The decision by labour leaders to shelve its planned strike was a function of a superior negotiating power of the federal government side, writes Onyebuchi Ezigbo
It is no longer news that the federal government and organised labour has reached an agreement to suspend their planned national protest/strike over increase in fuel price and electricity tariff. But what seems to be trending now is the reaction of Nigerians, especially civil society allies, some of whom felt disappointed and betrayed by the sudden change of gear by the labour leadership. While some Nigerians have welcomed the government-labour deal as good for the country’s precarious economic situation, others criticised labour leaders for chickening out from the scheduled national protest without achieving their target.
Organised labour had demanded a reversal of the rise in the pump price of fuel from N148 per litre to N161 and an almost 120 percent hike in electricity tariff granted to the Electricity Distribution Companies (DISCOs) by federal government or they would shut down economic activities in the country beginning from September 28.
In a communiqué issued at the end of its meeting in Abuja, NLC had said it rejected the increase in fuel price and electricity tariff as approved by the federal government.
While addressing journalists on the outcome of the NEC meeting, NLC president, Comrade Ayuba Wabba, said: “NEC decision was premised on the fact that the government’s two decisions along with others, including the increase in Value Added Tax (VAT) by 7.5 percent, including numerous charges charged by banks will further impoverish Nigerian citizens.”
He said the increase in the midst of COVID-19 pandemic was not only ill-timed, it is also counter-productive.
“NEC also observed that the privatisation of the electricity sub-sector, five years down the line has not yielded any positive result.
“Whereas the entire privatised electricity assets were sold for N400 billion, the congress is surprised that federal government within the last three years has injected N1.5 trillion over and above the amount that was used to sell this very important assets. Thus NEC came to a conclusion that the entire privatisation process has failed and the hike tariff was only a process of continuous exploitation of Nigerians”.
On the issue of privatisation of refineries and increase in the pump price of fuel, Wabba said NLC believed that government’s argument had not changed from what it used to be.
According to him, NLC believed that whether it is about partial deregulation or full deregulation or subsidy removal, the matter has always been about increase in the price of petroleum products.
Wabba said that NLC demanded that deregulation should not be import-driven and that the nation’s three refineries be made to work optimally.
He said the congress believed the federal government had business in doing business in the downstream sector, just like other oil-producing countries which has government-owned refineries.
In the communiqué, NLC said the NEC meeting endorsed the two-week ultimatum given to federal government “to reverse those obnoxious decisions and also endorse the action proposed by the Central Working Committee that September 28 will be the date that those actions will be challenged by Nigerian workers, civil society allies and other labour unions.”
On its part, TUC said after an exhaustive meeting held to review its mobilisation strategies on the forthcoming strike to protest fuel hike and electricity tariff, resolved that the Congress is going to work in collaboration with its sister Labour Centre, NLC and the Civil Society allies to execute the strike. In a statement signed by TUC president, Comrade Quadri Olaleye, and Secretary General, Musa-Lawal Ozigi, the union said its ultimatum which expired by midnight of the Tuesday, September 22, 2020 has been shifted to Monday, September 28, 2020 for effective and maximum effect. TUC statement said: “Consequent upon this, the ultimatum which should expire by midnight of today 22nd September, 2020 has been shifted to 28th September, 2020 for effective and maximum effect. We want to use this opportunity to call on Nigerians, especially those in the informal sector to bear with us while the industrial action lasts.”
The union said there is no need for the current pains and hardship that the federal government is subjecting Nigerians to by the hike in prices of fuel and electricity tariff.
“It is a needless one. They ask us to tighten our belts while they loosen theirs. Services are not rendered yet we are compelled to pay estimated bills. You will recall that this government during its electioneering campaigns in 2014 told the world there is nothing like subsidy. We were told that they will build refineries, all that is history now. We run a mono-economy and any hike in fuel automatically will have adverse effect on us yet successive government tow that path because they are not creative.
“As at today, about eight states are yet to commence the payment of new minimum wage and its consequential adjustment even though the president signed it into law on April 18, 2019. We have written letters to the governors and also engaged them in dialogue but all to no avail. Sometimes we wonder if these people have conscience at all.”
The congress urged all Nigerians to get ready for the unprecedented mass action against “corruption, obnoxious policies, rape and other violent offences, breach of Collective Agreement, unemployment, etc. We also call on the USA, UK, Germany, Spain, etc. to support our struggle by placing indefinite visa ban on our political leaders whose stock in trade is to loot and impoverish the masses and the country.”
Before issuing the strike threat, organised labour had come under pressure from groups who felt that the labour centres are slacking on their role to lead a protest against the price increases that are likely worsen the sufferings of Nigerians.
Some persons who reacted to the suspension of the strike by labour following its agreement with federal government, blame the labour leaders for falling cheap and betraying the confidence Nigerians had in them. While some accused the present crop of labour leaders of lack of genuine determination to execute the national protest, others said they lacked the strength and capacity thereby succumbing to the superior pressure by the federal government’s side during the negotiations.
However, the labour movement on their part, felt that they did their best under the circumstance to extract some kind of commitment from to address public concerns over the contentious issues at hand.
In reality, labour leaders were being conscious of the implications of going ahead with a national strike and protest that may not be fully supported and patronised by the masses and other civil society allies. The experience of their last two outings where they failed to muster enough public support for their action and was literally at the mercy of government to secure a resolution. One of the labour leaders had told THISDAY of the predicament they often find themselves confronting government with strike. He said that many Nigerians have become docile and are only armchair critics, who will prefer to sit in the comfort of their homes and expect Wothers to risk their lives on the streets and in the sun protesting.
Also unlike the pre-2015 national protest against deregulation and increase in fuel price, the opposition elements were aggressively supporting organised labour to carry out the protest. In the pre-2015 protests, some inside labour sources confessed that they got strong support morally and even materially opposition forces carry out their protest against fuel price increase.
What people did not realise was that whereas in those days, the opposition were a bit more organised and desperate in their push for power than what obtains now. Labour leaders at the time probably got well researched information and operational statistics in critical sectors of the economy from their friends in the opposition with which they challenged the government of the day and was able to hold sway. The weak position was evident during the negotiations with the federal government side, when the team led by the Minister of Labour and Employment, Senator Chris Ngige, and Secretary to the Government of the Federation, (SGF), Mr. Boss Mustapha, capitalised on it to inundate the discussion with presentations various agencies in petroleum and power sectors. Mustapha continuously brought up the issue of impact of COVID-19 disruptions on the economy during the debate, urging labour to show understanding of the situation.
The government side further tried to arm-twist and possibly blackmail the labour leaders by saying that labour representatives on the board of the Petroleum Products Price Regulatory Agency (PPPRA) were part of the decision on the new pump price of fuel. But the NLC president, Comrade Ayuba Wabba, stoutly rejected the insinuation, stating the PPPRA board never discussed nor approved hike in fuel price.
Again, another factor that apparently contributed to the weakening of labour movement’s resolve to proceed with the September 28 strike, was the strategy employed by the federal government to work with some groups against organised labour in counter protests. This apparent tactics of government infuriated labour leaders, and it resulted in altercation between Ngige and Olaleye during the negotiations. TUC president, Comrade Quadri Olaleye accused federal government of sponsoring groups to institute legal action and anti labour protest against the organised labour.
He said: “We are already negotiating with the government, it was totally wrong for government to head to court to get an injunction. As at now, we have not been served with that injunction so I am not aware.
“And also it was wrong for government to have sponsored people to protest at the Unity Fountain that the labour movement should not go on strike. It was very wrong for government, if another person had sponsored that it would have been right than the government because we actually got the information that it was sponsored by government.” Ngige replied him by demanding for a proof of alleged government’s involvement in the anti-labour demonstration and the court injunction obtained against NLC, TUC planned industrial action.
The first meeting aimed at averting threats of a crippling nationwide strike by NLC and TUC to protest the removal of the subsidy on petrol and the consequential hike in the price of the commodity ended in a deadlock, as both sides remained unyielding. However the second meeting summoned on the eve of the proposed strike saw a more determined federal government side, who was out to ensure that the labour protest did not hold. The government side first met among themselves behind closed doors to map out strategies before joining labour leaders for meeting. One thing that evident after the first meeting was that both government and labour were almost finding a common ground on some of the issues. For instance, both sides.