Interviewer: What about working-class organizations in Nigeria, trade unions, to what extent can they be reclaimed as vehicles for working-class struggle?

Sam: The trade unions in Nigeria were particularly very active in the early anti-colonial struggle. I told you some time ago about the struggles of the coal miners here in Enugu, Enugu was the coal mining capital of Nigeria. During the anti-colonial struggle for independence, the colonial masters killed about 49 coal miners here in this city, who were struggling against the exploitative tendencies of the managers of the mines.

It was a landmark development during the anti-colonial struggle in this part of Nigeria. I told you about the city of Jos, where you had a flourishing tin mining industry, the workers were well-organized. The mining industries became a pedestal for unionizing in the country, including the regular civil service. At the turn of independence, we had a fairly sizable working-class trade-unionism taking place in the country, and this continued until the advent of military rule.

Military rule stultified the development of trade unionism in the country. They were able to do this by invoking primordial sentiments, religion, tribalism and issues of regionalism as well, to divide and rule, to manipulate workers. Depending on which government was in power. The trade union movement in Nigeria – towards the dying days of military rule – tried to regain its voice, started calling major national strikes, started organizing on a national scale.

But I can tell you that the fortunes of trade unionism has been hampered by the deindustrialization process that has continued taking place in the country, since the dying days of military rule. Most industries have folded up. One of the largest employers of labor in this country used to be the textile industry. It is no more. The textile industry has been wiped away completely. We now depend for our textile materials on cheap textile materials coming from China, neighboring countries, India. The textile industry used to employ more than 200,000 workers across the country. The automobile industry used to have assembly plants – here in Enugu Anammco, Peugeot was in Kaduna, Peleot was in Bauchi, Volkswagen was in Lagos. All these assembly plants have closed down. We used to have a trident steel sector in [a number of places]. They’ve all closed shop. So there has been massive deindustrialization in the country in the past 20 years, and it has affected the fortunes of workers.

So the core of the workers we have today are either in the civil service, the banking sector, or the petroleum industry. The workers in the petroleum sector see themselves as being favored souls. So they hardly take part in their union activities, except the junior staff. The same thing also in the banking industry, in fact one of the codes of practice was that you don’t take part in union organising. For upwards of 10-20 years the workers accepted it. But since the first failure of banks in Nigeria, which took place in the late 1990s, the junior workers in the banks are beginning to organise again. But they’re no longer as effective. So basically, what you have as unions in Nigeria, are basically the civil servants. And you will agree with me that the industrial experience is based in industrial workplaces, not in offices. Not in air-conditioned offices and white-collar tables.

So the state of union activities today in Nigeria is deplorable. And most union leaders see their positions from the point of view of their career. They think of their career first and foremost, before anything else. It is one of the key factors that affected the last nation-wide protests, in the sense that the leadership of the Nigerian Labour Congress capitulated at the last minute.

Let me also point out that the professional groups in Nigeria – the medical doctors, the bar association, the architects society, the society of engineers and similar professional groups are not minded on working-class organising and development. They start from the perspective of seeing themselves as being privileged members of society. Even though the circumstances of a significant proportion of their members is the same as that of ordinary Nigerians. For them there is no incentive to begin to organize. Instead what a person is trying to do among the professional groups is trying to see how he can use the system to advance his personal or group interests.

Interviewer: Sam, I wanted to ask, what are some of the things that the people who are active – the rank and file activists in unions, or people like yourself in Tropical Watch or civil society organizations – what are some of the things that people do to try and build the struggle? Like practical day-to-day tasks, what do people spend their time doing to try to build up social struggle?

Sam: We, the activists, try to meet. We try to hold workshops. There are some workshops that we hold or are sponsored by donor agencies, that bring together activists. We have had seminars and workshops in the areas of police brutality, police violence, gender violence, climate change, you know. These seminars and workshops in a way try to bring together activists of all persuasions. And from time to time, arising from social, economic and political developments around us, we try to set up meetings among groups and individuals, and see if we can work out areas of agreement and see if we can build up on that.

But I must be fair to you, especially here in the south-east, we have not been able to build a virile civil society in this part of the country. The people in Lagos have been able to create better models essentially because they have greater experience in this field, arising from the years of military rule. The people in Abuja are doing well as well, because since the movement of the seat of government to Abuja, we have witnessed the concentration of activists organising to hold the government accountable in one way or another. But we have not been so lucky here. I guess that part of the problem is that most people are concerned with the struggle for everyday survival. But I reckon that this is not enough of an excuse to give for not being able to organize.

The experience of one of our comrades Osmond Ugwu who, not too long ago, has been a victim of state high-handedness. He came out to organise workers, to protest against non-implementation of the minimum wage. The minimum wage was a national policy of the PDP government, and a national minimum wage act was passed by both chambers of the national assembly. All the states in the country were now obliged to implement the minimum wage, to bring it into practice in their respective states. But the governor here in Enugu refused to implement it. Or decided that he was going to delay the terms of implementation. And when Osmond and one or two of his comrades tried to organise the workers, to sensitize them on resisting this harassment by the government, he was incarcerated. It is instructive to note that while Osmond was trying to mobilize the workers, the leadership of the Nigerian Labour Congress here was collaborating with the state government and negotiating away the rights of workers to organize. Ultimately he paid the price by being sent to jail and being tried on trumped up charges. It was not until the the later part of January this year [2012] that he was released. Based essentially on the protests mounted by Amnesty International. And today he still faces a criminal charge which is as ridiculous as anything can be. This underlines the threats faced by those who struggle to create a new society in our kind of environment.

This is an excerpt from an interview with Sam, recorded in March 2012 in Enugu Nigeria. You can also read the full text or listen to the audio of the interview.