Since the inception of the President Muhammadu Buhari-led APC government, the Nigerian Labour Congress (NLC) has been battling government over several pressing issues, writes Paul Obi
For more than six months now, the Nigerian Labour Congress (NLC) has been battling the federal government on several fronts. This battle, according to the NLC, revolves around poor economic policies of the government, flagrant hike in electricity tariff, perennial fuel scarcity, privatisation, deregulation of the downstream oil sector, corruption and recent job losses across various industries. Added to that is the excruciating pains and suffering faced by Nigerians under President Muhammadu Buhari’s All Progressives Congress (APC) led government. But the face-off between NLC and the government has been more of threats from labour without much action to back up the threats.
Within Nigeria’s public sphere and the court of public opinion, the view is that NLC has done little to ensure anti-masses policies are reversed. In the eyes of the public, the last few months have seen a plethora of NLC’s threats without action. An x-ray of NLC’s demands thus far leaves no one in doubt about such views.
At its Central Working Committee (CWC) meeting, NLC raised growing concern about the Buhari’s APC government poor handling of the economy. The union cited the free-fall of naira against the dollar, high prices of commodities, goods and services, job losses and non-payment of workers’ salaries, arguing then that, “we need no telling that the situation is serious.” But beyond the rhetoric of a change mantra, government policies on forex and the fuel scarcityhave precipitated high cost of living especially in the area of transportation thereby having multiplier effect on other sectors. NLC’s threat to government to address these issues has yielded no noticeable result.
Electricity Tariff Hike
Of all the contentious issues that have created a gulf between labour and government, electricity tariff increase remains the most contentious. Besides, the NLC believes that the decision of the government to go ahead with the tariff increment was an abuse of a subsisting court order calling on the two parties to maintain the status quo. According to the NLC President, Comrade Ayuba Wabba, “there is a subsisting Court Order dated 28th May, 2015 by Justice Mohammed Idris of the Federal High Court, Ikoyi, Lagos, in the case of Toluwani Yemi-Adebiyi versus NERC & Orders, that there shall be no further increment until the determination of the substantive suit.”
Furthermore, part of the agreement during the privatisation of the DISCOs, was that electricity meters would be made available before any increment will be put on the table. Till date, nearly 65 per cent of Nigeria’s electricity consumers have no meters; the power companies rely on estimated billing system, which NLC termed ‘outrageous and exploitative.’ To worsen the matter, electricity available is still porous. Trade Union Congress (TUC) President, Bobboi Kaigama deplored the continued darkness amid outrageous electricity tariff hike, stating that, “today, we are here witnessing the change that we voted for and the change is bringing darkness for us. We didn’t vote a change that we will see darkness at the end of the tunnel. We voted for change to see light at the end of the tunnel,” he said. Additionally, three months after the nationwide protest, electricity supply in the country is yet to improve.
Persistent Fuel Scarcity
Petrol supply, which fuels economic activities, is regularly hampered by various factors. But since last September, frequent fuel scarcity has been the daily nightmare of Nigerians, disrupting economic activities, including forcing price hike of goods and services. Even at press time, fuel queues linger across the country with no remedy in sight. Minister of State for Petroleum Resources, Dr Ibe Kachukwu’s explanation of a possible solution has rather created disaffection for the government, as fuel scarcity persists. Wabba explained that the NLC was “disturbed by the recurring scarcity of petroleum products, especially the Premium Motor Spirit, PMS, popularly known as petrol, which has caused long queues at some fuel stations that are selling while many more closed their gates with claims of non-availability of the product.” While threatening that labour may be compelled to ask workers to sit at home if the scarcity continues. Wabba added that “it is regrettable that bad governance, misplaced priorities and corruption has almost killed the petroleum industry, we believe a serious government can revamp the industry within one year.” Even with this call to action, fuel scarcity has not ceased.
Job Losses and Non-Payment of Salaries
It is in the area of jobs and payment of salary that NLC has achieved some successes. Attempts by oil majors to downsize on the excuse of global oil price fall have been halted after several negotiations with NLC, Nigerian Union of Petroleum and Natural Gas Workers (NUPENG), Petroleum and Natural Gas Senior Staff Association of Nigeria (PENGASSAN), oil majors and government. The NLC through protests and rallies were able to compel Imo State Governor, Rochas Okorocha, to reverse workers’ sack and pay some workers who were being owed. But in states like Benue, the situation remains dicey; workers continue to protest over non-payment of salaries for 14 months. In many states across the country, workers are still being owed, notwithstanding the billions collected from the federal government as bailouts to offset workers’ salaries.
Senate’s Expenditure on Vehicles
In confronting the Senate for reportedly purchasing 109 Toyota SUVs, close watchers of event said labour didn’t get its figures right before venturing into trouble waters. The Senate itself has denied the allegation, arguing that, it only bought 36 SUVs. Some are also questioning NLC’s interests in raising alarm over Senate’s expenditures without beaming its searchlight on the other arms of government. Those who spoke with THISDAY also demanded that labour officials should likewise cease to use SUVs before pointing accusing fingers.
NLC and Public Opinion
So far, NLC president has made it clear that labour remain on course in tasking government to do the needful – in meeting the yearnings of the masses. But how the NLC has fared is a subject of divergent opinions. Observers opined that the doggedness with which NLC pursues its agenda in time past has not been rekindled in the present dispensation. Others stressed that NLC shot itself on the foot with its wrong-headed opposition to petroleum subsidy removal during the last regime, as it has now lost it voice in the current no subsidy payment regime. Speaking to THISDAY, Human Rights Activists and legal luminary, Femi Falana, SAN disagreed. According to him, “at that time the economy was in a good shape, there was necessity to resist petroleum subsidy removal. Between now and then, the economy has collapsed completely; international oil prices have fallen, the atmosphere is not the same. Fuel subsidy has been stopped. That does not excuse the inefficiency that has led to the crisis we are going through, which is largely due to incompetence on the part of NNPC.”
Falana informed THISDAY that the prevailing circumstances then left labour with no choice. “The looting of the treasury, criminal diversion of public treasury and the general mismanagement of the country by the PDP for 16 years, these were serious issues you can’t compare,” he said. The Lagos lawyer further stressed that the various flops of the past notwithstanding, “this regime has to go to the drawing board.” Asked about the abuse of court order by DISCOs and NLC’s non-committal posturing, Falana maintained that “there is a disobedience of court order, it is not to fight the government, you have to file a case against the government on abuse of court order. This government has 11 senior lawyers in the cabinet; some of them have been in the forefront of fighting against arbitrariness, so there is no need to engage in abuse of court orders.”
Also, Chairman, Partners for Electoral Reforms, Ezenwa Nwagwu, while appraising NLC in the last one year said: “My quick take is that there is tolerance, tolerance in the sense that the administration is pretty new. The budget they inherited was what they were using before now. By and large, labour has tried to deal with the issues. What is needed is a more organised confrontation against the big interest in the power sector, in the next coming weeks; we will start seeing that, in collaboration with the Civil Society. I don’t agree with anyone who says NLC has been silent.” Comparing labour’s struggles in the past and now, Nwagwu explained that “what was in contention then was the opaqueness, the corruption in the system; the state has the role to plug leakages and corruption. It is a blackmail to say labour didn’t allow Jonathan’s government to breathe,” he said.