Damilola Oyedele in Abuja
The failure of the current strike action declared wednesday by the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) has shown that the labour movement may be playing itself into a situation where it is no longer reckoned with in the polity.
The strike, which threatened to shut down the national economy, including the airspace, electricity, civil service and other critical sectors was barely noticeable in several parts of the country.
In Abuja, the nation’s capital, it did not seem like any strike was in force as residents went about their normal businesses. The three arms zone was bustling with life like normal days and characterised by traffic jams experienced on normal working days.
The situation was completely different from that of January 2012 when the labour movement and civil society organisations completely shut down the country in protest against the removal of fuel subsidy and increase in the pump price of petrol from N65 to N140 per litre by the Goodluck Jonathan’s administration. The protests were so effective that the government was forced to restore partial subsidy and reduce the pump price to N97 per litre.
What was different in 2012?
For starters, the opposition Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN) and other opposition figures like General Muhammadu Buhari helped to give the protest the much needed steam. In fact, some politicians who had lost out in the scheme of affairs in the Jonathan government took advantage of the mass outcry to relaunch themselves into public consciousness by participating in the protests. Jamborees were funded by these politicians who allegedly provided refreshments at protests venues, which lasted five days before the government was forced to rescind its decision.
This time, the opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) is too busy trying to save its house from collapse, to align itself with the labour movement. In any case, subsidy removal was first championed by the PDP, whose members had demanded an apology from APC for championing the protest against the same cause in 2012.
Secondly, the inability of the NLC to resolve its internal crises provided an opening for the government to infiltrate it and weaken the strike. The NLC was factionalised following its March 2015 11th delegates’ conference where Comrade Ayuba Wabba emerged as the national president. His opponent, Comrade Joe Ajaero, had rejected the results and declared himself president. Admittedly, the congress through its veterans, including Edo State Governor Adams Oshiomhole (a former NLC president), had been making efforts to reconcile the two factions. It had made some headway but a complete truce has been stalled by the inability to cede any position on the National Executive Committee of the NLC to the Ajaero’s faction. In fact, Ajaero had even stopped using the appendage ‘Factional President, NLC” since he was not so recognised by government and was on the verge of fading into irrelevance.
The desperation of the government, populated by people who had sent congratulatory messages to Wabba only after the NLC elections, gave Ajaero a chance to re-emerge and he has taken full advantage of it. Ajaero’s union, National Union of Electricity Employees (NUEE) and some allies including the National Union of Petroleum and Natural Gas Workers (NUPENG) seized the current moment by backing out of the strike with their large numbers and effectively crippling it.
Ajaero’s faction has since reached an agreement with the government. It, however, remains unclear how the Buhari-led government would proceed from this point considering that it would be impossible to negotiate the minimum wage or other labour issues with two factions.
Thirdly, the Trade Union Congress (TUC) pulling out of the strike at the last minute also weakened the industrial action. By wednesday, it was clear that the strike was not going to be effective. Perhaps due to the need to save face, the NLC decided to go ahead even though it was participating in several mediatory meetings.
Again, the Wabba-led NLC failed to adequately assess the mood of Nigerians over the fuel hike. For over a year, Nigerians have had to experience extreme hardship to get petrol, long hours, sometimes days spent on queues to purchase at official price, resulting in many opting to buy from the parallel market. Between April and May 2015, marketers held the country to ransom over subsidy payments, making the price to rise to as much as N300 per litre in several parts of the country.
As Nigerians became more enlightened on the subsidy regime, many began to call for its removal, preferring a situation where the essential commodity would be available and accessible without hassles.
Several groups, eminent personalities and economic experts, therefore, called on labour not to go ahead with the strike.
It is clear Wabba’s first outing, spearheading a national strike was not well thought out and therefore lacks bite. Together with his team, he has to go back to the drawing board and put his house in order. A united labour movement is a stronger one.
The option available to the NLC right now is to push for the palliatives to be rolled out, and commence waging its war for the review of the minimum wage. A war because it would encounter stiff resistance from virtually all the state governors, several of whom have canvassed that the minimum wage be taken off the Exclusive List. Many governors, including Imo’s Rochas Okorocha have already said they could not afford the N56,000 being clamoured for.