By Omoh Gabriel
The Federal Government took Nigerians by surprise on New Year’s Day, when it announced the formal removal of fuel subsidy with immediate effect. The pronouncement has set in motion the plans by government to commence deregulation of downstream sector of the petroleum industry, which may shoot up the price of fuel to as high as N141 per litre from the previous price of N65 per litre. The pronouncement has pitched the Federal Government against organised labour, which in its usual characteristics, has threatened to shut down the nation starting Monday, the 9th of January.
It has asked all its affiliate members to paralyse all economic and social activities in the nation through strike and demonstration across the country on that day.
Labour leaders are viewing the action of government as a stab in the back as the dialogue on the issue of subsidy was on-going. They called on President Goodluck Jonathan to rescind the policy pronouncement or risk mass revolt by Nigerians.
Reacting to the removal of fuel subsidy, President-General of Trade Union Congress (TUC), Comrade Peter Esele, described the action of the government as illegal and un-democratic, stressing that government was driving defenceless masses to a corner where they would have no choice but to strike back for survival.
He explained that the action of government is a total declaration of war on the “poor masses, who are being punished by an inefficient system that is anchored on few corrupt oil thieves who are major sponsors and backers of government.”
The Congress president maintained that the statement emanating from the Petroleum Products Pricing Regulatory Agency (PPPRA), to the effect that they had removed the fuel subsidy, did not follow the due process or the rule of law, stating that no meeting of the Board was convened before the pronouncement by the PPPRA spokesman was made.
According to him, NLC, TUC, PENGASSAN and NUPENG are represented on the board of PPPRA and no decision was taken by the board to remove subsidy before the formal pronouncement by the regulatory agency’s spokesman.
The issue before the nation is not who is right but what can be done to salvage the economy. It is a shame that the government and Nigerians have come to depend on oil so much as if all our lives depended on it. The 2012 budget show clearly that this economy is in danger. It just cannot be business as usual. A budget of N4.7 trillion, has an estimated income of N3.6 trillion. The rest has to be borrowed. Domestic debt is already in the region of N5 trillion.
Calling out workers on nationwide strike will only worsen an already bad situation. Strikes in Nigeria are known to be disruptive and most times violent with some loss of lives. Instead of taking to the streets, labour should continue on the path of dialogue. There are issues that labour has not considered. If the President says Nigerians should make sacrifice, let the government and its officials lead by example.
The President, ministers and civil servants who use free fuel should do so only when on official duty. Government functionary should park all official cars after close of government business each day. Those who must go out outside official hours must pay for the fuel they use.
They must use their personal cars just as every other Nigerian and use part of their salary to pay for the fuel they use. It is appalling that top officials of agencies of government use free fuel. If labour holds government on this, it will be helping the nation.
It is common knowledge that wives, children and close relatives of government functionaries in Nigeria use government vehicles that are fuelled with public funds. This must end and labour should hold government to a commitment on this.
Secondly, labour leaders should insist on being on the driver’s seat of the committee being set up by the Federal Government to implement the proceeds from the subsidy removal. By being on the board, if labour leaders are sincere in fighting for the welfare of workers and the masses, they will see to it that all the projects outlined in the Federal Government document are faithfully implemented. Where the government through the committee wants to divert the resources, it can now raise alarm and call for mass action.
The blame game going on now will not help matters. The issue of subsidy has been with us for long, every year, it throws up issues and causes disruption in our lives. Some have claimed this subsidy has not generated any meaningful employment for the ever rising unemployment in the country.
If deregulating the oil sector will lead to new investments and job creation, let us give it a try. If deregulation will help to remove some level of corruption in the downstream sector of the oil industry, let us give it a try. Let us all remember that life is one thing we cannot give but can easily take.
I say no to strike, yes to dialogue.
Agreed that over the years, increasing the prices of petroleum products has become a cheap way of making money for government at all levels but labour leaders should know that from past experience they cannot sustain a long strike as many of those who engage in the strike are daily paid self-employed who after few days, will want to go back and make a living and fend for their families.