The National Deputy President of the Trade Union Congress, Tommy Etim, on Thursday, berated moves by the Federal Government to hamstring the Organised Labour from embarking on an indefinite nationwide strike from Tuesday, using the courts.
Etim stated that labour leaders would not succumb to any threat by the government, noting that they were ready to go to prison in their fight for better lives for Nigerian workers.
The TUC deputy president said this against the backdrop of the warning by the Attorney-General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Lateef Fagbemi, SAN, that the proposed strike by the Nigeria Labour Congress and TUC was in contravention of a subsisting court order restraining the unions from declaring an industrial action.
The NLC and TUC Tuesday announced an indefinite strike with effect from October 3, 2023, to protest the alleged failure of the Federal Government to provide post-subsidy palliatives for workers and implement policies that could alleviate the sufferings of the masses after the removal of the fuel subsidy.
The unions had also directed their state chapters and affiliates to mobilise for the shutdown of critical facilities and infrastructure, including airports, seaports, electricity grids and fuel supply across the country.
However, the AGF in a letter addressed to the counsel to the NLC and TUC, Femi Falana, SAN, reminded them that it was as a result of the disobedience to the order that the ministry of justice filed a contempt proceeding against the labour leaders.
He added that the ministry withdrew the suit following the intervention of President Bola Tinubu and the National Assembly.
The letter read, “You are kindly invited to recall the antecedence of previous steps/actions on this matter, particularly the exchange of correspondence between this office and your firm, before and after the nationwide “action/protest” declared by the NLC on August 2, 2023.
“Whilst your clients had maintained that the nationwide protest by the NLC is in furtherance of its constitutional right to embark on protests, the ministry has repeatedly advised on the need to advise your clients to refrain from resorting to self-help and taking actions capable of undermining subsisting orders of a court of competent jurisdiction.
“It is also to be recalled that based on the conduct of the said nationwide action/protest, this office instituted contempt proceedings against the labour leaders. However, upon the intervention of the President and National Assembly, coupled with the decision of the labour unions to discontinue their action/protest, the contempt proceedings were not prosecuted further. This was advisedly done to enable the government and labour union to engage in further negotiations without any form of encumbrances.
“However, in its communiqué issued at the end of its National Executive Council meeting on 31st August 2023, NLC resolved to embark on a total and indefinite shutdown of the nation within 14 working days or 21 days from August 31, 2023.
‘’Also on September 26, 2023, the Presidents of NLC and TUC, jointly issued a communiqué stating that organised labour had resolved, “to embark on an indefinite and total shutdown of the nation beginning on zero hours Tuesday, the 3rd day of October, 2023.”
Fagbemi stated that from the contents of the communiqué and available media reports, the proposed strike action is connected with the removal of fuel subsidy and provisions of palliative for workers.
“These are undoubtedly issues that have been submitted to the National Industrial Court for adjudication. Therefore, the proposed strike action is in clear violation of the pending interim injunctive order granted on June 5 2023 restraining both the Nigeria Labour Congress and Trade Union Congress from embarking on any industrial action/or strike of any nature, pending the hearing and determination of the pending Motion on Notice”, he added.
Fagbemi said irrespective of their disposition on the matter, the court order must be obeyed unless it is vacated.
He called on Falana to advise the labour leaders to abide by the court judgment to protect its integrity.
He said, “We wish to reiterate that a court order, regardless of the opinion of any party on it, remains binding and enforceable until set aside. It is the expectation of the public that the labour unions would lead in obedience and observance of court orders and not in its breach.
‘’It is therefore the earnest expectation of this Office that your distinguished law firm will advise the labour unions on the need to protect the integrity of courts and observe the sanctity of court orders.
“Consequently, you are kindly requested to impress it upon the organized labour unions to note the fact that their proposed strike action is in gross breach of the subsisting court order, as well as the appropriateness of addressing their grievances/demands within the ambit of the law hence, the need for them to be more accommodating and show greater appreciation of the effect of the order of the court, by shelving the strike action.
‘’The foregoing will afford parties more room for further mutual engagements, for a holistic and sustainable resolution of all outstanding issues on this matter in the overall national interest.”
But the TUC Deputy President waved off the AGF’s warning, saying the contempt threat would not make the organised labour shelve their planned walkout, noting that the labour leaders were ready to be jailed for their convictions.
He stated, ‘’It is a threat but power belongs to the people. Let them carry all of us to the prisons. I can only answer by saying the end justifies the means. If that is what they want, let’s see what would happen on the 3rd of October. The good thing is that Nigeria is our country. If he would pack all the Nigerian people to prison, there is no problem.
‘’If the government wants to put us in prison, let them put us in prison. Going to prison is not a death sentence. After all, even a (former) president passed through the prison. Didn’t (Segun) Obasanjo go to prison? We are used to threats and it is not going to deter us, we are not cowards.
‘’We are working for the country and if the government feels it wants to put us in prison because we are working for the country, so be it. Let the end justify the means.’’
Falana could not be reached for comments on Thursday but senior lawyers in separate interviews aligned with the AGF and advised the NLC and TUC to respect the order of the court.
Rotimi Jacobs, SAN, argued that the labour unions would be in contempt of the court and Section 287 of the Constitution, which enjoined every person or group to obey the order of the court.
He added, “Where the order of the court is being ignored, it is an invitation to anarchy. What they should do is to have that order set aside before they can embark on any industrial action.
‘’So, to do so (embark on strike) will amount to contempt of court which they may face. I think they should do something about the order, and either appeal against it and then ask for a stay of the order, or get it set aside by the Appellate Court or that same court.”
Speaking in the same vein, Rasheed Adegoke, SAN, underscored the importance of respecting judicial orders.
The appropriate thing to do, he counselled, was to apply for the order to be set aside or appeal.
He held that disobeying a court order could lead to contempt charges which he said is a grievous offence.
Adegoke said, “Once there is an existing court order, it is binding on all persons and authorities concerned. Where they fail, refuse or neglect to obey the court order, the AGF can bring them to court for contempt and that is a grievous offence because it undermines the integrity of the court.
“It equally destabilises the judicial system otherwise where everybody feels that he’s right and courts are wrong, choosing not to obey the court order is a licence to resort to self-help and the implication is that others can behave the same way.
‘’What we will have is a society not regulated by the rule of law; that means there will be breakdown of law and order. The appropriate thing to do is to apply to set aside that order or go on appeal against it.”
Another senior lawyer, Afam Osigwe, SAN, warned that willful disobedience of court orders could attract serious consequences for the labour leaders.
He contended that if the AGF asked the unions not to go on strike, it meant there was an order of the court that restrained them from carrying out the action.
He added, ‘’If there is an order and the labour union leaders violate that order, it may amount to contempt of court for a person to willfully disobey an order of a court. It will be wrong for any person, whether it is a labour union, to violate such an order and act contrary to do that which the court has restrained the person from doing.’’
Speaking further, the former General-Secretary of the Nigerian Bar Association averred, ‘’When you disobey a court order, there are contempt committal proceedings that will be followed up within the court where the person would be allowed to defend him or herself and if the court at the end of the proceedings finds the person liable, then the person will get appropriate punishment. “
But a lawyer and activist, Deji Ajare, stated that no order of court could perpetually restrain the labour unions from embarking on industrial action as that would mean removing the right of the members to organise actions to negotiate their demands.
He submitted, “I am minded to believe that the order of the court was to enable the parties explore an opportunity to amicably resolve the issues. And if for the past six weeks since that order was allegedly made, the Federal Government of Nigeria has not been able to provide the necessary leadership that the labour unions and Nigerian citizens need to develop some level of confidence and comfort that the government is sincere and genuinely pursuing a resolution of the issues, I do not think any court will reasonably make that order.”
Against the backdrop of the expected impact of the strike on the economy, the Senator representing Abia North at the National Assembly, Sen. Orji Uzor Kalu, has appealed to the NLC and TUC to reconsider their proposed strike as it would increase hunger and hardships in the country.
He assured that the workers’ salaries would soon be reviewed in a few weeks in response to the demands of the unions, arguing that the President cannot approve funds without appropriation.
He stated, “I am pleading with the NLC to see reason with the people of Nigeria, not even with the government. They are thinking that President Tinubu and his cabinet are the owners of Nigeria, no. Nigeria belongs to all of us, including President Tinubu.
“The budget is coming and workers’ salaries will be reviewed. It is a question of a few weeks or months. We will make sure that the Nigerian budget will be implemented and workers salaries will be looked into.
“President Tinubu is not going to manufacture money without appropriation to do anything and I am sure that within six to eight weeks, the budget will be before the National Assembly. Workers should take it for granted that the President will work out the details of how to set up the emolument of all levels of workers.”
He further pleaded, “for the sake of Nigerians who are eating as labourers, if there is a strike, they cannot eat. If there is unrest, they cannot feed. I hope the NLC will find reason and reconsider going on strike this week because it is going to hurt the economy so much.
‘’Manufacturers, stock exchange, truck pushers, everybody will be in a mess. During budget deliberation, we will make sure we consider what is good for all.”
He used the opportunity to also plead with the state governors not to use their party structure in distributing the Federal Government palliatives.
“The palliative is not a party matter, it is for Nigerians. Please, do not share it through your party structure as we heard that many governors are sharing it through party structure. It is not the right thing to do,’’ he admonished.
Governors beg NLC
The National Economic Council on Thursday said state governors would negotiate with the organised labour in their respective domains to avert the nationwide strike slated for Tuesday.
It also appealed to the unions to reconsider their stance, warning that such an exercise would devastate Nigeria’s economy, currently grappling with double-digit inflation, forex shortages and low oil production.
Addressing State House correspondents after the 136th NEC meeting, which was held at the Aso Rock Presidential Villa, Abuja, the Plateau State Governor, Caleb Mutfwang, said, “Labour is represented in all the 36 states and the FCT and NEC is appealing that discussions should continue at the state levels because there will be peculiarities as to the issues to be addressed concerning the demands of labour. Therefore, dialogue is the way to go.”
Relating the NEC’s appeal to journalists after the monthly meeting, the governor explained that the council was aware of the strike notice issued by the national leadership of the NLC and TUC.
He said, “The Council noted further the implication of this strike for the economy and the nation and thus urged members to continue to engage with the leadership of their respective states and to appeal to them to shelve the action and continue on the path of dialogue with the federal government. This is the appeal of Council.”
Explaining the grounds for NEC’s appeal further, Mutfwang noted that most first-term governors inherited a striking labour force and have only managed to get them back to work recently.
Therefore, enforcing a new strike would further damage the economy, which, he observed, is in a “critical” phase.
“The nation is at a very critical moment at this time. In some states, when they took over on May 29, the workers were on strike; some of those issues have just been resolved for the workers to return to work. To ask them to go back immediately it’s going to further damage the economy.
“Therefore NEC, while expressing genuine concern about the situation in the country, appeals for calm and patience and I want to believe that the leadership across the nation at this point in time wants to truly address the issues that concern Labour and the general populace and move the country forward,” said Mutfwang.
He appealed for more time for the government to work on addressing the concerns of Labour, affirming that President Tinubu will address Labour’s concerns in his Independence Day address on October 1.
“NEC actually expressed genuine concern on the situation in the country and appreciated the concern by Labour to have those issues addressed.
“That is why NEC is appealing for patience, appealing for time to be able to address the concerns of Labour.
“We also believe that Mr. President will be addressing the nation on October 1 and some of the concerns of Labour will be appropriately addressed in the President’s speech,” the governor revealed.
Meanwhile, in his opening address at the NEC meeting titled, ‘Planning for Stability: Our Agenda for Economic Growth in 2024,’ Vice President Kashim Shettima reminded the governors and other council members that the weight of the tough decisions to rescue Nigeria’s economy depended on their cooperation and goodwill.
He noted that what has set Tinubu apart as a leader ‘’is the courage to embark on fixing the country’s economy through bold reforms.’’
Identifying stability as a significant priority in the 2024 economic agenda, the VP said, “It took courage to embark on fixing an economy hindered by decades of political lip-service. But that has set President Bola Ahmed Tinubu apart: his bold reforms to reposition the economy and save it from further erosion.”
Shettima said the federal, state and local governments must remain committed to re-evaluating their priorities, streamlining processes, and making bold decisions reflecting key social issues, including social protection, social investment and nutrition.