By Reuben Abati
I was very skeptical when the current leadership of Organized Labour in Nigeria objected to the decision of the Federal Government to withdraw fuel subsidy and hand over the pump price of petrol to the forces of demand and supply, also known as market forces. Labour, represented by the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) and the Trade Union Congress (TUC), and their affiliates and privies in civil society, further threatened that they were opposed to the hike in electricity tariffs. They issued a statement in which they railed against neo-liberal policies, bad timing, and the insensitivity of government.
They made heavy weather out of the hardship that COVID-19 has imposed on the people and why any form of additional taxation that could pressurize the people would be utterly unacceptable. Deregulation of the downstream sector is not a new subject in Nigeria. Removal of fuel subsidy is an old subject. Only the dumb and the deaf would deny being aware of the persistent argument that a functioning electricity sector in Nigeria would unleash the country’s energy and potentials, through the values derivable therefrom: saving of costs, creation of jobs, a value-added SME, an improved manufacturing sector and a happier, more productive citizenry.
In 2012, when the Jonathan administration announced a full deregulation of the downstream sector and removal of fuel subsidy, Organized Labour aligned with opposition politicians and turned the argument on its head. They called out their troops and a thoroughly hypnotized political class, and workers’ community, fostered tension and instability in the system. In 2016, the party that succeeded the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), that is the All Progressives Congress (APC) and its leaders who had lied to Nigerians that there was no fuel subsidy in the country, but unconscionable theft, and that the Jonathan government was wrong, promptly increased fuel prices. They argued that a fuel subsidy regime was not sustainable: the same argument that they opposed in 2012.
Their conspirators at the time in Organized Labour kept mute. In 2020, with COVID-19 disrupting everything in the world including relationships, with Nigeria suffering a debt and revenue crisis, the collapse of fiscal buffers, and sheer adversity, the Federal Government decided to pull the plugs. It blamed all of these factors and chose to announce a removal of fuel subsidy. Pump price of fuel, benchmarked to the spot price of crude oil in the international market jumped through the roof. Nigerians groaned. The Federal Government argued that it was not left with any other option. Everyone expected that Organized Labour would intervene. But Labour didn’t quite do so. Groups in civil society had to picket the Abuja Headquarters of the Nigeria Labour Congress to protest that the NLC should speak up and call the people out on the streets, because life had become harsh and hard for the average Nigerian.
After being pushed, a combined team of the NLC and TUC finally announced that they would call out Labour on strike and shut down the country. They gave the Federal Government stringent conditions: a complete reversal of the hike in fuel price and electricity tariffs. Or else, Nigeria would be shut down indefinitely beginning from September 28, 2020. I was not impressed. I questioned Labour’s sincerity of purpose. I felt they were just playing a game. The biggest tragedy that has befallen Organized Labour in Nigeria is the thinking since 1999, that the leadership of Labour can be used as a stepping stone to a bigger role in Nigeria. Labour leaders use their positions to negotiate big benefits. They mouth progressive slogans and parrot aggressive rhetoric but it is all a lie.
Under the military, there was a man called Paschal Bafyau who used the ladder of Labour leadership to gain prominence. Matthew Hassan Kukah in his book – Democracy and Civil Society In Nigeria (Ibadan: Spectrum, 1999) considers him “a sell-out”. With the return to democracy in 1999, the new Labour hero was Adams Oshiomhole of the Textile Garments and Tailoring Union. He was a thorn in the flesh of the Obasanjo administration. He could talk, dance and make Communist-style speeches. He captured the public imagination. He would soon make a leap from being Labour leader into partisan politics. He became Governor of Edo State for two terms. He later became Chairman of Nigeria’s ruling party. He also became a Godfather of Nigerian politics.
Something tells me every Labour leader after Oshiomhole wants to be like him. They too want to ride SUVs, and enjoy unfettered access to the seat of power. They also want to be Godfathers in Nigerian politics. The danger here is that this transmogrification of Labour Leadership in Nigeria, sighted first with Paschal Bafyau and raised to another level with Oshiomhole, created a new brand of Labour activism that contradicts norm, culture and tradition in the Nigerian Left. This new generation of opportunistic Labour leaders have devalued the heroism of the likes of Labour Leader No 1, Michael Imoudu, Herbert Macaulay, Eskor Toyo, Wahab Goodluck, the Sunmonu brothers and Frank Kokori. A compromised Labour leadership is a disgrace to the Revolution. I find no better exemplification than the current Labour Movement in Nigeria led by Comrade Aliyu Wabba, and the incompetent and hypocritical response to Labour issues in the country.
In my view, the NLC and the TUC had no business calling out anybody on strike. When they reluctantly did so, they were playing politics and trying to appear concerned about workers’ welfare. This new set of Labour leaders don’t care about the people. They are partisan politicians. Civil society organizations continue to make the mistake that they are dealing with persons of like minds who want to interrogate issues and offer solutions. The truth is that the most conflicted community in Nigeria today is what we broadly describe for want of a better term as the “Nigerian Left”. They are just as worse as the conservatives and fascists; they claim to be defenders of the people’s interests whereas they are just interested in themselves. I am convinced that Nigeria’s Labour leaders knew as far back as 2012, that a subsidy regime either in the downstream or the electricity sector was unsustainable. They knew that getting Nigeria to work in an accountable manner was a useful national priority. They cannot claim ignorance of the inefficiency, leakages and wastages in the system that have, combined, cost Nigeria trillions of Naira.
The Jonathan administration tried to address this in 2012. Organized Labour joined partisan politics and became an instrument. When their clients took over in 2015, and brought up the same issue, they kept quiet. When matters reached a head in 2016/2020, they were bound to be deceptive. And this is what they have done. The strike action that they promised on September 28 was never going to happen. It was unnecessary by the way. The so-called agreements that they reached to justify their hypocrisy sound ludicrous. The communique that Nigerians saw in the morning of September 28 is questionable. It may have been designed to help Labour save face, but it merely exposes a Labour leadership that should be a subject of ridicule.
Three meetings were reportedly held – September 15, 24, 27, 2020. After the second meeting, Labour announced that it would go ahead with the nationwide strike because it had reached a deadlock with government. The NLC and the TUC ended up taking Nigerians for a ride. The Communique that eventually signaled the cancellation of the strike exposes their lack of rigour. The document says the Federal Government negotiators and Labour leaders agreed on a number of issues. Let’s examine a few. On the issue of the hike in electricity tariffs, the communique says the bipartite meeting has decided to set up an ad-hoc technical committee to re-examine electricity tariff reforms. This committee will sit for two weeks effective September 28. During that period, “DISCOs have been directed to suspend the application of the cost-reflective Electricity Tariff adjustments.” This is a totally meaningless statement and it is surprising that someone like Joe Ajaero, a leader of the National Union of Electricity Employees, who was named as a member of the proposed Technical Committee was not awake enough to point out the problem with this proposal. There are technical questions.
In the first place, the current electricity tariffs are not cost-reflective, they are service-reflective. The new template by the National Electricity Regulatory Commission (NERC) creates a service-reflective template, problematic as it is, which ensures that houses, factories and businesses which consume more electricity within an A, B, C, D, range pay more than R1 band designated consumers at the lower end who still pay N4. 00 per unit, thus creating a cross-subsidy regime. The proposed two-week suspension of electricity tariff is also in every sense ambiguous. Is the FG saying the DISCOs should not bill any house, factory or business for two weeks? Is the President now going to ask the Ministry of Finance, the BPE, the NERC and other relevant agencies to re-adjust meters and return to the old tariffs for two weeks? Did anyone represent the Vice President who oversees Privatization, the NERC, the BPE and the DISCOs at the meetings with Organized Labour? At best, the Federal Government team merely threw the two-week strategy at the unthinking Labour leaders just to buy time. Nothing will happen.
The Federal Government says it intends to review the NERC Act and involve Labour in the electricity value chain. This is meaningless. The Federal Government, States, and Local Governments own 40% of DISCOs. Government can take part of its 40% to the Stock Exchange, but what will be the value of whatever it expropriates? It is a non-issue. The leaders of Organized Labour could not see through that trick. They were also told the National Labour Advisory Council (NLAC) will be inaugurated before the end of the year. And these greedy guys fell for it! If that Council remains moribund, what can they do?
The other big issue was the deregulation of the downstream sector. Our Labour Leaders were told that the Federal Government will now fix Nigeria’s four petroleum refineries and that in fact the Port Harcourt refinery will be 50% completed by December 2021. They were told there will be timelines for delivery and even the national leadership of NUPENG and PENGASSAN will be appointed into a Steering Committee and a Validation team. The guys embraced this old, jaded lie as if they were being addressed by King Solomon. How many times have we been told that Nigeria’s refineries will be fixed? At a time, the FG wanted to privatize these same refineries. Labour leaders opposed the initiative. Today, most of them are struggling to have their children employed in a yet uncompleted Dangote Refinery and the modular refineries by Walter Smith, NIPCO and the Edo State Government. They want the same private sector that they disparage for their own private benefits!
Labour leaders were further told that the Federal Government will ensure the delivery of one million CNG/LPG Auto Gas conversion kits, storage skids and dispensing units by December 2021 under Nigeria’s Gas Expansion Programme. With the challenges of Corona Virus, this is not possible. To even order the equipment and the accessories, or to build the plant, not less than 18 months will be required. Who is going to reshape the petrol stations? Many of the old vehicles on Nigerian roads cannot also be converted. And even if so, who will bear the cost? We are told the Federal Government will provide 133 CNG/LPG transit buses. Nobody manufactures such buses in Nigeria. They will have to be imported.
In other words, apart from taking care of the interest of Labour Leaders, the communique that ended the proposed strike of September 28, also very nicely, provided an opportunity for government officials to award contracts! There is also something in there about a 10% housing allocation for Nigerian workers. This is mere wishful thinking. Did anybody talk to Babatunde Fashola, SAN, the Minister of Works and Housing before making this commitment?
They didn’t need to bother, of course, because both Labour and the Federal Government negotiators knew that they were both playing a game and taking Nigerians for a ride. Organized Labour, having obviously embraced deregulation and market forces, should have raised other questions that could be helpful to Nigerians as follows: If the Federal Government is eliminating subsidy, what does it intend to do with its savings from the downstream sector and the electricity tariffs? Can the savings be used to fund education and healthcare under a mutually agreed framework? Instead, Labour leaders were discussing buses and houses! They could also have asked what the FG intends to do with savings in the electricity sector. Is it possible to use the savings to strengthen Transmission infrastructure? Instead, they were discussing how Labour leaders can become members of the Regulatory Board!
The Government negotiators deserve our commendation. They have done a good job of preventing a “worthless” national embarrassment in the shape of a Labour strike in the same week that Nigeria celebrates its 60th Independence Anniversary They have also helped to expose the incompetence and hypocrisy of the current Labour leadership in Nigeria. They have also won an ideological war over the subsidy regime.
Those Labour leaders who grumble about neo-liberalism have now embraced it. Their lack of rigour, clarity and intellect provides a strong case for an urgent reform of Labour Leadership in Nigeria. Once upon a time, Labour used to be a strong voice in this country. In those days, government controlled everything: Telcom, Banking, Insurance etc, It was quite easy then to blackmail government, and use that as a platform to become a national figure. The times are changing; indeed the times have changed. Labour must reinvent itself or risk the tragedy of becoming irrelevant.