ALTHOUGH Comrade Emmanuel Ugboaja, General Secretary of the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC), on Friday, October 2, 2020 told National Record in his office that he does not talk to the press when he was approached to speak on the suspension of the September 28, 2020 general strike and the agreement organised labour reached with government, as well as the non-implementation of the N30,000 national minimum wage by NLC for its employees after over one and half years; he however spoke to Arise Television in its programme, The Morning Show, anchored by Ruben Abati on Tuesday, October 6, 2020.
Comrade Ugboaja, in the 21 minutes, 10 seconds interview, originally captioned; “Labour cannot fight government just to satisfy bitter and immoral elements” – Emma Ugboaja”, fielded questions strictly on issues surrounding the suspension of the strike and the agreement between organised labour and the federal government. Below is the full interview as monitored and transcribed by National Record. Watch the interview here.
Arise Television: Good morning Mr Ugboaja, thank you for joining us. Very quickly, the subject that is of interest to every Nigerian, the hike in electricity tariff and then the deregulation of the downstream sector [of the petroleum industry] and the role that has been played by organized labour in the negotiations with the federal government of Nigeria after the last meeting that you had; we were told that a committee had been set up to look at some of those issues for two weeks. Where are we with the negotiations with the government? Any hope that those who are saying there should be a reversal of the increase in electricity tariff and also on the pump price of fuel; any hope that they will have that reversal?
Comrade Ugboaja: Well, clearly, like you pointed out, discussions are ongoing with government. Certain levels of understanding have been reached and clearly it’s work in progress; like we say in labour parlance, the struggle continues.
But it is very important we place on record what the Nigeria Labour Congress is [as] against what it is not. The Nigeria Labour Congress is the Labour Centre, an umbrella body for trade unions in Nigeria. The Nigeria Labour Congress is not a political party; the Nigeria Labour Congress is not a revolutionary movement; the Nigeria Labour Congress is a labour centre interested in the welfare and wellbeing of workers and consequently their families.
Two issues came up as a pressure point on the Nigerian working family; the issue of the hike in electricity tariff and the issue of the increase in the pump price of petroleum. For thirty years, whenever pump price of petroleum products is increased, it is termed deregulation and for key players in the industry and for labour that has followed this process, we know that that is far from the definition of deregulation.
There is nothing that says that any other Nigerian outside the trade union movement that feels pressurised would not raise a voice, there is nothing. Labour called off its strike; labour did not call off any pain that Nigerians are feeling. Labour did not tell any Nigerian not to complain if they are feeling hurt. But labour felt that as a product of social dialogue positioning; as a key player in the social contract scenario in the country; with the President of the Nigeria Labour Congress being the President of the International Trade Union Congress [sic]; social dialogue was high on our agenda and it wasn’t the first time labour was going into dialogue with government. So if we had gone into dialogue in our own estimation and our own appreciation on the negotiating table that we felt we have gotten some reprieve for our members and our members did accept that, that was good enough for us.
What normally comes up is a hike, an increase in the pump price of petroleum, which is couched in whatever term the government in power wants to couch it but basically what happens is a hike in price, and over the years we have engaged it, we have massive literature, we have massive positions that we have canvassed over the years unadulterated; and the position is still clear. The driving force for us is with regard to how to take care of the wellbeing of our members.
These particular increases hurt us much because we are just arising from a minimum wage review which we then saw suddenly being eroded by these twin attacks on the ability of the worker to get something that can take him home.
So on where we are; the committee with regards to the power has set off working. We hope in the next couple of days to get a formal report from them and what necessitated this was a clear understanding on all sides, even the ordinary person we earlier referred to, that what is going on in the power is completely not acceptable to anybody; it is a fraud that was hoisted on Nigerians with the imaginary privatisation under the Jonathan administration.
We were told the DISCOs were sold to world known entities that have technical capacity and have international financial muscle; none of these happened. Rather, these DISCOs were given to political associates and cronies and therefore the expected result of efficiency, the expected result of inflow of money never happened. Rather, we have witnessed continuous deterioration of the assets that these DISCOs inherited and the federal government, which ordinarily had sold out these DISCOs, was still funding them with over N1.5 trillion in the past five years and they felt they were not going to be able to sustain this anymore and sort to pass this to the regular Nigerian consumer. That was where we were at and we felt that was not the way to go.
The parties came to the table, we had discussions and it was clear to everybody that we needed to have a second look at what was going on. It was on the basis of this that the joint committee was set up; it was on the basis of this that we agreed that there should be a suspension of the tariff until the report of this committee to confirm whether what the DISCOs were putting out was real or whether we were still being given the wrong end of the stick.
So the committee is working and we expect them to turn in their report in the next couple of days.
Arise TV: While we await that report, what do you say to criticisms of your effort at negotiating or protesting, as the case may be, that you got the wrong end of the stick yourselves and did not understand that it is a service-related tariff and not a cost-related tariff; that you were protesting something that you did not take the time to understand; and also the National Labour Advisory Council, that has also been criticised as just some kind of placebo given to labour unions to make you feel as if you have accomplished something but in reality it has no practical effect; what do you say to that?
Comrade Ugboaja: Those are criticisms that are borne out of ignorance because when people bandy cost effective and non-cost effective tariff; the truth of the matter is that the power sector in Nigeria is rotten and that rottenness emanated from the past administration that did the wrong thing, that sold out our national patrimony to a couple of their friends who are unable to manage the power industry; it has nothing to do with the Nigeria Labour Congress; it has nothing to do with the understanding of the Nigeria Labour Congress.
We cried out that our members who were supposed to enjoy for a while the benefits of the minimum wage were about losing that through a phoney tariff regime that wasn’t making sense to anybody and if we misunderstood it, there won’t be a suspension, if we misunderstood it, there won’t be a joint committee.
So it is laughable for anybody to say that labour misunderstood it; it is laughable for anybody to say that labour went into it not knowing what to do. If we did that, then clearly the outcome would have been different but that there was an understanding that needs be some inquest, there needs be some inquiry, there needs be some investigation, some looking into what was transpiring; clearly cannot be a product from people who didn’t understand what they were saying.
Arise TV: I want to ask you a direct and honest question a lot of Nigerians would ask; what would you say you have gained for Nigerians in all of this fight? As some would say, what the government gave back to you was what we normally see, old news, old story, palliatives; they say they are going to give palliatives; if you look at the papers, at the end of the day, there is gross corruption about the palliative system; they will buy buses, they will do turnaround maintenance of refineries, begins and ends God knows when; and these two weeks window and some DISCOs, the back and forth. I mean, what would you honestly say that you have gained for Nigerians with this strike you said you were going to embark on but called off in the morning of that strike? What would you say you honestly gained for Nigerians?
Comrade Ugboaja: Like I have told you before, the NLC is not a political party; the NLC is not government; the NLC is made up of affiliates that are made up of members of trade unions. We have gained for the members of the trade unions; we have gained for the labour centre; we have gained for the working families that appreciate the interventions we have made.
We have not gained for the out-of-work politicians who saw NLC and the working people as cannon fodders to use to cause destabilisation from which they will benefit; we have not gained for people who wanted a mesmerising of the regime for them to get back to relevance.
But for our members we have gained. We have gained intervention that will see us get some reprieve with regards to housing; we have gained intervention that will see the taxing that is going on with regard to the minimum wage at the lowest level re-examined; we have gained an intervention that will see the re-fleeting of the labour mass transit and also the re-fleeting of the mass transit across the country, the participation of workers in the only business that the constitution and statute allow the worker to engage in, which is in agriculture. Those we have gained.
But we have not gained bloodshed in the streets for those who were looking for that. We have not gained alternative for regime change for those who wanted that; but for the regular Nigerian worker, we have gained for them.
Arise TV: Mr Ogbuaja, you started by saying that you have been able to reach some understanding with government and I would like to know whether this includes the ideological point about insensitive neoliberal economics that labour leaders often complain about; has labour now agreed with government that the deregulation of the downstream sector and the reign of market forces with regard to the pump price of fuel is something that is inevitable; is that part of the understanding that was reached?
Comrade Ugboaja: That is not the understanding; we didn’t have any understanding with regard to ideology. We have an understanding that there is the need, without ideology, with common sense for a product that is produced in Nigeria, to be refined in Nigeria. We saw that as top priority.
We didn’t need any ideological pushing to have that understanding. We didn’t need to have any ideological shift for people to appreciate that what is being called deregulation is not deregulation. That you are importing fuel and hiking the prices based on some inputs that definitely we have to exit if you are importing fuel from outside does not amount to ideological shift.
So with regard to ideology, that had nothing to do with it; there was no ideology at play; what we had at play was common sense; the need to have refineries in Nigeria working; both public and private; that was what was at play.
Arise TV: To what extent would you say that we are closer to that outcome, because the whole idea behind your threatened strike was the recognition of the economic pressure the average Nigerian is under?
Comrade Ugboaja: Not only the average Nigerian, the worker!
There is nothing that says that any other Nigerian outside the trade union movement that feels pressurised would not raise a voice, there is nothing. Labour called off its strike; labour did not call off any pain that Nigerians are feeling. Labour did not tell any Nigerian not to complain if they are feeling hurt.
But labour felt that as a product of social dialogue positioning; as a key player in the social contract scenario in the country; with the President of the Nigeria Labour Congress being the President of the International Trade Union Congress [sic]; social dialogue was high on our agenda and it wasn’t the first time labour was going into dialogue with government. So if we had gone into dialogue in our own estimation and our own appreciation on the negotiating table that we felt we have gotten some reprieve for our members and our members did accept that, that was good enough for us.
Arise TV: Was the reprieve you claim now to have gotten for your members; was it really for your members or for the top echelon of labour? Because a lot of people said, oh, you have been given juicy positions; labour will have representation in the NERC, for instance on the board [of NERC]; because with all of this you have said, I don’t see anything; not that the pump price has come down; not that the electricity tariff would be reversed to the last tariff; it was just for a two-week window; and then palliatives, doing the turnaround maintenance on the refineries, not that that will solve all the problems of importation in this country as regards that. I mean, I don’t get it; a lot of people say the reprieve is just for the top echelon of labour that went for the negotiation and they are good. What do you say to those sentiments?
Comrade Ugboaja: Those are the sentiments of the depraved minds that would have preferred blood to flow for them to feel that there is reprieve for everybody. The truth of the matter is that the top echelon that went to the negotiation are not the ones that are going to be boarding the mass transit buses. The top echelon that went to the negotiation are not the ones that are going to have the tax relief. The top echelon that went to the negotiation are not the ones that are going to be accessing the housing. Less than 14 people went for that negotiation; we are going to get not less than 420 thousand workers accessing agric loans; those cannot be top echelon.
So it’s the burden of the Nigerian elite that prefers to hide and push out imaginary folks. We didn’t set out to solve the problems of Nigeria. It will be wishful thinking and unfair intellectual laziness for people who appreciate what the trade unions are to imagine that the trade unions will solve all Nigerian problems from one meeting at the negotiating table.
It is thoroughly unfair to push Nigerians through this type of reasoning, because it is the same reasoning that made a columnist or a reviewer in one of your sister stations, not yours, to say, hey, why was that meeting taken to the Banquet Hall of the State House, that it means they went there to eat. It is such very cynical way of pushing things that has hurt the Nigerian people and not labour. It is the elite who sulk and get pained when they are out of power that try to push those kind of narrative.
The truth of the matter is that labour is about democracy, it is about representation and we will continue to do what is right and for the working people.
Arise TV: Well, Mr Ugboaja, what is the minimum that the public should expect as the outcome of the ongoing negotiations? For example, labour is insisting that the refineries be fixed; now certainly those refineries cannot be fixed between now and until the end of the year and what that means is that, well, perhaps, we will still continue to rely on market forces. Even if you want something done about electricity tariffs, we have had the suspension for two weeks; what is the minimum that the average worker should expect in terms of outcome?
Comrade Ugboaja: On the tariff, you have seen it clearly, the suspension has taken place. The product that will come out from the joint committee will determine the way forward but we know that definitely that will lead to a reduction or a complete abandonment of the tariff hike because the facts are stacking clearly against the process the DISCOs undertook.
With regards to fuel, we are determined to have refineries work in Nigeria, whether from the public sector or from the private sector. Ultimately, that will enhance development; that will bring employment; that will bring the different products that come from crude oil that we are losing out and it’s not helping our development. That in the long run will be our benefits.
Arise TV: You’ve made a couple of references to bloodshed; I find that quite alarming. Would you like to expand on that? Is there a threat of bloodshed? This is supposed to be a democracy and where do we find the happy medium between capitulation and bloodshed so that your aims can be, you know, advanced to work for the working class of Nigeria?
Comrade Ugboaja: For the workers, we don’t carry arms. But in the course of the negotiations, information was put through that there were people who were waiting to take advantage of massing of workers in the streets. Of course for us, it is not about massing of workers in the streets; ultimately, it is about dialogue. We have the high position of been able to sustain dialogue. There was nobody on the negotiating team of government that has seen the process much more or had much more experience than most of the labour leaders involved.
We had on labour negotiating team general secretaries of the electricity unions that have traversed more than three administrations. We had people from NUPENG and PENGASSAN that have traversed more than three administrations; and we just had, with due respect to the word rookies, that were on [government side]; so clearly, the issues were straight; we weren’t going to demonstrate on the streets; we were going to compel government to come to the negotiating table.
Arise TV: Well, on that note, thank you very much Mr Emma Ugboaja, General Secretary of the Nigeria Labour Congress; thank you very much indeed!