Björn Beckman (BB) (1938-2019): Tribute to an African Optimist (2) By Issa Aremu

Africa is in profound despair caused by the entrenched pessimism (or is it cynicism?) that the continent cannot take-off not to talk of catching up.  Nigeria has almost declared literarily a failed state. Mousier John Campbell was a former US ambassador to Nigeria (from 2004 to 2007). He wrote a book entitled Nigeria: Dancing On the Brink (2010). He almost predicted that Nigeria would not survive  2011 elections in Nigeria. It  was   BB’s  works are upbeat about prospects of Africa’s development either through the capitalist way and his favored socialist development. Still on   UNION POWER in the Nigeria Textile Índustry. Implicit in his findings is that Asia actually has a lot to learn from Africa in terms of labour relations.  Instead of the repressed, non-unionised and absolutely subordinated labour force of far East Asia, the Nigeria’s textile industry shows a labour regime that is union oriented, autonomous and recognised by employers.  Instead of teenage girls regimented in factory dormitories working longer hours as far back as 1985, Nigerian textile plants show a distinctly different labour regime where a predominantly educated, mature, male labour force with family responsibilities seemed to have a considerable autonomy in the work place, for themselves and their unions. A bold attempt is made to combine political economy with place theory and test the concept of union-centered labour regime in both Kaduna and Kano, two textile cities with different features.  The findings though problematic do not alter the general conclusion that union-centered labour regime is entrenched in the industry.  Kaduna’s mills namely UNTL and KTL are relatively scored higher in ters of entrenchment of union rights than Kano’s Bagauda and NTM which are rated relatively low.  The issue however is that none of the six company case studies denied union presence, however marginal. A reader will however be eager to know what actually constitute the basis of this union centered labour regime?  What makes the first generation “unconsolidated” workers assert themselves in different companies with such diverse ownership and management practices?  Answers to these questions are in the book (chapter 13.).  The union based labour regime is said to rest on state regulation and workers’ organisation.  Independent workers’ self organisation with preference for accountability, militancy, commitment to rights and duties of members, professionalization and resourcefulness are singled out as the hall marks of NUTGTWN.  There is no doubt that the events of May 1993 deeply questions the relevance of the conceptual frame work of union-centered labour regime, the authors nonetheless show that the manner the union like ‘Phoenix rising from ashes’ further confirms its resourcefulness and fighting spirit. Corporatist state regulation in terms of automatic cheque-off, protective labour laws and monopoly representations are said to have enhanced the celebrated union power.  This is however debatable.  The question first is whence the corporatist regulation?  How committed is the state to its own side of the 1975 so-called labour pact to the extent that it has enhanced union power?  Even in the cited case of KTL, we see how police pitched camp with capital in opposition to protesting workers.  In 1993 too, we see how the combined institutions of the state orchestrated attack on the union.  In the two cases, it is the self-assertion of the union and its capacity to defend itself that actually sustained the union power rather than the state regulation.  What then are the policy implications?

Going by the centrality of state “recognition”, “accommodation” in union-based labour regime, the policy implications will be continuation of state regulation. Yet this will not be desirable given the over-whelming evidences that state support might have actually retarded union growth. The question is can we talk of same ‘union power’ in other industries and public sectors as much as we could see such power in the textile industry?  If not, why so?  Answer may very well be in how state regulation has manifestly made unions complacent and non-accountable to members.

However all said, BB’s analysis of union power could only have taken place when Textile industry was thriving. Of course there had always been “crisis before the crisis”:, smuggling and foreign exchange crisis which undermined industry’s competitiveness in the 80s. But the whole sale massive closures of textile mills have greatly weakened union power. No thanks to persistent power failure, massive dumping of Textile materials from China, product counterfeiting, inconsistent industrial policies and shortage of basic raw materials like cotton. BB’s findings indicated that UNTL was a company record of successful adjustment and strong union presence. However with unprecedented Big Bang, in 2007, UNTL with direct 5000 jobs actually shut down. It only reopened in 2010 but far from its capacity utilization of the 80s and 90s. It employs less than 2000 today. Union  power had focused more on revival of the union. The renewed interest of President Buhari in reviving Textile Industry further points to union power in advocacy. The industry remains the key driver of sustainable jobs and development for most national economies of developing nations.  Indeed for Nigeria and Africa to meet the Sustainable Development Goal 2030, especially SDG 9 dealing with industry and innovation, Africa continent must innovate and industrialize. Africa must copy China’s industrialization drive which has within 20 years moved over 250 million people out of poverty through manufacturing and industrialization. The best tribute to BB will be to  revive the industry which once served  as a case study that African Industrialization was possible. When Beckman wrote Nigeria was the third producer of Textile in Africa following Egypt and South Africa.  President Buhari has commendably raised the prospects of reviving the industry to create employment for farmers, weavers and spinners. First now in place is a comprehensive Cotton, Textile and Garment (CTG) policy which aims at reviving  the entire value chains of  cotton growing, Ginneries, spinning and weaving, printing and garments production. 

Issa Aremu mni