bank of Nigeria is in custody of billions of Naira, funds representing the Federal Government’s share of the Universal Basic Education Fund, which state governments are expected to draw from by paying their own counterpart funding. Majority of the states have failed to benefit from this fund because they have not provided the required matching funds.
I am a firm believer in our youths and the height at which they can take this country if accorded quality and affordable education. We have seen what investment in education has done to the economies of the Asian countries. Nigeria has a better potential if a little more attention is accorded to developing our human resources through the education of our youth and adult population. We must increase funding for our education and research institutions where the foundational rubrics of our development can be hatched and nurtured.
4. Healthcare delivery. Nigeria’s Healthcare delivery system is in shambles. The system is exposed to poor funding and massive corruption. The rot in the system is so deep that unless a drastic measure is taken to comprehensively address it, the country might lose the chance to be a global player when its citizens can’t have access to quality health care that is affordable.
There is an urgent need to make serious commitments to massive investment in the healthcare delivery system. We need a leadership that can gather enough investment in the upgrade of infrastructure and procurement of modern healthcare technology and equipment for our hospitals and primary and secondary healthcare facilities.
This would drastically reduce the annual lose to medical treatment abroad. It is on record that Nigeria loses so much annually as a result of capital flight and medical tourism. We must work to ensure that the Africa Union’s Ministers of Health minimum benchmark/threshold of at least 15% annual budget for healthcare is not just an aspiration but a target that must be surpassed.
5. Pension: I was one of the apostles of pension reform when I was in Government. We initiated and got the pension reform act passed into Law to address the serious challenge that turns our workers into beggars after retirement. Recently, there seems to be a deterioration in the administration of pension in the country. Incidences of MDAs and other employers withholding deductions from workers’ salaries and not remitting same to their Pension Fund Administrators (PFAs); cases of workers leaving public service and having to wait for up to 15-18 months for their pension issues to be processed; and non-payment for those who are already pensioners – especially by state governments are becoming not just rampant but alarming. This indeed needs to be seriously addressed.
Many state governments are yet to join the Contributory Pension Scheme (CPS). It is apparent that despite all the hitches associated with the Contributory Pension Scheme, its benefits cannot be compared to its shortcomings. A critical factor here is that it is funded, and the funds once paid into the Retirement Savings Accounts (RSAs) of workers, are protected from the general mismanagement and misappropriation that we see at virtually all levels of governance.
These reforms once embraced by the government and political parties of all shades will expand our economic base and address the needs of empowering our youths, and there is no doubt that the labour movement in Nigeria has a huge role to play in ensuring that the objectives are met.
In closing if we truly wish to address the needs of all Nigerians. If we wish to end the violence, extremism, and terrorism that grip our nation. If we wish to create a nation where we can see and hug our children and grandchildren every day and not only see them when they return from foreign lands where they have a better quality of life. We must create jobs and develop an economy that unites us and gives all of us a common purpose of building this great nation into what it truly can be. The weapon to fix this great nation is not one purchased from a foreign government, but one that is found within each and every one of us – the weapon of pride and an unyielding desire to work and succeed. If we allow this weapon to reach its maximum potential by empowering our labour force then we would have set the standard for a rebirth that will unite us, protect us, and get Nigeria working again.
God bless Nigerian workers
God bless the Federal Republic of Nigeria.