Following President Bola Tinubu’s promise to fix the national refineries, a key demand of labour, among other commitments, Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) and Trade Union Congress (TUC), yesterday, agreed to suspend their nationwide protest and return to the negotiating table with the federal government on measures to cushion the effects of the removal of petrol subsidy on Nigerians.
The unions also cited intervention by the senate, which pledged to within one week get more involved and try to resolve the issues in dispute.
TUC President, Festus Osifo, disclosed the decision to suspend the protest during an interview on ARISE NEWS Channel last night.
A statement jointly signed by President of NLC, Joe Ajaero, and Osifo said “on the strength of the president’s pledge and commitment, we have decided for a return to a new and reinvigorated dialogue process to allow for full implementation”.
In Port Harcourt, the Rivers State capital, yesterday, workers took to the streets, chanting “Tinubu allow us to breathe”, and other songs to denounce the petrol subsidy removal and the consequent economic hardship.
Speaking while meeting with the leadership of the organised labour centre at State House, Abuja, Tinubu gave his commitment to the labour leaders that the Port Harcourt refineries would start production by December. He said this would be after completion of the ongoing rehabilitation contract between Nigerian National Petroleum Company Limited (NNPCL) and Italian firm, Maire Tecnimont SpA.
The president assured the labour leaders that he would continue to work for the best interest of Nigeria, while pleading with them to join hands with him to birth a better and economically buoyant country.
According to a release issued on Wednesday evening by Special Adviser to the President on Special Duties, Communications and Strategy, Mr Dele Alake, consequent upon the fruitful and frank discussion with Tinubu and their confidence in his ability to encourage open and honest consideration of all the issues put forward by the labour movement, the labour leaders resolved to stop further protest.
They opted for further constructive engagement with the government to resolve all outstanding issues as they affected the working people and Nigerians in general.
The interventions by the president and the National Assembly came after thousands of workers, led by NLC and TUC, protested on Wednesday in major cities across the country.
In Abuja, the workers, led by the NLC and TUC presidents, stormed the Unity Fountain area in Maitama, as early as 7am, from where they proceeded in a solidarity march to the National Assembly. They protested the harsh economic situation in the country brought about by the sudden removal of subsidy on the pump price of petrol.
The protesting workers and their civil society allies gathered at the Unity Fountain, chanting solidarity songs.
There was a heavy security deployment on the streets of the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), but this did not deter the protesters, as they surged forward and marched to the legislative chambers.
Some of the placards bore inscriptions like, “Let’s Unite to Emancipate the People,” “FG why Protect the Subsidy Criminals,” “Workers are dying from fuel price increase, inflation and Insecurity,” “We are workers not slaves.”
NLC and TUC said the closed-door session with Tinubu was fruitful, as it achieved immense mileage with regard to the issues that necessitated the nationwide protest.
The joint statement by the two labour unions said, “It is pertinent to inform Nigerians that the extent of the success of the protest is underlined by the request of the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, Senator Ahmed Bola Tinubu, to meet with the leadership of the organised labour.
“He committed to an immediate restructuring of the framework for engagement in line with the input of the labour leaders.
“He let out a certainty that the Port Harcourt Refinery will commence production by December this year.
“He pledged to ensure that agreement is reached on the wage award for Nigerian workers immediately. He promised to unveil a workable roadmap to the CNG alternative next week”.
However, NLC and TUC said they had been served with court summons on charges of contempt of court.
They stated, “It is also important that we inform Nigerians that we have just received a court summons purporting to charge us with contempt of court.
“We urge all Nigerians to be vigilant because it appears that the days of long knives are here with us again. The leadership remains resolute in its commitment to the protection of the interests and welfare of the Nigerian people and nothing whatsoever can take our eyes away from this focus nor shake this belief.
“Having demonstrated our collective resolve through the strong signal we sent today across Nigeria, we urge vigilance on the part of all workers and masses to protect our nation and our decisions while we await the response of the government through the National Assembly as was assured by their representatives during the protest.
“To further show our collective resolve, all Nigerian workers will resume at the courts wherever they may be across the nation on the days of the court sittings to hear the contempt proceedings against the leaders of trade unions.
“The airports, seaports, hospitals, schools, all public and private sector workers will all appear in court across the nation in response to the contempt charges.
“Once again, we look forward to the continuing support of all Nigerians and workers around the country as we continue in this struggle for freedom from the clutches of oppression and impoverishment.
“We must remain unwavering and together refusing to allow them divide us so that collectively, we will build a nation where, no one will be considered too small to be left behind.”
The two labour centres, while thanking Nigerians for their support during the protest, said they resolved to wait for the government to fulfil its own part of the understanding, as agreed with the president.
Earlier, the organised labour had agreed to allow the senate a week moratorium to enable it intervene and resolve the dispute over subsidy removal.
Both NLC and TUC leaders expressed their readiness to meet the senate leadership for talks on resolution of the fuel subsidy logjam. The development followed an appeal by the senate to the leadership of NLC and TUC during the workers’ protest march to the National Assembly.
General Secretary of NLC, Emma Ugboaja, told the anxious workers that the two labour centres had accepted the intervention of the National Assembly to help resolve the issues.
Chief Whip of the Senate, Alhaji Ali Ndume, who received the protest letter from leaders of the organised labour on behalf of the National Assembly leadership, said the federal legislature would immediately intervene in the subsidy dispute and try to find an amicable resolution within the next one week.
Ndume told the protesters, “I assure you that between now and tomorrow we will fix meeting with labour and start the discussion and engagement. We will do our best, as your representative, to come up with a solution acceptable to all stakeholders.
“Give us one week and let’s try to find solutions and resolve the dispute and if you are not satisfied then you can go further with any action.”
While presenting a letter to the representative of the senate president at the National Assembly, Ajaero said the letter contained several issues listed in the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) signed between the labour unions and government.
The NLC president complained about the apparent side-lining of the Office of the Secretary to the Government of Federation (SGF), which, he said, ought to be chairing the negotiations and to fast track the resolution.
Addressing the protesters, Ajaero said the protest was necessitated by the continued delay by government in addressing the demands of the workers as contained in the MoU signed by both parties
He listed the demands of labour to include immediate implementation, in good faith, of all resolutions with the congress and TUC jointly signed with the government, as well as “immediate reversal of all anti-poor policies of the government, such as hike in school fees of tertiary institutions, Value Added Tax and pump price PMS”.
Other demands include fixing the local refineries in Port Harcourt, Warri and Kaduna; release of eight months withheld salaries of university lecturers and workers; according appropriate recognition and support to the presidential steering committee and the work of its sub-committees; and ending inhumane actions and policies of government.
He recalled that there was a first hike in pump price of petrol to N540 per litre, which was further increased to N617 per litre within four weeks, while negotiations were still ongoing.
Ajaero said the federal government also ignored a court order that all parties should maintain the status quo.
Speaking on the continued withholding of eight months salaries of ASUU members due to their participation in a prolonged strike last year, the NLC president accused the federal government of reneging on an agreement it duly signed with ASUU in 2009. He added that if the university teachers were made to forfeit their salaries, it would amount to rewarding a government for failing to keep agreement.
“I enter agreement with you, and you fail to implement, I cry by going on strike and you punish me for that. I want the National Assembly to look into that law,” he added.
Ajaero urged the National Assembly to see that the matter was resolved and salaries of the affected lecturers were paid in full.
Regarding the money so far saved from fuel subsidy, Ajaero expressed worry at the apparent contradiction between the disclosure by Tinubu that the country had so far earned N1 trillion, and the Presidential Steering Committee’s revelation that no money had been saved from the fuel subsidy removal.
Ajaero said since the president had said N1 trillion was saved from subsidy, then the money should be deployed judiciously to ameliorate the suffering of Nigerians. He said the reason the congress was pushing for a wage award was because the minimum wage was a constitutional matter that would be due for legislation by May 2024.
He said workers could not afford to continue to suffer the hardship imposed by the hike in fuel price until 2024.
On his part, Osifo said the federal government should look into cutting down cost of governance as a way of showing the much needed leadership and in keeping with reality of the time.
He stated, “I want to add to what the NLC president said and it is about the reduction of cost of governance. We strongly believe that the government of today is not being sensitive to the plight of Nigerians and that government comprises the executive, legislative, and judiciary.
“We believe strongly that you cannot ask Nigerians to keep tightening their belts and sacrificing or ask a man who barely has one meal a day to now be drinking only garri.
“The Nigerian masses have been battered, the Nigerian masses have suffered and are passing through excruciating and very difficult times.”
The TUC president said the administration was about to appoint new ministers who would in turn appoint several special assistants and personal assistants, adding, “Before we know what is happening, the number of political appointees will hit the roof.”
He said the federal government had proposed N70 billion for the National Assembly members to fix their offices, pointing out that most offices where workers stay are currently in bad shape with dilapidated facilities.
Ajaero, “We are all Nigerians and we have equal stake in the project called Nigeria. We want you in the National Assembly to show sacrifice, we want you to cut down your budget and we want you to go and buy Innoson Motors and not foreign made Toyota vehicles, which will further deplete our scarce foreign exchange.
“We don’t want you to continue to patronise imported goods because you are creating jobs there and importing suffering here. Let everyone be using Innoson Motors and other locally manufactured good.”
He said organised labour was not insensitive to the fact that, “our legislators should operate in a conducive environment but that they should also show example in leadership.”
Protests took place in several cities in states across the country.