QUITE shockingly to many, but unsurprisingly to some Nigerians who have always viewed the current leadership Organised Labour with suspicion, the planned nationwide strike over petrol subsidy removal and electricity tariff hike was suspended a few hours after it was supposed to have taken off on Monday, September 28, 2020.
The Federal Government and the Nigeria Labour Congress, NLC/the Trade Unions Congress, TUC, which had been locked in a prolonged negotiation process, met each other halfway.
While the petrol subsidy removal was conceded, both sides agreed on a two-week suspension of the over 100 per cent electricity tariff hike to enable a joint panel of the FG and Labour to examine the justification for tariff increase and advise government.
The implication is that a market-based petrol pricing regime has come to stay. But the matter with electricity price hike remains uncertain. What can Labour’s representatives on the panel really do to protect workers and the masses after two weeks of cozying up with government officials behind closed doors?
What about Labour’s argument that price hikes at this tender juncture of economic reopening in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic is unbearable for the workers and masses? What about their demand that Nigerians must be metered before any power tariff increase to eliminate the highly corrupt and exploitative estimated billing?
Labour gave in too easily and came out with almost nothing. We had expected Labour to extract far more from the Federal Government. The shoddy manner it gave away this negotiation, particularly on the power tariff item, will make it difficult for it to call out people if after two weeks the Federal Government rams through the power tariff as it has done with subsidy removal.
We have always supported subsidy removal. We have always expressed our dismay at the Buhari government’s less-than-straightforward attitude to it right from the days the movement that produced government was in the opposition. Their politicisation of this policy has cost Nigeria over N10trn in wasteful subsidies.
We consider Labour’s final concession pragmatic, though it comes at a wrong time when the masses are most economically-vulnerable. Government can simply no longer afford to waste scarce funds on subsidies.
We are certain that Nigerians can take the subsidy withdrawal in their stride, provided petroleum products remain available and affordable. Fuel scarcity is a nightmare, and if the withdrawal of subsidy can prevent it, then so be it.
The Federal Government must push harder at implementing consequential policies to make the subsidy removal easier to bear. The refinery licensees should be encouraged to set up shop, while the promised conversion of petrol engines to gas must commence immediately. Government refineries must be scrapped or sold as we await the opening of Dangote Refineries.