I am honoured to be here on this special day set aside to celebrate and honour Nigerian workers, every Nigerian worker, male and female. The labour movement is a foundational movement in the making of our nation. You are heirs of a movement that was involved in literally building modern Nigeria.
Over a century ago, the Nigerian working class laid the railway tracks and erected telegraph poles connecting the vast reaches of a country that was about to be born. Indeed, it is impossible to tell the story of our nation’s liberation from colonial rule without dwelling at length on the heroic contributions of the labour movement to that struggle.
The struggle for fairness and equity in relations between the employer and the worker and the campaign for the dignity of the Nigerian worker in the colonial era were closely bound up with the quest for independence. Some would say that both struggles were two sides of the same coin. For just as the Nigerian worker sought to be accorded equal rights in his own land, the nationalist movement sought to break the yoke of colonialism and transform our people from subjects to citizens.
In this epic struggle, the Nigerian working class was the army of the nationalist movement. We remember the 1945 General Strike and the Iva Valley Massacre in 1949 in which striking miners seeking their rights were killed by colonial authorities.
These are watershed events in the evolution of our nation. Names such as those of Pa Michael Imoudu, Mallam Aminu Kano, Nduka Eze, F.O. Coker, E.E. Esua and M.A. Bankole among others are seared into the national memory – they belong to iconic figures in the labour movement who played critical roles in our quest for liberation from colonial rule.
When we sing our National Anthem and proclaim that the “the labours of our heroes past shall never be in vain”, we are invoking the memory of legions of patriotic agitators among whom were leading lights of the labour movement. Therefore, the Nigerian worker in every real sense laid the foundations of our sovereignty and freedom with their blood and tears and nurture it till this day with their sweat and zeal.
So the 1st of May is a day laden with historical significance and the importance of this occasion is further underscored by the fact that it is the last May Day celebration before a national election. In commemorating this event, there is much to reflect upon and the theme you have chosen for this occasion invites us to ponder on “Labour, Politics and the Quest for Good Governance and Development.”
Given the season that we are in, this is entirely appropriate. The question that the theme calls for: is what sort of politics can best deliver good governance and development? In addressing this question, let me begin by stating unequivocally that the labour movement belongs firmly to the progressive political persuasion. I will repeat that – the labour movement belongs firmly to the progressive political persuasion.
In the days of the anti-colonial struggle, labour pitched its tent with progressive nationalist forces. Historically, by reason of the ideological kinship shared by both camps, labour has always made common cause with the progressives. Indeed, it is impossible to separate both. Progressives have been left of centre and pro-labour, while labour has always been of course left of centre and progressive.
This is an important observation because seven years ago, an alliance of progressives, the All progressives Congress made history when it became the first opposition party to defeat a ruling party against all odds and secure a national victory at the polls. It was a watershed moment for our nation because, until that momentous event, the progressive tendency had been the neglected cornerstone of our nation’s history.
The question of what sort of politics can deliver good governance and development is decisively answered by progressive politics. As a progressive, I believe that good governance and development mean compulsory free education for the unlettered, universal healthcare coverage, inclusion for the alienated, social mobility for the poor, justice for the wronged and social security for the vulnerable.
The progressive vision of Nigeria is of a nation in which the relations between the government and the governed are defined by a social covenant. It is of a society in which no Nigerian is left behind. It is of a canopy of inclusive and broad-based prosperity in which the security and the welfare of each citizen are guaranteed.
This administration has embarked upon the most ambitious programme of social protection in sub-Saharan Africa. We are catering for our children through the Home Grown School Feeding Programme which feeds about 9.5 million children daily and for our unemployed youth through programmes such as the N-Power scheme. Over 4 million people have benefitted from the Government Empowerment and Enterprise Programme (GEEP), and other support initiatives under the National Social Investment Programme.
We established the National Commission for Persons with Disabilities and the National Centre for Senior Citizens to cater for the needs of our compatriots that live with disabilities and our elders. This is a demonstration of our commitment to inclusion – especially of groups that have long been relegated to the margins.
In the realm of politics, the enactment of the Not Too Young To Run Act which modifies the age restrictions for seeking public office not only opens doors of opportunity for more youth engagement in politics; it is a further demonstration of our commitment to inclusion in all its ramifications.
We have pursued our progressive agenda for inclusion and social protection in a period of global turbulence. We have not had the benefit of record-high oil prices to work with instead, we have had to contend with recessions, the collapse of international oil prices, the COVID-19 pandemic which stalled the global economy and even now, we must deal with the consequences of the conflict in Ukraine which is having a disruptive impact on global commodity markets. Regardless of all these challenges, this administration has been steadfast in tackling the issues facing Nigerian workers. This is why President Buhari implemented an increase in the national minimum wage in 2019.
The outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020 practically brought the world to a standstill. As we battled to contain the spread of the Corona Virus here in Nigeria, almost all economic activity was grounded. But we understood the dangers that portended to our citizens and to our general economy. That is why during the pandemic, the Federal Government placed many Micro, Small and Medium Scale Enterprises (MSME) employees on payroll support to get them through the period, as part of its Economic Sustainability Plan. We introduced the Food for Jobs Agricultural Programme, providing support for over 4 million farmers. We started the most ambitious social housing programme in our nation’s history; 300,000 homes being the target and each of those houses not costing more than N2million.
As part of the same Economic Sustainability Plan, we started the Solar Naija Programme to connect 5million homes with solar power.
We set up the MSME Survival Fund which disbursed over N56.8billion to over 800,000 people. The Fund also provided grants, free business registration and payroll support to over 1 million artisans, micro and small business owners. The truth of the matter is that our country is a large country; we have 2million people, some of what we are saying may seem like a drop in the ocean but surely, there is a beginning and a commitment to doing more.
We have increased the retirement age of teachers so that they can spend more years in service educating our children. Recently, we implemented an upward review of the salaries and wages of the men and women of the Nigeria Police Force as part of our broader commitment to improving the welfare and service conditions of those charged with safeguarding the rest of us.
We are committed to doing much more.
No Nigerian, especially one who contributes to the development of the nation by way of labour, should be denied primary health care because of affordability. Currently, only workers in organized labour benefit from the current health insurance system. Our goal is universal health care, to fund it we must look beyond our meagre Federal and State budgets the answer is compulsory insurance coverage for all Nigerians.
Our focus is not only on the health of those currently in the workforce; we are also concerned about our senior citizens who spent their prime time in service. There is absolutely no reason why any retiree should go into debt or be unable to access healthcare in retirement. This is why the Federal Ministry of Health has established a Ministerial Committee whose mandate is to come up with a framework for the provision of Health Insurance coverage for our retired senior citizens.
I must mention here that after 15 years of stagnation, we have now reviewed the hazard allowance for doctors and other health workers. The circular to that effect has now been released and it is with effect from December 2021.
We will also expand and deepen the implementation of the Employee Compensation Act so that workers all over the country receive compensation for injuries suffered in the line of duty and in the case of death, their dependents are adequately compensated.
We must continue to take care of our people, especially when they are no longer active. No society has achieved appreciable levels of development without looking out for the older demographic of its population, especially those who have faithfully served the country.
No one should go into retirement worrying about how they will make ends meet. It is because of this that last year, the Federal Government implemented an upward review of pensions under the Defined Benefit Scheme, in line with the review of the National Minimum Wage. Through PTAD, we have been able to fully liquidate inherited liabilities of many defunct agencies and companies, and settle significant portions of the few that are yet to be fully liquidated.
Today, many civil service retirees, retirees of these defunct organizations and their next-of-kin have been able to collect their outstanding arrears and benefits. We will continue to prioritize reforms that ease the process of applying for and receiving pensions and retirement benefits.
However, we must recognize that the quest to give practical meaning to our Constitution’s promise of inclusion will take time. The lesson of history, the world over, is that structural inequities are not dismantled in one day. As members of the labour movement, you belong to a tendency that has been involved in the most consequential struggles of our history.
You understand that the struggle for social justice, equity and fairness is an inter-generational one but each generation writes its own chapter of progress. It is the responsibility of this government and future governments to write our own chapter of progress and to write it well and legibly.
Just as it took time to win our independence from colonial rule and just as it took time to establish democratic governance, we are moving steadily and surely towards a more progressive Nigeria.
We are not unmindful of the anxieties of our children and their parents who are plagued by thoughts of an uncertain future as they stay home because their universities have been shut down by industrial action. I want to appeal to the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) and the broader labour community to seek the path of dialogue. Disagreement and debate have always been part of the relationship between labour and the government. Even as we disagree today, we must not do so as mortal adversaries, but as members of the same progressive family.
We both want the same thing – a country that works for all, a tertiary education system that works for all. A country that offers each citizen a fair deal – even if occasionally we differ on how to achieve this goal, but at all times, we have through dialogue found a path forward.
It is in this spirit that I call on ASUU to embrace dialogue with the Government and I call also on the Nigeria Labour Congress and the Trade Union Congress to help facilitate a resolution of this dispute through dialogue. I believe that we can find a path forward in good faith. And this is what we must do.
Finally, the progressive vision of inclusive growth and shared prosperity requires a revolution in our national productivity and our work ethic. On the part of the government, this means ensuring that every citizen has the opportunity to work, achieve productive personhood and participate in the development of their communities. But beyond this, it means that we must as a people commit to an ethos of high productivity and innovation, and of using technology to transform the way we work and do business. We cannot achieve this without a workforce that is attuned to optimizing our possibilities.
Nations are built by people and Nigeria is being built through the everyday honest toil of hardworking Nigerians – men and women like you gathered here today. You keep the engines of our country running despite the challenges we face. You are the strength and the hope of our nation. Whatever heights of greatness we will achieve as a people will be because of your contributions to our national enterprise. I, therefore, urge you now, as fellow progressives, to make common cause with us to prepare to write the next chapter of Nigeria’s progress. And that future is here and it is bright!
Confronted with insecurity, we are re-engineering our security architecture with a greater focus on technology and modern force multiplier platforms.
We will achieve effective broadband connectivity for all by 2025, we will remove the yokes of over-regulation, multiple taxations and poor infrastructure from the necks of our private sector so as to unleash their productivity.
We will establish a technology economy that will leverage our broadband connectivity for all, encourage tech companies to train more tech engineers and we will surpass every nation, God helping us, in terms of the quantum and quality of tech talent.
We will crack the power conundrum, (the “up NEPA” thing will stop) by decentralizing the national grid system, and by providing alternative grids with private sector investments. We will reengineer our educational curriculum to provide relevant education for the new jobs and opportunities of the 21st century. Working with the States, we will ensure compulsory free basic education for all children male and female.
We will build on the Social Investment Programmes into a full-scale social welfare programme. We have the talent, the resources, the resourcefulness, the resilience and the faith to do all these and more in a few short years. But we must decisively defeat the anarchists and terrorists, we must unite and heal our people and let a united and powerful country attain its manifest destiny.
God Almighty has heard Nigeria’s prayers these many years that we have prayed and it is time to go forward and achieve.
I ask that all working men and women, pensioners and veterans of the labour movement rise up to the occasion with our administration.
Long live the Nigerian Labour Congress.
Long live the Trade Union Congress.
Long live the Working-Class Solidarity.
Long live International Solidarity.
Long live the Federal Republic of Nigeria.
Thank you very much, God bless you.
Senior Special Assistant to the President on Media & Publicity
Office of the Vice President
1st May, 2022