Unionism in Nigeria’s maritime industry, prior to post-port reform regime, was synonymous with thuggery, banditry and hooliganism. Prior to the 2006 port reform executed by the Obasanjo administration, it could be safe to say that the workers’ union in the industry was anything but a group of employees who have come together to achieve common goals such as protecting the integrity of their trade, improving safety standards, and attaining better wages and benefits through increased bargaining power. If the union protected any interest at all at the time, it was that of a handful of leaders who couldn’t be bothered about the appalling working conditions and very poor remuneration of their members. The all-powerful labour leaders of the pre-2006 era were unrepentantly selfish about looking after themselves and themselves alone at the expense of their followers and utter destruction of the entire system.
During this era, all dockworkers in Nigeria – numbering more than 18,000 at the time – were casual workers. No dockworker had permanent employment or even an employer at that. They did not earn salaries and had no condition of service. They just strolled into the port daily hoping for something to come their way. Their operation was also not regulated by anyone, even as the entire system was at the mercy of the all powerful union leaders who exploited government’s lackluster attitude and ignorance to the hilt through an unholy contraption called ‘gang system’ and another dubiously coined ‘akugbe’. We sometimes need to remind ourselves of the rot of the past to enable Nigerians, especially novices appointed lately to run the industry, of the sacrifices made by many industry stakeholders to change the narratives about the industry.
As I wrote under this column a couple of years ago, many of us remember the ports before concession as complex webs too difficult to untangle. The backwardness of the port system ran by the Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA) was compounded by the brutal antics of the leadership of the Maritime Workers Union of Nigeria (MWUN) of that era. The President-General of the union, before the purge 18 years ago, was a petrifying demigod wielding the power of life and death over his 18,000 strong – mostly uneducated – subjects and imposing an odious form of taxation on shipping lines, shipping agents and the ports authority.
The hideous ‘akugbe’ was undocumented huge cash payments shipping lines were forced to make to the MWUN leadership before their vessels could berth. The amount varied from the type and size of ship to the discretion of the almighty President-General. The union had district leaders made up of chairmen and other officials. The chairmen were the representatives of the PG at various terminals in the port. They were the small gods of the notoriously aggressive crop of dockworkers that pervaded the system. But despite paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA) and the then National Maritime Authority (NMA), now Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA), in shipping dues, berthing charges and three per cent freight levy, no ship dared berth at the port without paying MWUN’s ‘akugbe’. The ship’s agent must convey raw cash in sacks to the district chairman who in turn took it to the PG at 119 Osho Drive. The same system ran through all the ports in the country. The ship must wait until the PG issued berthing clearance. This crude extortionist system took a minimum of four hours and sometimes more than a day to be completed before the ship would be allowed to berth. If the PG woke up on the wrong side of his bed, the ship could be delayed much longer. I came to understand later that ‘akugbe’ ranged from a minimum of one million naira to as much as 10 million naira per ship. With an average of about 2,000 ship calls annually at the port between 1996 and 2006, the union leaders could amassing as much as N11 billion through this criminal collection every year. They had an ominously potent war chest to hold the system firmly in their grips. And hold it they did. They were brutish and unsparing.
The exploitative ‘gang system’ was another avenue of fleecing both the dockworkers and the system. As I wrote in the past, under the ‘gang system’, the PG – again through his district chairman – determined the number of dockworkers to work a vessel. Typically, the union charged shipping companies twice the number of dockworkers it deployed to work on their vessels. The standard practice was to impose bill for a 32-man gang per shift even when as few as eight worked the shift. Refusal of the shipping company to pay resulted in its operation being grounded for several days. The irony was that even the eight were paid less than 10 per cent of the amount collected by union on their behalf while the big chunk found their ways into the deep pockets of union leaders.
The death of a dockworker – irrespective of the circumstances surrounding it – would typically be greeted with violent reactions from the union. All the seaports across the country would inevitably be shut on the orders of the PG. Violent reactions would follow with protests and vandalisation of public properties. Businesses around the port environment would be forced to close shop for as long as it took the union leaders to negotiate “compensation for the family” of the deceased. This would take anything from three days to one week. The negotiations were usually behind closed doors and I came to understand that part of the condition imposed by the union was non-disclosure of the amount paid to it. That was perhaps the real tragedy of the system. The union would collect huge sums of money on behalf of the deceased worker and release a miserable part to the grieving family. Families of deceased dockworkers were typically paid N50,000 out of as much as one million paid to the union. The union was all in all. It assumed the role of employer, union, regulator and sometimes the port authority.
Again, it is worth emphasizing that the bold and courageous implementation of the Nigerian Dock Labour Decree 37 of 1999 by late Chief Ojo Madueke initiated the process that would alter the course of history in the maritime industry for good. Expectedly, there was stiff resistance and substantial pushback from the old leadership of the union and their alter egos. Because the union leaders had deep pockets, they stood up strongly against government’s move to set new standards in the industry. They manipulated the system including buying over the media. But the Obasanjo government’s determination paid off and today our port and the Nigerian economy is the better for it.
I think the present leaders of the labour unions in the maritime industry have not been accorded sufficient credit for the patriotic roles they played, and are still playing, in the success of Nigeria’s port reform programme.
With the emergence of new MWUN heads led by Comrade Onikolaese Irabor in 2001, the stage was set for a new narrative. The new leaders jettisoned the violent and unproductive approach of the past. They embraced partnership with the ports authority and became co-stakeholders with the new private terminal operators. Comrade Tony Nted, who succeeded Irabor in 2009, demonstrated an unprecedented high level of maturity and a clear understanding of modern day labour practices. The ports are now better off for the level-headedness of the new labour leaders, while the hitherto exploited and besmirched dockworkers now enjoy gainful employment and are paid by stevedoring companies and terminal operators with attractive conditions of service.
The icing on the cake is that in December 2018, the MWUN and the Seaport Terminal Operators Association of Nigeria (STOAN) achieved another major feat for the dockworkers. Without any violence or threats of industrial action, both bodies collectively signed a new condition of service for dockworkers. This is significant in a country that is at the threshold of a major industrial action over review of the national minimum wage by the Federal and State governments.
Under the new condition of service, dockworkers, who are already way better off than the pre-2006 port reform era, will enjoy additional 60% increase in their wages with effect from 2019. This achievement speaks volume. It says a lot can be achieved under a peaceful environment and when people work with each other, rather than against each other. Indeed, the present leadership of MWUN has distanced itself from any form of hooliganism, thuggery and banditry. It even went as far as warning its members to stay away from these unproductive tendencies or face sanctions. So, my Maritime Man of the Year 2018 is a man of peace. He is a committed unionist and a highly respected labour leader. He is a silent achiever and a dogged fighter for the downtrodden. Comrade Adewale Adeyanju, the President-General of MWUN, whom I am privileged to bestow this honour on, has proven that meekness is no sign of weakness. He has also shown to the world that labour leaders can record substantial achievements even with a peaceful disposition. He has also shown that you don’t need to be a brute or be a bully to be heard.
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