Buffalo soldiers

Kayode Robert Idowu


BUFFALO soldiers historically were all-Black personnel of the United States Army who served on that country’s Western frontier following the American civil war, and were carved into cavalry and infantry regiments by the 1866 Army Organization Act. Established by Congress as the first peacetime all-black squads in the regular U.S. Army, their functions involved settling railroad disputes, building telegraph lines, repairing and building garrisons (Americans call these ‘forts’), helping the settler population to colonise lands violently taken from native Indians and protecting the colonisers from the displaced natives seeking to reclaim their homeland. Although they mainly served the interest of their Caucasian masters, legendary Reggae icon, the late Bob Marley, in his famous song titled ‘Buffalo Soldiers,’ linked the exploits of these servicemen to survival fighting and recast them as symbolising of black resistance. Incidentally, it was Marley as well who taught the wisdom of measured battles in his lyrics, to wit ‘He who fights and runs away lives to fight another day.’

This piece isn’t about the American military, but we have our own buffalo soldiers. They ideally embody the collective struggle for survival by Nigerian masses, but some times they end up serving narrow class interests against the masses they purport to represent. You guessed right: we are talking about the leaders of Nigeria’s labour movement who recently appointed themselves arrowheads to get some relief for Nigerians from crushing effects of government’s floatation of domestic fuel price, tagged deregulation, and the introduction of ‘cost reflective tariff’ of electricity by which some consumers are to pay 100 percent more than previous rates. Labour had sabre-rattled over those policies, which it rightly argued left many Nigerians in life threatening penury. But on the day of battle, labour leaders settled for appeasement of narrow interests by government and pulled back. Mind you, it would’ve been okay if they said all along they were heading into battle for those narrow interests; rather, they touted calling the fight not just on behalf of unionised workers, but also grassroots Nigerians facing existential struggles in the present economic milieu. Yet, what they came away with from crisis talks with government upon which they held their fire has left many wondering what’s been gained by ordinary Nigerians.

Recall that both the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) and Trade Union Congress (TUC) had said they were calling a joint strike because of the severe erosion of citizens’ purchasing power resulting from the twin price hike.  In serving government notice, NLC President Ayuba Wabba said the policies “brought about high cost of goods and services, which has completely eroded the gains of the N30,000 minimum wage,” adding that the price increases were “biting every worker and every family.” For his part, TUC President Quadri Olaleye argued that the issues at stake were not limited to workers but affected the general populace. Rejoining to a criticism by Labour and Employment Minister Chris Ngige that TUC’s letter of ultimatum was misplaced because it was addressed to President Muhammadu Buhari rather that to him as the official recognised by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) to presently oversee labour matters in Nigeria, Olaleye had said: “We are talking about issues that affect the general population of the country…This one is beyond labour matters.  We are not talking about salary increase here, we are talking of something that affects members of the union and the general populace.”

With government’s argument that it had recorded a whooping 60 percent decline in national revenue, and hence that it could no longer bear fuel subsidy – or any other subsidy for that matter – especially with no provision made for such expenditure in the 2020 budget, no realist expected it would roll back those policies just because labour so demanded. Neither, for most part, was there hunger for willy-nilly strike by labour. But it was hoped labour’s challenge was an opportunity to make government come up with concrete frameworks that would comprehensively modulate the inflationary effects of the price hike policies it said were inevitable. Take, for instance, the soaring cost of petrol resulting from downstream sector deregulation. Since government offers autogas as a cheaper alternative to petrol, you would expect it would, among other things, come up with clearly outlined and timelined template on how the product would be made readily available, and how every vehicle presently using petrol would access services to convert to autogas usage at affordable – if any – cost. It is bad enough that such arrangements were not in place before the fuel price deregulation policy took off in March; now government promises delivery of 1million autogas conversion kits and dispensing units by December 2021 – more than 15 months away – in its recent pact with labour. So, how do Nigerians live with progressive price increases until then?

In a similar vein, it is widely recognised that the category of electricity consumers most affected by the ‘cost reflective tariff’ are manufacturers and big-time service providers who are most likely to pass on the tariff burden as inflated costs of their products and services or cutbacks on overheads – especially workforces. Government ought to think through and evolve convincing action plans on how ordinary Nigerian consumers and workers, who inevitably will be affected, are catered for. That is what governance should be about, not simply renouncing distasteful obligations, which in real effect is sheer abdication. Inflation rate in the Nigerian economy officially was put at 13.2 percent in August. It stands to reason that it got much worse in September from knock-on effects of the rate hikes and needs be redressed for all Nigerians with clear policy instruments.

Those were the broad sketches of issues at stake when labour went into crunch negotiations with government on the eve of its threatened industrial action. But rather, labour leaders secured a pact that seemed like cashing out for themselves and eking out sparse crumbs for workers, with nothing afforded for non-unionised Nigerians. Trade-offs that the leaders struck with government to hold their fire include membership from their ranks of a panel to interrogate justifications for the electricity tariff hike over two weeks, during which time the new tariff is being suspended, and another panel to oversight the restoration of domestic refineries over a drawn-out period consequent to an agreement (merely!) on the urgency of increasing local capacity for refining petrol to reduce overdependency on importation and reduce cost, among others. They also extracted a promise from government to facilitate – notice: not immediately effect – removal of tax on minimum wage towards cushioning the more vulnerable (Pray, what about other Nigerians?!); and that government would resuscitate the National Labour Advisory Council (NLAC) to ensure regular engagement between itself, the labour movement and employers (How does this benefit market women and artisans, among others?). Other terms of the agreement include a promise of palliatives to workers – mark it: not all Nigerians – in the in the areas of transport, power, housing, agriculture and humanitarian support. Specific interventions promised include a yet-to-be-specified amount that can be accessed by workers in the Economic Sustainability Programme Intervention Fund; provision of funds on the platform of NLC and TUC for workers’ participation in agricultural ventures; provision of 133 autogas-powered mass transit buses to organised labour (You could ask: where are the labour mass transit buses extracted from fuel price deregulation by previous governments?), and thereafter to states and local governments; plus 10 percent allocation of ongoing government-financed housing programme to workers through NLC and TUC.

It can be argued that palliatives are inherently cosmetic, and sometimes intended to evade tackling burning issues at the core. There is nothing to suggest the cases in point aren’t designed for that end, which is why it is sad labour leaders got sidetracked from pressing for the core issues they touted at the outset. But it was as well a pyrrhic victory for government because now it is backed up the wall over future increases in fuel price, which should be inevitable with its design of the deregulation policy. While labour runs away to fight another day, it hasn’t come up with a total loss for non-unionised Nigerians.


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