The Federal Government on Thursday berated the organised Labour over the strike it declared in Imo State and its planned nationwide strike scheduled for November 14 because of the physical attack on the President of the Nigeria Labour Congress, Joe Ajaero, in Owerri, the state capital.
The Minister of Aviation and Aerospace Development, Festus Keyamo, SAN, admonished the NLC and the Trade Union Congress against politicising Ajero’s alleged maltreatment, warning that politics might destroy the labour movement in the country.
In protest against the assault on the labour leader during a protest against the Imo State Government on November 1, the organised Labour Thursday disrupted all Owerri-bound flights at the Lagos and Abuja airports and forced passengers to deplane.
The union leaders and their members picketed the Nnamidi Azikiwe International Airport, disrupting the operations of the facility and leaving many passengers stranded.
The unions had announced the action after their extraordinary National Executive Council meeting which was held in Abuja on Tuesday.
But angered by the development, Keyamo came down hard on the labour leaders, accusing them of being ‘’Labour Party hirelings.’’
While appealing to the labour unions not to destroy themselves with involvement in politics, the minister maintained that the aviation ministry was not involved in the alleged maltreatment of the NLC leader.
Keyamo, who spoke at the opening of a retreat for the Minister, Permanent Secretary, Directors and Head of Agencies of the Aviation Ministry, in Effurun, Uvwie Local Government Area of Delta State, pointed out that the “Aviation (sector) was not involved at all; but their target is aviation.
“Their retaliation is aviation. So, please, I want to tell them to leave us alone. Leave aviation alone. You cannot target aviation in trying to address your grievances.’’
He noted with concern that the protest by the labour could affect foreigners coming into the country as well as citizens going about their normal businesses as, according to him, the protesters disrupted aviation activities by blocking the access road to the Abuja International Airport.
Keyamo, while claiming to be grounded in legal, civil society and labour matters declared that “it is not good for the image of the labour movement.
“I pray and I’m talking directly to them: Do not allow the Labour Party to destroy the labour movement. I repeat, do not allow the Labour Party and politics to destroy the labour movement.
“Call your leadership to order. Don’t get sucked into politics. It will destroy the labour movement. They cannot be hirelings in the Labour Party and they used them at their will. That’s why you see that the labour movement does not control the policies of the Labour Party.”
However, Keyamo disclosed that the aviation ministry had mobilised security agencies to disperse the protesters from the Abuja International Airport.
He noted, “I, as aviation minister, will not allow that target on aviation. They should not target aviation. If they do that, I will fight back and they should not bring politics to aviation. I’m grounded in this. I have been with them all over the years but they cannot deceive me.
“What they are doing is politics. It’s not labour movement, it’s politics. You cannot use that platform to go and support a party different from my party when you’re fighting back. You say it’s labour movement. No, it’s not. You should be ready for the consequences if you play politics”.
Keyamo condemned the alleged maltreatment of the NLC president, stressing that nobody should be manhandled.
During the picketing of the airports, the NLC, TUC, and the aviation unions compelled some airlines to deplane their passengers travelling to Owerri from Lagos and Abuja airports.
Unions picket airports
It was gathered that members of the unions carried out the process seamlessly at the Murtala Muhammed Airport in Lagos without disrupting the flights of other non-Owerri bound passengers.
But the situation in Abuja was rowdy as the unions staged a protest at the entrance of the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport, paralysing access to the facility.
Hundreds of vehicles transporting travellers to the airport were trapped outside the NAIA, as the passengers were left stranded due to the development.
A traveller who was heading to the Abuja airport, Siraj Abubakar, said the protesters stopped vehicles from gaining entry into the facility around 8.30am on Thursday.
The aviation unions across the country had earlier declared the suspension of all flights to Owerri, Imo State, from every airport in Nigeria effective from Wednesday.
The TUC President, Festus Osifo, and the Deputy NLC President, Adewale Adeyanju, who led the protest, also visited the headquarters of the Nigeria Police Force to meet with the IG.
Addressing the workers, the TUC president said the picketing was to express the displeasure of workers over the physical attack on Ajaero.
He noted that the exercise which was only the beginning of the planned protest was to inform the government that ‘injury to one was an injury to all members.’
Osifo said, “Comrades, we have established the reason why we are here because an injury to one is indeed an injury to all. Someone asked me why we came to the Nnamdi Azikwe Airport when the issue should have been limited to Imo State.
“We said no, the person that was brutalised is a national figure, our president is a national figure and the police that beat him are called the Nigeria police. They report to the Inspector-General of Police who in turn report to the President. So this is a national issue and as such we must make it one.’’
Osifo directed the workers to commence preparation for a grand protest and strike action scheduled for Tuesday next week.
“This is just the beginning. We have just started. By midnight on Tuesday, November 14, don’t bother leaving your house. We have given you a notice now. Every worker will be at home. Let’s see who owns Nigeria.’’
The Chairman of the Air Transport Services Senior Staff Association of Nigeria, Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria Branch, Ahmed Danjuma, justified the airport action.
“The picketing of the airports is as a result of the issue on the ground. We were directed by the two labour centres to stop all flights going to Owerri, only Owerri,” he stated.
Asked to state how the unions identified the Owerri-bound flights, Danjuma replied, “We know the airlines that operate to Owerri. In Lagos, it (the picketing) was actually seamless and polite. We spoke to United Nigeria Airlines at MMA2.
“Even though they started boarding at the beginning, we spoke to them to disembark the passengers. For Air Peace too, we told them not to service the Owerri route today and it was politely done. So, we had already interfaced with them.
“The management of FAAN also spoke with us, saying instead of us coming into the airport to disrupt the operations, we should meet with a few of the airlines involved since it is only one route that is affected.
“This happened today (Thursday) and it is also the same directive that was given to our people there in Abuja. Although I don’t know what is the true situation there yet.”
When told that the unions in Abuja actually blocked the entrance of the airport, Danjuma said, “That is too much, they are not supposed to go about it that way. We are not shutting down everywhere. It is only flights going to Owerri and we spoke to the airlines not to check in their passengers.”
Ahead of Saturday’s governorship polls in Kogi, Imo, and Bayelsa states, the Independent National Electoral Commission has urged the Federal Government and organised Labour to settle their rift through dialogue.
He stated this in reaction to the picketing of the airports in Abuja and Lagos by the unions.
Madukwe B. Nwabuisi is an accomplished journalist renown for his fearless reporting style and extensive expertise in the field. He is an investigative journalist, who has established himself as a kamikaze reporter.