IN this interview with Channels Television’s popular programme, “Politics Today” anchored by Seun Okinbaloye a couple of days after the suspension of the September 28, 2020 general strike and protests called by Nigeria’s two labour centres; Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) and Trade Union Congress (TUC) following the hike in the price of petrol and electricity tariff, Comrade Ayuba Wabba, NLC President, fielded questions on a number of issues leading to the suspension of the strike, the allegation by some Nigerians that labour sold out, the implementation of the agreement reached, among other things . Excerpt!
Channels Television: Yesterday on this show, the Minister of Labour and Employment, Senator Chris Ngige told us about the plan by the federal government on cushioning the effect of the hike in the price of fuel and also tariff of electricity in the country. Tonight, we have the President of the Nigeria Labour Congress who led the labour delegation for the negotiation with the federal government. Comrade Ayuba Wabba joins us from our Abuja studio. Many thanks for joining us Comrade.
Tonight on the programme and perhaps, some of the issues that were raised by the Minister of Labour yesterday; I think it’s good for Nigerians also, when they have heard from the Minister, it’s good to hear from the leader of labour on what happened because some of the details of what happened at that meeting have not been told by your side nor by the federal government, but we heard from the federal government yesterday.
Let’s begin by getting your reaction. You must have seen the backlash of the outcome of your meeting with the federal government on Sunday/Monday morning, because the meeting ended about 3am for what averted a national shutdown from the strike planned by labour. How do you react to those that said labour sold out?
Comrade Ayuba Wabba: Well, thank you very much Seun, and thank you for the opportunity for appearing on this platform.
Let me start by saying that trade unions or labour organisations such as NLC is membership-based; which means we have very clear objectives to protect and defend the interest of our members but also we must conform to our very rich tradition of also taking on board the concern of many Nigerians.
You know, it is normal for people that actually buy people to say that you sold out but I think the issues are very clear and obvious, and I think by the time we had shared those details with our CWC; they commended the effort that was made.
The purpose of every action of a trade union, including NLC, is actually to try to see how those issues could be resolved and therefore through the process of collective bargaining and well-tested process of negotiation, which is clearly what is provided by the ILO laws is what we have deployed.
You remember these two issues of increase of electricity tariff and increase in the pump price of PMS were never discussed anywhere with labour and arising from this; there was no opportunity to actually try to discuss the issue. So we have to deploy the power of the workers to now give the government ultimatum because we believe that such an important issue which will have impact on workers, particularly those that are on wages and even those that are on their own, the informal sector [workers], there will be an impact, negative impact.
These twin policies have eroded the purchasing power of Nigerian workers and clearly it has been an issue that we have engaged for the past 30 years. So clearly that is why we declared that workers power to say that well, you must also respond to those issues. Our demands were very clear and unambiguous to say that those policies will have a negative effect on workers.
And at the eve of the action; the purpose of the action is to try to get government’s attention to respond to the issues through dialogue; it is only through dialogue that we will be able to put the facts on the table and also take what issues government has in mind before coming up those policies.
What we have achieved is to the effect that those issues were put on the table; what needed to be done actually to fix also the issue on a permanent basis because if you recall, this issue has been on the table particularly the issue of the hike on fuel price has been on the table, and it is normal for people to think that, just as we thought, people think that every Nigerian or every person has a price. No; labour does not have a price! It is just like normal; somebody that steals will think that everybody steals to survive or anybody also thinks that well, for people that give bribe or take bribe, they think that everybody must take bribe or also collect bribe.
No that is not the issue; the issue is about substance of the argument and by the time we related to our organs which is; because the meeting ended very late; you remember, as you said, early morning of 28th [September 2020]; we had to then convey a meeting of our CWC – Central Working Committee – because we are an organisation that is driven by organs and after explaining all these details to them, even those that were not informed said; no you did excellently well, you need to protect and safeguard the interest of workers. So sincerely speaking, I think that is the context of the issue.
Channels TV: Mr Wabba, you went into that meeting insisting that it is either a reversal of the prices or a total shutdown of the country by way of strike. Do you still hold that stand after the meeting up until today?
Comrade Ayuba Wabba: Yes; we actually made those demands because there was no consultation, there was no discussion, there was no room for negotiation and therefore the time-tested approach of labour to now force government or employers to the negotiating table was deployed, and on the eve of those processes, government now said yes, now we are ready to discuss with you, to put the facts on the table and see how we can be able to resolve the issue, and clearly those two demands were the demands we made.
Clearly we had said that on the issue of pump price increase, if we don’t refine locally for domestic consumption, this will be a recurring issue and it has been recurring for more than three decades. Therefore, we had also put on the table what needed to be done so that we don’t come through this vicious circle over and over again. The refineries can work if government is ready to make them work.
Secondly, on the issue of the tariff, you are aware also that we went to court even to challenge the tariff where we have a legitimate judgment from the court to say that this tariff certainly should not stand. But despite the judgment, those processes went on and therefore we said to government that this entire process of privatising the power sector which ought to improve power supply, also to reduce government spending on this sector, government was able to come up to say, well, even after privatisation, about N1.5 trillion was still committed to the [process]. So it is a failed process of privatisation and we said how do we get out of this quagmire? It is to review the entire process and part of what we have gotten on the table is to try to review the process because the review process was due since 2008 but nobody was willing…
Channels TV: [Cuts in] …But Mr Wabba, in essence, sir, apologies to cut in; in essence, is it a case of the fact that labour has seen the light and you are not going to go for a strike because after that meeting, we understand that you are asking for a duration of two weeks ultimatum; after that two weeks elapsed, will labour, should the federal government not meet the demands that you brought to the table; would you still be going on strike or labour has seen the light and strike is no more on the table?
Comrade Ayuba Wabba: The issue about the two weeks is particularly on the issue of hike in the tariff of electricity. We had brought to the table concrete facts that owing to the fact that the justification for such increase is questionable. Two, also there are discrepancies even in the tariff among the various DISCOs and across different states.
For instance, a state or a region will be paying higher than one region or the other and we said what is the justification and it was all agreed that we then need to find out those issues and also come back to then take a final decision. But importantly, they are decisions that have already been taken.
On the issue of power, we said there would be a review in line with the MoU signed at privatisation; i.e. to review the entire process. Two, we also said there is no basis for continuously serving people with bills that they have not consumed and therefore the issue of metering is important and that citizens should not pay for wastages that are incurred because power had not been used arising from the inefficiency of the DISCOs. So all of these issues were issues that were brought to the table.
When you are on the negotiating table, you must also allow time and space to be able to look at the issue and then come back with a finality of the decision. So I can tell you that what we did is to suspend that action and that there is possibility actually to bring back the action but if we are also satisfied in the process that the right thing is being done, then clearly also there will be a final collective bargaining agreement to say that this issue has been addressed and therefore we are satisfied that we will also look at how and when to then also respond to the issue of making sure that our workers and our members are not at the receiving end and that the so-called palliative or support must be in clear terms to also support our members.
Channels TV: But since Monday morning when you left that room, has there been any definitive action of government in line with what you agreed and do you think that the government has the political will to make happen some of the demands? If we break it down line by line, some of the things that you have tabled on the ground for those who said that some of those things are not practical; do you think that the government has the political will to make it happen and have you seen any concrete evidence that they have started work on it?
Comrade Ayuba Wabba: Well, everybody goes into a negotiation or social dialogue, as we call it in labour parlance, with an open mind to achieve result and be committed to implementing any decision that is reached and therefore that is the position of labour.
One, all the committees, as I speak today, have been inaugurated; the one on electricity has been inaugurated; also the reversal; because hitherto the reversal of the tariff which we agreed should be immediate, we realised they needed to readjust their system and from the circular we had received today, because we have followed up and also visited those organisations or government agencies that ought to implement those policies, that reversal has been made. And importantly, we have put a standing committee in place which will also look at the issue of specific palliatives that will also go to our members.
People should not forget that the interest of workers, when we discussed in the past the issue of how do we then mitigate the impact of some of those policies, economic policies; even with Covid-19, you remember that workers did not actually benefit from some of the palliatives and we thought that this is high time, because the purchasing power of workers had been eroded by not only the Covid-19 but also these twin policies and we said no; clearly also that it should not be business as usual because part of the challenge that we have had is that most times, commitments would be made and therefore implementation will become problematic but this one we said no, it will be a standing committee where we can also tell our members, our structures on the process of implementation and this things are doable.
For instance, for the refineries, we said no, let us have a time line, let us also hold government accountable. If you say you are delivering on x amount of modular refineries, let us have specific timeline to have them because if we don’t put these structures then we are just scratching this problem on the surface; if the decision is only on the basis of importation, then the problem will not be solved. And that is why we have remained on this problem for more than 30 years because it pays few marketers to import and then the issue of refining has been left and that is why even the sectorial unions in the oil and gas and in the power sectors are part of the process to ensure now that things are done rightly and that there will be timelines actually to find out how those things are delivered.
Channels TV: So Mr Wabba, I’m very sure you must have heard some of the criticisms coming especially on the agreement by labour and the federal government on the issue of refineries. You agreed on a timeline of December 2021 for some of these refineries to work and some of the critics of labour are saying, look, the refineries have refused to work in the last four years and how do you think that will happen within one year; is that realistic?
Comrade Ayuba Wabba: Well, that is part of the commitment we needed to extract from government. Seun; that is part of the commitment we had to extract from government. The fact that they have not worked for four years does also mean that they cannot also work. Refineries can be fixed, I am sure of that and our members from that sector said there are even parts that were imported and they were lying fallow because it pays few more to import than actually to refine locally.
So if there is now the commitment between labour and also forcing government to say no we can’t go this way, can we fix the refineries so that we can create jobs, so that we can benefit from this God-given resources; I think that is the way to go, but not to be fixated to say that no, it cannot be done. It cannot be done means this problem will continue and that is the position that we think is necessary.
Let me also tell you Seun that as labour, and as NLC, we are very clear in the demands, and that is why we have tried to document it in the form of collective bargaining agreement, which is the standard globally. Once you have negotiation, you must make sure that these demands and also the decisions are also documented so that we can follow up on the implementation and it is for all of us to follow up on the implementation but basically that is what labour would use also to hold government accountable to deliver on the promise and commitment that had been made.
Channels TV: So in essence, to wrap up this conversation, Mr Wabba, labour is satisfied so far?
Comrade Ayuba Wabba: No, I cannot say we are satisfied until we are able to deliver on the agreements that have reached with the timelines. Importantly, I have told you that there will be a standing committee to follow up on the timelines that have been agreed upon on all the issues and therefore basically, we would be satisfied when we are able to deliver on all the commitments that have been made by government.
For us, we are committed to follow up on the process and ensure that the right thing is done and I think for Nigerians, if they believe that NLC, for now, we are the only massed-based organisation that has membership that can also challenge some of those issues and therefore we must also continue to work in trust to be able to deliver on those issue because our objective is very clear.
I have also looked at some of the arguments of some of our colleagues; our argument is not about regime change or about revolution. No, our objective is simple! There are two issues that government put on the table without discussion and those issues need to be addressed, and therefore this is our objective; and therefore we should get it very clear without also mixing it with some of our other colleagues that have their own issues, and they have the right actually to follow up on those issues.
But labour, workers, clearly as a pan-Nigerian organisation, our interest is very clear and unambiguous and we will continue to pursue those issues including these two issues that have been very serious challenge to all of us including workers.
Channels TV: So Mr Wabba, if you can quickly react to this in 30 seconds: how does the labour receive the reaction of those who felt disappointed in the bargaining and they said they will go ahead with the strike and shutting down the nation with or without labour; that they are going ahead with the strike? In 30 seconds you may respond to that.
Comrade Wabba: Well, comrade, I can say that every group has the right to either protest or take any action but for us as an organised body, as I told you, we have a very clear objective and usually as labour, all issues must end up at the negotiation table through a collective bargaining process where everybody is certain about the conclusion and what responsible people take. So certainly, I think they have the right to do that. They also have a right to raise some of those issues they have raised.
But for us, I think we have created that platform to address the issue and we will follow up to address the issue. So, it is for you to find out if those pronouncements also will actually be taken to confirm what they have said but for us, we know that because of our nature – mass-based organisation – every pronouncement we have made, we have tried also to make sure that our members are well informed and that we carry them along and that is what we need.
Immediately after the meeting, we convened our highest organ, that is the Central Working Committee, composed of Presidents and General Secretaries, 51 unions, everybody was there and they were satisfied that the decision we had taken as an organ, as an organisation, is the right thing.
So basically, there are many organisations with also their own issues and they have the right to pursue those issues to their logical conclusion. We don’t want to be diverted, and I want to plead with us because I know, many, many Nigerians have issues and also challenges which, yes, they want NLC to provide leadership and we will always provide leadership; but they must also understand also that we are a structured organisation and we will do things in the interest of all Nigerians, but also in the interest of our members. So I think they must understand this logic, and that is why we have earned the confidence of many Nigerians.
Don’t forget, in 2016, NLC was the only organisation that was on the street when the fuel price was increased from N87 to N145, a difference of how much? N58!
Everybody was mocking us to say we don’t know what we were saying. We said no, that is an issue we have always, in our true tradition, come out actually to respond to; and at that time in 2016, no organisation, no individual; in fact people were saying we didn’t allow government to settle and take up those issues and we said no, this will be a recurring issue because the premise for taking the decision is import-driven and therefore import-driven [motive] cannot address the issues.
So, clearly speaking, we have come to a time when Nigerians also need to remember what we have said and what the process is and what we need to do to continue to engage the government. We need to work together, we need to harmonise our ideas. I think our focus is very clear and unambiguous.