Okechukwu Nnodim, Opeoluwani Akintayo, Anozie Egole, Dirisu Yakubu, Deborah Tolu-Kolawole, Abiodun Sanusi, Stephen Angbulu, Henry Falaiye, Samuel Bolaji, Ademola Adegbite, Sunday Nwakanma, Israel Bulus and Tunde Oyekola
The two-day meeting between the Federal Government and organised labour ended in a deadlock on Tuesday, with the Nigerian Labour Congress and the Trade Union Congress leaders vowing to begin a nationwide protest against the removal of fuel subsidy.
This came as oil workers under the aegis of the Petroleum and Natural Gas Senior Staff Association began an indefinite strike on Tuesday, citing inhumane treatment by the management of the Nigerian Upstream Petroleum Regulatory Commission, an agency of the Federal Government.
The strike and planned protest by the organised labour slated for Wednesday (today) over the fuel subsidy removal by the Federal Government may shut down the country and paralyse the economy.
Oil workers had earlier on Tuesday staged a protest and shut down the commission’s office in Lagos, while also vowing to shut down the agency’s offices nationwide.
Speaking on the planned strike on Tuesday, the NLC President, Joe Ajaero, said the organised labour had no reason to suspend the planned national protests and strike.
Ajaero spoke a few hours after another round of meetings of the Presidential Steering Committee on Palliatives held at the Aso Rock Villa, Abuja, deadlocked.
“We have no reason to call off the planned protests. If we suspend or call it off, you will know. I can tell you that the mobilisation is very high,” Ajaero said in response to questions from journalists.
The Federal Government had in a last-ditch effort to avert the strike met with the NLC and TUC leaders on Monday but the parley also failed to reach any resolution.
It was reported that the Federal Government and organised labour have been at loggerheads following the removal of fuel subsidy by President Bola Tinubu on May 29,2023.
In an effort to foster negotiations, the government set up a committee to look into the demands of the labour unions for a 300 per cent wage increase to enable workers to cope with the challenges imposed by the deteriorating economic situation that came with the removal of the controversial fuel subsidy, among other things.
Though the committee was given a total of eight weeks to come up with a suitable plan for workers and Nigerians at large, the labour leaders insisted that the committee has continued to show a lack of commitment towards their shared goal.
An earlier move by the labour leaders to embark on strike was stopped by a court order obtained by the government.
Speaking earlier after the meeting with FG officials, the NLC Secretary-General, Emmanuel Ugboaja, hinted that the congress would consider the government’s appeal for a peaceful resolution.
But he was countered by the Deputy Vice-President of the NLC, Titus Amba, who said there was no new development following the national broadcast made by the President, Bola Tinubu, on Monday evening.
Tinubu had unveiled a N500bn palliative which he said would be shared with manufacturers, small businesses and farmers.
He also disclosed plans to increase salaries and acquire 3,000 CNG-powered mass transit buses for all 36 states and the Federal Capital Territory.
However, the Assistant National Secretary of NLC, Mr Chris Onyeka said that the protest was irreversible despite the appeal by the government.
“The planned nationwide protest is on, it is irreversible,” Onyeka said when asked if the organised labour would consider FG’s appeal to shelve the strike.
Similarly, the congress in a statement signed by Ajaero on Tuesday night asked Nigerians to ignore news about a possible suspension of its planned nationwide strike.
The terse statement which was posted on its official Twitter handle, @NLCheadquarters read, “Ignore fake rumors, NLC is never divided. We are one united and strong labour centre. The protest rally holds tomorrow (Wednesday) nationwide.”
He stated, “On our part, what we are demanding is a wage award. So, wage award, like for example, you’ve heard some states that have said, ‘we’re paying N40,000 minimum,’ so it’s more or less they are giving it. It is not the law. They are doing above the minimum wage.
“So, for us we felt that the Federal Government could do, on their own, so much above the minimum wage, without much conversation, because the committee on the minimum wage has not been constituted. We want to be very clear on that. That committee has not been constituted.”
Shedding more light on what transpired at the meeting, the President’s Chief of Staff, Femi Gbajabiamila, said the FG informed the organised labour that Tinubu’s rollout was only the start of more to follow.
“Basically, we laid out a plan for the intervention of Mr President. As you all heard in his broadcast yesterday (Monday), we made it clear that this is just Mr President’s initial rollout of the interventions. These conversations will be ongoing.
“We appealed to labour on the protest of tomorrow. We found listening ears here and they did agree that they all accepted that Mr President’s broadcast was a welcome development and that they’ll go back home to talk to the other leaders that are not present here today. So, we’re hopeful that they’ll arrive at a good deal and call off the strike tomorrow,” he explained.
The NLC delegation was led by its General Secretary, Emma Ugbaja, and the TUC by its President, Osifo.
“Now look at the downtrodden market men and women, traders and the likes. So, the increment in workers’ salaries cannot help the situation. The palliatives cannot save it. The Federal Government should bring down the price of petrol. We should stop deceiving ourselves. The only immediate solution is for the price of petroleum to come down,’’ he insisted.
Angry oil workers
In a sign of things to come, oil workers on Tuesday shut down the Nigerian Upstream Petroleum Regulatory Commission’s office in Lagos as they sang and chanted solidarity anthems.
One of the protesters, Orlu Ezekiel, said the protest had the backing of the Petroleum and Natural Gas Senior Staff Association of Nigeria’s national president, Osifo, who also doubles as the TUC president, Festus Osifo.
According to Ezekiel, NUPRC offices nationwide have been shut down and the strike action will continue until their demands were met by the management.
He said, ‘’We have chosen to begin a nationwide strike today simply because our management has decided not to do the needful. They have decided to ignore the welfare of the staff. Like we keep saying, these are politicians that have been imposed on us. They have taken the leadership of this organisation backwards.
“As you are aware, we used to be DPR, and from the advent of the PIA which split the DPR into two- NMDPRA and NUPRC, we are the upstream section of the sector; we monitor the IOCs and independent oil producers. The PIA clearly stated that we would not enjoy any employment conditions lower than what we used to enjoy as defunct DPR.’’
But the Chief Executive, of NUPRC, Gbenga Komolafe, kicked against the disruptive action by the workers, as he stated that “the scope of the protests had all the trappings of a premeditated action which suggests that staff welfare may just have been a facade and not the major reason behind the action.”
In a letter by the union, sighted in Abuja, it raised issues relating to pension non-remittance, non-conducive work environment, insufficient working tools and staff medicals as concerns that should be addressed by the upstream regulator.
The letter, which was signed by the local PENGASSAN Chairman, Okechukwu Anya, also identified other issues of concern including the outstanding payments of 2023 upfront allowances, unpaid staff claims, unpaid staff on-call-allowance, and non-payment of outsource personnel.
The union stopped work activities in Abuja, as they closed the entrance of the headquarters, preventing the NUPRC boss and other senior management staff from gaining entry on Tuesday.
Reacting to the development, Komolafe said the shutdown of NUPRC offices by PENGASSAN came less than 24 hours after the management of the commission had, in response to the union’s letter delivered July 31, 2023, clearly addressed all the issues raised therein concerning staff welfare.
In response to their demands, which he personally signed, the NUPRC boss explained that obligations relating to claims made by the union had been fulfilled and efforts were already in place to achieve closure on the pending items.
The union announced this in a memo titled, ‘Notice of mobilisation for nationwide mass protest and rally against fuel price increase,’ issued by the Secretary-General, Erazua Oniha.
The memo read in part, “I bring to you, fraternal greetings from the Central Working Committee of our union, MWUN. We are in notice of the decision of the meeting of the Central Working Committee of the NLC held on Thursday 27th July 2023 directing all NLC affiliates to mobilize and sensitise their members in preparation for a nationwide peaceful mass protest and rally scheduled to kick start on Wednesday, 2nd August 2023.”
The union said that the decision was reached following the government’s alleged insensitivity in addressing the high cost of living.
“This decision was reached in the face of the Federal Government’s seeming insensitivity to the need to urgently put the necessary instruments in place to cushion the escalating cost of living to which the Nigerian working class and citizens are daily subjected without respite in sight due to removal of fuel subsidy from the price of Premium Motor Spirit.
“Consequent to the foregoing, all our members in all ports, jetties terminals, and oil and gas platforms nationwide most especially, all districts and units are by this notice directed to commence immediate and total mobilization of our members to effectively ensure their participation in the nationwide peaceful mass protest and rally from Wednesday 2nd August as directed,” the memo concluded.
The NLC in Abia State said it was ready to hold street rallies to drive home the workers’ demands.
The state NLC Chairman, Pascal Nweke Iheme, said, “We are prepared to engage in the protest tomorrow and it will be peaceful,’’ noting that it was not targeted at the state government.
He noted, “A peaceful and coordinated approach is crucial to achieving meaningful solutions and preventing any form of violence or disruptions to public order, should the protests persist.
“The Nigeria Police Force reiterates its commitment to ensuring the safety and security of all citizens during the period of the planned protests as all necessary measures to facilitate the peaceful conduct of these demonstrations have been emplaced.”
Warning against violence, the NPF said it would not tolerate any act that threatens the peace and well-being of the country, adding that perpetrators will be dealt with.
Adejobi added, “However, it is hereby reaffirmed that any attempt by miscreants to exploit the situation for violent purposes viz-a-viz vandalism, gangsterism, and extortion will be met with firm, professional and commensurate lawful approach. The police will not tolerate any act that threatens the peace and well-being of our country.
“In light of the potential challenges posed by the planned protests, the Nigeria Police Force is fully prepared to deploy all available resources to maintain law and order and to protect the lives and property of our citizens. The IGP, therefore, calls on all officers to be vigilant, professional, and uphold the highest standards of conduct during this period.”
In Kwara State, the state Commissioner of Police, Mrs Ebunoluwarotimi Adelesi has met with labour leaders, including commercial vehicle drivers and students in a bid to ensure a peaceful rally and maintain the peace in the state.
Meanwhile, Human Rights Lawyer, Femi Falana, SAN, has replied to a letter from the Federal Ministry of Justice over its claims that the planned protests by the worker’s unions were illegal.
The Chairman, LASPAGA, Oba Suleimon Raji, in a statement issued late Monday by the Secretary of the agency, Alhaji Abdulrahman Amusan, pleaded with Nigerians to be “more patient and cooperative with government at all levels, to enable them to make subsidy palliatives available to Nigerians.”
Raji also asked members and officials of the LASPAGA not to join the planned strike and protest saying, “Strikes and protests will compound the already worst situation and make life more unbearable to Lagosians and Nigerians at large.”
LASPAGA, while pledging to stop arbitrary increases in transport fares by its members, appealed to the NLC, the TUC and civil societies to return to the negotiation table.
Less than 24 hours before the protests, 16 Northern-based civil society groups under the aegis of the Coalition of Arewa Civil Society Organisations pulled out on the grounds that the action would damage the fragile economy and cause more hardship to the ordinary citizens.
The decision to pull out was contained in a statement jointly signed by the Chairman and Secretary of the Arewa Coalition, Ibraheem Suleman Dogo, and Friday Luka Dalung.
According to the groups, the strike action was not the best way to resolve the problems emerging from the current harsh economic conditions caused by the removal of fuel subsidies.