Imo State found itself at the epicenter of political turmoil, creating a stir just days after neighboring Rivers State managed to restore calm. The source of the upheaval was the alleged abduction of Joe Ajaero, President of the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC), who had been slated to lead a protest against the Imo State government.
The situation unfolded with just about ten days left until the gubernatorial election on November 11, and it appears to be centered around Ajaero’s efforts to lead workers in a protest. He was reportedly taken from Owerri, where the NLC president was addressing Imo workers at the NLC secretariat. He was taken by heavily armed security personnel to an unknown destination. This occurred while the Inspector General of Police (IGP), Kayode Egbetokun, was in Owerri for a retreat for Senior Police Officers at the Landmark Event Centre.
Ajaero was later released by the Nigeria Police Force (NPF) but was found with a bruised and swollen face, subsequently rushed to the Federal Medical Centre in Owerri for immediate medical attention. Reports indicated that his arrest was made on the orders of Governor Hope Uzodimma for his involvement in mobilizing workers for a strike in the state.
The NLC had called on workers in Imo to protest, demanding the implementation of their demands, including the appropriate payment of the minimum wage, pensions, gratuities to retirees, and other welfare packages. This marked the third such protest since Ajaero became the NLC president in February of that year.
However, the Imo State government sought an order from the National Industrial Court of Nigeria (NICN) to halt the planned protest. The division within the NLC became evident when a faction, chaired by Rev. Philip Nwansi, decided not to join the protests, while others gathered at the state NLC headquarters to await Ajaero’s directives before his arrest.
Organizations within the NLC and the Trade Union Congress of Nigeria (TUC) are considering their next steps following the attack on workers.
In a joint statement, the NLC and TUC General Secretaries, Emmanuel Ugboaja and Nuhu Toro, respectively, called on Nigerian workers, state councils, and branches to prepare for immediate nationwide action. They expressed their concerns over the government of Imo State’s lack of respect for workers and their welfare.
The account of the incident reported that police attempted to disperse workers gathering at the state NLC secretariat. When these efforts failed, thugs were allegedly mobilized to the venue to attack the workers. This led to the injuries of many workers, as car windshields were smashed, and some workers were subjected to physical harm. Ajaero arrived at the venue but was soon arrested.
The Chief of Staff to the NLC president, Chris Onyeka, was present during the incident and reported that he was standing with Ajaero when the attack and arrest occurred. He recounted that while workers gathered for the protest, the police arrived amid attacks by thugs to arrest Ajaero.
Under pressure from labor leaders nationwide, Ajaero was eventually released, with visible injuries and bruises on his face and body, and he was subsequently hospitalized. The Nigeria Union of Petroleum and Natural Gas Workers (NUPENG) put its members on alert for a nationwide strike in response to the attack on Ajaero and other labor leaders.
The Imo State police command denied reports of Ajaero’s arrest, contending that he was taken into custody for his safety due to an attempt by some aggrieved union members to attack him. The police cited a court order prohibiting NLC from protesting in the state and advised that the order should be respected for the sake of peace and stability.
The Imo State government distanced itself from the incident and accused those who accused the government of Ajaero’s arrest as mischief-makers. The government explained that the National Industrial Court in Owerri had halted the strike, rendering the planned action illegal. In compliance with the court order, the Imo State NLC chapter withdrew from the strike, but Ajaero was reportedly in Owerri despite the court’s warning against disobedience.
The Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) governorship candidate in the state, Senator Samuel Anyanwu, highlighted the reasons behind Ajaero’s protest. The workers were reportedly demonstrating against the non-payment of their statutory entitlements and the declaration of over 4,000 civil servants in the state as ghost workers. Anyanwu expressed concern over the situation and criticized Governor Uzodimma’s response to the protest.
This incident has raised tensions in Imo State, and Ajaero’s abduction and release have yet to be fully clarified. Organized labor, especially the NLC and TUC, are contemplating their next steps, as their confrontation with the government in Imo State continues.