The Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) appears to be heading for failure in its present call for a strike to protest the Nigerian government’s recent increase in the pump price of petrol. A significant number of citizens, who in the past, readily identified with Labour on public remonstrations against fuel price increases, seem, this time around, a lot less likely to join the strike proposed for Wednesday May 18.
Many are not persuaded of the usefulness of a general strike as a tool to fight government to reverse the new supply and pricing framework introduced for petroleum products last week. Nor, for that matter, do they see much to be gained by a reversion to the status quo.
A key part of the emerging perspective is that the conversation around the domestic economy’s outlook has apparently benefitted from a new awareness of the country’s currently huge revenue shortages, which has rendered governments at several levels incapable of meeting their wage bills and other crucial overheads; and, more importantly, recent revelations of the colossal corruption attendant upon the administration of fuel subsidy by previous administrations.
This recognition of the dire nature of the times complements a burgeoning belief in the anti-corruption crusade (albeit, not without its discontents) and the anti-profligacy stance of the Buhari administration. Additionally, sections of the public have wondered at organised labour’s fixation on a silver bullet solution to national challenges with negative impact on workers’ welfare. Most doubt that in our current situation, a general strike is an optimum response to government’s preferred solution to one of the symptoms of a complex body of issues, involving the structural nature of Nigeria’s federalism.
The NLC may not have gauged the public mood and disposition properly – or maybe it thinks it can drag the public along – as it sets out on its action.
With the availability of petrol and reasonable pricing an existential need for the greater number of Nigerians, typically evoking emotional responses, traditional calls by organised labour and its civil society collaborators to the barricades and to shut down the country over fuel price increases – in the past twenty instances, over thirty years – usually resonated well with the public.
This was largely due to widespread feelings of disillusionment with the federal government, generally considered corrupt and unaccountable, with poor management skills of the economy, seeking to take away affordable fuel as possibly the most important safety net left to the suffering people of Nigeria.
PREMIUM TIMES observes that the present strike call comes at a time when the end of the super-cycle is hurting commodity prices globally. Along with the growing economic viability of renewable energy sources, this has driven fiscal crises in many oil-exporting countries, especially those where crude oil dominates the fiscal space. As such, confronting deep budget cuts, unable to sustain payment of subsidies across sectors, and compelled to fund essential services optimally, many such economies have revised their fuel pricing templates.
Increases in the pump station price of petrol have reached as high as 60 percent in countries from Venezuela to Saudi Arabia, Qatar, etc.
Yet, while organised labour may have misread the public disposition accurately, its protest seeks to feed into evident public irritation with a succession of ill-considered policies in the petroleum sector.
The ensuing flip-flops and reversals have seen the federal government, through the minister of state for petroleum, Ibe Kachikwu, rapidly transiting from an earlier claim that petrol subsidy had been removed and that at least a billion dollars was being saved per month, to proclaiming a price modulation template designed to manage the pump price for petrol.
Add to this confusion the earlier decision to reduce the pump price from N97 to N87 and then to N86.50, a renewed claim that some level of subsidy remained, which also needed to be removed, and now that it is all about the non-availability of foreign exchange for imports, necessitating a regime of “deregulation” — but one in which a price band is still being fixed for fuel at the pump.
Compounding this has been the recurrent public complaint – largely justified – that the Buhari government is one that barely communicates with Nigerians, even when seemingly acting with the best of intentions. And, that a lot of its activities are largely opaque, if not outrightly shrouded in mystery, as in the instance of the administration’s anti-corruptionprogramme’s recovery of stolen public assets, the extent of which Nigerians are still unaware of.
PREMIUM TIMES considers the current issue of the increase in the price of petrol – and some of the responses to it, such as that of labour – as serving a very cogent example of how things may go awry if the government does not start communicating its actions, policy directions and implementation regularly, clearly and coherently.
It is quite unfortunate that the government abruptly announced the fuel price increase of May 11, without prior information of or engagement with the public. This has left a lot to be desired, forcing on Nigerians the sudden need to cope with skyrocketing food, transportation and alternative energy costs. This is certainly at the core of the grouse of organised labour, whose proposal of a new minimum wage to reflect newer realities is still up for consideration.
It would do the leadership and general membership of organised labour in Nigeria good to re-evaluate their call for a strike aimed at shutting down the country from May 18 as it is already proving a difficult sell, lacking in crucial public buy in.
However, only recently the federal government announced its release of N350 billion for the commencement of capital projects across the country, and also a N500 billion economic palliative package to mitigate the effects of the fuel price hike. This is to involve a schools’ feeding programme for 5.5 million students; loans to traders, market women, artisans and those involved in agriculture; stipends for the desperately poor and vulnerable; payments for the training and deployment of unemployed graduates and education grants, across the country.
In as much as these appear well intentioned, and great sections of the public seem to be interested in giving additional benefit of doubt to the Buhari administration, PREMIUM TIMES feels that it could be more worth the while of organised labour to be interested in ensuring that social welfare and protection programmes are assisted to become better targeted towards social vulnerabilities, and are more efficient. Civil society mechanisms need to be developed to ensure that these programmes are delivered on, with the funds meant for them not diverted, while people are supported to get back to work.
The leadership of the labour movement should not deplete any more of its legitimacy with the working people of this country. They should call off this ill-advised strike now.