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What next, after two weeks?

What next, after two weeks?

3 October, 2020

 Tunji Adegboyega


Were the Labour leaders blackmailed to suspend the strike they called   to force the government to reverse the increases in fuel pump price and electricity tariffs barely a few hours to its commencement on September 28? Were they persuaded by what the government brought to the table and were therefore led by patriotic instincts to suspend the strike? Or were they induced to do so? We may never know what really happened until sometime in the future. For now, we should work with what we know on the issue.

We know that the Federal Government finally ended the subsidy regime on petroleum products early last month. Almost simultaneously, it also gave its nod to the upward review of electricity tariffs. Like most rational human beings, Nigerians rejected these increases, especially coming at a time many people had been rendered jobless by the economic downturn occasioned by the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic and its attendant lockdown. They wondered why their own government would be asking them to pay more for these essentials of life whereas in some countries governments were taking measures to reduce the pains of the economic downturn  on their citizens.

It was against this backdrop that the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) and the Trade Union Congress (TUC) representing organised Labour,  and the civil society organisations teamed up to call for the strike. Labour gave a two-week ultimatum to the Federal Government to revert to the old prices of fuel and power tariffs, or face industrial action. Then the strike was called off in the wee hours of the day it was supposed to start. According to Labour, the suspension was for two weeks, to enable both parties see what progress would have been made within the period on the measures they both agreed on to lessen the burden of the price increases on Nigerians. Labour will then decide whether to begin the strike, this time without notice to the Federal Government. This was after the series of meetings held to resolve the matter, including the one brokered by the governors, were deadlocked.

The meeting between the government and Labour resolved that government would suspend the new electricity tariffs for two weeks, in the words of the TUC President, Quadri Olaleye, “in view of the need for the validation of the basis for the new cost-reflective tariff as a result of the conflicting information from the fields which appeared different from the data presented to justify the new policy by NERC; metering deployment, challenges, timeline for massive rollout.” They also agreed on other palliatives. They stressed the need for the urgency of increasing the local refining capacity with a mandate to the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) to ensure a speedy rehabilitation of the country’s four refineries. A validation team comprising representatives of the NNPC, Nigeria Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, Infrastructure Concession Regulatory Commission, NUPENG and PENGASSAN would be established to monitor and advice on progress of the rehabilitation of the refineries. About 240,000 workers are also to benefit from agricultural aid, with the government also assisting with about 133 buses to ensure that transportation burden is also reduced. As part of the palliatives, low income earners are to be exempted from taxation, among others.

On paper, some of these agreements look good. But, we have always known that in our country, agreements with government are hardly regarded as binding. Even at that, the problem with the country is not about lack of ideas but implementation. Given that some of these agreements are to be implemented in about a year from now, we can, from experience with similar promises by past governments, predict the outcome.

Be that as it may, one or two points should still be noted, especially with the President’s October 1 Independence speech. It is not that there was anything new in it, but the fact that the government keeps saying the same thing at all levels without bothering to examine the other side of the story is annoying. Nigerians are not as brain dead as the government thinks we are, or expects us to be, such that we would be swallowing whatever it says without questioning. As a matter of fact, it unsettles many of us when government continues to compare incomparables. How, for instance, do you single out fuel cost in other countries when comparing the prices in those countries with Nigeria? What of other essential indices? The Federal Government said fuel is costlier in Saudi Arabia than in Nigeria. But how much is minimum wage in that country? In spite of the serial bad governance this country has suffered in the hands of successive governments, I doubt if many Nigerians would be complaining if they earn half of the about $800 (about 300,000) monthly minimum wage the Saudis earn, even if they are asked to pay what the Saudis are paying today. To compare standard of living between Nigeria and Saudi Arabia is akin to comparing death with sleep. Or, if I won’t be accused of extravagant exaggeration, it is analogous to comparing heaven and hell.

The point must be stressed again; the Federal Government cannot continue to award itself pass mark when Nigerians are saying across the country that it has not done well enough. As a matter of fact, it is not in a position to assess itself. Only lizards congratulate themselves when they jump down from a fence or wall and people do not applaud what the lizards see as a feat. It is true we are seeing improvements in railways in the country. Indeed, the government has even taken this to the ridiculous extent  of exporting it to Niger Republic at a humongous cost, a thing many have rightly criticised as misplaced priority, given what the government keeps harping on as the dwindling resources at its disposal.

We are being constantly told statistics of the quantum of rice produced in the country. Again, no doubt some interventions in the agricultural sector, especially by the Central Bank, have led to improvements in several farm produce, but you cannot be celebrating when prices are far above what they were two, three not to talk of five years ago.

President Buhari may have an axe to grind with his predecessors who messed up the country as he rightly observed. But Nigerians can only take ‘judicial notice’ of the evil deeds five years after; nothing more. They expect the President to fix the problem; that was why they rejected the People’s Democratic Party which had been ruling at the centre since the return to civil rule in 1999, thus truncating its dream of ruling the country for at least 60 years as its leading lights had boasted before their defeat at the polls in 2015. Nigerians knew the party was incapable of clearing the mess on ground.

In all honesty, I must confess I was not disappointed with the October 1 speech because I wasn’t expecting much from it. When the president was still telling a foreign president recently that we are having farmers’ herdsmen’s clashes in 2020 because of cattle routes carved out 60 years ago, I knew we still have a long way to go concerning issues, not only of governance, but also of modernity. Where in the progressive world is anybody still talking about cattle routes in the 21st century?

All said, we are already one week into the two weeks that the strike would be put on hold. Given the gargantuan job to be done, it is doubtful if this can be concluded within the time frame, unless they are not looking forward to doing a good job.

But the issue is beyond Labour being represented on the committees or boards (as proposed) to oversee some of these reforms or palliatives. It is about the capacity of the Labour representatives; their sense of responsibility, and, above all, their integrity. This point must be well stressed because those Labour representatives too are not just human beings, they are also Nigerians. So, chances of compromising them are very high.

But, one can only hope the government is not preparing our minds for higher pump price of petrol as obtained in some of our neighbouring countries, (even if the present crude price and exchange rate subsist), the way government keeps saying our fuel is the cheapest as if it is a sin for Nigeria to be the reference point for cheapest fuel prices  among the oil-producing countries due to its efficient running of the sector as well as its zero-tolerance for corruption? This fear is legitimate given that smuggling of fuel to our neighbouring countries has always been touted as one of the main reasons why Nigeria has to deregulate the downstream sector of the petroleum industry. This means if nothing is done about making the Nigeria Customs Service more efficient beyond government harvesting its huge revenue (the bulk of which ends up in the cesspit of corruption because the central government has too much money that it cannot monitor), the excuse of smuggling would still come in handy even long after the deregulation. This is why Labour must insist on government doing its job instead of continually regaling us with stories of cheap fuel in Nigeria.

And this brings us to the point I have always been making, especially whenever minimum wage comes to the front burner of national discourse. Labour has to be interested in national issues generally; not just matters of wages directly affecting workers. It should be interested in government policies and programmes because what government does or fails to do has implications for the polity, national security, the economy and general well-being of the people. When successive governments abandoned power facilities for decades without expanding them, it should have dawned on Labour that there would be consequences. The same thing applies to the refineries. It is the consequences of the neglect and corruption of the past (perhaps the present, too) that we are now paying for. If some of these issues had been faced squarely, with Labour in the vanguard, perhaps things would not have got to this sorry pass in the country. Of course some Labour leaders would face some tough times from government, but that is part of the sacrifices of leadership.

So, let Labour collaborate with CSOs and other pressure groups to serve as checks on the excesses of governments and their officials before things get destroyed beyond repairs, instead of threatening strike after the harm has been done as it is now doing.

Again, as I always argue, governments would find it easy to continually grant Labour minimum wage than have it serve as checks and balances on their activities. How many other countries review wages as we do, sometimes almost doubling the previous rate? Where is the new minimum wage taking us in the light of this experience?  That was how we got to a situation where our currency that used to exchange one-on-one with the strongest international currencies is now going for 400 or more to some.

All said, I do not believe much can come out of the arrangement bringing Labour on board some of the government bodies in whatever capacity, especially with the invitation coming from government when it did. For me, it looks more like an arrangement to buy time. That is if the Labour representatives do not start speaking in incoherent tunes after being spoiled a little with government largesse.

Aluta discontinua!

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