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FLASHBACK: How Labour suspended strike against tariff, fuel pump price in 2016 without success

NIGERIANS who were disappointed after the Nigerian Labour Congress (NLC) called off a planned industrial action which was meant to force the government to reverse the hike in fuel pump price and electricity tariff should not have expected much in the first place, as the development mirrored the manner in which labour capitulated in a similar situation in 2016.

‎Also, it appeared that, in accepting the deregulation-influenced hike in the cost of petrol, labour betrayed the vow it made, while suspending the 2016 strike, to always “rise and stand with the people” whenever the government raises the fuel pump price.  ‎

Back in May 2016, labour embarked on a nationwide strike after ‎the President Muhammadu Buhari administration jerked up the fuel pump price from N86 to N145.

The strike crippled economic activities across the country, and with labour refusing to shift grounds, the government unleashed security agents on the protesters, leading to the intimidation, harassment, arrest and detention of some labour members, especially in Ebonyi State.

However, after four days, labour suddenly called off the strike after its National Executive Council (NEC) met at Bolton White Hotels, in Abuja, on Sunday, May 22.

‎Interestingly, in the communique it issued to call off the 2016 strike, labour described the exercise as a ‘success’, even though, at the end of the day, the government had its way and Nigerians started paying N145 for a litre of petrol.

The 2016 communique, signed by Ayuba Wabba,  NLC President, and Dr. Peter Ozo-Eson, who was at the tine the General Secretary,  read in part, “After an exhaustive deliberation, NEC noted its protest action was informed by the twin issues of the unjustified and illegal hike in electricity tariff and increase in the pump price of petroleum products.  NEC adjudged the protest action to be a success in spite of both internal and external challenges.

“NEC reiterated the correctness of its position on the twin issues of electricity tariff hike and astronomical increase in the pump price of PMS and the hardship they portend for Nigerian masses.

“NEC also acknowledged that the temptation to compare the strike action to that of 2012 could be compelling but that the scenario had changed as both the actors and the terrain were different.”

The communique went ahead to suggest that, even as they were embarking on the industrial action in 2016, the labour leaders ‎never expected the strike to succeed in forcing the government to reverse the highly unpopular decisions.

In what appeared to be a curious mixture of admission of its latent ineffectiveness and self-praise, the communique said, ‎”NEC said before it had embarked on the action, it had anticipated a probable outcome and therefore was not‎ surprised by government’s negative response. Nonetheless, it felt fulfilled by having the presence of mind and courage to identify ‎its mission and fulfilling it, stressing that if a similar situation arises again, it will still rise and stand with the people.”

However, four years later, it seems labour jettisoned the pa‎rt about ‘standing with the people’ after it accepted deregulation, without bothering to make good its threat to go on strike over the matter, at Sunday’s nocturnal meeting with the representatives of the government.

Even though the 2016 strike ultimately failed to achi‎eve its objectives, the communique issued by the NLC NEC to announce that it has been called off “commended those who took part in the action in one way or the other”.

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The communique noted that the decision to embark on the strike action was taken in the best interests ‎of the poor and the weak and “in drawing government’s attention to the dangers of relying on importation of petroleum products as a sustainable strategy for making available petroleum products”.

“It (NLC NEC) expressed the belief that in the days ahead, time would prove its position right,” the communique added.

Remarkably, the communique noted that Congress “singled out for commendation” the leadership of the National Assembly and All Progressives Congress led by Senator Ahmed Bola Tinubu, who had mediated on behalf of the government to get labour to stop the strike.

The NLC also commended its state councils, affiliates and patriotic Nigerians “who at very short notice picked up the gauntlet for the struggle”.

Declaring the strike action, which commenced on Wednesday, May 18, 2016, suspended with immediate effect, ‎the communique added, “Congress will resume negotiations with government on the twin issues of the hike in electricity tariff and an increase in the pump price of petroleum products and any other issue that may arise thereof.‎

“It similarly remains committed to genuine dialogue within the framework of internationally established and recognised principles of representation.

“The Congress will continue to resist wrong legislations, policies and programmes and will always act in the best interests of Nigerians as it remains the only pan-Nigerian organisation not affected by religion, region, creed, partisanship or primordial sentiments.

“The Congress urges the government to play by the rules in its engagement with its constituent parts, stakeholders and non-state actors as proof of its commitment to deepening of our democracy and also in acknowledgement of the well-worn dictum that what goes around, comes around.

“The Congress also urges the citizenry to be vigilant at all times as the price of freedom is eternal vigilance.”

‎After the release of the communique nothing was heard about labour’s ‘further discussions’ with the Federal Government concerning the 2016 fuel pump price and electricity tariff hikes and Nigerians duly went ahead to pay the new price regimes introduced by the government.

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The situation remained the same, until four years later, ‎in September 2020, when labour again called for a nationwide strike after further hikes in electricity tariff and fuel pump price.

As it turned out, the strike did not take place – labour backed down, even accepting the higher fuel pump prices that come with deregulation without making any attempts to force the government to shift its position on the issue.

Apart from a two-week suspension of the implementation of the hike in electricity tariff, the reasons for labour’s decision to call off the strike was mainly the ‘commitment’ by the Federal Government to increase local refining capacity, including speedy rehabilitation of the country’s four refineries.

The inclusion of ‎the national leadership of the Nigeria Union of Petroleum and Natural Gas Workers (NUPENG) and Petroleum and Natural Gas Senior Staff Association (PENGASSAN) in a steering committee already established by the Nigeria National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) on the rehabilitation of refineries and delivery of modular ones also appeared to have won the hearts of the labour leaders at the meeting with the government. ‎

‎The government also agreed to implement some measures in order to cushion the impacts of the downstream sector deregulation and tariffs adjustment in the power sector.‎

The measures include the isolation of a specific amount from the Economic Sustainability Programme Intervention Fund to be accessed by Nigerian Workers, participation of workers in agricultural ventures through the Central Bank of Nigeria and the Ministry of Agriculture, removal of tax on minimum wage, provision of‎ mass transit buses‎, and housing.

However, the anger expressed by Nigerians, who were disappointed that the strike could not go ahead, shows that labour was expected to do better.

But Nigerians who remember how labour suddenly ended the strike that it embarked on to force a reversal of the hike in fuel pump price and electricity tariff in 2016 might not be so surprised at what happened when the government, again, jerked up the cost of fuel and electricity, four years later.  ‎

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