By Funmi Komolafe, Victor Ahiuma-Young & Daniel Idonor
LAGOSâ€”AFTER about 11 years of disagreement over the deregulation of the downstream sector of the petroleum industry, labour and the Federal Government are set to close ranks as they agreed to set up a committee to work out modalities for implementation of the planned full deregulation of the downstream sector of the petroleum industry, with a special focus on measures to cushion its effects on Nigerians.
The committee is to be chaired by finance minister, Alhaji Mansur Muhtar.Â No date has been fixed for the inaugural meeting of the committee.
The decision to set up the committee, was sequel to a meeting of the National Economic Management Team, chaired by Acting President, Goodluck Jonathan and attended by representatives of organised labour led by leaders of the two centres, Nigeria Labour Congress, NLC, and its Trade Union Congress of Nigeria, TUC.
Leaders of the National Union of Petroleum and Natural Gas Workers, NUPENG, and its Petroleum and Natural Gas Senior Staff Association of Nigeria, PENGASSAN, were also in attendance.
However, NLC general secretary, Comrade John Odah said, the national executive council of the NLC are expected to meet in Abuja on Thursday to discuss the issue.
Speaking to journalists on the meeting, NLC President, Comrade Abdulwaheed Omar said labour â€œthinks the position of the Acting President is very positive that we believe is ready to move this country forward.â€
Minister of Finance, Dr Mansur Muhtar said of theÂ meeting: â€œthe point about labour is that they have accepted in principle but they see that as something that must be done in stages and these are some of the issues we will continue to engage with them on to ensure that there is a broad consensus and at least we narrow our differences and in that regards.â€
Appeal for understanding
Sources familiar with the meeting said Acting President Jonathan told the union leaders that the government was running the country at a cost that had become unbearable as a result of subsidy on petrol.
Vanguard learnt that he, however, admitted that there could be short term social problems as a result of the deregulation of the down stream sector and, therefore, appealed to labour for understanding and cooperation with a promise to cooperate with labour to cushion the effects.
Jonathan also made it clear to the union leaders that yesterdayâ€™s meeting was not a negotiating meeting but a meeting of minds. It was learnt that organized labour representatives told theÂ government team that it was not opposed to reforms, especially deregulation of the sector if that would bring better service delivery to Nigerians, but posited that there were pre-conditions to be met.
Speaking to Vanguard after the meeting, President of PENGASSAN, Comrade Babatunde Ogun, said government told the labour delegations that if deregulation was not implemented now, the government would be in a serious crisis.
He said labour told government that it â€œis not as if labour is opposed to deregulation as a policy, but that there are conditions to be met to ensure that it is done properly and with a minimum impact on Nigerians.
After deliberation, we agreed to set up a small committee to be headed by the Finance Minister to work out the short term and long modalities for deregulation. It will focus among other things, the cushioning effects on Nigerians.â€
It was also learnt that the president of the Trade Union Congress, Comrade Peter Esele told the acting president that he had no confidence in the template being used by the Petroleum Product Pricing Regulatory Agency.
He also advised government to overhaul the Atlas Cove Jetty in Lagos so that vessels can evacuate their products in within a short time.
Over the years, labour had insisted that the local refineries be made to work and that government should shift from total dependence on importation of petrol.
Finance Minister, Muhtar said, â€œThey (labour) said they are not actually deriving any benefit but it is also illegal because it is not also backed by any legislation in relation to appropriation so there are new issues that have surfaced which we have to contend with as we continue our dialogue with labour.â€