A recent pronouncement by the Organised Labour in Nigeria that it would not bother to notify the government before embarking on a nationwide strike is quite worrisome. So also is the ultimatum extended to the state governors that they should start negotiation with their local chapters of the labour unions on the N35,000 cash award to workers by the Federal Government. The organised labour said the suspension of its October 1 nationwide strike was a temporary move, noting that it remained conditional upon the fulfillment of the promise by the President Bola Tinubu-led administration.
The conditions are in the Memorandum of Understanding signed by the Government and the Organised Labour.
This followed a meeting between the Federal Government on the one hand and the Nigeria Labour Congress and Trade Union Congress on the other. The meeting, a day before the strike action was due to commence, was held at the State House in Abuja.
Inasmuch as the Organised Labour has every right to employ all legal and industrial action tools to compel their employers to address their grievances, one point that should be made clear is that with the present situation in the country, nothing of economic importance can be achieved from any strike action by workers.
There is no better time than now for all to realise that the best thing we need in Nigeria is industrial harmony, which is a state where employers, employees and the government cooperate to achieve national goals without any disruption or conflict. When employees feel valued and supported, they are more productive, and the nation benefits from increased efficiency and profitability.
Before the labour agreed to suspend their proposed strike for 30 days, it was obvious that nothing concrete that is of economic value could be achieved with any industrial action. Of course, they may want to cite the award of N35,000 top-up on salary for six months as an achievement, but unless they may not want to face reality, the measure is only scratching the issue on the surface.
As we have once said on this forum, there is no quick fix to the issues that will arise from the removal of petrol subsidy by the Tinubu administration and Nigerians had better internalise the fact now so that everybody, including the labour unions, would stop chasing after what is not. Everybody that campaigned to take over from former President Muhammadu Buhari made it a cardinal point that subsidy would go. So the eventual winner of the election who cancelled the cancerous payment should not be seen as the devil that did the unthinkable.
There was nobody that did not agree that subsidy payment on petrol was injurious to the Nigerian economy. In fact, it was like loading raw dollar bills in a sack and pouring them into a blazing fire. That is how best to describe what successive administrations had been doing for more than two decades.
With the kind of resources that it pleased God to bless the country with, it still remains a mystery how the giant was turned into a mono economy. Everybody in the government just wanted to drink oil. They were not interested in refining the God given gift. They ran down all the refining facilities and cannibalised them.
They found it very convenient for their pocket to ship the crude offshore very cheaply and then out of sheer wickedness use hard, scarce currency to import finished products. Not done, they use the scarce resources, and even most of the time, borrow, to subsidise every litre of the imported product, just for everyone, including Organised Labour, to feel good.
Running this kind of ruinous regime for decades, Nigerians became “hooked” to petrol for every aspect of their lives. Apart from fuelling their vehicles, they have to power their generators for energy to run industries and their homes. That is why when the subsidy was removed, it was as if a very powerful earthquake hit the polity. Of course, we all watch on television the aftermath of such a natural disaster where it strikes.
With the way everything has turned out after the subsidy removal since May 29, it is very obvious that not even Tinubu or his campaign counterparts realised the gravity of letting the facility go. There had been talks by Tinubu’s rivals that though they too would have removed the item, that they would have put something in place before removing the plug. If we may ask them: What would they have put in place to arrest the aftermath if not a viable refinery that should start working to full capacity the very day the subsidy was removed? And that again would have taken several months or years to achieve with the borrowing to subsidise our consumption growing.
This government knew that there would be hardship as a result of the removal, but the enormity was what they did not see coming. And since the new government came into office now, there has been one pronouncement after another, all geared towards cushioning the effects of the removal, but not much has been achieved.
Even when the labour unions were going into negotiation with the government, a sum of N25,000 was proposed as salary top-up for six months for a certain percentage of workers, but because of pressure, the government was forced to adopt N35,000 demanded by the labour and the scope of beneficiaries was expanded, just to stave off industrial crisis. Without being an economic expert, one can deduce that jerking up the N25,000 to N35,000 was as a result of undue pressure. Even the N35,000, which was agreed as top-up, is for federal workers. So as of now, it is still a contentious issue between States Governors and their workers.
According to a report recently, a number of states were mentioned to have been borrowing to pay salaries of workers. Definitely such governors would look at the N35,000 granted to federal workers twice when they sit down with their own workers. Of course, they would always say that what the Federal Government is offering its workers is not binding on them.
In fact, when the labour unions said they were suspending their planned industrial action for 30 days, one was tempted to ask whether there was a miracle in view for them to add that caveat in their resolution. The government, in its quest to cushion the effect of petrol subsidy removal has promised and indeed made pronouncements towards mitigating against the harsh effects on the populace. The truth of the matter is that unless and until the needful is done, the result may turn out to be nothing.
One thing both the government and the labour should realise is that the effects of the subsidy removal will not go away so quickly. It is a reality Nigeria will only begin to heave a sigh of relief when petrol is refined locally. In plain language, there is nothing meaningful that would happen until Nigeria’s refineries come alive.
Efforts must be made to see to it that the refinery that this government promised to put into use by December becomes a reality. We think that instead of the labour beginning to threaten thunder and brimstone, they should work with the government to deliver on the promise. After all, it is their members who work in these collapsed refineries.
When the Dangote refinery was opened towards the end of the tenure of the past administration, not a few Nigerians began to feel that at last Nigerians would soon begin to access petrol at a much cheaper rate than the imported stuff. But recently, when it was reported that the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation Limited may not be able to supply crude to the new private refining facility due to financial obligations elsewhere, Nigerians have expressed worry. So, instead of the labour unions gearing up for strikes that will not yield anything meaningful, they should ask the government to explain why Dangote would have to use dollars to import crude into a Nigeria that ranks sixth producer of oil in the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries circles.
Both government and labour have a lot to do together and that is why there should be industrial harmony. It is true that the Nigerian government, most times, only understands the language of strike before doing the right thing. But this time around, Organised Labour should also show that they are capable of producing results when they put on their thinking cap.
In recent times, pronouncements by the government include provision of thousands of gas-powered vehicles, establishments of thousand workshops for conversion of petrol cars to gas, establishments of thousands of farmlands, provision of funds for farming, provisions of funds for palliatives and so on. So what the labour should do is to follow up on all these and make sure that the government is always put on its toes until all are delivered. Doing this is by far better than merely planning for strikes and increase in wages, which will never yield anything positive in the lives of Nigerians but at best provide temporary relief, with inflation waiting to eat it up.