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Game of wits over strike

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Last ditch effort to avert strike, as Speaker, House of Representatives, Femi Gbajabiamila (right), engages President, Trade Union Congress (TUC), Quadri Olaleye; President, Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC), Ayuba Wabba and others at the National Assembly, Abuja… yesterday. PHOTO: LUCY LADIDI ATEKO

• Labour may go for deal, agree on deregulation, resist electricity tariff hike
• Banks, airports, seaports to be shut
• Strike against court order illegal, lawyers insist
• Police vow to enforce injunctions

The success or otherwise of today’s strike action as planned by Nigerian workers, will depend largely on who finally wins the game of wits between the Organised Labour and the Federal Government, who took a last-minute decision to reconvene a reconciliation meeting with the workers for 7pm on Sunday (yesterday).

The labour movement had, at the weekend, embarked on massive street mobilisation to ensure success of the nationwide strike and protests against hike in pump price of PMS and electricity tariffs. The action is expected to kick off this morning.

Following Thursday’s deadlocked meeting with aggrieved workers, government had rescheduled a follow-up meeting for Monday (today), the same day the strike action was to begin, but quickly brought the parley forward to Sunday after Labour leaders had mobilised more than 20 affiliated unions for concerted national action.

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A public affairs analyst and media practitioner, who is familiar with the matter, last night, said government would naturally prefer a situation where there would be “communication gap” between union leaders and their members regarding sanctity and authenticity of the proposed Monday action, hence, the emergency meeting on the eve of the D-Day. “I hope they (workers) will understand that,” the media practitioner, who would not want to be named because of his links with both parties, told The Guardian in a telephone chat.

MEANWHILE, the outcome of the labour leaders’ meeting with Federal Government was still unclear at midnight, even as odds against the proposed action persisted.

On the back of two court orders proscribing the planned strike, Head of Service (HoS) of the Federal Government, who oversees the country’s civil service, had warned workers on government payroll to discountenance the call for strike. This followed a similar warning by state governors who actually need the money accruing from the hiked tariffs in electricity and petroleum product consumption. There are doubts that, with the COVID-19 ‘fatigue’ occasioned by prolonged lockdowns and the attendant economic impacts at micro and macro levels, Labour would remain resolute in driving home its position.

But the Organised labour yesterday said there was no going back on nationwide strike beginning today, until Federal Government reversed the arbitrary increase in prices of fuel and electricity tariff.

Unions in critical sectors of the economy, including banking, aviation and maritime also pledged their support and to shut down operations in compliance with the nationwide protest.

Addressing a press conference yesterday in Lagos, Deputy President of the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC), Amaechi Asogwuni, in presence of leaders and chairmen in the Trade Union Congress (TUC) and all affiliates in banking, aviation and maritime, said there was no going back on the planned protest.

He called on Nigerians and civil organisations to come out en masse to protest against hike in fuel and electricity tariffs by government.

Noting that the right to protest was constitutional and nobody can set it aside, he said labour was ready to engage and would not relent in enforcing its rights.

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He said the need for organised labour to engage government was critical to giving hope to the citizenry.

He maintained that government should not subject Nigerians to undue hardship on the basis of inefficiency.

“ On the issue of electricity tariff, government has made promises without fulfilling them. Nigerians are paying for darkness. The 100 per cent hike is unacceptable because we have not seen improvement in services. You cannot subject Nigerians to estimated billing. Even those with pre-paid meters, have their meters manipulated. 50,000 cannot take care of a family in a month.

“The rule of law is when government listens to the voice of the people, when government consults before actually implementing a policy. You don’t put people in danger before coming to consult. The action plan will take place tomorrow (today), we have made sure that we don’t leave any stone unturned in ensuring that the action is a success,” Amaechi said.

But the Nigeria Police Force yesterday warned that it would enforce the law on the matter. The National Industrial Court in Abuja had on Thursday granted an order of interim injunction restraining the unions from disrupting, restraining, picketing or preventing workers or ordinary Nigerians from accessing offices to carry out their legitimate duties on September 28, 2020, or any other date.

Force Public Relations Officer, Frank Mba, who confirmed this to The Guardian yesterday in Abuja, said “One of the core responsibilities of the Nigeria Police Force is enforcement of all relevant laws of the land, including valid orders of competent courts of law. Mba added that the police owed the nation a duty to ensure protection and enforcement of court orders. “Whenever and wherever such valid and subsisting court orders are made, the Police owe the nation a duty to ensure the protection and enforcement of such orders… This is trite in law and in common sense,” he concluded.

SPECIFICALLY, members of the NLC and its TUC counterpart had combed major streets of Abuja to distribute leaflets to motorists, market men and women and workers at the weekend, explaining reasons behind the planned strike and the need for Nigerians to resist alleged neo-liberal policies that demand removal of subsidy on public utilities like electricity, PMS and water.

This comes as facts emerged regarding why labour rebuffed promises of committees to work out palliatives at last Friday’s meeting in the banquet hall of Aso Rock.

Sources, who were privy to the parley, told The Guardian that labour’s refusal to buy the promise made by Secretary to the Government of the Federation (SGF) Boss Mustapha, that a committee whose membership would comprise labour and government officers would be put together, was because of similar promise that was made in 2016, but was never fulfilled when government succeeded in dividing labour.

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Indeed, when the Friday meeting ended at 8.05pm, the labour delegation did not wait to eat the dinner that was provided, as they briskly walked into the waiting buses led by NLC President, Ayuba Wabba and TUC President, Quadri Olaleye. The sumptuous dinner was devoured by government delegation, who started exiting one after the other into their exotic and chauffeur-driven cars around 9pm after the meal.

The source said: “When we went for this meeting last week Friday, government came up with the same agenda it used in 2016. But it failed this time as we sat there for more than 45 minutes, refusing to say anything and government officials too did not have anything to say. It appeared to us that government does not have any plan beside the 2016 tactics. In 2016, government latched on division that arose after the 2015 delegates’ conference, which led to the formation of a faction of the NLC that later metamorphosed into United Labour Congress (ULC). The new group had NUPENG and NUEE as foundation members. This greatly hampered the capacity of labour to execute a successful protest. The Federal Government reaped bountifully from the crises. But the atmosphere has changed today. The ULC has dissolved into the mainstream NLC while both the President of the defunct ULC, Joe Ajaero is now a deputy president of the NLC and NUPENG now occupies the position of the Vice President.

Now, labour is formidable and speaks with one indissoluble voice. This strike might be the biggest and deadliest we have seen in the history of this country if the pump price is not reversed to N145 per litre and electricity tariff reversed. We know that the two steps were part of the conditions given by Bretton Wood institution for Nigeria to get more loans.”

Labour has continually maintained that Nigeria’s challenge remains lack of innovative leadership, dearth of critical thinking and wickedness of the ruling class, not lack of resources and advent of coronavirus pandemic that have been cited as reasons for the hike.

General Secretary of Non-Academic Staff Union of Educational and Associated Institutions (NASU), Peters Adeyemi, insisted that flamboyant lifestyle of the ruling elite paints a picture of opulence and splendour by the political class.

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He said: “Let no one speak about lack of money in this country. What are the impacts of humongous loans taken so far by this government in the last five years they have been in office? Are the roads better? Have the health facilities fared better? Is the infrastructure in the primary, post-primary and tertiary education improved? Is the standard of living of workers improving? Have we not been seeing consistent rise in cost of living in the last five years? Is the exchange rate of the naira to other currencies such as U.S. dollar, British Pounds and Euro, better? What is the exchange rate to the Ghanaian Cedi? The currency of Benin Republic is almost at par with the naira. This government should name one item they have improved upon in the last five years. What we have seen is a steady rise in the misery index of the Nigerian people. Now, they say we must pay more for electricity that is more epileptic than ever before and N161 per litre for petrol. When this government was coming on board in 2015, they told us they were coming to make life easier. Is life easy now? Even this President said subsidy was a fraud and there was nothing like that. When did that opinion change? What changed it? Nigerians deserve to know what changed.”

In the last four days, unions have been sending memos to their branches to begin mobilisation for the strike and participate actively. The unions include NASU, Parliamentary Staff Association of Nigeria, Nigeria Union of Railway Workers, National Union of Air Transport Employees, National Association of Aircraft Pilots and Engineers, Air Transport Services Senior Staff Association of Nigeria, Association of Nigeria Aviation Professional, National Union of Printing, Publishing and Paper Products Workers and Radio, Television, Theatre and Arts Workers Union of Nigeria.

Others are National Union of Civil Engineering Construction, Furniture and Wood Workers, National Association of Academic Technologists, National Union of Local Government Employees, National Association of Nigeria Nurses and Midwives, Nigeria Union of Journalists, Medical and Health Workers Union of Nigeria, Senior Staff Association of Nigeria Polytechnics, National Union of Electricity Employees.

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THE Petroleum and Natural Gas Senior Staff Association of Nigeria (PENGASSAN) yesterday also asked its members to align with the call for a nationwide action by the NLC and TUC.

Aviation unions to withdraw services early Monday
FOLLOWING the widespread mobilisation, workers in the aviation industry said they were ready to withdraw services from all sections to ground local and international flight operations.

The workers, under the aegis of NAAPE, ANAP, NUATE and ATSSSAN, are acting in solidarity with strike protests led by the NLC and TUC over fuel and electricity hikes.

The aviation unions, in a memo yesterday, directed all workers to withdraw services beginning from 0:00 hours Monday, September 28.

The joint statement read: “Our unions are in full support of the strike as such all workers in the aviation sector are hereby directed to withdraw their services at all aerodromes nationwide as from 00hrs of 28th September 2020 until otherwise communicated by the NLC/TUC.”

They urge the workers to stand up and be counted in the struggle against oppression, exploitation, slavery and insensitive government policy, to the plight of the workers who created the wealth for the country while those elected to guarantee their wellbeing are now denying workers basic things of survival.

The unions also put on notice the general public and particularly airport users, aviation companies and all government agencies of their decision to join in the industrial action.

Embarking on strike amid valid restraining order illegal, lawyers say
BETWEEN Thursday and Friday last week, the National Industrial Court (NIC), Abuja granted two separate ex-parte applications restraining Labour unions from embarking on strike action. Thursday’s application was filed by the Incorporated Trustees of Peace and Unity Ambassadors Association through its counsel, Sanusi Musa.

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On Friday, the NIC Abuja again granted a similar order of interim injunction restraining the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC), Trade Union Congress (TUC), their agents, employees, workmen, servant or proxies from embarking on the planned September 28 industrial action of any nature pending the hearing and determination of the claimants motion of notice.

The trial judge, Ibrahim Galadima, gave the order following an ex-parte motion filed by the Federal Republic of Nigeria and the Attorney General of the Federation through their counsel M. L. Shriu and Gazali Ashiri.

Delivering the ruling after careful perusal of the deposition contained in the affidavits, the Judge said that he found the application meritorious.

The court, in addition ordered that the NLC and TUC be served within seven days from September 25 with the motion on notice as well as other processes.

Vice President Yemi Osinbajo (middle); Speaker of the House of Representatives, Femi Gbajabiamila (right) and Secretary to Government of the Federation, Boss Mustapha, race to douse fire on today’s planned strike by Labour in Abuja …yesterday.

On Thursday when the first order was made, a meeting between the federal government, the labour unions and civil society groups over the increase in petrol price and electricity tariff ended without resolution.

A similar meeting held last week was also inconclusive, but Labour leaders are insisting on the strike.

Lagos lawyer and Labour law expert, Folabi Kuti said proceeding with the strike while the orders subsist is illegal. Similarly, Bar Shamsudeen Abubakar said an order of court is positive until it is set aside. “Anything contrary to the order will be illegal,” he declared.

But former president of the Campaign for the Defence of Human Rights (CDHR), Bar Malachy Ugwummadu, said it is understandable to characterise the alleged injunctions obtained ex parte as odds against the proposed strike by labour unions.

Yet, Nigerians and the organised labour unions, he noted, had travelled the same route repeatedly in the past. “I predict that this present situation will end in the same manner in favour of the Nigerian people whose cause is presently articulated and championed by the organised Labour and their civil society partners.

“First, is to be certain that there exists valid restraining court orders and that the alleged orders have been duly served on the affected labour centres. The second is to understand the propriety of rushing to court for an ex parte order, while the same FG is in active negotiations with labour. There are no worse scenario (mala fide) than such circumstance,” he pointed out.

Ugwummadu recalled that, in 2005, similar injunction was obtained against labour but went down in the history of struggles of the Nigerian people as “black market injunction.”

Energy experts seek dialogue, urge halt to action
IN the same vein, experts in the energy sector, last night, appeared skeptical of the reasons behind the planned industrial action. They insisted that the nation’s fragile economy could totally collapse.

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Attempts to discourage the labour unions, including the NLC, TUC and others have not yielded result. The group had notified members across their branches insisting they won’t back down.

Some experts in the sector warned that attempting to disrupt power and petrol supply would amount to national sabotage and serious security threat.
A section of the oil industry also believes that workers’ reason for the strike may not be far from a show off.

“This strike is just a means for Labour to redeem their image. They don’t have strong reasons to strike due to the current economic situation of the country,” a source, who pleaded anonymity, said.

Federal Government had, in March this year, announced plans to discontinue payment of subsidy on Premium Motor Spirit (PMS). It had said the scheme had gulped about N10 trillion in the last 10 years. Not long after that, it also opted to subsidise electricity, a sector that gulped about N1.7 trillion in recent years.

Coming at a time citizens are faced with COVID-19 challenges, prices of electricity were increased by as much as 100 per cent.

Both inflation and unemployment rates had risen sharply in recent times. Exchange rate also increased significantly to more than N450 to a dollar.

Critics argued that labour understood the prevailing economic realities, and could simply be acting to redeem its image battered by long years of weakness.

Oil marketers, under the aegis of Independent Petroleum Marketers Association of Nigeria (IPMAN) and Petroleum Products Retail Outlets Owners Association of Nigeria (PETROAN) said there was need for dialogue instead of strike action.
President of PETROAN, Dr. Billy Gillis-Harry, said although the masses had been faced with series of challenges, dialogue would achieve much more than protest.

He insisted that his members would not be part of the strike.

OPS seeks fair pricing for electricity
MEMBERS of the Organised Private Sector of Nigeria (OPSN) indicated their support for end of the subsidy regime, stating that the deregulation exercise would free the nation of undue burden and misappropriation of funds.

They, however, noted that, while the subsidy situation was unsustainable, confidence of electricity consumers had to be inspired, considering that many small businesses and households depended on alternative sources like generators for electricity due to inadequate supply from the grid.

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Comprising the Nigerian Association of Chambers of Commerce Industry Mines and Agriculture (NACCIMA), the Manufacturers Association of Nigeria (MAN), the Nigeria Employers’ Consultative Association (NECA), the Nigerian Association of Small and Medium Scale Enterprises (NASME), and the Nigerian Association of Small Scale Industrialists (NASSI), the OPSN urged the Federal Government to create conditions that would attract private investments for which cost reflective tariff is inevitable.

Acting Director-General of the Manufacturers Association of Nigeria (MAN), Chuma Oruche stated that the private sector had long supported full deregulation of the downstream sector, going by allegations of corruption and inefficiency that the fuel subsidy regime brings.

He stated that the deregulation, necessitated by the effects of COVID-19, was a welcome development.

“Price increase is expected because petroleum industry is now fully deregulated. Petrol prices go up and down, just like the price of AGO/diesel that has long been deregulated.

“Fixing of prices is no longer in government’s hand; it is the market forces that determine the price but what government is trying to do is to control the hands of the market forces by not taking away the cost of PMS beyond the ordinary Nigerians.

He, however, called for the passage of the Petroleum Industry Bill (PIB) to attract new investments in refineries and to enhance competition.

Lagos Chamber of Commerce and Industry (LCCI) equally hailed the move for deregulation, stating that the decision would be a game changer for the oil and gas sector and the economy as a whole.

“We are aware that similar attempts to undertake this crucial reform in the past had not been successful. However, we are confident that in the current dispensation, this will not be the case,” the chamber added.

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