Now That NLC Strike Is OverArticles/Opinion, Featured Contributors/Columnists, Latest News Monday, May 23rd, 2016
By Adewale Kupoluyi
BALTIMORE, MD (AFRICAN EXAMINER) – At last, the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) has suspended its nationwide industrial action over the increase in the pump price of petrol, as announced by the Federal Government, a few days ago. After an emergency meeting of its National Executive Council, Comrade Ayuba Wabba and Dr. Peter Ozo-Eson, the President General and Secretary, respectively stated that the body “will resume negotiations with government on the twin issues of the hike in electricity tariff and an increase in the pump price of petroleum products and any other issue that may arise thereof”.
Over the years, the management of the nation’s oil industry has been mirred in one controversy or another. The resultant effect of such lack of transparency, openness and complexity is the untold hardship that is being encountered. It has always been a case of perennial fuel scarcity in which the people are forced to sleep in petrol stations, commuters trekking long distances, transport fares hitting the skies while the prices of goods and services have skyrocketed. From the former official rate of N86.50/litre, a litre of Premium Motor Spirit sold for as much as N300/litre in the ‘black’ market as the commodity was not just unavailable for purchase.
This discrepancy has raised the question on the relevance of the Petroleum Equalisation Fund, which was meant to ensure uniform prices for petroleum products. Various reasons have been adduced for the fuel scarcity, chiefly among which is the difficulty experienced by oil marketers in procuring foreign exchange for the importation of petroleum products, making the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC), to assume the almighty role of sole importer of refined products. It is a paradox that the country, a leading crude oil producer, cannot adequately meet up with its local consumption considering that the fact that its four refineries – with a combination installed capacity of 445,000 and are producing only about 30 per cent below capacity – making the country to depend largely on the importation in the short-fall to adequately service its local consumption.
At the peak of such scarcity, many fuel station operators became celebrities and mini-gods while fuel hawkers were busy smiling to the banks. The roads were practically empty such that hold-ups and traffic congestion were hardly noticed in the major cities. For those who manage to either buy fuel at the rip-off prices or are lucky to get after sleeping in the filling stations for many nights, driving became more interesting as it was possible to get to one’s destination in good time without any stress. I was tempted to pray that such a situation should continue so that I won’t be late for appointments having to spend precious time on the roads!
Payment of subsidy claims on petrol has remained a source of controversy whenever the issue of oil is being discussed. The matter of subsidy has led previous governments to contradict themselves and is something they prefer not to talk about. Whichever way the argument turns into, what is clear is that many people are of the view that subsidy payment is nothing but a scam or a fraud. For this reason, many Nigerians believe that subsidy management is nothing but a deliberate mechanism put in place to enrich some people at the expense of the nation. It is for this reason that the removal of subsidy payment under the 2016 fiscal appropriation, was applauded.
Hence, with the dwindling of foreign earnings from crude oil sales, shortage dollars supply and the perceived mismanagement of subsidy payments, the removal of subsidy and increment in the pump price of PMS from N86.50/litre to N145/litre seems inevitable. The decision for the subsidy removal has merits on the following grounds: One, it would guaranty regular supply without experiencing long queues before buying fuel. Two, it would eliminate continued payment of public funds to faceless persons without any justification. Even though this line of thought may, perhaps, be the best option to take, the organised labour had felt that the new price regime should revert to N86.50/litre.
With due respect, labour should face reality by accepting that the previous regime is unsustainable. The government should, therefore, take drastic actions to deregulate, free and liberalise the oil sector towards active participation by the private sector and to also make more resources available for the government to carry out its duties. The removal of subsidy, though painful, is the right step to take in the overall interest of the nation and a reality that labour has to contend with. On the part of government, palliative measures should be put in place to douse the tension pervading the nation. To begin with, the government should show utmost transparency and accountability in the management of the proceeds from the subsidy removal.
As the substantive Petroleum Minister, President Muhammadu Buhari should tap from his wealth of experience, being the first Petroleum Minister in the late 1970s during the military regime of then General Olusegun Obasanjo, which saw to the establishment of the NNPC and also served as Chairman of the Petroleum (Special) Trust Fund; set up by the late General Sani Abacha, to manage proceeds from oil earnings. Hence, subsidy payments should be channeled into the provision of jobs, boost security, improve power supply and other critical. Nigerians should be more patient with the government to revamp the traumatised economy.
It is hoped that government would implement to the letter, the N350 billion meant for the commencement of capital projects; N500 billion economic palliative package to mitigate the effects and the schools’ feeding programme for 5.5 million students; loans to traders, artisans, market women and those involved in agriculture; stipends for the desperately poor and vulnerable; and payments for the training and deployment of unemployed graduates across the nation, among others. To ensure effective management of the resources, a special body, comprising trusted and experienced Nigerians, including representatives of the organised labour should be set up without further delay.
Secondly, the government should review upward, the minimum wage from the current N18,000, which is no longer relevant in the present scheme of things. The new minimum wage should not be less that N35,000. All the stakeholders should be involved such that decisions arrived at would be binding and enforceable by the federal and state governments. Thirdly, organised labour leaders should resolve their differences and come together while negotiating in the interest of the teeming Nigerian workers. The Trade Union Congress under Comrade Bobboi Kaigama as well as Comrades Joe Ajaero and Ayuba Wabba factions of the NLC should jointly present a common front while the government should also desist from using any form of divide-and-rule in resolving disputes that could be counter-productive.
Fourthly, the government should encourage more private participation in the oil industry. The existing refineries should be revamped. In doing this, the economy should be made more attractive to foreign investment. The Petroleum Industry Governance Bill (PIGB), which has been lying low in the National Assembly for many years, should be passed considering its laudable provisions that are aimed at bringing about a more robust oil industry. The bill should have served as a proper regulatory framework for the sector. Due to the non-passage of the bill, foreign companies have continued to exercise 100 per cent control over the crude oil export business, an ugly trend that detracts the country from its local content policy and more importantly, its sovereignty.
Finally, the era of government-labour relations that is likened to cat and dog should be discarded into the wastebin of history. Labour agitation is a legitimate weapon that is employed to engage the government and employers to be fair in their dealings with their employees. This should be respected while labour should also embark on responsible unionism. It is only hoped that ending the strike would really usher-in a dawn of new era for the nation.
Kupoluyi writes from Federal University of Agriculture, Abeokuta (FUNAAB), firstname.lastname@example.org,@AdewaleKupoluyi
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