Labour Unions: Between Strike and Terrorism 

The Advocate By Onikepo Braithwaite

The Advocate By Onikepo Braithwaite

The Advocate

By Onikepo Braithwaite

The action of the Electricity Workers last week, that is, switching off the national grid and plunging the nation into darkness for two days, amounts to an act of Domestic Terrorism, that is, terrorism carried out against the Government of Nigeria and Nigerian citizens. See the case of Berende v FRN (2021) LPELR-54993 (SC) per Ibrahim Mohammed Musa Saulawa, JSC. Electricity Workers had done the same thing, switching off the national grid for 14 hours on August 17, 2022, and even though videos of workers switching off the national grid were available all over social media at the time, because the previous administration allowed them to get away with their criminal acts, Labour, be it the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) or the National Union of Electricity Employees (NUEE), now believe that switching off the national grid and causing a nationwide blackout is an effective bargaining chip that can be used to coerce Government into capitulating to their demands. It is not. It is a grievous offence; and, Government must make it clear that anybody that commits this offence will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. It is absolutely unacceptable. 

Electricity Supply: An Essential Service

By virtue of Paragraph 2(a) First Schedule to Section 48 of the Trade Disputes Act (TDA), the provision of electricity is an essential service and Section 41(1) thereof prohibits essential services workers inter alia from not performing their work without giving 15 days notice of their intention to strike. So, them laying down tools suddenly for two days last week to join the NLC etc in the strike in the name of ‘esprit de corps’, and if the talks with Labour do not yield fruit and there is yet another strike, as essential service workers, they did not and would not have fulfilled the 15 days notice required before they can embark on a strike. 

In the Canadian case of Reference Re Public Service Employee Relations Act (Alberta), Chief Justice Dickson defined essential services inter alia thus: “where interruption of a service would endanger the life, personal safety or health of the whole or part of the population……”. Throwing a country into a complete blackout is an endangerment to the personal safety of majority of the people, let alone a country fraught with security challenges. What would also have happened to Patients in public hospitals all over the country that required life saving operations last Monday and Tuesday, or required the use of equipment that are powered by electricity when the country was plunged into a nationwide blackout, and there was no diesel to purchase to power hospital generators, because NUPENG also joined the strike? 

Unfortunately, we are a country that doesn’t seem to place much value on statistics and record keeping, so it is unlikely that we will get the figures of those who may have died in hospitals across the country as a result of the nationwide blackout, or the revenue companies lost, which would make Labour realise the gravity of what the electricity workers did when they switched off the national grid. Instead, we easily forget the things we should not, and issues that should be taken seriously, are not addressed. 

Who Suffers the Most During Strikes?

By this action of switching off the national grid, Labour unlawfully used threats, intimidation and economic sabotage to coerce Government to do their will. This is one of the definitions of terrorism. Ironically, the harsh reality is that, it is the masses that suffer during the strikes, and not really those who Labour is negotiating with for an increase in minimum wage. It is those who have to work daily to be able to feed their families, and cannot get to work because most things including public transportation, have shut down or are too expensive; those who do not have the funds to store food at home that will last for whatever period of time the strike will last; those who do not have alternative means of generating electricity, that suffer. This theory doesn’t even have to be tested; the day after the strike was temporarily called off, my estate was buzzing with tankers delivering diesel to different homes, in readiness for the next blackout, while everybody started stocking up on food supplies! Can the masses prepare for the hardship that accompanies a strike? I think not. 

The Right to Strike & Earning a Living Wage are Fundamental Rights

Agreed, the right to strike which is embodied in the United Nations International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights 1966, ILO and other Charters is considered to be a fundamental right, but this right should be balanced with the suffering that it unleashes on the people. The effects of a strike mostly amounts to the proverbial, “cutting off your nose to spite your face”; and, therefore, it should be a last resort and not the first line of action. Furthermore, caning workers who ignored the strike action and decided to go to work in order to punish them for their disobedience is called Assault, prohibited by Sections 252 & 326 of the Criminal Code Act 2004 and Penal Code Act 2004  respectively. 

However, the right to strike doesn’t extend to a right to sabotaging the national grid or switching it off, which amounts to sabotaging the country. That is not only a gross abuse of the right to strike, it is a criminal offence, perhaps, even unconstitutional. 

Undoubtedly, N30,000 (see Section 3(1) of the National Minimum Wage Act 2019, (NMWA)) and the like, are a far cry from the ‘reasonable national minimum living wage’ contemplated by Section 16(2)(d) of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (as amended in 2023)(the Constitution) that all workers should be paid. Government shouldn’t also make it a battle between them and Labour, every time the minimum wage comes up for an upward review. The lackadaisical and nonchalant attitude of previous administrations towards the conditions of service of workers, obviously informed Labour’s hard stance; but, this time, it appears that Labour crossed the line, and there is no justification for switching off the national grid. In a country that has serious issues of insecurity, plunging it into complete darkness is not only a foolish and dangerous thing to do, no worker has the right to do so. 

Section 2(1) of the Terrorism (Prevention and Prohibition) Act 2022 (TPA) inter alia prohibits all acts of terrorism, while Section 2(3) thereof defines different types of acts of terrorism, and the shutting down of the national grid to cause a nationwide blackout fits like a glove into the definition of what constitutes acts of terrorism as stated in Section 2(3)(a),(b),(c),(d) & (e) of the TPA. This is because switching off the national grid is an act of domestic terrorism, economic sabotage – it caused harm and damage to the country; affected businesses across the country negatively; intimidated Nigerians; destabilised the country; created a security risk and put people into fear; and, it was an attempt to influence the Government by coercion. See the case of Berende v FRN (Supra). An individual found guilty of Terrorism can face up to 20 years imprisonment – see Sections 12 & 13 of the TPA, meaning that what the electricity workers did was certainly not a petty crime. It is now time, for Government to secure the national grid better. If it’s so easy for workers to interfere with the national grid, surely, it shows how vulnerable we are; how it can be equally as easy for any enemy to destabilise the country, through the same means. 

Labour’s Demand: Is it Realistic?

The initial demand of Labour for an increase of the minimum wage to N615,000, appears to be on the extremely high side. But, as outlandish as their demand may seem, one cannot blame Labour. When we observe the nonsensical expenditure by Government, like the purchase of luxury SUVs for Legislators, subsidising Hajj pilgrimage with N90 billion, travelling to the Dubai COP28 Conference with almost 1,500 delegates, so many Governors and public officials accused of graft and corruption to the tune of mind boggling sums, the latest allegation being that of the Kaduna State House of Assembly against immediate past Governor of the State, Malam Nasiru El-Rufai and his administration in an amount close to half a trillion Naira. Already, we have forgotten Immediate Past Governor of Kogi State, Yahaya Bello, who is hiding under a rock somewhere, trying to evade arrest and avoid answering to charges of money laundering in excess of N80 billion. Who will be surprised if Yahaya Bello disappears into thin air (if he already hasn’t), since law enforcement has not arrested him so far? It definitely creates the impression that if such huge sums are available for graft and other illogical and needless purposes, why shouldn’t they be available for paying workers decent living wages for honest work? If so much money is available for Legislators, in terms of their salaries and allowances, making them one of the highest paid Legislators in the world, why can’t workers be paid a decent minimum living wage?


While collective bargaining/negotiation, picketing, striking and boycotting are the accepted means employed by workers’ unions to increase their wages and improve their working conditions all over the world, terrorism and sabotage are not – on the contrary, they are grave offences against the State and Citizens. It is not surprising therefore, that a school of thought has risen to argue that the nationwide blackout orchestrated by Labour last week was an attempt to cripple the Nigerian Government, particularly because this administration may not be the Government of their choice. 

Nevertheless, I call on both sides to be reasonable. On Government – to lead by example by tightening its own belt and agreeing to a decent minimum living wage; and, on Labour – to be realistic in their demands, as Government will not be the only party to pay the new minimuåm wage. By virtue of Section 4(1)(b) of the NMWA, every establishment that employs 25 staff and above, must also pay the minimum wage. With multinational companies that have been in Nigeria for many decades folding up and exiting Nigeria, it is obvious that there is an economic downturn. Labour must also take into consideration the private businesses, that also have to pay this wage. What can they afford? Should the minimum wage applicable to the Federal Government, be different from that applicable to the Private Sector? Should the States, in the spirit of true Federalism, be allowed to fix their own minimum wages in accordance to their own cost of living and affordability, as some have argued? Why are the State mineral resources not being harnessed properly, to shore up their revenue and make them viable? These are pertinent questions. One of the consequences of Labour insisting on a hard to afford minimum wage, may be that some workers may have to be laid off. This would be counterproductive for Labour, as the already high rate of unemployment will rise even more, thereby giving room for an increase in the crime rate, as the desperate will employ any means to survive, whether lawful or otherwise.

I have seen some somewhat unfair comparisons being made between Nigeria’s minimum wage and that of Gabon for example, whose minimum wage is over N300,000 per month. Gabon has a population of less than 2.5 million people, and a working population of 763,104 people as of 2023, in contrast to Nigeria’s estimated population of 200 million people and working population of an estimated 60 million. In 2022, Gabon’s GDP per capita was $6,637.07, while that of Nigeria was $2,207. Smaller and more industrialised countries tend to have a higher GDP per capita. In using some of these examples as a template for ours, we must be careful not to compare apples with oranges as a basis. Nevertheless, it goes without saying that the time to increase the minimum wage to a living wage, is now. It is wicked to allow Nigerians to continue to suffer like this. By a cumulative effort of successive administrations, present company included, possibly 90% of Nigerians can no longer make ends meet. It is all so depressing and disheartening. 

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