FOR governance in Nigeria, the times are changing. And there is no better prism to see this than the failure of the nationwide strike called by the leadership of the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) on Wednesday to protest the hike in the pump price of fuel from N86.50 to N145.
While calls on workers to down tools had been massively heeded in the past and led to complete paralysis of economic activities nationwide, the one called by labour during the week was largely ignored by the people. Workers in critical sectors like the oil, aviation, transport and banking all distanced themselves from an action they considered unwarranted and damaging at this period.
Signs that the strike was heading for failure emerged less than 12 hours after it was pronounced by NLC leaders. In a popular phone-in programme on Bond FM early Wednesday morning, none of the close to 50 respondents to the question as to whether the strike should hold supported it. Rather, they took turns to reject it, describing it as ill-timed and subversive of the efforts the Buhari administration is making to restructure the economy.
Some of the respondents, however, urged the Federal Government to increase workers’ pay, make fuel available and ensure stable supply of electricity to mitigate the effect of the new price regime.
The overwhelming rejection of the strike action called by labour is no doubt an indication of the extent to which the Buhari administration has secured the people’s trust both because of his personality as an incorruptible leader and the concern he has shown for the ordinary man since he was sworn in as President.
It will be recalled that at the inception of his administration in May last year, there were deafening calls for removal of fuel subsidy. After a probe the National Assembly conducted into the activities of fuel importers and the huge subsidy debt the Federal Government was said to owe them, it became public knowledge that the so-called subsidy on fuel under previous administrations, particularly that of former President Goodluck Jonathan, was a conduit pipe through which dubious fuel importers were milking the country.
It emerged that many of the so-called importers had never imported a pint of fuel, yet they claimed hundreds of millions of naira as subsidy. Others who imported fuel were found to be using a single cargo for multiple payments. What we had in the end were governments that had been busy enlarging the population of idle billionaires under the guise of subsidy payment.
In spite of the begging opportunity, however, Buhari was reluctant about removing the subsidy on fuel because he feared that doing so would expose the ordinary Nigerian to more hardship. Since he assumed office on May 29 last year, President Buhari has continually demonstrated his concern for the ordinary man. That much was evident in the reduction of pump price of fuel from N87 per litre to N86 at NNPC stations and 86.50 in others.
It will also be recalled that when the states were finding it difficult to pay workers’ salaries, Buhari released more than N600 billion to the affected states as bailout. With that, many states were able to pay the backlog of salaries they owed workers. He followed up the gesture by directing that the deduction of debts owed by states from their monthly allocations be suspended for the month of March.
What is more, unlike the Jonathan administration before him, President Buhari did not base the bailout funds released to states on party affiliations. States under the control of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) got as much as those controlled by the governing All Progressives Congress (APC).
In his resolve not to add to the people’s economic burden with high fuel price, Buhari hit on the idea that the nation’s abandoned refineries should be refurbished to aid local consumption. But while the government was able to put some of the refineries back on stream, they could only operate up to about 30 per cent of their installed capacities. The situation forced the Federal Government to involve itself in massive importation of fuel through the NNPC.
The initiative was, however frustrated by a combination of two factors—dwindling price of crude oil in the international market and the blowing up of oil installations by a new set of militants called Niger Delta Avengers, which drastically reduced the quantity of crude oil the country could export. These ugly developments resulted in remarkable reduction of the revenue available to government and the foreign exchange available for continued importation of fuel on a large scale by the NNPC.
Explaining the situation in a statement he issued last week, Vice President Yemi Osinbajo said the NNPC had tried to bridge the gap by exchanging crude from its joint venture share to provide about 50 per cent of local fuel consumption while the remaining 50 per cent was imported by major and independent marketers.
He said: “These (major and independent) marketers, up till three months ago, sourced their foreign exchange from the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) at the official rate. However, since late last year, independent marketers have brought in little or no fuel because they have been unable to get foreign exchange from the CBN. The CBN simply did not have enough (in April, oil earnings dipped to $550 million. The amount required for fuel importation alone is about $225 million).”
He said the Federal Government then realised that it was left with no option but to allow independent marketers and any Nigerian entity to source their own foreign exchange and import fuel. Consequently, he said, the government expected the marketers to source foreign exchange at an average of about N285 to the dollar (current inter-bank rate) and would then be restricted to selling at a price between N135 and N145 per litre.
The Vice President said the government expected that with competition, more private refineries and NNPC refineries working at full capacity, prices would drop considerably with time.
Observers believe that the explanations offered by Vice President Osinbajo, Information Minister Alhaji Lai Muhammed and other government officials have helped in no small measure to make the people understand the issues at stake and render the call for strike unappealing. This is in addition to the fact that a lot of Nigerians appear to have become disenchanted with organised labour under whose leadership previous agitations for reversal of hiked pump price of fuel had ended in anti-climax.
Some Nigerians have even gone further to level allegations of betrayal against labour leaders, some of whom they accuse of fighting their selfish cause at the expense of the larger public. Yet others are asking where the labour leaders were when states did not pay the salaries of their workers.
Buhari’s personality and the widespread belief that his government means well for the country has also left labour divided, with critical associations within the NLC pitching their tents with government. Such associations as the National Union of Petroleum and Natural Gas Workers (NUPENG), the Petroleum and Natural Gas Senior Staff Association of Nigeria (PENGASSAN) and the Trade Union Congress (TUC) all dissociated themselves from the strike action, rendering the NLC toothless.
COPYRIGHT: Vincent Akanmode