Perspective

Fuel/tariff strike: Much ado about nothing

If there was any further evidence that the majority of Nigerians have no one to fight for them but God, one has to go no further than the events that played out last weekend between the Federal Government and Organised Labour!

The much anticipated ‘mother of all battles’ between the labour unions on one hand, and the government on the other, never materialised and even ended more inglorious than the army of the man who coined the mother phrase – Saddam Hussein! In the build-up to the first Gulf War of 1991, the late Iraqi dictator had uttered the immortal words as the globe waited to see what the secret weapon he was banking on that gave him the courage to take on the world’s mightiest military force of the modern era.

Rather than back down in the face of the array of weaponry amassed against him by the armada led by the United States (one of the world’s superpowers), he blustered that he would teach them a lesson, even though his army had failed to get the better of bitter regional rivals Iraq in over eight years of fighting.

But the man from Tikrit’s continued defiance and rabble rousing made some of us believe he did actually have secret weapons with which he would use to defeat his enemies. Saddam was roundly beaten within 42 days and was forced to pull his troops out of Kuwait with his tail between his legs.

Thus, when in the first week of last month, the government gave the nation a double whammy of fuel increase and a hike in the electricity tariff on Nigerians already struggling to get by day by day under the already prevailing harsh economic conditions, it was expected that there would be an almost instant reaction from labour.

In keeping with the well-worn refrain of government can no longer continue to subsidise consumables but would rather prefer to spend the money other critical areas; it decided to raise the price fuel from N145 to about N161 per litre while the cost of electricity went up from roughly N30.23 to about N62.33 per kWh depending on which Disco was servicing the household. For instance, customers being serviced by Ikeja Disco, which before the tariff hike were paying about N23 per kWh, which meant that N5000 would roughly give the customer 213 units.

But after the increase, this dropped to 94 for the same amount – an indication that the customer was now paying about N53 per kWh! The national labour unions, the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) and the Trade Union Congress (TUC), took up the gauntlet on behalf of millions of Nigerians insisting that administration of President Muhammadu Buhari must revert to the old prices if they were not too incur the wrath of the workers.

Three days to the Monday deadline for the government to revert to the old prices, labour leaders were still talking tough in defiance of all entreaties and subtle threats from the Federal Government. Millions of Nigerians, who are not even members of unions, silently sided with them because the economic hardship was not only affecting unionised workers alone. Then government which had bizarrely initially said it would be meeting labour on the day the strike was supposed to commence then brought it forwards to Sunday evening in a last-ditch effort to abort it.

And voilà, after eight hours of talks between both parties that dragged into the wee hours of Monday morning, Nigerians woke up only to find out that all the blustering exhibited by labour leaders was nothing but hot air all along when they announced to the world that the “strike had been suspended for two weeks”.

While one must concede that there is nothing wrong in two parties settling their differences through “jaw-jaw” rather than “war-war’, however, the terms of the so-called agreement leave a sour taste in the mouth and clearly favoured the labour leaders more than the workers.

Though we have become used to multiple previous occasions of labour flexing muscles whenever the government announces an increase after which they (labour) will call it off after extracting some form of concession – no matter how small – Monday’s deal is the first time that such would not happen. The government did not remove even one kobo from either the new fuel price or electricity tariff hike.

Instead, these are some of the resolutions labour agreed to: *10% of the on-going ministry of housing and finance initiative to be allocated to Nigerian workers through the NLC and TUC. *Port Harcourt refinery to reach 50 per cent by December 2021 and a steering committee to determine the completion date for Warri and Kaduna refineries.

*FG, labour unions to set up a technical committee to examine the justification for a new cost-reflective tariff introduced by the NERC, advise FG on the issues that have hindered the deployment of the six million meters, examine the tariffs imposed by DisCos in comparison to NERC’s order and examine the NERC act with a view of expanding its representation to include labour

*Suspension of new electricity tariff while the committee concludes its assignment For millions who waited with bated breath for even a slight reduction in their overhead costs, which would have been relief (no matter how slight) this was a big let-down.

Although one is not privy to what was discussed at the Banquet Hall of the Villa Sunday night but for labour to agree to such resolutions without being able to give the masses anything positive is unbelievable.

Even a symbolic reduction in the pump price by just N5 would have gone a long way to lift the spirits of the people and show that there is still, labour that cannot only bark but can equally bite.

This has only further reinforced the widely held belief that most times previous face-offs have never been as straight forward as we are made to believe because more often than not the labour leaders always end up better off personally. Of course, the negative impact of labour’s volte-face is not lost on their leaders with the Lagos State Council, Trade Union Congress of Nigeria (TUC), urging people not to despair or lose faith in the labour movement over suspension of the much publicised nationwide industrial action.

The state Chairman, Mr Gbenga Ekundayo said on Monday in Lagos: “Quite expectedly, Lagosians would feel disappointed; however, they should not despair or lose faith in our labour leaders.” He, however, waived an olive branch that perhaps all is not lost when he called on people of Lagos and Nigerians, in general, to monitor closely how the talks evolved in the next two weeks. Let’s hope for his sake and the sake of other leaders that labour has not blown the chance to make a case for the masses so much so that when next they talk of going on strike it will only be themselves doing the striking!

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