Trouble in the house of Labour
Nigerian Labour Congress (NLC) defied the industrial court order issued on Tuesday and embarked on a nationwide strike the following day despite entreaties from the Federal Government. The two-day-old protest against the hike in the pump price of fuel has not achieved the primary objective of halting the economic activities; unlike it did in January 2012 when a similar decision was taken by the workers’ union. AJIBOLA AMZAT (Features Editor) and Geraldine Akutu highlight the factors militating against the success of the protest.
The fear of the Nigerian Labour Congress (NLC) always has been seen as the beginning of wisdom for the Nigerian government at different times.
This maxim held true especially in January 2012 when the workers ‘union paralysed the Nigerian economy for days and almost destabilised the government of the former President Goodluck Jonathan.
The protest was characterised by civil disobedience, civil resistance, strike actions and online activism on social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, Whatz Up, Yahoo messenger and others .
According to IT Realm, a Nigeria news site on ICT development, about 604,800 tweets were contributed by Nigerians using the hashtag “OccupyNigeria” for the first seven days of the protest.
The protest was also reproduced in major capital cities of the world such as London, New York, Washington, Brussels, Johannesburg, Accra and others.
The NLC 2016 protest, however, is a different kettle of fish.
Last week, Nigeria’s Minister of State for Petroleum, Ibe Kachikwu, announced a 67 percent increase in the cap price of petrol to 145 naira ($0.73) per liter (0.26 gallon).
He argued that the raise would encourage oil marketers to increase imports and curb the worst fuel shortages in a year.
Labour union is not persuaded by this argument, especially at the time when the government is yet to accede to the increment of a minimum wage from N18000 to N56, 000 proposed by the union. Despite the order of the industrial court to stop the strike, the NLC has directed its members to down tool.
But the outing of the workers’ union since Wednesday when it began the strike action is yet to leave a paralysing effect similar to that of 2012 protest.
Unlike the days of “Occupy Nigeria” when Nigerians across social strata joined the labour union and the Trade Union Congress (TUC) to shut down the country, only a motley crowd of workers have been participating in the current two –day old strike.
In Lagos, for instance, which was the stronghold of protesters in 2012, demonstrators, few numbers shy of a hundred, could be seen on the streets the first day of the strike. The number did not rise significantly the second day as different video footages and still photographs have shown.
The situation is not different in several other states in the country. In fact, states such as Kaduna, Enugu Rivers, Borno and Federal Capital Territory (FCT) did not experience any disruption of activities by workers, according to media reports.
Even in the states where some level of compliance was recorded – namely Ogun, Akwa Ibom, Cross River, Abia, Ebonyi, Taraba and others – banks, petrol stations, markets and school were opened for business, according to The Guardian reports.
Observers attribute the uninspiring response of Nigerians to the different context of the present protest compared to 2012’s. The administration of the former President Jonathan has been perceived to be deeply corrupt, but the perception about the Buhari-led government appears to be different.
A social commentator and blogger, Japhet Omojuwa wrote that the reason why the 2012 protest enjoyed wide patronage was because the subsidy removal then was unjustifiable.
According to him, the profligacy that characterised ex-President Jonathan administration offered a good reason to resist subsidy removal, whereas the recent hike in pump price was induced by “global reality”.
“The current FOREX regime is nothing but a form of subsidy for the rich and privileged, it has to end,” Omojuwa insisted.
A civil servant, Mr Haruna Garba told the News Agency of Nigeria (NAN) in Taraba on Wednesday that the strike was unnecessary.
“My brother, there is no need for this strike because the Federal Government has proved its case beyond reasonable doubt,” he said.
The popularity of this viewpoint may have been the first death knell to the NLC’s call for a strike.
To some other people, the call for strike action has failed because the leadership of the workers are “no longer reliable”.
Not many people forgive NLC for the way they ended the 2012 protest.
“Look, Labour can no longer be using and dumping us for their selfish interest.”You can’t be inviting people for a strike, only for you to go through the back door and receive bribes, Ms Abigail James, an accountant told NAN.
The Conference of Nigeria Political Parties (CNPP) has on Tuesday warned Nigerians against joining NLC in the strike action, reminding them of the 2012 compromise.
“Our findings showed that they (NLC) have been compromised and would eventually betray Nigerians as they did in 2012,” CNPP said in a statement which was signed by its national Chairman, Balarabe Musa and the Secretary General, Willy Ezugwu.
“The labour unions later scuttled the action by purportedly entering into an agreement with the then government on behalf of Nigerians and ended up fixing the pump price of petrol at N97.00 per litre. We have it on good authority that the labour leaders have been compromised,” CNPP said.
Another reason why the protest suffers setback is that different unions could not agree on the strike action. Electricity workers, NUPENG and PENGASSAN have already opted out of the strike action, leaving only NLC and TUC at the trenches.
The South-West Chairman of NUPENG, Alhaji Tokunbo Korodo, was quoted saying the strike was not in the best interest of the country.
He said that what any union that stood for workers or masses should be doing now was to find ways of reaching agreements with the government to make life better for workers.
“Nigerians should disregard NLC strike and continue with their business activities because it is a failure.”
Worse still, the faction of the NLC led by Joe Ajaero is not in agreement with the Ayuba Wabba-led faction on the strike.
The former indeed has reached an agreement with the federal government has to set up a committee to resolve agitations over the new pump price of petrol. The committee is to submit its report in two weeks.
With this truce, the union may have lost the force to drive a hard bargain, said labour expert.
A Lagos-based public interest lawyer, Taiwo Akinlami told The Guardian that the strike is failing because there is no proper organisation on the side of Nigerian Labour Congress.
“I think that for you to call a strike there should be a proper sensitisation and mobilisation of members. NLC is divided into two factions. The government had meetings with these two factions. The Wabba led faction has decided to go on strike while the Ajaero led faction has rather reached an agreement with the government. This is not a good situation to rally Nigerians for a common cause.”
Akinlami thinks the cause of fighting deregulation is a good one, but a house divided against itself cannot stand, he said.
“The removal is untimely because if you say a subsidy is the problem and are our refineries are down, we are importing fuel; why not spend that time building refineries knowing that in the parallel market a dollar is exchanged for N341.”
One other reason advanced for the poor outing of the labour union is the lack of vibrant opposition party in the country. Many believed that the 2012 protest became successful because the opposition party then, APC was a strong force. The individuals who drove the Save Nigeria Group campaign, one of the organisers of the 2012 protest were believed to be members of APC or its sympathisers. Now that APC is in government, it becomes problematic to publicly confront the same government they helped its ascension to power.
Furthermore, the injunction obtained by FG from the industrial court stopping NLC from going ahead with the strike may have also contributed to the failure of the strike action.
“The situation is unpredictable and I think people are being careful in order not to face the wrath of the law,” said Mr. Akinlami.
There is a lot to resist about this economy which we are not paying attention to. I think this subsidy removal is going to add to the hardship of the people.”
Akinlami said that people should not think that freedom or good governance is delivered by passivity. “The welfare and security of the people shall be the primary aim of government. If the government is not living up to its responsibility, it is our duty to ask critical questions and organise. The government should be put on their toes and Nigerians should learn to speak out, ask questions instead of keeping quiet.”
Meanwhile, Wabba has said the organisation will review the indefinite nationwide strike action next week.
He told Ray Power FM programme, that the NLC leadership will convene another meeting to review and assess the impact of the industrial action and see if the government will change its decision about the fuel price increase.