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Come on, NLC/TUC, let’s talk this over… 1

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 NLC members protest along Maryland, Lagos

NLC members protest along Maryland, Lagos

Last week, two national labour movements (NLC, TUC), after joint deliberations with unnamed civil society organisations, released a communiqué in which the labour movements (hereinafter referred to simply as labour) invited President Muhammadu Buhari to rescind his government’s decision of mid-last week to deregulate fuel prices (and bring to an end the decades-long ruinous policy of subsidising domestic fuel consumption). In the event of non-reversal of government’s decision by midnight, Tuesday, May 17, labour announced its intention to to commence an indefinite nationwide strike, with effect from Wednesday, May 18, 2016. It was a communiqué  ‘dripping’  with the usual Marxist-Leninist rhetorics characteristic of labour movements.

What most of our folks would take away from the communiqué is the looming threat of nationwide strike and acts of civil disobedience envisaged by labour from the middle of the week. It is, however, our duty to go behind the messianic posturing of the labour organisations to appraise and lay out the facts of the matter for the people to determine whether a call to strike (and civil disobedience) is inevitable and the best to produce satisfactory results for all the stakeholders including the governing class, in the present circumstance.

Labour has laid a number of charges at the feet of the administration of President Buhari. Clearly, some of these charges are founded and the administration needs to address the noted shortcomings/highlighted failings. Let’s look at some: As a recognised platform of the Nigerian working class, labour is entitled to demand to be consulted, especially on matters touching on the wellbeing of its estimated four million members (figure claimed by the NLC). In consulting labour and similar stakeholder-groups, government may take advantage of their inputs in forming and informing its policy-opinions. Government does not have and should, however, not be expected to ‘swallow’  every idea or suggestion proposed to it, no matter their individual merits. Now, if labour had not been consulted in the instant case, why in the world did the government give the impression that that was the case? Why would government make light of its own credibility?

On the obverse, labour itself can be accused of failing to consult or to initiate consultation. As it were, there was no record to show that labour consulted Nigerians before rejecting in their name, a policy of the government. Whereas it was to Muhammadu Buhari that Nigerians gave their mandate to govern and administer the affairs of the country as he sees fit, until 2019, labour has no grounds for taking steps capable of disrupting Buhari’s administration. If unsatisfied with his performance and policy choices, labour has the right and the freedom to mobilise its members and sympathisers to lie wait for Buhari at the polls in 2019.

Moreover, rather than wait to be consulted, labour could have initiated constructive consultations with the government long before now. This did not happen simply because labour had bound itself inextricably to the logic of fuel subsidy and foreclosed innovative alternatives to fuel subsidy which would have preserved or even improved the real welfare levels of its members as well as of the generality of Nigerians.

Let it be known that Nigerians are capable of deciding for themselves whether they would rather have cheap fuel and dilapidated roads, schools, health facilities (or even none at all); cheap fuel but high electricity/water tariffs, costly domestic cooking gas, high mobile telecommunication tariffs, public insecurity, etc. I still do not understand why labour thinks it is its place to make the choice of the best ‘welfare basket’  for Nigerians. Witness how rapidly queues began to disappear after the deregulation announcement and how some motorists immediately began to ‘down-size’  (rationalise) the quantities of fuel they purchased.

Labour blamed President Buhari for dishonouring his (2015) campaign promise not to remove fuel subsidy, if subsidy did exist. Yes, many of us were quite alarmed by the state of denial (of the existence of fuel subsidy) in which, perhaps, all the presidential contestants in 2015 chose to place themselves. In truth, then Candidate Buhari should have attached a lot of caveats to his pro-subsidy position such that when he got the  ‘full facts’  later, he had enough room to manoeuvre without looking like he walked away from his election manifesto. Well, that’s probably a lesson for the future.

Nonetheless, labour should admit that even if, during the campaigns, Candidate Buhari said he was not afraid of trains, President Buhari, after the campaigns, should not be expected to stand in front of a moving train – which a refusal to remove (and banish) fuel subsidy now, would more or less amount to.

As for Dr. Ibe Kachikwu, Minister of State for Petroleum Resources, accused by labour of talking about subsidy from both sides of his mouth, supporting total removal of subsidy in one breath and canvassing its continuation in another, many other observers, apart from labour, also noticed the Minister’s double-talk. It should, however, be clear to anyone that Dr. Kachikwu could not have been expected to act differently: having read the President’s body language and understood his preferred policy orientation, Kachikwu did the most sensible thing in toning down his own (Kachikwu’s) rhetorics and aligning his views with the President’s. And just as the news of price deregulation was reaching the public, the Vice-President, Prof. Osinbajo, rushed out a statement explaining in a rather confusing manner that government has not removed fuel subsidy! What a cacophony over a simple, inevitable and long-awaited policy-decision! Surely, this government would do well to re-organise its information management system.

Beyond this point, the other claims and affirmations in the labour communiqué can hardly stand. To say, for instance, that the Federal Government is incapable of determining policy issues in the presence or absence of the boards (or governing organs) of its own agencies, in this case, the PPPRA and the NNPC, is unwarranted. It is trite that an agent cannot have more powers than her principal; an agent or agency of a government cannot supersede the same government.

•To be continued
•Lafiaji, an economist, served as Executive Secretary of the African Petroleum Producers’ Association, Brazzaville, Congo.



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