The Nigeria Labour Congress has kicked against a court order secured by the Federal Government restraining the union and the Trade Union Congress from embarking on a planned nationwide strike over the removal of fuel subsidy.
The NLC President, Joe Ajaero, in an interview with one of our correspondents, said the strike would go on Wednesday as planned, noting that the labour centre was not aware of the court order stopping the industrial action.
Justice O. Y. Anuwe of the National Industrial Court handed down the order against the NLC and TUC 48 hours before the commencement of the industrial action as the Inspector-General of Police, Usman Baba met with police managers in Abuja where he ordered them to carry out effective deployments to prevent hoodlums from hijacking the protests.
Speaking to The PUNCH while taking a break during a meeting with government officials at the Presidential Villa on Monday, Ajaero said, “The industrial court order came late after the close of business today. So the NLC is not aware of it and it is not even mentioned in the meeting. By tomorrow (today), they won’t find anybody at the NLC office to serve it to because, by then, we will all be on the field mobilising for the strike.”
The NLC had told The PUNCH earlier on Monday that the strike action would be for an indefinite period.
Responding to a question on the duration of the strike, the National Treasurer of NLC, Akeem Hambali simply said, ‘’It is indefinite for now.”
Asked whether there was a plan to shelve the action, he said, “Strike will commence on Wednesday except otherwise directed by the National Executive Council.”
But in a last-ditch move to avert the strike, the government again called for a meeting with the NLC leaders at the Presidential Villa. The meeting was still ongoing as of the time of filing this report.
The government representatives had on Wednesday last week met both the NLC and Trade Union Congress leaders, but the meeting ended in a deadlock.
The NLC was however absent from the meeting the government held with the labour leaders on Sunday.
But the FG on Monday obtained a court order stopping the strike. In the suit filed by the FG, the court held that the industrial action, “if not circumvented’’ is capable of disrupting economic activities and essential sectors from carrying out vital functions.
Justice Anuwe specifically barred the NLC and the TUC from “embarking on the planned industrial action/or strike of any nature, pending the determination of the motion on notice dated 5th June 2023.”
It equally ordered that the two labour centres listed as defendants/respondents in the matter should be “immediately served with the originating processes in the suit, the motion on notice, as well as the interim order.
The FG had in the suit marked: NICN/ABJ/158/2023, which it filed through the Federal Ministry of Justice, applied for an order of interim injunction restraining the two unions, their members, agents, employees, workmen, servants, proxies or affiliates from embarking on the planned industrial action which was to commence on Wednesday.
Lawyer to the FG and Director, Civil Litigation, Ministry of Justice, Mrs Maimuna Shiru, maintained that the proposed strike action was capable of disrupting economic activities, and the health and educational sectors.
The government tendered exhibits FGN 1, 2, and 3, which were notices from the NLC, TUC, and the Nigerian Union of Journalists to their members, asking them to withdraw their services with effect from Wednesday, June 7.
The court held that it was empowered and clothed by section 7(b) of the NIC Act, 2006, with the exclusive jurisdiction in matters relating to ‘the grant of any order to restrain any person or body from taking part in any strike, lockout or any industrial action or any conduct in contemplation or in furtherance of strike, lockout or industrial action.’’
It held that sections 16 and 19(a) of the NIC Act 2006, also empowered it to grant urgent interim reliefs.
The court held that the affidavit of urgency as well as the submission of the FG’s lawyer revealed “a scenario that may gravely affect the larger society and the well-being of the nation at large.”
Anuwe stated, “Counsel has pointed out that students of secondary schools nationwide, especially those writing WAEC exams nationwide, will be affected. The tertiary institutions that have only just resumed after a long ASUU strike will also be affected, not leaving the health sector, amongst other sectors, and above all, the economy of the nation. In my view, this is a situation of extreme urgency that will require the intervention of this court.”
He subsequently fixed June 19 for the hearing in the suit.
Aviation, bank workers
Meanwhile, aviation and bank workers’ unions have directed their members to join the strike which is expected to ground airport operations and banking activities at all financial institutions nationwide.
Aviation workers under the aegis of the National Union of Air Transport Employees, the Association of Nigeria Aviation Professionals, and the National Association of Aircraft Pilots and Engineers on Monday announced the planned withdrawal of services as directed by the NLC.
In a notice issued on June 5, the three unions said they would be joining their counterparts in other sectors to embark on a total withdrawal of service from 12 am Wednesday.
It directed all members of the unions to comply with the directive.
The notice signed by the General Secretary of NUATE, Ocheme Aba, the Secretary General of ANAP, Abdul Saidu, and the Deputy General Secretary of NAAPE, Umoh Ofonime, called on all branches, state councils, and zonal councils of the unions to mobilize their members in preparation for the strike.
The notice read, ”The National Executive Council of Nigerian Labour Congress met on Friday 2nd of June, 2023, and decided that Congress will embark on a nationwide mobilisation and withdrawal of services against the fraudulent increase in the pump price of petrol.
“Further to the NLC directive, all branches, state councils, and zonal councils of all the unions in the aviation industry are hereby directed to mobilize all their members in preparation for a total withdrawal of service from 12 am of Wednesday 7th June 2023.
“All the leadership of the unions mentioned above is to ensure strict compliance with the directives as services in the public and private sectors are to be withdrawn. Please ensure strict compliance.”
However, the President of the Air Transport Services Senior Staff Association of Nigeria, Ilitrus Ahmad, disclosed that his union would not withdraw its services as they are not an affiliate of the NLC.
In solidarity with the NLC, the National Union of Banks, Insurance and Financial Institution Employees, has disclosed that they would participate in the strike.
According to a statement signed by NUBIFIE General Secretary, Mohammed Sheikh, on Monday, the decision was in line with the resolution reached after the emergency meeting of the NLC last Friday.
“In this regard, we hereby direct all our zonal councils, domestic committee, and other organs of the union to ensure total compliance with the congress directive,” the statement said.
However, the President of the Association of Senior Staff of Banks, Insurance and Financial Institutions, Mr Oluwole Olusoji, said ASSBIFI was waiting for directives from the TUC to determine its next move.
Meanwhile, the TUC through its General Secretary, Nuhu Toro, disclosed that it would again hold a meeting with the government team on Tuesday evening in furtherance of the discussions on the impact of the fuel subsidy removal held at the Presidential Villa, Abuja, on Sunday.
During the meeting, the congress presented a charter of demands, including a demand for a review of the minimum wage to N200,000 and tax breaks for workers.
In response, the FG’s team promised to deliver the demands to President Bola Ahmed Tinubu for review.
In a move to prevent the planned strike and protests from being hijacked by hoodlums, the Inspector-General of Police, Usman Baba met with police managers in Abuja on Tuesday where he ordered them to carry out effective deployments to forestall any breakdown of law and order across the country.
Alkali-Baba said, “Regardless of the quantum of achievements recorded within the period under review and the successful democratic transitioning that happened on the 29th of May, 2023, there still remains prevailing and projected threats across the country, including the aftermath of the fuel subsidy removal with the emerging threat of industrial strike action.
“Consequently, we shall not rest on our oars. Rather, we must redouble our efforts to maintain the needed peace and stability of our democracy. This is critically important as we also prepare for the nation’s Democracy Day on June 12.
“In so doing, I charge you all to remain focused while monitoring the election tribunals and the proposed industrial actions across the country. You must develop proactive crime management mechanisms to forestall any untoward acts from political and non-political actors.”
In compliance with the IG’s directive, many state commands have deployed police operatives across their jurisdictions to ensure public safety during the strike and protest.
The Police Public Relations Officer in Nasarawa State, DSP Ramhan Nansel, said the command had deployed its personnel in 13 local government areas of the state to forestall any breakdown of law and order during the protest.
“Measures have been put in place to that effect,” he added.
The Bayelsa State Police Command equally assured that it had put in place measures to prevent a breakdown of law and order.
The spokesman for the command, Asinim Butswat, stated, “We have deployed adequate policemen to ensure there is no breach of the peace.”
In a related development, petrol marketers and transporters on Monday distanced themselves from the industrial action declared by the NLC.
Marketers back Tinubu
Members of the Petroleum Products Retail Outlets Owners Association of Nigeria, National Association of Road Transport Owners and Major Oil Marketers Association of Nigeria, among others, also stressed that the over N13tn spent on subsidy by the Federal Government would have been deployed to develop other sectors of the economy.
They insisted that the government, through the Nigerian National Petroleum Company Limited, had run out of funds to sustain the fuel subsidy regime, highlighting the over N2.8tn subsidy debt that the federation currently owes the NNPCL.
The Group Chief Executive Officer of the NNPCL, Mele Kyari, recently said the Federal Government still owed the company N2.8tn that it had spent on petrol subsidy.
The oil marketers and transporters told one of our correspondents that the planned industrial action by the NLC would not address the situation, but would further worsen the hardship in the country.
They stated that if fuel subsidy continues, the country’s petrol subsidy spending is going to rise to about N20tn when the projected N6tn that is meant to be spent on subsidy in 2023 is added to the N13tn already consumed by the subsidy regime between 2005 and 2021.
Group supports FG
The President of the Petroleum Products Retail Outlets Owners Association of Nigeria, Billy Gillis-Harry, said those agitating for the continuation of subsidy must understand that the country had spent over N13tn in subsidising petrol, at the detriment of key sectors of the economy.
He said the labour congress should give room for dialogue, stressing that oil marketers would not shut their filling stations as the NLC embarks on its nationwide industrial action.
Gillis-Harry stated, “PETROAN’s position is that the NLC should be patient and exhaust all the possibilities of reasonable discussion. This is because, at the end of the day, Nigerians are the ones to suffer, as they are already suffering.
“Subsidy removal is a very difficult and hard decision, but it must be made and PETROAN supports that. Can you imagine spending N13tn on subsidies for about 16 years? Do you know what that amount of money would have accomplished for the country in terms of infrastructure, health, education, etc?’’
He said the discussion between the Federal Government and NLC should go ahead, adding that stakeholders in the downstream sector were also trying to get the government to sit down with oil marketers and come to an agreement on what to do.
Gillis-Harry said every player in the sector, including labour unions, “should be looking for solutions, not anybody threatening anybody. That is my take issue.”
Asked whether some oil marketers might be tempted to join in the strike, the PETROAN president replied in the negative, adding that such actions would further worsen the plights of Nigerians.
“So, as a responsible association of businessmen, we do not intend to join in the fray to cause more problems and hardship for Nigeria. We are not joining the strike. That’s our take,” the PETROAN president stated.
Also speaking on the issue, the President of the National Association of Road Transport Owners, Yusuf Othman, said NARTO endorsed the immediate halt in the payment of subsidy on petrol by President Tinubu during his inaugural address.
“For us, we support the full deregulation of the downstream oil sector, and of course, we expect that some palliative should be in place. But now that subsidy is gone, the palliative can be put in place.’’
He also urged Nigerians to exercise patience with the Federal Government as regards the removal of the subsidy, adding that the subsidy regime only benefitted and enriched very few persons.
“We expect that Nigerians should wait for what the government has on the table for us because sincerely speaking there are very few beneficiaries of the subsidy regime as against the majority of Nigerians,” Yusuf stated.
In the meantime, the Ogun, and Sokoto NLC chapters have backed the strike action just as the Kwara State government reduced work hours.
The chairman of the union in Ogun State, Hammed Ademola said they have mobilized the workers in the state ahead of the strike.
Also, his Sokoto State counterpart, Abdullahi Jungle, confirmed that workers in the state would be part of the strike action.
“We are definitely joining the strike as directed by the national leadership of the union and Sokoto State will not be an exception,” he added.
As part of moves to ease the burden of workers in the state as a result of the fuel subsidy removal, the Kwara State government on Monday approved a temporary palliative measure, including reducing work hours.
The State Head of Service, Mrs Susan Oluwole announced on Monday that Governor Abdulrahman Abdulrazaq has directed that the work days be reduced from five days to three days per week.
Oluwole in a statement signed by Murtala Atoyebi, Chief Press Secretary in the office of the head of Service directed all Heads of Ministries, Departments and Agencies in the state to immediately work out a format indicating the alternating work days for each worker under them.
The Head of Service however warned the workers not to abuse the magnanimity of the governor, stressing that the regular monitoring of MDAs by her office would be intensified to ensure strict compliance with the directive.
“Civil servants will now work for three days in Kwara State, as against the current five days. Civil service authorities are expected to release further guidance on the measure, including how it affects health workers and teachers,’’ the statement said.
The governor also met with labour leaders in the state where he appealed to shelve the strike, noting that the removal of the fuel subsidy was done in good faith to curb further damage to the economy.