OATUU will ensure independent and protection of Africa workers – Owei Lakemfa, new Secretary General
Former General Secretary, actting, of the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC), Comrade Owei Lakemfa was recently elected the general secretary of the Organisation of Africa Trade Union Unity (OATUU). He spoke with Nigerian worker news on his election, focus and the challenges confronting African continents amongst other issues. . Excerpt.
The election and his emergence as the new general secretary of OATUU
The Organisation of Africa Trade Union Unity (OATUU) is the umbrella labour organisation for all African workers. It has 54 members by the last congress which was held in Algiers from December 1 to 7, 2012. At that conference, we admitted the 55th members country and that is South Sudan, so there are now 55 countries in the OATUU. Until 1973 there were four central labour organisations in Africa, almost like the OAU used to be before it became Africa Union today. Africa was divided to four centres depending on the ideological lineage, so in 1972 there were move to unite all the central labour organisations in Africa, and this move was championed by the then Nigeria Minister of Labour, Chief Anthony Enahoro and of course all African workers bought into it, so in 1973 OATUU was founded. In 2013 it would be 40 years that we have existed as a unified Africa labour centre. In Nigeria, we have the Nigeria Labour Congress which is an umbrella organisation of various trade unions so also at the African levels, an umbrella organisation called OATUU where you have various African countries.
The election came a bit, as a surprise in the sense that I was overwhelmed that there were African countries that looked around and thought that I should be put forward especially the labour centres in east Africa led by Confederation of Trade Union in Kenya (COTU). So I was overwhelmed that I would be in Nigerian and some countries would come together I say if we are going to move OATUU forward beyond what is it now, then we need a person like a Nigerian. At the conference, although there were various forces but at the end of the day some general consensus was reached and by the sixth day, I emerged unopposed. That also mean that Africans on their own can organised elections and succeed.
How the Federal Government and Nigerians receive his election.
I was surprised that before I came back to Nigeria it was widely carried and reported beyond my imagination. In fact, when I was in Algeria, within a day or two I started receiving calls that it was everywhere in the news both print and broadcast, and some of the early callers was the Federal Government and I was surprised about that. But let me say that my election was because I have been exposed both locally and internationally by the NLC, so it wasn’t because I sat somewhere in Abuja and people say let go for that guy.
NLC, Summonu and Nigeria influence
Hassan Summonu was the founding president of the NLC, he was elected on February 28, 1978 at the inaugural meeting of the NLC in Ibadan and he built the foundation of the congress. When he went outside the country in the Africa level, he became a legend in Africa and years ago when I started attending the International Labour Organisation (ILO) conference in Geneva, he was also a legend even at the ILO level. So, I think when leaders of OATUU are leaving and the need to replace this pan Africanist came, they thought that the country that produced Hassan Summonu must be a good country. So the fact that he was there was not a major issue because they could have wished that Summonu and his team should continue. Another factor was that Nigeria has played a positive role in Africa especially at labour level. There are lot of countries that supported African trade union at the continental level, but I will tell you that Nigeria is a leading country in that respect. Right from 1986, the Federal Government has join other countries in Africa to give subvention to workers so as to function well, don’t forget that we are based in Accra, Nigeria has joined these countries such as Sudan, Algeria and others and Nigeria has become a pillar of support and I am sure that the African countries also put that into consideration that Nigeria is very reliable country. In fact under the leadership of President Goodluck Jonathan, Nigeria has now increase its support for Africa trade union. I think my contribution at the International Labour fora contributed. Also, the election shows the other side of Nigeria, some people think that Nigeria is not a trustworthy country as a result of advance fraud known as 419 and other things but I think if the entire Africa continent will decide that for a major position like the general secretary of OATUU Nigerian should lead them, I think it is a major achievement for our country and don’t forget that it is an ambassadorial position because OATUU are diplomat in Ghana and in African and we are part of the African Unions because we have a seat in AU to the level of the Summit of the Head of States. We are also at the ILO Governing Council having the same status with ITUC.
Challenges facing Africa and how to address them
Africa has a lot of challenges, so one of the things we are doing , and don’t forget we are collective and we are meeting in the next few weeks to map out programmes and things we will do in the next four years. One of the things we want to focus on is the issue of security in Africa. You have countries like Congo where the workers cannot go to work due to war, in Somalia you can’t talk of a systematic work system because of the crisis. There is also Northern Mali that is under siege. We also have problems between African countries that it affecting workers such as the issue between Ethiopia and Eritrea. So you find out that countries like Eritrea need a lot of youths in the Armed forces, that means there will be less hands to work. There is also this issue of food security to all African countries and it is a major problem to us. Another problem is the issue of integration, because we know that, because at individual country we won’t make any impact. If each strong country in Europe can come together to form European Unions (EU) then we don’t have any excuse. That also affected us even in securing partnership agreement with these countries because Europe comes as a block and then we have problems, so they go and have separate agreement with South Africa and others and these things affected us. So we need some kind of economic merger and more trades in African because if we can open our borders to our people, it means the informal economy will develop a lot, don’t forget that most of the workers in Africa are from the informal economy. We also found out that given the erroneous ideas that having more freedom means multiplying labour centres. Let me say that trade unionism is built in the three foundation of unity of workers and solidarity and so when you have countries having double labour centres I think that is a dangerous trends. So you found out that our neighbouring country like Benin, move from one labour centres to five also Senegal now having nothing less than eleven, it was so bad in Congo that we don’t know the actual numbers of labour centres. Our thinking is to get the labour centres in serious countries to have a common agenda, work together, have common programmes and possibly go into merger. Nigeria is one of the unique example where we have the NLC and TUC but in terms of work, you can see that they work together. It is very unique because you can’t find this in any African country. Even at the Nigeria level we want to encourage both the NLC and TUC to work towards having one movement because having two does not make sense. Part of the problems was that opportunist are coming to Africa and are dividing us and they think that if you have a labour centre and it is not their client, then they must form another one. So you find some unions and labour centres in the international arena pumping money to Africa, dividing labour centres to fragment. Some of them may be they may have about 300 members as a labour centre. Some of the things we are also planing is to have trade unions who are independent of both the Government, employers and that of external forces because external forces are responsible for the multiplication of. Labour centres we have in Africa now so OATUU will always ensure the independent and protection of Africa workers because part of OATUU mandate is to make sure that there is social justice in our continent not just for workers but for Africa people. Part of own programmes will include developing an alternative to the new liberal policies that we have in Africa. We in Africa have follow a particular development agenda which has shows itself in various ways including our Structural Adjustment Programme, poverty alleviation and so on. But we discovered that these things havr rather impoverished the Africa people, we have become poorer for it, even the countries that this programmes originated from are in trouble so why should we go through same ways. So we intend to also increase consciousness of the Africa people on the Pan Africanist ideas that our forefathers develop, so we are not looking for anything new.
OATUU funding and members states responsibilities
It gets its funding mostly from the member countries.We have 55 countries now and they paid an average of $3,000 to $5, 000 because we are very moderate about it but there are countries who go above that and make contribution to OATUU. paying $10,000 like the NLC, the Sudanese workers, Algeria Workers and a host of others. There are also some of them that give special grants, we also get support from African Governments who are making sure that trade unions are not influence by external forces but they are not increasing. In fact we intend to meet with the AU and ask for subvension because if we do not ensure the development of the region then we are in trouble. And we believe that trade unions being a natural centres of democracy, because trade unionism is voluntary, so when you have huge army voluntary members of trade unions across the continent and they are also the most active because an average worker is an active youth between ages 18 and 60. So if organisation like OATUU is involve in programmes which African Governments are initiating , the issue of integrating Africa is easier.