A Fractured Labour Bows

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Wabba leading a protest march in Abuja

With the suspension of the nationwide strike by the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) after five days of protest and negotiations with government, Paul Obi writes on the divisions and forces that browbeat labour into submission

The Hostilities

The President Muhammadu Buhari administration was ushered in, in a critical time with slogan of ‘change’ that was in dire need of policy redirection from the past Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) government. Insecurity triggered by the Boko Haram insurgency in the north, dwindling global oil price, falling Nigeria’s oil output, corruption and perceived marginalisation of sections of the country stood on the government’s path to Eldorado. All these socio-economic headaches had to be tackled headlong. But not without hostilities, especially, between government and the organised labour. The increase of electricity tariff was the first shot aimed at Nigerians and labour. The hike of petroleum pump price and removal of subsidy by whatever name it is called was the climax. It is this increase that propelled the organised labour to take to the streets notwithstanding the cracks within its ranks.

The Negotiation Table

At the negotiation table, government was very skeptical and dreadful of the impact a unified organised labour would have, should they have their way. A probable strategy was immediately conceived to persuade labour to tow government’s line. It was at this juncture that drafting in Edo State Governor, Adams Oshiomhole, as the chief negotiator became apparent. The belief was that with Oshiomhole as one of labour’s own, labour will not pose too unyielding in submitting to government deregulation of the downstream oil sector. Also, ministers linked to the deregulation policy were giving marching orders to fall in line with the Secretary to the Government of the Federation (SGF), Babachir Lawal, in ensuring that government had its way. Thus, Minister of Labour and Employment, Sen. Chris Ngige, Minister of State for Petroleum Resources, Dr. Ibe Kachikwu, Minister of Information and Cultural Orientation, Lai Muhammed, Minister of Solid Minerals, Dr Kayode Fayemi, and Senior Special Assistant to the President on National Assembly Matters, Sen. Ita Enang, all fell into line.

At the negotiations, it was not surprising to spot the superimposing stature of Lawal, even likened to a Commanding Officer by close watchers of events. In one of the events at the Presidential Villa, Lawal was reported to have scolded Kachikwu who was busy exchanging pleasantries before the arrival of the president for cabinet meeting, stating that, “Kachikwu, there is no fuel, and you are there shaking hands.” Getting to real business, divisions between the President of National Association of Electricity Employees (NAEE), Comrade Joe Ajaero, who also led a faction of labour, and NLC President Comrade Ayuba Wabba, provided a leeway for the government to sail through without much hitches.

Buhari and His Lieutenants

All through the negotiations and talks for petroleum pump price increment and deregulation of the downstream oil sector, President Buhari kept aloof from the controversies that bedeviled the policy and its announcement. From the strategies on display during the talks, the policy was consummated by the Commander-in-Chief, while his lieutenants were tasked to deliver results without any obstacles. Throughout the initiation of the fuel price hike and removal of subsidy, this pattern became obvious. First, President Buhari jetted out of the country; Vice President Yemi Osinbajo was to initiate the policy. Then, the SGF meant to pacify warring parties along with the ministers. Till date, no one has heard a clear-cut policy statement from Mr. President on the hike and deregulation.

WAjaero as Favoured Bride

Since the tussle for leadership between Ajaero and Wabba, Ajaero, with his men, Igwe Achese of NUPENG and Francis Johnson of PENGASSAN headed to Lagos, while Wabba took hold of the Labour House in Abuja as the substantive and recognised NLC President. Since the Buhari administration came on board, government had clearly pitched its tent with the Wabba group. At the commencement of what NLC called ‘anti-people’ policies by the government; no muscle was moved until the increase of fuel price. Sensing that Wabba may be a thorn in the flesh to persuade to support the hike and subsidy removal, government quickly jump-ship and courted the Ajaero faction, who with open arms embraced government to spite the Wabba group, a move that is now seen as a pay-back for Wabba in leadership tussle. Even when Wabba group staged a walkout from the talks, government continued with the Ajaero group, setting up committees for social palliatives, minimum wage and harmonisation of petroleum pump price hike. Ajaero’s support to government will forever hunt labour which has now left itself more fractured, unprecedented in its history.

Kaigama and TUC’s In-house Warfare

If Ajaero had in cap-in hand approach supported government position on petroleum pump price hike and deregulation, that was not a surprise to organised labour stakeholders. But the most astonishing and dumbfounding was Trade Union Congress (TUC) nocturnal back stepping of other labour unions. TUC, headed by Bobboi Kaigama, was already holding consultations with NLC on how to present a common front, before the start of negotiations. During the talks, they supported all that they had earlier opposed in conjunction with NLC. Till date, no one knows when and where TUC decided to fly another kite different from the one it had with NLC. That shock is yet to disappear. It is one that will stay with labour for many years to come, including leaving a sour taste.

Wabba and Labour Sour Grapes

No doubt, Wabba has goodwill among many the organised labour stakeholders. His tactics to confronting government in several of its policies that have precipitated economic hardship have been that of carrot and stick. That is not surprising. Even before the petroleum pump price hike, NLC had acted as if it was too close to the government to bite. Yet, on the 11th of May, 2016, Wabba was left with no choice than to confront government officials. Observers opined that the support for his ambition of being number one labour officer by some political heavy weights may have hampered a rather strong opposition expected of labour. Former Lagos State governor and Chieftain of the All Progressives Congress (APC) Sen. Bola Ahmed Tinubu’s visit to Wabba and his team at Labour House confirmed this fated romance. Tinubu told labour that “I am here to appeal to you to understand that whatever you are doing, whatever this government is doing, whatever the President is doing which involved myself and yourself is for the good of all.”

“You brought this government on board, without you, without your support, without your participation, we could not have won the election. Now that we have won the election, we can now look at ourselves and ask ourselves how best we can manage the victory? How can we use the success to make a change?“ Tinubu asked.

NLC’s declaration of protest and strike, according to Wabba, was imperative to stop government from annihilating the masses. In one of the meetings with government, Wabba said: “All of us are aware of the fact that NLC since the coming of this administration, we have been very proactive. First in the fight against corruption, in the area of good governance, and we have contributed immensely to ensure that this critical area that needed the support of all of us that we have driven together on this specific policy issue on the increase in the pump price of petroleum, which have resulted to about 67.8 per cent increase, it is an issue that we have issued an ultimatum since last week and we have been invited for meeting with government yesterday to take time to go and discuss; we had our national executive council meeting and we came back to still look at the issue and the mandate that we have to the effect that majority of the Nigerian workers feel like the pump price of N145 per litre is too outrageous and out of proportion and therefore with the hard economic situation, it is very difficult for them to go by especially in context of the increase.” That notwithstanding, even though Wabba put up a good fight, many expressed reservation on the future of labour in the country. Some are of the opinion that labour has lost its unified voice and fierce force. Of a truth, NLC had so many forces to contend with: one was that Ajaero group was always going to fight back in a dangerous manner. He did and had his way. Two, was that labour was too close to APC government both outside government when they were in opposition and when they eventually formed government. Therefore, organised labour was too shy to confront government vigorously on many fronts. With these shortcomings, observers are watching how labour will bounce back with a new force. Otherwise, under Wabba’s watch, labour will be left to bleed alone with its sour grapes.

The Last Man Standing

Of all the familiar faces now chanting slogans in support of removal of subsidy, from Tinubu, Lai Muhammed, Minister of Power, Works and Housing, Babatunde Fashola, SAN, Pastor Tunde Bakare, the APC as a party and its leaders, only Femi Falana, SAN has remained adamant. He still opposes fuel pump price hike and deregulation.

The rest of them have shifted their goal posts even without apologies to the masses they coercively propel to oppose the Jonathan administration on deregulation. Since government started initiating the new policies, Falana has not minced words in opposing such actions. Many who are close to the organised labour are also aware that Falana has continued to play his advisory role in shaping labour decisions and steps and how to stand for the Nigerian masses. According to him, “the Federal High Court declared illegal and unconstitutional the policy decision of the federal government to deregulate the downstream sector of the petroleum industry contrary to the combined effect of the provisions of the Price Control Act and the Petroleum Act.

In total defiance to the said order of the federal high court, the federal government has deregulated the downstream sector of the petroleum industry. In justifying the policy, Dr. Kachukwu claimed that “PPPRA has informed me that it will be announcing a new price band effective today, 11th May, 2016 and that the new price for PMS will not be above N145 per litre.”

Others who had opposed the 2012 subsidy removal and still held the same position include Sen. Dino Melaye, Sen. Shehu Sani; Sani was even threatened with expulsion from APC, his party.

What Lies Ahead

Though negotiations have continued between labour and government, it is still not certain what would come out of those talks. Rather, what is certain is that labour has left itself fractured and dislocated from all corners. Government, on the other side, had its way.

There also appears to be confusion over which side government will bow to. Will it be Ajaero or Wabba? Ajaero has subserviently embraced government overtures to hit back at his opponents, as Wabba withdrew from the talks. Will government discard all agreements reached with the Ajaero group and rewrite a new one with Wabba? These are the many questions lying ahead. Nothing is clear yet; the future is still uncertain, where Nigerians would have to face new prices in defiant of their wishes.