The 2019 Nigerian general elections: what’s at stake for the working poor?

With the Nigerian general election just around the corner (scheduled for 16 February 2019), the campaigning is in full swing. The incumbent All Progressives Congress (APC) party will once again field President Muhammadu Buhari as its candidate while Nigeria’s largest opposition party, the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), has picked former Vice President Atiku Abubakar to run for president. But what are the demands of the working people of Nigeria and is anyone addressing them?

In the run-up to the 2015 elections, I wrote a similar piece looking at the demands of working families, and the main issues then, as now, remain: growing the economy in a way that goes beyond mere growth figures; making significant improvements to infrastructure, particularly electricity supply; tackling chronic insecurity in the country (from the Boko Haram insurgency in the north-east of the country to the intercommunal violence between herders and farmers in the country’s Middle Belt region); reining in private and public sector corruption in Nigeria, which despite being one of the world’s largest oil producers is home to the world’s greatest concentration of extreme poverty; and the expansion of social protection.

On the anti-corruption front, one of the most pressing issues in Nigeria, the APC has so far failed to take full advantage of the solidarity of Nigeria’s working people.

Organised labour has coordinated several national rallies against corruption and tax evasion, while calling for the federal government to prosecute corrupt persons without bias.

Even though President Buhari, in part, won the 2015 election on the strength of his anti-corruption promises, corruption is still endemic in Nigerian public life. In addition, the politicisation of the anti-corruption fight is fast crippling institutions and agencies established for this purpose.

Of course, it is not only ‘the ogas [big men] at the top’ that are corrupt. It is a systemic crisis fostered consciously to frustrate equality and justice in Nigeria. From police roadblocks to border crossings, such as the Seme Border with Benin, bribery is the order of the day. The biggest victims are the working poor, especially informal women traders, who are frequently harassed, manhandled and traumatised all in the name of extortion. A 2016 study conducted by the Central Bank of Nigeria on Measuring Informal Cross-Border Trading in Nigeria revealed some of the ways in which corruption distorts and hampers trade.

With regards to private sector corruption, which is actually far bigger than public sector corruption (read the African Union (AU) Mbeki Panel report on Illicit Financial Flows (IFFs) from Africa), it is business as usual. Evidence of this can be found in the inability of the state to investigate and prosecute persons named in the leaked Panama Papers even when the Nigerian people demanded state action. The AU panel established that about half of the IFFs from Africa come from Nigeria’s oil, gas and mineral sector.

Increasing the minimum wage

With an estimated 75 per cent of all working Nigerians in the informal economy, the need to improve the lives of working people is more urgent than ever in the run-up to the February 2019 elections. On the economy front, Nigerian households are still battling to recover post-recession while too many Nigerian workers experience wage theft, particularly those working for one of Nigeria’s 36 federal states. For instance, public sector workers for Kogi State in north-central Nigeria are currently owed over seven months’ pay.

Nigerian workers want to see an end to poverty wages, and the struggle for a National Minimum Wage (NMW) should go some way to improving the living standards of ordinary people. Although the “basic need basket” for a family of four has been put at a minimum of N60, 000 (approximately US$196) a month, the government recently agreed to N30, 000 as the new national minimum wage. While this is a significant increase from the current minimum wage of N18, 000, it still falls short of a living minimum wage that can effectively stem poverty and inequality.

In 2019, workers will not tolerate the threat of “no work, no pay” as the current Minister of Labour and Employment Dr Chris Ngige, and some state governors are proposing.

These people have never had their huge salaries and fat allowances delayed or unpaid. It’s a poor attempt to intimidate the trade union movement, but workers will not be forgiving of any arrangement that delays or denies the rightful payment and increment of their wages.

Organised labour has also been at the vanguard of demanding tax justice as part of our quest to shore up the resource mobilisation capacities of the state. For organised labour, increasing the government’s revenue bases is partly aimed at financing public services, providing a stimulus to employment creation and the payment of decent wages, which are some of the time-tested means of defeating poverty and expanding the tax and revenue base.

Supporting the youth

Nigeria has one of the largest youth populations in the world, with at least half of its estimated 180 million-strong population under the age of 30. This could be a massive asset to the country but the current socio-economic conditions (massive underemployment and unemployment – both according to the National Bureau of Statistics stand at 40 per cent of the labour population – and the absence of a social safety net) are driving many young people to make regrettable choices, including embracing criminality and terrorism, the use of hard drugs, as well as electing to undertake dangerous and desperate migration journeys through the Sahara Desert and across the Mediterranean Sea to Europe.

Job creation must go beyond mere soapbox promises. Workers want to see real initiatives that are devoid of political patronage. A minimum of seven million new jobs a year need to be created in Nigeria in order to keep up with the current rate of population growth, but while the current government promised to create three million jobs per year, it has barely managed two million jobs in three and a half years. This is simply not good enough.

Increased public spending on education to develop and upgrade job-seeker employability, and the creation of labour demand, must be imaginatively considered by the incoming administration. Furthermore, genuine partnership and collaboration with other economies (like the OECD countries and south-south states) to mobilise support for schemes that productively engage young people should be considered. Something similar to the Erasmus+ skills development programme (an initiative that helps to allows young people in Europe to study, work or train abroad with support on their return) could be very beneficial for Nigeria’s youth.

In 2015, the promise to bring peace and stability was central to Buhari’s win and in 2019 security will also be a vote decider. A 2016 Afrobarometer survey shows that 39 per cent of Nigerians consider security-related issues as one of the top three problems in the country. That figure two years later, as an unpublished ITUC-Africa survey shows, has doubled, and is only second to economic despondency. Hundreds of workers, farmers and members of their families have lost their lives in civil conflicts, and the use of lethal violence in non-civil conflict situations (such as armed robberies and extrajudicial murders) is rampant in Nigeria.

Nigerian workers want political leadership that is decisive, collaborative and just in tackling Nigeria’s chronic insecurity, while sensitivity to class, ethnic, cultural and religious identities is critical.

How far Nigerian workers, especially the working poor, will get in their quest to have their demands met following the February elections will depend, to some extent, on how much loud and consistent ‘organised noise’ they make about these demands, and how hard they push for it. So far, it is Nigeria’s youth that have had the most impact in their calls for change. Others, notably the established parties and ‘known’ candidates, insist on relying on endorsements and parroting the usual meaningless sound bites.

Together with progressive civil society allies, organised labour must urgently recalibrate its efforts through mass rallies and town hall meetings to educate and sensitise its members and the wider community of these demands and on how to use their votes to secure them. Workers must continue to keep hope alive, and continue the struggle to ensure a better Nigeria – for now and the future.