Subsidy pains: Tinubu pleads as NLC issues strike notice

President Tinubu
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President Bola Tinubu, on Wednesday, in Abuja appealed to the organised labour to avail him more time to consider their grievances before embarking on any nationwide strike.

This is just as indication emerged that the Federal Government may enforce the court order restraining the organised labour from embarking on a strike over the withdrawal of fuel subsidy in May should the Nigeria Labour Congress make good its threat on August 2.

The Speaker of the House of Representatives, Tajudeen Abbas, disclosed Tinubu’s plea to State House Correspondents after leading some officers of the House to brief the President on the outcome of their engagement with the National Association of Resident Doctors, which has declared a nationwide strike.

At about the same time, following the threat by labour, the Federal Government on Wednesday evening held an emergency meeting with the organised labour comprising of the NLC and the Trade Union Congress at the Presidential Villa, Abuja.

But briefing reporters, Abbas said Tinubu appealed that being new in office, he needs time to evaluate the issues raised by workers over which as he is yet to be briefed.

Abbas said, “What he (Tinubu) said is that he’s just coming on board. We should ask them and beg them to please give him a little more time.

“The things that they mentioned, he is completely unaware of them, he is yet to be briefed about all those issues.

“But from what he heard from me, he also advised that we should channel some of those issues to the Chief of Staff to look at them one after the other. I believe the next coming days, some concerted actions will be taken.”

The Speaker explained that the House leadership invited NARD following their intention to go on strike, saying that the lawmakers succeeded in persuading the union to shelve the plan.

“Sequel to the meeting we had with them, there were series of conditions that they gave, that we felt we need to share with the President,” he revealed.

Asked what the House was doing to restrain the Nigeria Labour Congress from proceeding with the August 2 protests, Abbas said, “In the same manner, the same way, we will also invite them to come and sit so that we hear their grievances and then we follow the same pattern of engaging and persuading them to give us a little time so that we can be able to meet their expectations.”

Meanwhile, the House leadership’s meeting with the President was held as leaders of the NLC and the Trade Union Congress of Nigeria met with the Presidential Steering Committee on Palliatives set up by the Federal Government.

However, the meeting failed to convince the labour leaders to shelve their plan as they insisted on proceeding with the protest slated for August 2.

Wednesday’s meeting, which took place in the office of the President’s Chief of Staff, was attended by labour delegations led by the NLC President, Joe Ajaero and his TUC counterpart, Festus Osifo.

It was in continuation of the June 19 meeting over the initial increase of the petrol pump price to N520 per litre.

Addressing journalists after the meeting, Ajaero said, “We are going ahead with the protest because we have to be emphatic on what we put in our communique, to say we are commencing protests from August 2.”

On his part, the TUC President, Osifo, said both sides listened to the presentations from the Steering Committee secretariat and labour made its input afterwards.

He said, “Some of the things they presented, we did not agree with them. So, the areas we did not agree on, we also made our inputs known because when you come to such a meeting, it is for the government or its representatives to do a presentation.

“But it’s left for us to either agree or disagree. So, during the meeting, we gave them sufficient feedback. And they also agreed to go and look at those feedbacks and get back to us on Friday.”

However, the Special Adviser to the President on Energy, Olu Verheijen, said the discussions achieved some progress in negotiations.

She explained: “We’ve agreed to continue to make progress. It was a very productive meeting.

“The focus was really around how we fast track a lot of the interventions that will bring relief, particularly around CNG, mass transportation, cleaner energy, transportation and reduce the impact of the cost of transportation.”

On why the rollout of palliatives is being delayed, she said, “We have to get it right. We must do this well, and we keep our promises. So, it’s important that whatever is announced gets done.”

Verheijen said the President was working assiduously to address the issues “as quickly as he can.”

Court order

Meanwhile, the Federal Government may enforce the court order restraining the organised labour from embarking on a strike over the withdrawal of fuel subsidy in May should the NLC make good its threat on August 2.

The congress on Wednesday announced plans to commence a seven-day warning strike with effect from Wednesday but findings indicate that the FG may initiate contempt proceedings against the labour leaders if it went ahead with its threat.

A senior official confided in The PUNCH that the government would ensure compliance with the court order.

“We will file contempt charges against the labour leaders if they go ahead to disobey a subsisting court order by going on strike,’’ the official stated.

In the aftermath of the fuel subsidy withdrawal which led to a spike in the price of Premium Motor Spirit from N140 to N540 per litre and the attendant increase in prices of goods and services, the NLC and the TUC had mobilised their members for a nationwide industrial action on June 7.

But the FG on June 5, secured an order from the National Industrial Court barring the unions from embarking on their planned strike to protest the unilateral removal of fuel subsidy by the Federal Government.

On June 20 when the case came up, Justice Olufunke Anuwe reiterated that her order restraining the NLC and TUC from going on a strike remained in force. The judge, as a result, ordered the parties to maintain the status quo and adjourned the matter till July 20, for a hearing.

NLC insists

However, the NLC on Wednesday said it would mobilise a nationwide strike on August 2, should the government fail to meet all its demands namely the immediate reversal of all “anti-poor policies such as the hike in the price of Premium Motor Spirit; increase in public schools’ fees; increase in Value Added Tax among others.’’

The congress decided after a meeting of its Central Working Committee on Tuesday night in Abuja.

The labour congress in a statement jointly signed by Ajaero and Secretary-General, Emmanuel Ugboaja, faulted the Tinubu administration over “unfriendly” policies while adding that the administration has continued to treat Nigerians as slaves.

The NLC noted that Nigerians lost their peace of mind following the “Subsidy is gone” comment made by the President during his May 29,2023 inaugural address.

On its next steps, the NLC noted that it had received pressure from Nigerians who have been calling on it to lead a national strike.

The Congress also explained that it had reached a breaking point hence it would “give the Federal Government a seven-day ultimatum within which to meet all our demands and to embark on a nationwide action beginning Wednesday, August 2, 2023, to compel the government to reverse its anti-poor and anti-workers policies.”

In a telephone interview, with The PUNCH, the Assistant General Secretary of NLC, Chris Onyeka, said, “The seven-day ultimatum given by Nigeria Labour Congress to the Federal government is a protest and also a strike. We can’t be protesting, and we are working.”

PENGASSAN holds talks

Meanwhile, various affiliate unions of the NLC, including electricity workers have declared that they would join the strike and shut down the country’s power grid from Wednesday.

However, the Petroleum and Natural Gas Senior Staff Association of Nigeria stated that it was meeting and would make its position on the matter known on Thursday (today), while the Nigeria Union of Petroleum and Natural Gas workers said it aligned with the NLC.

“NUEE is an affiliate of NLC and we will join the strike action,” the acting General Secretary, the National Union of Electricity Employees, Dominic Igwebuike, told one of our correspondents, admitting that this would lead to blackout nationwide if the government failed to act.

Responding to a question on whether the senior staff association in the oil sector would join the NLC strike, the National Public Relations Officer, PENGASSAN, Kingsley Udoidua, said the union was still having conversations on this.

“We are currently having conversions around this and when we reach our conclusion, you will hear from us. We will speak tomorrow (Thursday) and I will get back to you, but conversions are going on.

“So, until we come out of that meeting, that is when we will be able to tell everybody where PENGASSAN stands,” he stated, admitting that the association was also aware of the recent position taken by the TUC on the matter.

The TUC, on Monday, gave the Federal Government a two-week ultimatum to address the concerns raised by labour unions as regards the removal of subsidy on petrol, or face workers’ protest.

Lawyers speak

Speaking on the declaration of a strike by organised labour despite the subsisting court order, Ebun-Olu Adegboruwa, SAN said court judgment cannot stop the hardship experienced across the country.

He added that the government should dialogue with the NLC to find a lasting solution that would ameliorate the suffering of the masses.

Adegboruwa said, “I do not think there is a court judgment that can arrest suffering, hunger, and especially the hardship that is going on in our land. The FG should sit down with the workers to agree on the modalities for cushioning the effect of fuel subsidy removal. If time is not taken, people will just be falling and dying on the streets.

“This is not a matter that could be resolved through litigation. No amount of court cases can take away suffering. Also, I hope you are aware that it is only the NLC that is affected. Civil societies, activists, pressure groups and NBA are not a party to the case. The court order can’t be enforced on them.”

On his part, Ifedayo Adedipe, SAN said the law must be obeyed unless it was set aside irrespective of the hardship in the country.

According to him, if the nation must progress, institutions and individuals must have respect for the rule of law.

He said, “If we must make progress, we must begin to respect our courts. Whatever the ruling of the court is, it must be obeyed unless it is set aside. If there is a subsisting judgment stopping NLC from going on strike, as a responsible body, the NLC must obey until that law is set aside. If Congress proceeds with a strike they might be walking a dangerous path.

“I agree there is hardship but disobeying court order is never the solution to the problem on the ground. If we don’t respect our laws, I am afraid we will not make progress. “

Adegoke Rasheed, SAN, said NLC leaders could be arrested for contempt if they proceeded with the strike.

“Until a judgment is set aside, it must be obeyed. It would be contempt of court for the NLC to disobey the court. If they do this and the court gets angry with them and orders the arrest of the leaders, the issue of human rights will not avail them. The order must be set aside before going on strike. The judges are passing through hardship too but everything must be done by the law. They have to tread with caution,” he said.

Another senior lawyer, Yomi Aliyu, SAN, also urged the NLC to obey the court order.

“They cannot go on strike if there is an extant order stopping them. The law should be respected. The FG should negotiate with them,” he advised.

CSOs react

Speaking on the NLC’s strike threat, the Executive Director, the Civil Society Legislative Advocacy Centre, Auwal Rafsanjani, stated that the masses could stage their protest despite a court order against the NLC, as it was their Constitutional right.

“If the government stops the NLC from embarking on a peaceful demonstration, that does not include other Nigerians. Other Nigerians who are victims of socio-economic hardship, they have the right to go on and protest, and also join any movement because the Constitution is very clear; it allows freedom of association and movement,” he said.

On his part, the Chairman, the Centre for Anti-Corruption and Open Leadership, Debo Adeniran, faulted the NLC’s seeming lack of commitment to embarking on the strike, noting that while the NLC was supposed to lead and trigger a mass protest, it appeared they weren’t interested in following through with it.

“It’s like the NLC has not been very forthcoming or doesn’t mean to go on strike, and the NLC is supposed to be a leader in the mass movement, not to be the sole actor. So, they are supposed to trigger a mass protest, but the way NLC goes about it, they don’t mean to continue the strike, Adeniran concluded.

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