By Professor ‘Toye Olorode
The Alliance on Surviving Covid-19 And Beyond (ASCAB), as a critical intervention of left-leaning progressive organisations, emerged as a response to the global Covid-19 pandemic in Nigeria. Conceiving radical political transformation as the condition for the survival of Nigerian people, pre-eminently, the under-privileged and oppressed majority, ASCAB conceptualised the roles of Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) and Trade Union Congress (TUC) in alternative political organising. This is why ASCAB recognises the critical roles of the NLC/TUC [and individual trade unions], in providing resources, influence and platforms for such [political] an initiative to be successful, and so, talks will be needed with their National Leaderships, at an early stage. The foregoing was the background of the build-up in ASCAB, and the basis for the perspectives on TUC and NLC, which at least apparently, TUC shared fully, up till the eve of September 28, 2020.
The Federal Government of Nigeria’s Petroleum Products Pricing Regulatory Authority announced the increase in pump price of petrol September 1, 2020, while the FGN announced that it could no longer sustain continued subsidy of petrol. Just before then, electricity distribution companies (DISCOS), had increased tariff on electricity by up to 100%! ASCAB and its Affiliates outrightly rejected these price increases. Relying on the history of government’s subterfuge, fraud, and lies, on the question of what are termed subsidy and deregulation, and being aware that the Nigerian state has never been independent of the agencies of international finance capital and exploitation (IMF, the World Bank, WTO and AfDB), ASCAB knew that mass resistance to the price increases was inevitable. Being conversant also with, and having exposed, robustly, the arguments for subsidy withdrawal, and the inefficacy of past strategies of ameliorating the consequences (which they refer to as, cushion or palliatives) of fuel price increases in particular. Immediately after government’s announcement of fuel price increase, ASCAB started to mobilize Nigerians against the price increases.
Both NLC and TUC leaderships are fully familiar with all the arguments of the ruling class governments in the last four decades, on the question of subsidies and what they termed deregulation. Both NLC and TUC leaderships also are fully aware of the arguments of Nigerian working class people, who are the victims of governments’ oppressive policies. The arguments against increases in pump price of fuel were restated in September 2020, under the auspices of the Nigeria Labour Congress! The arguments were presented from a research work by Dr. Izielen Agbon (a specialist of long and reputable standing) as a lead paper, at the Nigeria Labour Congress Round Table on, Deregulation of the Oil and Gas Downstream Petroleum Sub-Sector, on September 16, 2020 – nine days before the NLC/TUC negotiations with General Buhari’s Administration. In the very first paragraph of the 13-page paper, Dr. Agbon observed, among other things:
They argue that the fuel price hike is beneficial to the Nigerian masses and the Nigerian economy. They insist that lower fuel prices encourage smuggling of petroleum products into neighbouring West African nations. They point out that fuel prices have been increased in other nations. They deny that they are pursuing an IMF policy of subsidy removal. They insist that the fuel subsidy bill is unsustainable. All the arguments of the Federal government are false. They only present limited information that fit their narrative. We will present all the facts about the fuel price hike and show that it is an IMF inspired policy that increases the poverty of the Nigerian masses and under-develops the Nigerian economy. Until the weekend of 12th September 2020, the TUC, as a critical affiliate of ASCAB, was unequivocal that mass action and strikes were inevitable. While some affiliates of ASCAB were proposing that mass action, with or without the two Labour centres, should begin on Monday, September 14, 2020, the TUC issued a 7-day ultimatum to the FGN which was to expire on September 23, 2020. As a result, other Affiliates of ASCAB were persuaded to tarry for TUC’s ultimatum to mature.
Meanwhile, although the NLC was making public declarations on the N30,000 Minimum Wage, and expressing opposition to the increases in electricity tariff and pump price of petrol, NLC’s 7-day ultimatum did not materialise, until TUC’s own ultimatum expired on September 23, 2020! The TUC decided to harmonise the beginning of its proposed strike with that of the NLC. The D-Day was thus shifted by one full week to September 28, 2020, and again, ASCAB re-aligned its programme with those of TUC and NLC leaderships!
The FGN however, rigged up negotiations with the two Labour Centers, on the eve of the September 28, 2020 D-Day for the National Day of Action. The nation woke up the following morning, to the announcement that NLC and the TUC had agreed with the FGN to suspend the planned strike action, as the FGN had agreed to take certain actions on electricity tariff, and advance certain palliatives, to cushion the effects of the increase in pump price of petrol (including 135 buses to be given to the Labour Centres as a sweetener for their leaders). The development, to put it mildly, disappointed a significant segment of the Nigerian Labour Movement and their allies.
The cancellation of the planned general strike in the early hours of 28th September by the leaderships of the NLC and TUC was a major setback for the working class and the popular masses of Nigeria. The recent further increase in the price of fuel again demonstrates the futility of their agreement with the Government. Again, mass action or no mass action, ruling class policies, being anti-people and therefore violent, creates anger among the victims of the policies. The ruling classes then uses the consequences of public anger as an excuse for intimidation and repression. Had NLC and TUC taken their responsibility seriously by leading mass resistance, the #EndSARS movement would have achieved much more. It would have spared the ongoing state harassment; the current attempt by government to treat organised labour as cyphers could have been impossible; and the sheer strength of the masses led the labour movement would have minimized the havoc of government-sponsored thugs!
The leadership of the NLC and TUC now have the chance to start to redeem themselves for their actions of 28 September. This would need mobilizing to resist the recent fuel price increases and providing active solidarity with the ASUU strike. This would strengthen the trade union movement and help to start the re-building of public education across the country. The rank and file of the trade union movement also needs to be encouraged to make their views known to the leadership of the trade unions. There are union procedures on calling for branch meetings and congresses. These need to be held across the movement with communiqués issued to make clear to the leaderships of the individual trade unions and the trade union centers the views of their teeming memberships