THE CONCLAVE NEWS ANALYSIS: Situating the Suspended Labour Strike

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Measured in electricity parlance, there was a significant rise in the voltage of workers’ anger, plus a little confusion tossed in this morning, across the country, as the planned public expression of pent-up feelings over mounting economic stress was halted in its tracks.

About 2.00am today, September 28, the two major labour groups in Nigeria – the Nigerian Labour Congress (NLC) and Trade Union Congress (TUC) announced suspension of their planned nationwide protest against increases in the prices of pump price of petrol per litre and electricity tarrif scheduled to begin today.

The labour unions suspended the strike after a late night meeting with a federal government team at the Presidential Villa, Abuja. Further, the two arrowhead labour groups also resolved to review their decision in another two weeks to see if their agreement with the government is being complied with.

During the meeting, the expansion of the local refining capacity of the nation to reduce the overdependence on the importation of petroleum products was put forward. “The NNPC is to expedite the rehabilitation of the nation’s four refineries located in Port Harcourt, Warri and Kaduna and to achieve 50 per cent completion for Port Harcourt by December 2021, while timelines and delivery for Warri and Kaduna will be established by the inclusive Steering Committee,” Ngige intoned.

For good measure, he said the national leadership of the Nigeria Union of Petroleum and Natural Gas Workers (NUPENG) and Petroleum and Natural Gas Senior Staff Association (PENGASSAN) will be integrated into the Steering Committee already established by the corporation.

Read him: “The Federal Government and its agencies are to ensure delivery of 1 million CNG/LPG AutoGas conversion kits, storage skids and dispensing units under the Nigeria Gas Expansion Programme by December 2021 to enable the delivery of cheaper transportation and power fuel. A Governance Structure that will include representatives of organized Labour shall be established for timely delivery.”

He also revealed the government would facilitate the removal of tax on minimum wage as a way of cushioning the impacts of the policy on the lowest earners, adding that the federal government would give the labour unions 133 CNG/LPG-driven mass transit buses immediately and “provide to the major cities across the country on a scale-up basis thereafter to all States and Local Governments before December 2021.”

More, he said 10 per cent of the ongoing Ministry of Housing and Finance initiative would be allocated to Nigerian workers under the NLC and TUC. “A specific amount to be unveiled by the federal government in two weeks’ time which will be isolated from the Economic Sustainability Programme Intervention Fund and be accessed by Nigerian Workers with subsequent provision for 240,000 under the auspices of NLC and TUC for participation in agricultural ventures through the CBN and the Ministry of Agriculture. The timeline will be fixed at the next meeting,” he said.

On their part, speaking separately after the meeting, the president of the NLC, Ayuba Wabba, and that of the TUC, Quadri Olaleye, confirmed the content of the communique. Wabba also said the technical committee would work out a lasting solution in addressing the electricity tariff including the issue of metering.

“Other issues are very clear, palliatives that needed to be extended to our members and Nigerians that will cushion the effect of these policies. So it is, therefore, the decision of organised labour as represented here to suspend the action and we are going to convey our CWC to present it to them,” he said.

It could be recalled that before the frenetic meeting yesterday (Sunday), the federal government had secured a fresh court order to restrain the NLC and TUC from embarking on the planned nationwide strike. Ibrahim Galadima, a judge of the National Industrial Court, gave the order while ruling on an ex parte application brought by the office of the attorney-general of the federation.

Maimuna Shiru, acting director of the department, civil litigation of the federal ministry of justice and Tijjani Gazali, also of the ministry, had moved the application on behalf of the federal government.

Curiously, last Thursday, the same judge had also granted an ex parte order in favour of the Incorporated Trustees of Peace and Unity Ambassadors Association, stopping both unions from going on with the strike scheduled for Monday (today). But the labour unions which read lack of good faith in the moves, vowed to proceed with nationwide mass protests.

It could also be recalled that about a month ago, at the instance of presidential green light, the Nigerian Electricity Regulatory Commission (NERC) approved implementation of cost-reflective tariffs for the Nigerian Electricity Supply Industry (NESI), effective September 1. Flowing from the same executive nod, the pump price of premium motor spirit (PMS) otherwise known as petrol was hiked to N151.56 per litre with effect from September 2, 2020.

An internal memo, sighted by The Conclave, which was issued by the Pipeline and Product Marketing Company (PPMC), Ibadan depot, to all the stakeholders on September 2, 2020, and signed by the Depot Manager, D.O. Abalaka, put this development beyond speculation.

More specifically, the PPMC internal memo read: “Please be informed that a new product price adjustment has been effected on our payment platform. To this end, the price of premium motor spirit (PMS) is now one hundred and fifty-one naira, fifty-six kobo (N151.56) per litre. This became effective on September 2, 2020.”

Following the deregulation of the downstream sector and the removal of fuel subsidy by the federal government, the PPPRA had disclosed that it would on a monthly basis, advise the NNPC and the oil marketers on the guiding retail price at which petrol would be sold across the country.

The removal of the subsidy led to an increase in electricity tariff from about N30.23 to about N62.33 per kWh while the price of petrol increased from about N145 to about N161 per litre. Even, the current increment comes at a time of lower prices of crude oil in the global market. Where is the subsidy? These disruptive developments set the stage for government-labour showdown.

Coming at a period the COVID-19 pandemic had put economic positives in a tail-spin and a discernible global slow-down of economic activities had weighed in, the hike in critical service and product sectors was logically perceived by the citizens as a deliberate threat to their survival.

Worse, the lack of defined palliatives beyond the usual rhetoric by the federal government, to cushion the inevitable shocks across board was seen in a dim light.

But from the meeting with labour last night, progressing to early this morning, some measures that addressed palliatives and spoke to policy measures to improve the big picture were enunciated by the Minister of Labour, Dr Ngige, as earlier captured here.

But as good and logical as the minister’s presentation sounded, a major challenge for successful reform in Nigeria has been lack of political will. So many vested interests hobble the political leadership of the country, often killing or distorting well-thought out policy initiatives.

While the leadership lacks the political will to take painful but useful decisions at the right time, curiously, they do not, on the flip side, lack the political will to do the wrong things. The electricity privatisation effort is an example which has, in part, remotely birthed the current quandary.

Another dimension to the faulty policy positions being sustained by the federal government is its insistence on refurbishing the refineries and getting them to produce. These refineries have been terribly mismanaged and are bleeding the country of valuable funds. The private sector should take over and run these dinosaurs. This fact has even been acknowledged by NNPC’s group managing Director Melo Kyari.

To end these recurring face-offs between federal government and labour, very fundamental processes and economic issues need to be squarely addressed with sincerity. Will the key issues be logically resolved within the two weeks the labour strike has been put off? Big question.

[Anchored by Louis Achi]

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