The Strike this Time

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After several weeks of threats and closed-door talks between labour and government over the increase in the price of petrol, labour embarked on a strike last week, but with a divided house. Paul Obi writes on the flow of events

Since last year, when President Muhammadu Buhari assumed office, organised labour has been facing daunting challenges in confronting what it called the “scorch-earth policy” of the government. To compound the matter, government introduction of several policies, some of them, a complete summersault from its glamorous campaign promises, has taken the frosty relationship between it and labour to the precipice.

Added to that, the standard of living of almost every Nigerian has taken a downward turn, as economic hardship pervades the landscape. Government’s desire to source more funds to pursue its programmes has led to increments in the prices of goods and services. This has tended to draw the battle line between labour and government.

Increment
Since its assumption of office, the Buhari administration has displayed a penchant for increment in the prices of goods and services. The government argues that there is need to make such increase and the aim is not to punish citizens.
Setting a preamble for the recent turn of events, Vice President Yemi Osinbajo, while speaking to a group of businessmen during the Ogun State Investment Forum, said: “I think that we are at a point that a lot has been said about subsidies and what to do with subsidies. I think we are at a point where we must make many difficult decisions and make very tough choices.

“But I think the Nigerian people are prepared for all what is required and all it would take to make a real difference. In no way can a country make the kind of progress we expect it to make without being able to ensure that in public life our finance system is transparent and would ensure that there is accountability.
“Our Ministry of Finance has been putting in place a system that would ensure accountability. It would ensure that public funds are accounted for and that the country is not exposed to some of the kinds of huge corruption that we had seen over the past few years.”

The petrol price increase came barely two months after government increased electricity tariffs amid worsening electricity supply across the country. The hike was effected in disregard of an existing court order mandating the federal government and organised labour to return to the status quo. But with the increase in petrol pump price, there has been a spiral effect on commodities, goods and services, affecting mainly the aviation, transport, industrial, manufacturing sectors.

‘Ambush’
Prior to May 11, when the increase in the pump price of premium motor spirit was announced, tension between labour and government was already obvious from various disagreements on policies. But the meeting that fateful day at the instance of the vice president was a game changer. After the meeting, Minister of State for Petroleum Resources, Dr Ibe Kachikwu, who briefed journalists, said, “We have just finished a meeting of various stakeholders presided over by His Excellency, the Vice-President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. The meeting had in attendance the leadership of the Senate, House of Representatives, the governors’ forum, and labour unions (NLC, TUC, NUPENG and PENGASSAN).”

He added that the meeting reviewed the current fuel scarcity and the exorbitant prices paid by Nigerians for the product, saying, “These prices range on average from N150 to N250 per litre currently.”
Kachikwu revealed that the meeting also noted that the main reason for the current problem was the inability of importers of petroleum products to source foreign exchange at the official rate due to the massive decline of foreign exchange earnings resulting from low oil prices. As a result, private marketers had been unable to meet their approximate 50 per cent portion of total national supply of petrol.

He stated, “Following a detailed presentation by the Honourable Minister of State for Petroleum Resources, it has now become obvious that the only option and course of action now open to the government is to take the following decisions:
“In order to increase and stabilise the supply of the product, any Nigerian entity is now free to import the product, subject to existing quality specifications and other guidelines issued by the regulatory agencies.”

Labour viewed this tactics as an ambush by government to hoodwink the masses and browbeat organised labour into submission to the hike. They argued that they were only invited for a meeting, without any agenda in mind. According to NLC Secretary General, Dr Peter Ozo-Eson, who attended the meeting, labour leaders were invited to a meeting at the State House, but the letter did not specify what the meeting was all about.

Ozo-Eson told THISDAY, “Of course, we received a letter from the Office of the Vice-President for a meeting. We attended the meeting and a presentation was made by the Minister of State for Petroleum Resources, Dr Ibe Kachikwu.
“We listened to the presentation, but said that we have to reach other organs of NLC, as it is our organs that will decide what direction we will take.”
Many within labour were disappointed with the approach, as they reasoned that there was no consultation before the decision was made. With this perceived betrayal, labour proceeded to declare a strike to protest against the increase in petrol pump price.

Division
At the negotiating table, the federal government led by the Secretary to the Government of the Federation, Babachir Lawal, made known government’s resolve to increase fuel price as solution to the slump in crude oil prices. Lawal contended that the price increment had also been prompted by the need for government to meet its funding needs for development and infrastructural projects.
But for labour, it was a house divided against itself. While Joe Ajaero and Igwe Achese led the pack of oil and electricity workers, Ayuba Wabba led the central body of unions housed by NLC. Government seized the opportunity of this gulf among the unions to have its ways in various ways. Knowing that the Ajaero group, though a small arm of organised labour, wields much influence in the energy and power sectors, government aligned with the group to deal a big blow to the emergence of a unified and common labour front. At the end, Ajaero went with government, while Wabba reluctantly headed to the streets for a strike.

Weak Protest
Out of the 36 states of the federation and Abuja, 11 states stayed away from the strike, while the rest participated in a dilly-dallying manner. In Abuja, where Wabba led the protest, workers resumed at their duty posts after the SGF gave a warning order of “no work, no pay”. The protest mostly took place at Berger Roundabout, and then Area One Roundabout. With a divided union, the protest failed to gathered momentum. Though, there were success stories from many of the states, that the strike and protest made little impact in Abuja, Lagos and Port Harcourt, the three most strategic cities, was a bad omen for labour. It is one bitter and sad experience organised labour will not forget soon. The consequence of a divided house bites hard, staring labour officials in the faces.

Enter Oshiomhole
Of all the dramatis personae fighting hard in favour of fuel price increase and subsidy removal, and those opposing it, Edo State Governor Adams Oshiomhole seems to be the most controversial. Oshiomhole, a former NLC president and textile workers’ leader, at the inception of the Fourth Republic, fought the government to a standstill on several policies. He was always quick to call any court injunction aimed at stopping his planned strikes then a “black market” injunction.

But between 2011 and 2012, Oshiomhole, now a governor, moved close to becoming enemy number one to the Jonathan government. In one of the forums where subsidy removal was vehemently opposed, Oshiomhole, popularly known among his people as “O’talk, O’do”, lampooned the Jonathan government’s decision to tinker with petroleum subsidy, arguing, “the adoption of economic policies of international monetary bodies, including currency devaluation, removal of price controls and fuel subsidy, cuts in public spending on social programmes would inhibit human and capital development of Nigerians.”

Oshiomhole added, “it is noteworthy that the Head of Nigeria’s Economic Management Team and Minister of Finance, Mrs Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, came from the World Bank/IMF stable.” He stated that such polices were “predicted that the ultimate result of the planned removal of oil subsidy would bring about prosperity for the already developed countries, intensify poverty, unemployment and brain drain for developing countries, such as Nigeria. This cannot be said to be conducive to national growth.”
Oshiomhole further stated Jonathan’s economic strategies, which placed much emphasis on opening up the nation’s economy to the global market, may eventually lead to stagnation, capable of breeding conflicts and revolution.

Today, however, the Edo State governor is a federal government negotiator for petrol price increase. He sits as the head of the negotiating team. He told labour unions demanding reversal of government policies, “You’ve organised strikes and those strikes have not helped in increasing wages. So it is time to make tough choices. The president is socially concerned but the fundamentals have changed.”

Buhari also told journalists, “I have already said it that our party, APC does not believe in it (subsidy removal). Let them wipe out corruption and we will live happily forever.”
The case of the Edo State governor goes beyond supporting subsidy. Oshiomhole had fiercely supported the Wabba group during the struggle for supremacy between Wabba and Ajaero. Today, Oshiomhole is a buddy to Ajaero, celebrating Ajaero and his group for putting the “nation’s interest” first, by supporting the government. The irony is that while Oshiomhole was in Abuja with the powers that be, negotiating for government, organised labour in Edo State shut the state and its economy, as they supported the Wabba-led NLC to strike.

Uncertain Times
The whole country is now divided over the fuel price hike and subsidy removal. The Wabba led protest group appeared to be gathering momentum with the turnout witnessed in Abuja. Yet, labour was so divided that unity in the nearest future was doubtful.
The federal government appears to be having the last laugh owing to the discord within organised labour. With the rising tensions in the Niger Delta and disruption of oil production, this federal government certainly needs organised labour on its side more.

The strike action by NLC may not be very effective due to the divisions within labour that the government is obviously exploiting. But many believe the federal government should not approach the current disagreements over petrol price and subsidy with a conquest mentality. Rather, it should open sincere channels of negotiation with all the major stakeholders with a view to reaching an acceptable settlement.