Although the National Union of Petroleum and Natural Gas Workers (NUPENG) agreed to suspend its planned strike at the weekend, economic watchers say the union’s initial position on the trial of indicted oil marketers smacks of conspiracy and endorsement of fraud, reports Festus Akanbi
A cross section of the Nigerian business community at the weekend rose in condemnation of last week’s threat by the National Union of Petroleum and Natural Gas Workers (NUPENG) to embark on a nationwide strike over the stoppage of payment of subsidy claims to some indicted oil marketers. NUPENG had last week notified the federal government of its resolve to proceed on strike by the weekend if the government failed to pay outstanding subsidy claims to oil marketing and trading companies (OM&Ts). However, the union back pedelled after a rigorous negotiation with government’s representatives last Thursday. Before the ultimatum, Nigerians, especially residents of Abuja had begun to experience acute fuel scarcity, a development, which observers alleged was not only sponsored by some indicted fuel marketers, but was also aimed at brow-beating the federal government to jettison the Aigboje Aig-Imoukhuede committee report that nailed the affected fuel marketers.
Some economic watchers who spoke with THISDAY at the weekend expressed shock over the backing given to the planned industrial action by the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) given the role played by Organised Labour in the six-day crippling protest against the removal of fuel subsidy in January this year. As fuel queues returned to Abuja after some marketers withheld deliveries, Coordinating Minister of the Economy and Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, who was forced to relocate to Lagos over the looming crisis, condemned what she called “blackmail” on the part of the indicted marketers. “It is clear that those behind the strikes are marketers being investigated for possible fraud,” a finance ministry statement issued earlier had said. “These elements have now resorted to hiding behind the unions to unnecessarily antagonise government and create hardship for Nigerians ... No degree of blackmail will stop the government from doing its work.”
NLC, which had clamoured for the probe of the subsidy scheme, expressed support for NUPENG’s action, which presidency sources have described as an open endorsement of oil subsidy fraudsters. The congress said NUPENG is fighting a genuine course, adding that it would not interfere in its quest to protect the interest of workers in the oil and gas industry. NLC Acting General-Secretary, Comrade Chris Uyot, said the congress was in total support of NUPENG’s demand for transparency in the payment of subsidy claims to oil marketers. He said the union had briefed the NLC leadership on the steps taken so far to address the issue, adding that the only way to resolve the crisis is for government to ensure transparency in the importation of petroleum products. He called on government to meet the union’s demands in the interest of industrial peace and harmony. “Our affiliate has briefed us on the current issue in the sector and has issued a strike notice. We cannot tell them not to go on strike because they have the right to embark on an industrial action and we respect that right.
“We can only appeal to government to embrace dialogue as the only option to resolve the issues of subsidy claims in the sector,” he said.
The Damning Report
President Jonathan had set up the verification and reconciliation committee last July to verify and reconcile the report of the technical committee, also headed by Aig-Imoukhuede, which was set up by the Federal Ministry of Finance in May to verify all claims and payments made to marketers in 2011. In the report of the technical committee, scores of marketers and importers were alleged to have committed 17 infractions that cost the country N422, 542,937,668.59 in overpayments. However, after the N422 billion was subjected to reconciliation and verification by the presidential committee, N18 billion was found to have been duplicated, while N21 billion was cleared from the report of the technical committee, bringing down the overpayments to N382,018,250,982.52. The 25 indicted companies, according to the federal government, would be investigated for their alleged involvement in the N62,501,511,789.24 fraudulently obtained through the subsidy scheme out of the N382 billion comprising other minor infractions committed by marketers. The indicted companies included Alminnur Resources Limited, Brila Energy Limited; Caades Oil and Gas Limited, Capital Oil and Gas Industry Limited and Capital Oil Plc. Others are Ceoti Limited, Conoil Plc, Downstream Energy Source Limited, Eterna Oil Plc, Eurafic Oil and Gas Limited, Heyden Petroleum, Lumen Skies Limited, Majope Investment Limited, Masters Energy Oil and Gas Limited, Matrix Energy Limited, Menol Oil and Gas Limited, MOB International Services Limited and MRS Oil and Gas Plc. Also, Nasaman Oil Services Limited, Naticel Petroleum Limited, Ocean Energy Trading and Services Limited, Pinnacle Contractors Limited, Sifax Oil and Gas Limited, Tonique Oil Services Limited and Top Oil and Gas Development Company Limited were included in the list of 25.
Condemning what he described as the hostage situation, which the federal government has found itself, Managing Director, Financial Derivatives Company, Mr. Bismarck Rewane, said the labour unions could blackmail the government because of the refusal of the authorities to do what they were supposed to have done in the past. He said Nigeria was vulnerable because of the failure of successive administrations to take decisive steps in the area of infrastructure, saying time had come for the current administration to deal with the issue of subsidy once and for all. “We are vulnerable and this is why the government is being blackmailed by the unions. It is therefore imperative to deal with the issue of subsidy, else it will continue forever.” According to him, “Nigeria is paying a high price for our inefficiency. This is because we failed to invest in new refineries, we did not invest appropriately,” saying that had the government gone ahead with the recommendations of a committee on oil sector deregulation in 2008, Nigeria would have sorted the issue of subsidy out once and for all. Recalling that the committee, where he played a role, did meet and made its recommendations, Rewane regretted, however, that the late President Umaru Yar’Adua administration could not go ahead to implement the recommendations.
He believed that the surest way of averting further gang-ups of oil workers’ unions is for government to ensure the implementation of the provisions of the Petroleum Industry Bill Act as well as the total deregulation of the oil sector, adding, “If we don’t do it today, we will be more vulnerable tomorrow.” He, however, suggested that as a short time measure, government should accommodate oil marketers so the blackmail could stop since it is the ordinary man that bears the grunt of the fuel scarcity.
Another key member of the organised private sector who condemned the face-off between the labour and the federal government is the chairman of the Nigerian Economic Summit Group, Mazi Sam Ohuabunwa. In an interview with THISDAY, Ohuabunwa said the strike was ill-advised, saying there was no justification for it.