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Why A New Labor Party Must Lead The Quest For Socio-Economic Rights In Nigeria By Femi Falana

May 3, 2016

Introduction: I thank the leadership of the Nigeria Labour Congress for the rare opportunity given to me to deliver the 2016 May Day Lecture. The celebration has coincided with the incessant killing of farmers by herdsmen in the various parts of the country. Given the belated decision of the federal government to view the crisis as a matter of law and order coupled with the threat of some ethnic warlords to call for a breakup of the country, the labour movement ought to intervene in the resolution of the crisis. The killing has to be examined from the larger perspective of the increasing wave of unlawful killings in the country. 

When Chief Olu Falae, a former secretary to the federal military government was abducted in his farm in the outskirt of Akure, Ondo state last year, the Afenifere threatened that the Yoruba people would secede from the federation. In my reaction to the empty threat, I stated that "instead of issuing threats the Yoruba leaders ought to have mobilized the south-west governors to set up ranches and abattoirs for the production and distribution of meat in the region. For instance, through a PPP arrangement a modern abattoir, the largest in Africa, was built in Ibadan, Oyo State in 2011. But due to some inexplicable reasons the state government has refused to allow the abattoir to function. The Ekiti state government once had a ranch. It was established by the Adekunle Ajasin government in the second republic. But it has since collapsed due to lack of maintenance. This is not the time to resort to diversionary or escapist solutions to man-made problems. The ruling class should be compelled to address the challenges of establishing livestock, ranches and abattoirs as well as the modernization of pastoralist or nomadic livelihood.

A few days ago, I was compelled to condemn the extra-judicial execution of criminal suspects by the police, the unlawful killing of unarmed civilians including women and children by the armed forces and deadly attacks on communities by violent militias and other armed bandits. Specifically, I referred to the military invasions of Odi in Bayelsa state (1999), Zaki Biam in Benue State (2001) and Gbaramotu in Delta state (2009), the illegal killing of 347 Shiites by the  army and the secret burial of their corpses in a mass grave last December during a civil disturbance in Zaria, Kaduna state, the routine extra-judicial execution of armed robbery and kidnap suspects by all the police commands under the pretext that they are trying to escape from custody and the regular killing of citizens through accidental discharge of firearms by the police. It was my contention that "some nihilist groups have taken advantage of the growing culture of official impunity to engage in savage killings, abductions and other primitive brutalization of unarmed people. Some of the victims of kidnapping are brutishly killed while the hapless families of others are forced to pay a huge ransom to secure their release."

Although the unlawful killing of unarmed citizens did not start under the current administration, it has a duty to ensure that the life of every person living in Nigeria is respected at all times. Having undertaken to end impunity and the egregious violations of human rights the Buhari administration should bear responsibility for the unlawful killing of citizens by security forces and other armed gangs." In Dorcas Afolalu v the Federal Republic of Nigeria (unreported Suit No. ECW/CCJ/APP/04/12, the ECOWAS Court held that the Government of Nigeria is under a legal obligation to protect the life of every citizen. In the circumstance, the labour movement, and other progressive forces should ensure that the government complies with section 14 of the Constitution which stipulates that "the security of life and welfare of the people shall be the primary purpose of government."

The Fundamental Objectives and Directive Principles of State Policy

Human rights discourse in Africa is largely influenced by western notions of civil liberties. To hide the ideological bias of the discourse, human rights are said to be inalienable, immutable, universally valid and applicable. But history has shown that human rights have been exploited by different groups at different historical epochs to advance their class interests. In the case of Nigeria, the British government neither recognized nor respected the human rights of the people during the colonial era which lasted for about a century in spite of the much-proclaimed universality and inalienability of human rights. But on the eve of political independence, the departing colonial regime ensured that the right to private property and other human rights were entrenched in the independence constitution in a bid to protect the economic interests of foreign governments and companies. 

Since then the ruling class has entrenched human rights in subsequent constitutions. But because the entrenched human rights are civil and political in nature  the majority of the Nigerian people have been denied the opportunity to enjoy them due to poverty and ignorance. Realising that economic and social rights are an integral part of human rights the socialist members of the United Nations influenced the adoption of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) in 1966. It is on record that the historic document contributed significantly to the campaign of oppressed peoples all over the world for the justiciability of socio-economic rights.  In the case of Nigeria, the campaign for the establishment of a welfare state was given a fillip when the nation witnessed oil boom in the 1970s.  
Thus, the Constitution Drafting Committee set up by the Federal Government in 1975 recommended the inclusion of Fundamental Objectives and Directive Principles of State Policy in the Constitution. Even though the recommendation was accepted by the Federal Government and incorporated them in chapter 2 of the 1979 Constitution, they were not intended to be actualised.  They have also been embodied in Chapter 2 of the 1999 Constitution. The provisions of the fundamental objectives include socio-economic rights such as the right to security and welfare, right to political participation, right to education, right to health, right to environment, right to secure adequate means of livelihood including suitable and adequate shelter, suitable and adequate food, reasonable national minimum living wage, old age care and pensions, unemployment, sick benefits and welfare of the disabled and other vulnerable people. In order to guarantee national prosperity, the State is obligated to promote a planned and balanced economic development and harness the resources of the nation. 

However, the ruling class ensured that while civil and political rights are justiciable, the jurisdiction of the courts is completely ousted with respect to the enforcement of socio-economic rights. In other words, the fundamental objectives are regarded as mere ideals which cannot be enforced in any court as there are no funds to implement them. In their reaction to the exclusion clause, two members of the Committee, Comrades Segun Osoba and (the late) Bala Usman, observed that having defanged the provisions by their non-justiciability, "the CDC draft has correspondingly robbed the masses of Nigerians of one major instrument for monitoring and controlling the conduct of those making public decisions on their behalf. We cannot grasp the value of a set of ‘fundamental objectives and directive principles of state policy’ which cannot be enforced in law even when it is clear to all and sundry that State policy decision-makers are constantly and consistently violating these objectives and principles.” 

To appreciate the concern of Osoba and Usman it is submitted that without adequate food the rights to life and human dignity are meaningless to the vulnerable segment of the populace. Similarly, the right to housing has no relevance to people who are displaced and expelled from cities due to urban renewal projects carried out by governments. When the right to life of certain persons is terminated through extra-judicial killing by the police and other law enforcement agencies those who depend on them for their education and welfare are rendered vulnerable. Without access to education, the right to freedom of expression is of no consequence to millions of illiterate people. Given pervasive poverty in the society, it is no longer in dispute that as long as socio-economic rights are not made justiciable so a majority of citizens cannot enjoy the civil and political rights guaranteed by the Constitution. 

Notwithstanding the conspiracy of the ruling class to make the fundamental objectives   non-justiciable the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights has been ratified and enacted into law by the National Assembly. Thus, the socio-economic rights enshrined in the African Charter are applicable and enforceable in the courts. Also,  certain provisions of Chapter II of the Constitution have been enacted into law by the ruling class based on the struggle of the working people and their allies for the establishment of a welfare State. Such enactments include the Price Control Act 1975,  Peoples' Bank Act 1992,  Nigerian Education Bank Act 1993, National Minimum Wage 2011, Child's Right Act 2003, Compulsory, Free, Universal Basic Education Act 2004,  National Health Act, 2014, Pension Reforms Act, 2014, etc. Even the workers in any privatised government enterprise are entitled to 10 percent of the shares under the Privatisation and Commercialisation Act.

The Subversion of the Fundamental Objectives 

In fulfillment of its obligations under the country's welfare laws, the federal government established some agencies to provide welfare services to the people. Schools and hospitals were built and funded while other social services were provided and made accessible to the generality of the people. Employment opportunities were created for the youths even though the means of production and exchange remained in the hands of a few people and corporate bodies. However, the imposition of the World Bank-sponsored Structural Adjustment Program by the Ibrahim Babangida junta in 1986 led to official withdrawal from the funding of social services which led to a phenomenal increase in the rate of poverty in the country. The complete or partial withdrawal of spending on public welfare negatively affected critical areas such as health, education with dire consequences on poor people. Unregulated trade liberalization supported by the World Trade  Organization (WTO) destroyed local industries.

In addition to the diversion of public funds by a handful of public officers, the government has continued to take toxic loans from foreign financial institutions to fund the escalating costs of running an unproductive bureaucracy. Under an economy controlled by market forces, the majority of citizens have been denied access to security, welfare, and happiness. In an arrogant manner, the few public officers and their cohorts who have cornered the commonwealth turn round to impose austerity measures on the people. The ongoing investigation into the mega-looting of the treasury has shown that if the resources of the nation had been judiciously managed an effective welfare programme could have been established and run in the interest of the people. 

Although the mega-looting of the national treasury is being investigated the Nigerian people are being penalised for the mismanagement of the economy by the ruling class. Electricity tariff has been increased even though there is no improvement in electricity supply. Nigerians are being forced to pay more for education, health, fuel and other essential social services. The APC-led government has made it clear that it is unable to fulfill its electoral promises due to the damage was done to the economy by the PDP and on account of the fall in the price of crude oil in the international market. Since the federal government is a position to borrow N600 billion every month to pay salaries and maintain a parasitic bureaucracy, there can be no justification for not funding the welfare programme promised by the APC. It is therefore suggested that the stolen wealth being recovered should be channeled towards the funding of a welfare programme for the people. 

Non-payment of workers' salaries
By virtue of section 17 of the Constitution, the government is under an obligation to provide for a living national minimum wage and make conditions of work just and humane and ensure that the health, safety and welfare of all persons in employment are safeguarded and not endangered or abused. But in total disregard of its constitutional responsibility to Nigerian workers the government has provided for a starvation wage of N18,000.00 per month. Even the starvation wage is not paid as and when due as stipulated by law. According to President Buhari, workers in 27 out of 36 states are owed arrears of salaries. Although the Nigerian people have been asked to be prepared to tighten their belts no tier of government in the country has taken steps to reduce the expensive costs of running the public service. Over 70 percent of the budget still goes for servicing a parasitic bureaucracy. No government has reviewed projects that constitute a drain on the public treasury. Governors still travel so regularly to Abuja and other places in hired jets. There are 11 planes in the presidential fleet! Public officers move around in long convoys. The governments have hired hundreds of aides and consultants. Jobs which can be handled by civil servants are firmed out to contractors at skyrocketing prices. The majority of state governments have refused to adopt the TSA to eliminate the diversion of public funds.  Even the much-touted corruption is only being fought by the federal government while it has remained business as usual in the states and local government councils.

Some ministers, senators, and other public officers earn double salaries while no state government has reduced the scandalous pension package for ex-governors regarding salaries for life, houses in the state capitals plus Abuja, medical, vehicle and other allowances, etc. Some officers serve for 4 or 5 years and retire at less than 50 years of age only to be paid an exit package of not less than N500 million. Because there is not much law making going on legislators, have opted for the business of executing constituency projects and conducting a public hearing on all matters including the investigation of criminal offences and auditing/probing of public accounts when you have the police, the anti-graft agencies and the office of the auditor-general. With houses of assembly at the states, what is the justification for retaining the legislative councils in the 774 local government councils and the 6 area councils in the Federal Capital Territory? Do we really need local governments whose statutory allocations are cornered by state governments on a monthly basis? Do we need two chambers of the National Assembly? How did the budget of the national assembly increase from N45 bn per annum to 150 bn and now reduced to N115 bn? Do we need full time or part time legislators at the federal and state levels?

With the profligacy in government, there is no sign that we are going through tough times. Our public officers are paid the highest travelling allowances or estacode while our legislators are the highest paid in the world. After collecting wardrobe, housing and vehicle allowances of billions of Naira, the federal legislators have placed orders for the purchase of exotic cars which they approved for themselves. The payment of the illegal security votes by the federal, state and local governments has not ceased. Thousands of people going on pilgrimage to Mecca and Jerusalem yearly are sponsored by our governments while legislators and other top public officers regularly embark on wasteful foreign tours at public expense. With dwindling revenue from the sale of crude oil, no government in Nigeria has taken the diversification of the economy beyond rhetoric. If the dangerous trend is not checked the federal, states and local governments are going to be declared bankrupt. 

The way Forward 
At the Millennium Summit held from 6 - 8, September 2000 where the United Nations General Assembly adopted the UN Millennium Declaration, the Heads of States and Governments pledged to meet the Millennium Development Goals which include the reduction of poverty and improving the lives of people through halving poverty and hunger, achieving universal primary education and creating a global partnership for development as well as targets for aid, trade and debt relief by 2015.  Nigeria was one of the countries that promised to meet the MDG. But in spite of her enormous wealth Nigeria has failed to meet any of the Millennium Development Goals. While the government complained of a lack of funds to meet the goals top public officers, have engaged in the mega-looting of the Treasury. In the course of diverting huge public funds by the influential criminals, the rate of infant and maternal mortality increased while millions of children could not go to school. Millions of citizens also died in ill-equipped hospitals and on ill-maintained roads. Therefore, the labour movement should lead a campaign for the recovery of the looted wealth and the prosecution of all the indicted looters. 

However, to reclaim the welfare state from its obstinate opponents in government the Nigerian people have to be mobilised to ensure compliance with the various welfare laws and intensify the campaign for the full justiciability of the provisions of the socio-economic rights set out in Chapter 2 of the Constitution. Without mincing words, the social and economic rights of our people cannot be actualized under a neo-colonial capitalist ideology. Apart from socialist states no country in the world, not even the United States, has abolished poverty and guaranteed free access to education, health, and employment for citizens. Hence, in the ongoing presidential race in the United States no candidate has challenged Senator Bernie Sanders, who has pointed out that the contradictions inherent in capitalism have produced millions of poverty stricken American citizens. Since the United States and other capitalist states are compelled to review the impoverishment of societies by capitalism the ruling class in Nigeria should not be allowed to be more Catholic than the Pope. In other words, the political parties set up by the bourgeoisie to access power should no longer be permitted to deceive our people to embrace poverty dictated by dangerous neo-liberal policies. Instead of dissipating energies to retrieving the discredited Labour Party from the PDP the labour movement in Nigeria should establish a political party to struggle for the socialist construction of Nigeria.  


In order to enforce the socio-economic rights of the Nigerian people recognised by law the claim of the ruling class that there is no money to fund them should no longer be accepted. Over the years, the ruling class has conveniently ignored several judicial pronouncements in favour of social justice. That is not unexpected given the fact that the government is run by an army of neo-liberal ideologues who are committed to the defense of market fundamentalism. This means that the struggle for the economic empowerment of the masses transcends the legal arena. It is a battle for popular democracy as opposed to liberal democracy. It is a battle for the democratic control of the economy to ensure that the material resources of the nation are harnessed and distributed as best as possible to serve the common good. 

Finally, to stop the reckless killing of people in Nigeria we have to disband the police force which has contempt for our people because of the neo-colonial content of their training. In its place a new police service which will respect and defend the people should be established.  To free our society from the tiny grip of looters, the Nigerian people should be mobilised to struggle for popular democracy. In the words of Nelson Mandela, “A simple vote, without food, shelter and health care is to use first generation rights as a smokescreen to obscure the deep underlying forces which dehumanise people. It is to create an appearance of equality and justice while by implication socio-economic inequality is entrenched. We do not want freedom without bread, nor do we want bread without freedom. We must provide for all the fundamental rights and freedoms associated with a democratic society.” 


(Being the paper presented by Femi Falana SAN at the 2016 May Day Celebration by the  Nigeria Labour Congress at Abuja on Saturday, May 1, 2016)