Fuel Price Hike: The Intrigues And Near Death Of Organised Labour | Independent Newspapers Limited
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Fuel Price Hike: The Intrigues And Near Death Of Organised Labour

Posted: May 22, 2016 at 3:00 am   /   by   /   comments (0)


When on May 11,2016 the Minister of State for Petroleum Resources, Ibe Kachikwu, announced an increase in the price of Premium Motor Spirit(PMS) also known as fuel from N86.50 to N145 per litre, little did he know that he had stirred the hornet’s nest.

Before the Federal Government summoned courage to increase the fuel price, it had become obvious to many Nigerians who rely on fuel for their daily livelihood that government was already over-burdened and could no longer sustain subsidy for the product for majority of Nigerians.

Daily, Nigerians woke up to contend with unending fuel queues just to be able to move their vehicles, while small business owners who also rely on the product to power their generators patronise the ‘black market’ at exorbitant cost.

The story was not different at most of the federating states where the product sold for upward of N200 to N250 per litre.

The issue had been aggravated by the decline in the price of crude oil at the international market leading to depletion of forex, which accrues, from the sale of crude.

Prior to the administration of President Muhammadu Buhari, especially in 2012 and 2013,crude sold for over $100 dollars per barrel, then government could afford to subsidise, but then it also elicited unprecedented corruption within the sector, especially as regulatory authorities became compromised.

But before the exit of former President Goodluck Jonathan from office, it became glaring that oil windfall could no longer sustain the economy.

So when a faction of the Nigeria Labour Congress threatened to embark on strike to register their displeasure on the fuel price increase and removal of subsidy, it did not come as a surprise to many, especially when the Labour Movement had come to be seen as the last beacon of hope for the common man.

For a country, which had experienced a civil war, mass revolution had taken a back seat, hence the Nigeria Labour Congress and Trade Union Congress, readily provided a veritable platform for Nigerians to vent their anger, against policies of government which they think do not augur well with them.

The intrigues that however trailed the recent strike by the labour union leaves much to be desired.

The first indication that marked the NLC as being polarised was the eleventh delegates conference of the union which held at the International Conference Centre(ICC) and later Eagle Square, Abuja between February and March 2015.

The election which was first marred by allegation of irregularities saw major contenders who were vying for the Presidential position of the NLC, Ayuba Wabba of the Medical and Health Workers’ Union of Nigeria (MHWUN) and Joe Ajaero of the National Union of Electricity Employees (NUEE) turn against one another.

Ajaero had questioned the rationale for continuation of the election, which he alleged candidates names on the ballot papers were printed and skewed in favour of his opponent, Wabba.

The development had led to the cancellation of the first election and rescheduling it at Eagle Square, which later produced Wabba as authentic  winner of the election.

Edo State Governor, Adams Oshiomhole who was a former President of the Union and who gave then President Olusegun Obasanjo a run for his life, is still today a major gladiator in the politics of the labour movement.

In fact, at a point when Joe Ajaero’s camp was running a parallel administration in the labour centre, Oshiomhole was reported to have deployed his political maverick to broker peace between the two opposing factions. But that peace was to be short lived as the two opposing personalities came face to face again at the negotiations with the Federal Government over the hike in fuel.

Government having announced its intentions and sensed that the union was divided, invited the two opposing camps for a negotiation over the deregulation matter, which ordinarily should have been a single body.

While the negotiations lasted, the labour body which should have presented a common position to government to reverse the fuel pump price to N86.50 splitted again,TUC backed out, further reducing the strength of the once vibrant labour centre.

Before Wabba and his affiliate unions settled for strike, which largely turned out to be less successful because of the entrenched differences, NLC had consulted its National Executive Council(NEC) members, which comprised National Union of Local Government Employees(NULGE),National Association of Road Transport Workers, Academic Staff Union of Universities,Nigeria Union of Teachers, to mention but a few.

The NEC members had concluded before meeting with government on the final day of negotiations that the resistance of the fuel price hike marked a litmus test for the survival and existence of the labour movement.

They concluded that if for any reason, they must move to the streets to protest the fuel increase for the interest of the masses who might not be happy with the hike, especially with the rate of inflation in the country.

Although the Federal Government approached the National Industrial Court a day before the strike to prevent them from embarking on the action,the NEC argued that since they were not served any prior notice, the restraining order was not binding on them.

Elsewhere, Ajaero allegedly acting out the script of government had advised the Department of State Security (DSS) not to effect any arrest on Wabba, even if he went against the court order and proceeded with the strike.

In the days when Adams held sway as NLC President, he was usually the first target for arrest by the security operatives, a situation that gives more bite to his organised protest or rallies.

NLC’s polarisation played out recently at the Office of the Secretary to the Government of the Federation, when all parties were to resume negotiations.

After the adjournment for both camps to consult with their principals, Wabba’s camp which had a 3pm appointment at the SGF office the following day, did not turn up until after 7pm.

He and his team allegedly came late because they were engrossed in their NEC, which had earlier resolved to go ahead with the strike.

Ajaero’s camp which arrived much earlier, precisely by 5pm immediately went into closed door session with the SGF and its team.

The development did not particularly go down well with Wabba’s group,which had by the time seen the hand writing on the wall that some forces were bent on breaking their rank and file.

Meanwhile at the meeting with Ajaero’s camp, it was agreed by the stakeholders, especially Oshiomhole, who acted as chief mediator in the whole impasse that some of the demands tabled by Ajaero’s camp be met.

“We have listened to one another, we have had further conversations and we have all agreed, that’s the Labour and representatives of the Federal Government under the Secretary to Government of the Federation.

“We agreed on the following; that we will set up, we work towards setting up a framework for the review of the national minimum wage. We have all agreed that it shall be a tripartite body.

“We have agreed that the Labour appreciates the decision of federal government to set up half a trillion naira in 2016 budget to cover for what the Minister of Budget described as social investment. Now based on this social investment and its various components, the two parties agreed that Labour should be involved in this process and come up with suggestions.

“The committee comprises of representatives of the Organised Labour and of the  federal government under the chairmanship of SGF would meet and within two weeks resolve these issues including the setting up the Petroleum Products Pricing Regulatory Agency (PPPRA) board which we all know the statutory responsibilities are in relation to the issue under focus.

“We have agreed that both parties should work as quickly as possible but in any event not later than two weeks and the report of this joint technical committee would be submitted to what we may call the Committee of the Whole to deliberate and make final decisions and presentations to the federal government,” Oshiomhole had stated.

While the strike lasted, Wabba had cause to lament government’s ignorance of their protest,saying they were yet to receive any invitation from government for further negotiations.

Businesses and other commercial activities went on unhindered unlike protest in the past. Almost all the 36 state governors backing the deregulation policy of the government further worsened Labour’s plight.

Ogun State Governor, Ibikunle Amosun who spoke on their behalf,said “These are sacrifices that must be paid by all, the President means well, the government means well, all of us means well and if truly we are caring for the masses, we believe that subsidy only serves the rich,those that are getting us the fuel, not the masses.

“We believe that such money that have been saved from the subsidy would be used for infrastructural development particularly for social services for all of the down- trodden masses.

“We are putting our weight behind it,while urging the federal government and in deed the state governments to see how we can ameliorate all the problems the masses would probably go through in the short run because on the long run they would be the better for it. We supported it because we believe that it is in the interest of the masses”.

But a remarkable twist to the industrial dispute was the government emissary and national leader of the All Progressives Congress (APC) Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu who tried to woo labour back to the negotiating table.

Tinubu who once objected to subsidy removal and used it as a bait to garner votes for the current President, at the weekend visited the NLC headquarters with some high powered delegates to appeal to the conscience of executive members of the union to sheath their sword and return for negotiations with the government.

Tinubu had said at the forum, “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 our selves and ask ourselves how best can we manage the victory, how can we use the success to make a change”.

In all of these, NLC’s argument had been that government was exploitative in its social policies. It argues that the electricity tariff and fuel price hike all of which were coming at a time where the masses had become impoverished owing to the decline of the economic mainstay would bring about untold sufferings for the people who ought to be protected in a comprehensive social security safety net.

Government in its own wisdom believes that diversification was the way out of the economic quagmire, therefore if it must diversify out of oil,the citizenry must have to cough out the money through taxes.