It was always going to be the first real test for the new president Bola Tinubu. He had, without fanfare announced the end to the highly fraudulent subsidy scheme in his inauguration address and when key officials at NNPC failed to follow up immediately with a mechanism for pump price discovery under the new era, labour sought to take the initiative.
Nigeria Labour Congress president Joe Ajaero wasted no time in calling out his members to protest the removal of petrol subsidy which shot up the official pump price from N198 per litire to N488/l in Lagos and higher in cities across the country.
A counter offensive from the new government began with a well written legal paper which provided any government with the ammunition for a court action to stop the planned strike. The paper had given solid grounds to see the position of NLC as illegal following a well-reasoned judgement by the Supreme court following a case instituted in 2002. Essentially, in that case brought against the electricity workers which sought to stop the privatization of state assets, the Supreme court justices ruled on May 24, 2010 that the “right of the members of a trade union to assemble together and act as a trade union is not absolute and must be exercised within the ambit of Section 45, 1999 constitution which states that none of the fundamental rights guaranteed under the constitution shall invalidate “any law that is reasonably justifiable in a democratic society in the interest of defence, public safety, order, public morality or public health.”
In the counsel to government, it was said that the removal of subsidy on petrol is a matter of government policy, and it does not in any way concern the basis for the existence of a trade union in Nigeria, therefore the NLC cannot be at the forefront of discussions by the government as to how to manage the implementation of subsidy removal. The conclusion was that the only credible parties to the discussion should be the tiers of government and especially the state governors who constitute the national economic council.
There were also political machineries set up to challenge the call for strike. Governors and political leaders and friends and allies of Tinubu moved quickly to douse the fire in their own states, and it soon became clear that even if the strike action had commenced it was going to be a near-total failure in the north. The opposition parties could not find their voice for some of their governors had been in the room last year when a collective decision was made under the auspices of the NEC to define petrol subsidy as being harmful and unsustainable and proposed ways for removing it and dealing with the consequences of its removal.
The case for labour was not helped by a strong social media opposition in which it was said that the “NLC leaders appear quite complicit. Afterall, it’s their truck drivers that ferry our subsidized petrol across the borders for sale. It is their members that work in Refineries that don’t refine any petrol products, but still get paid salaries. It their members that put pressure on Yaradua to reverse sale of refineries to Dangote and Otedola and government has spent N11.3trn on the refineries without refining a single litre of oil. It is the same NLC that didn’t act when Kerosene (used by the masses) was deregulated. DThe NLC and leaders failed to act when SME businesses were wiped out during Naira redesign policy.”
The NLC was accused of being selective having really missed the plot by pursuing vested interests..”
By Monday morning, senior aides of the president went into further talks and the result of that was apparent. Labour had become splintered with TUC seeking amelioration of the impact of subsidy removal instead of opposing the removal itself.
The court injunction obtained later in the day became merely the icing on the cake. The strike had failed and Ajaero himself could now become wounded too. According to one lawyer, “Joe Ajaero has been roundly defeated t seems to me. The resolutions agreed with labour and representatives of the government including the Chief of Staff and former Speaker Femi Gbajabiamila are all items already on the table, as proposed by other less aggressive and more thoughtful stakeholders. Looks to me like this document is merely to save the face of NLC and gives them room to declare victory. But Ajaero has been defused.”
The real victory lap belongs to the Asiwaju who has once again shown his uncanny ability for dexterity when boxed into a corner.