By Funmi Komolafe
For almost a decade, the Nigeria Labour Congress and the federal government have been at logger heads over an issue; deregulation. Is it time for both to resolve their differences? Who pays the price? Is there a division within the labour movement as reported by some dailies? These are the issues that Labour Vanguard got the president of the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) Comrade Abdulwaheed Ibrahim Omar to speak on.
Ques:Now government has given a date to commence full deregulation of the downstream sector and this has come just as you concluded protests against deregulation. With this development, what is the position of NLC?
NLC president, Comrade Abdulwaheed Omar: â€œThe position of NLC has not changed as per the last National Executive Council meeting, we unanimously reiterated that we would continue to oppose deregulation in the prevailing circumstance.
Could you be more explicit, what do you mean in the prevailing circumstance?
Of course in the Nigerian context…. Infact someone said and I donâ€™t know whether it is correct or not and that has nothing to do with the position of NLC that given the necessary conducive atmosphere government could effect deregulation without people knowing but the problem in Nigeria is that it is the other way round. For example, the only thing they understand to be deregulation is just to increase fuel price to have more money accruing to government.
When a newspaper published the date for full blown deregulation; they said September and that the starting point of fuel price would be N94. You see this is what we have been telling Nigerians that all government is interested in is for them to increase oil price for them to have more money accruing to government not minding the suffering, the hardship it would bring.
During the last AGM of NECA, NECA made a plea to NLC that it was time to make a U-turn. NECA said thereâ€™s a lot to gain from deregulation and it is the view of NECA that government should convince NLC to accept deregulation. Are you saying that under any circumstance, NLC would not accept deregulation?
â€œIâ€™m not saying that whatever the case may be, NLC would not accept deregulation but it is up to the congress to look at it, make its own analysis, look at the pros and cons because it not just an issue of ideology but the issue of whether the welfare of workers or the Nigerian citizen would be catered for or not.
What exactly do you expect? What are your conditions?
No, no. As far as I know, NLC has not placed any condition to say well you cannot deregulate unless X,Y,Z but what Iâ€™m saying is that we are always open to discussion. It is not that we are saying if you do A,B,C then you can deregulate. Like I said, even where people are saying that the oil workers opted out of NLCâ€™s stand on this issue. That is not actually correct and it should not be taken that the oil workers and NLC are having divergent views about deregulation.
What I read from their communique, they were saying that deregulation could be an option provided that government is able to do a number of things. I think this is where NLC has been coming from. For example, our view is that the oil issue in Nigeria is so sensitive that government cannot just afford to fold its arms. Government has its own refineries.
All that is needed is for government to employ whatever possible means to ensure that these refineries are functioning and providing services to Nigerians and even beyond. Without government losing completely the ownership because we believe if government is in control, then there will be a lot of checks controlling the excesses of those who would want to profiteer so much because we believe if all these refineries are left to private people and private companies, there would still be the tendency of trying to subject Nigerians to difficulties by creating artificial scarcity but with the presence of government, I think this could be easily checked.
Government controlling or having its own refineries?
For more than four years now, licences have been issued to people who said they are coming to establish refineries, have you seen one single person establish a refinery, they are all waiting by the corner to take off when government wants to sell the existing refineries.
If tomorrow government says we are selling refineries, you will see one thousand and one applicants because they know the advantages therein. So, I think it is for government to think beyond what it is going to realise and think beyond may be the amount of money it is spending to now look at the welfare of the citizen and even the stability of the economy.
If you increase fuel price at the speculated price of N94.00, it is a jump of N29 at a go, the price of every other things will increase in Nigeria. Now is it good for our economy? There are certain things government takes for granted because people have been indoctrinated to believe that only deregulation can save Nigeria. I tell you, with government plans that it hands off from subsidy, it is going to save about N700 billion per annum.
If you do a simple calculation, N700 billion because we buy fuel at N65, so government is spending N700 billion out of its pocket. When you increase by about N29 a lot of things will have their prices doubled. Come to think of it, inflation will be so high that even the value of currency will depreciate.
Now, if we put all these together what government will loose in terms of revenue generation will almost be equal if not surpass the N700 billion they are talking about. That is the issue of the quantum. Now, consider the hardship citizens will have to bear because of this . . Now if somebody is struggling to make ends meet now that fuel price is N65 and it jumps to N94, that is a sharp drop in that personâ€™s income and it will make him more miserable.
Itâ€™s almost a decade that NLC has been in a tangle with government over deregulation, when exactly are we going to move forward?
Personally, my belief is that if government had done the right thing, for example, tackle corruption head on….
We cannot tackle corruption without certainly stepping on so many toes but those toes are worth being stepped on to secure the majority of Nigerians.
If government will tackle corruption and reduce it to the barest minimum, there will be a lot of money to do other things. Farida Waziri was telling us when she visited us that corruption… the level of stealing now in Nigeria, is no longer in hundreds or millions but billions. How can we continue to live like that. Assuming those billions are saved in government coffers, donâ€™t you think a lot of things could be done?
I think this government has decided to enslave itself to the principle of deregulation or they have some powers that are pushing them towards that with a great deal of force which they are not able to free themselves from. If really government is serious, then they should now reprioritise. Government should be able to tackle corruption to the barest minimum. Government came out to admit there is a cartel that undermines anything they do about this subsidy thing.
Is it when they deregulate that the cartel will cease to exist? In fact it will inflict more injury on Nigerians.
A simple analysis is this, we have abandoned our refineries. We are now importing almost 100%. If you hand over to all these people, at best youâ€™ll have four conglomerates that will be solely in charge of importing this commodity . If they now import, it is a very easy thing for them to gang up and then Nigerians will be at their mercy because even the supply of it is at their own mercy.
If they like, they can flood the market but at a point they can hoard, so that the demand will be higher. Of course you know when demand goes up, price will also go up. That is the case. If government is not able to take full charge of the present situation, what do you think will happen when government decides to hand over to these people, saying okay do as you like, Nigeria is your market, import the commodity and sell it the way you like, we have no hand in it. I think it is going to be catastrophic for Nigeriaâ€.