by Omozuwa Gabriel Osamwonyi
As existential ordeals keep challenging the optimism of Nigerian workers, we may likely be the last group of people to agree with Charles Dickens’ rosy view of the world: “Time is rolling for an end, and the world is, in all great essentials, better, gentler, more forbearing and more hopeful, as it rolls.” We are more likely to agree with Francis Fukuyama; “History has ended.” In fact, we dramatise what he calls “deep historical pessimists.”
All is not well with Nigerian workers. We live in hovels, work in sweatshops, drive rattletraps, wear second-hand clothes, we eat rice without meat at “Mama Put”, get health care from rundown hospitals, and our children are frequently sent out of schools due to late payment of tuition.
Everything about the Nigerian worker says the wages of honest labour is misery. Nothing about her speaks of the dignity of labour. If not, how can we explain it that our national minimum wage is less than £100, which is the estimated amount an average dog owner in U.K spends monthly on the upkeep of her dog.
It is evident that Nigerian workers are not acquainted with middle-class securities and privileges. Family vacations, social security, health insurance, and access to mortgage loans; are otherworldly luxuries we cannot think of enjoying, though these are norms in other climes.
Let’s admit it. Nigerian workers are transitory poor. We are one paycheque away from poverty. Strangely, we are aliens to the worlds of the haves and have-nots. We have cars, but cannot afford to fuel them. The melancholy of emptiness greets us, when we open our refrigerators.
Nigerian wage earners are intellectually malnourished. We burn off on the treadmill of survival, dissipating creative energies in pursuits of the mundane.
Our austere plight causes a form of mental and ethical haemorrhage, which makes it extremely hard for us to transcend ordinariness.
How many workers struggling with issues of bread and butter can regularly buy books in order to relish the joys of learning, cultivate higher ideals, and expand their vistas of reality? Rather, within our ranks are lovers of certificates, but loathers of knowledge, fond of obtaining higher degrees not to enhance their efficiency quotient, but to brighten their chances for plum political appointments.
Sadly, no society can attain enduring greatness, if it is hostile to the inner life of its working class. A society that cannot create a climate of thought that says; “Let the imagination rule”, “Innovate or die” is bound to regress to the backwaters of civilisation.
In many circles, Nigerian workers are not revered as creators of wealth, enablers of national development, and agents of social harmony. Rather, we are largely seen as economic parasites, degraders of public morality, and the scum of the earth. This irony reveals a certain folly of extreme capitalism and consumerism: you are a burden of society if you are enterprising, but lack capital.
Nigerian workers, particularly, those in the civil service are treated like social stigma. When a civil servant speaks intelligently in highbrow intellectual or public fora, people are attracted to him like bees to honey. But that is before he answers the popular question, “what do you do?” If he says “I am a civil servant” his would-be-friends will recoil, acting as if he emitted psycho-repellents.
Before our voice of conscience was stifled by grave ethical lapses, we embodied the spirit of progressive activism. Colonialism was defeated because of the principled fight of labour unions. During military rule, we were at the vanguard of the crusade for the restoration of democratic governance. Also, our ethical agitation exorcised the evil spirit of third term from our land. But today, labour unions cannot conduct credible elections, void of factional squabbles. Our actions lend credence to President Jonathan’s blame that some labour members are responsible for the prevalence of sleaze in the polity.
A look at the percentage distribution of Nigeria’s labour force by occupation suggests our economy needs overhauling. 70% of economically active Nigerians are in the agricultural sector, yet we have not attained food security. Nigeria’s food import bill is about $4.3 billion annually, which is a significant reduction from $7 billion, in recent years. While 10% are in industry and 20% in services.
Nigeria’s transition from heavy dependence on crude oil export, which accounts for more than half of government earnings and over 90% of export revenues to a diversified knowledge-based economy, may be halted, if she does not revamp ailing infrastructure, so as to cater to the intellectual flourishing of the working class.
Attempting to transform Nigeria without restoring the dignity of labour is counterproductive. It is insane for us to loathe the fruits of honest labour, celebrate ill-gotten wealth, and simultaneously fight corruption.
Corruption cannot be uprooted, when most of the economically active population are paupers. When our lifestyles become expressive of deep ethical convictions, and we no longer face the dilemma of a hungry monk tasked with keeping watch over a bakery, then corruption will be non-prevalent.
For the Nigerian worker there is no paradise. We have no hope of a glorious material future. We are suffering from a crisis of hopelessness, a collective depression. As long as this crisis endures it is an affront on our sensibilities for political actors and unionists to unleash torrents of graveside-like eulogies on us every Labour Day. Nigeria’s greatness may remain in limbo, if the promise of a future is not restored to her most enterprising class. Low salaries ruin the moral and material basis of enduring national progress.
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