Grid Shutdown: Labour Goofed on SGF Akume

By Louis Achi

It’s worth recalling here that Pope Paul VI, head of the Roman Catholic Church and sovereign of the Vatican City State from 21 June 1963 to his death on 6 August 1978 once shared his thoughts on labour unions. They were as enduring as they were empathetic and insightful.

Hear him: “The important role of union organizations must be admitted: their object is the representation of the various categories of workers, their lawful collaboration in the economic advance of society, and the development of the sense of their responsibility for the realization of the common good.”

Labour unions’ “lawful collaboration in the economic advance of society, and the development of the sense of their responsibility for the realization of the common good” are key to the stability and progression of any society, especially during particularly challenging periods.

Nigeria’s labour failed the Pontif’s simple but profound test and actually breached provisions of the Trade Disputes (Essential Services) Act 1975 No 23, when they abruptly shut down the national electricity grid, inter alia, on June 3, while embarking on a strike action in response to what it claimed was “the federal government’s refusal to conclude the national minimum wage negotiations, reverse electricity tariff hike, and end discriminatory consumer classifications”. The organised labour, comprising the NLC and Trade Union Congress (TUC), had embarked on the strike under reference.

The Secretary to the Government of the Federation, SGF, Senator George Akume had promptly and appropriately called out labour for crossing the line and directly accused it of treasonable felony and economic sabotage. According to Akume, who has deservedly earned the label of ‘the stabilizer,’ “No where in the world has labour ever tampered with the national grid. It is treason! Treasonable felony is economic sabotage; you don’t do that.”

To provide some critical context, the office of the SGF is considered the engine room of government because of the enormity of the functions and responsibilities associated with it, of the executive arm of the federal government. In effect, when President Bola Ahmed Tinubu, a consummate administrator and politician himself, picked Akume for the SGF’s position, it clearly was not a lightly taken decision. Akume himself is certainly no rookie. He holds a Master’s degree in Industrial and Labour Relations, amongst other qualifications and is both a seasoned politician and experienced civil servant.

Labour has actually violated the critical rights of millions of Nigerians by reaching for the national electricity grid. Could it be said that labour is very much unaware that today, Nigeria, Africa and the world stand on the brink of substantial disruptions – and of considerable opportunity – as new economic and political models challenge traditional playbooks.

These scenarios have unquestionably impacted governance and a labour quick on the uptake ought to have fundamentally appreciated it before attempting to ‘topple’ a democratically elected administration.

A response from labour’s top hierarchy suggested some level of blissful ignorance. In actuality, the SGF was correct in his assertion that the action of the NLC leadership was undistinguishable from treason and punishable by the provisions of the Trade Disputes (Essential Services) Act 1975 No 23. It was an act of integrity to call labour’s attention to the existence of the law and its consequences.

The emerging consensus by informed observers is that the leadership of the NLC are surprisingly unaware of the Trade Disputes Act of 1975 or it wouldn’t have issued their curious statement which further put in in a bad light.

SGF Akume’s position finds resonance in the section on penalties for acts calculated to disrupt the economy, especially sub-section (1)a which stops officials of the labour union from engaging in acts calculated at disrupting the economy. It reads: “Any employer or any official of an association of employers or any official of a trade union who is or has been engaged in acts calculated to disrupt the economy or acts calculated to obstruct or disrupt the smooth running of any essential service commits an offense that’s punishable by a fine or imprisonment.”

The Act under reference specifically forbids and empowers the president to proscribe any trade union whose members are employed in essential services who disrupt essential services like the switching off of the National Grid and locking up of government offices to enforce the strike. It reads “An Act to empower the President to proscribe any trade union or association the members of which are employed in any essential service if such union or association has been engaged in industrial unrest or acts calculated to disrupt the smooth running of any essential service”.

Significantly, should the federal government opt for proscription of the Nigeria Labour Congress, NLC, the unassuming SGF will be the funeral director by virtue of the referenced Act.

It could not be disputed that SGF Akume expressed the position of millions of Nigeria who willy-nilly are bruised victims of the inconsiderate act of the NLC and TUC. He certainly deserves to be feted for his patriotism. Not surprisingly, Akume finds soul mates in cautioning labour in the Senate President Godswill Akpabio, Dr. Doyin Okupe and Comrade Isa Tijjani, Interim Chairman, Labour Veterans and Trade Unionists’ Assembly, a former National Vice President of the NLC, and former National Deputy President, National Union of Petroleum Workers (NUPENG).

Not surprisingly, Comrade Tijjani was not only livid by the shutting down of the National Grid but by the “apes obey” manner labour choreographed the entire strike which he described as being in gross contravention of the International Labour Organization (ILO) conventions specifically aimed at protecting essential service sectors from such disruption. Considering the various positions Comrade Tijjani had held in the labour movement, he surely knows qhat he is saying,

It could be recalled that in an open letter to the NLC, Tijjani wrote: “Once again, we write to express our anger and grave dissatisfaction with the way the recent strike was conducted by the Nigeria Labour Congress. In particular, we are miffed by the apparent treasonable felony committed by the striking labour leaders in bringing down the national grid, stopping citizens from going about their legitimate businesses, forceful eviction of law-abiding citizens from their offices and employment of force and arm-twisting tactics on people to abide by the strike”.

Surprisingly, the NLC, rather than humbly concede it crossed the line and actually carefreely strolled into the courtyard of treason, it continued with its hocus-pocus and embarked on a campaign of calumny targeting SGF Akume. It also threw insulting jabs at Senator Akpabio for his informed concurrence with Akume that labour committed high treason by shutting down the national grid, which threw the entire country into darkness and inflicted severe hardship on innocent Nigerians.

Many Nigerians may not have forgotten that President Ibrahim Babangida administration jailed 11 workers of the defunct National Electric Power Authority (NEPA), for switching off the national grid during one of their numerous strikes. Shutting down a nation’s national electricity grid is akin to a declaration of war.

But it was a sensible thing that labour heeded the plea of President Tinubu, because this will help both sides to smoke the peace pipe and pull back from the needless brink labour was pushing for. Ignorance of the law is often seen as no excuse for thoughless actions.

Defined by his sheer kinetic energy and depth, Akume revels in pushing new frontiers. These ingrained traits remain the central portrayal of an adept political stabiliser; Benue State, North-central zone and Nigeria’s inimitable administrative and governance guru.

Incidentally, beyond the algorithmic calculations that go into farming out appointments in the Nigerian political space, certain appointive positions demand utmost circumspection because its occupants represent key drivers of the appointer, in this case, the President’s broad governance vision.

Instead of the Ajaero-led labour confronting and curiously insulting Akume, they should rather get off their high horse and rather partner the informed SGF and the administration he serves for the progress of the nation. While labour often struts around with the pretention of unearned sainthood, the current administration has not been heard to claim candidacy for sainthood.

Meanwhile, the leadership of the National Assembly which was equally insulted by labour should reflect on amending the 1999 Constitution to move the issue of minimum wage from exclusive list to the concurrent list. The country craves a functional federation and not a unitary system. States should determine what they can pay to its workers. President Tinubu who is an advocate of restructuring must accelerate bequeathing Nigerians with a true federal system that works.

The Pontif captured this decades ago: lawful collaboration and responsibility are key. Cut to the bone, labour goofed on Akume.

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