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Nigerian Labor Activist: I Want Government to Be Accountable
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By Robert Struckman

May 30, 2012—Sessi Agnes Funmi has the simple goal of awakening the “sleeping giant.” That’s how her Nigerian union has been tagged, she said. And it’s starting to work.

  Sessi Agnes Funmi. Photo by Michael Leslie, Solidarity Center

Funmi is the head of the Lagos State University Branch of the Senior Staff Association of Nigerian Universities. The union has about 8,040 members, who are the non-teaching professional university staff. The members include nurses, physicians, administrators and senior housekeepers and security officers.

Unions in Nigeria are the largest force to keep government in check, and Funmi has used the political clout of her union’s numbers to push for financial transparency at the university in Lagos.

“I want government to be accountable. I’m making a hell of a noise about it,” Funmi said. One government audit discovered that $5 million was missing.

"That misused money was supposed to be for education," said Funmi.

Funmi, who is by trade a registered nurse and midwife, traveled to the United States in recent days with eight other women from Nigeria, all of whom hold positions in the Nigerian Labor Congress, which is the counterpart there of the AFL-CIO. The women came to the National Labor College in Silver Spring, Md., to plan strategic campaigns for political action, to organize new workers and to include more women in union leadership.

The social pressure against activist women is significant in Nigeria, Funmi said.

When Funmi ran for the head of her union, she and her ex-husband were both targeted and pressured. She ran anyway—against five men—and won. But the next day, her ex-husband threw her out of the house because he said he couldn’t live with a woman who was also a “chairman.”

Funmi took her three-year-old daughter with her. It was a hard transition and a tough time, she said, as she struggled as a single mother. But she persevered, and has worked on new programs, like a cooperative supermarket for the members of her union.

That was six years ago. Now, Funmi can imagine the day when her little girl—now 10—may follow in her footsteps.

In Nigeria, the Solidarity Center has long-standing programs with union partners to build their capacity to defend worker rights across a range of economic sectors including oil and energy, healthcare, hospitality, and the informal economy. Additionally, Solidarity Center programs in Nigeria focus on building women's union leadership, workplace health and safety awareness, and government transparency through work with community partners in the Niger Delta.

Cross-posted from AFL-CIO Now, May 29, 2012

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