The Federal Government might have successfully hoodwinked the organised labour into calling off its planned industrial action while at the same time having the last laugh on workers' demand for a 30,000 minimum wage.
One after the other, unions across the country had expressed desire to ride out the storm alongside the organised labour. Many Nigerians, believing a major strike was imminent, had also hurriedly stocked up on fuel and other essential items.
But the Federal Government seemed to have tinkered craftily with time, engaging labour leaders in a protracted dialogue that began 11:30 a.m. and dragged into the D-Day
If workers felt relieved the 'mother of all strikes' had been called off because labour leaders won the deal, signals from the presidency are showing the Federal Government has effectively deflated enthusiasm for the planned industrial action, while at the same time retaining the trump card to implement its own version of a new minimum wage.
A reliable labour source who was at the make-or-mar meeting had confided in The Guardian that indeed N30,000 was the final submission. But a witty agreement moved by the Federal Government had ensured the leaders kept a sealed lip until President Muhammadu Buhari received the report of the tripartite committee.
Nigerian workers have since waited anxiously for the president to mouth the happy disclosure. But this might never come. The conspicuous avoidance of the 'N30,000 word' in Buhari's speech has raised concerns within labour ranks that the presidency is unwilling to transmit the agreed deal to the National Council of State and the National Assembly.
"I want to assure you all that we will immediately put in place the necessary machinery that will close out these open areas. Our plan is to transmit the executive bill to the National Assembly for passage within the shortest possible time.
"I am fully committed to having a new National Minimum Wage Act in the very near future. As the executive arm commences its review of your submission, we will continue to engage you all in closing any open areas presented in this report. I therefore would like to ask for your patience and understanding in the coming weeks. May I therefore, implore workers and their leaders not to allow themselves to be used as political weapons," Buhari had said.
Also yesterday, Minister of Information and Culture, Lai Mohammed, shockingly referred to the report by the tripartite committee as "a recommendation" which the president would "consider" and then "make his views known in due course."
Pressed to make further comment following the Federal Executive Council meeting at State House, Abuja, Mohammed insisted: "I said a recommendation was submitted. Mr. President will get back to the committee after he has studied the recommendation."
On whether a review of the revenue sharing formula would be in the offing, if the new minimum wage is approved, to enable states to pay, he answered: "Once again, like I said, a recommendation has been made and in responding to the recommendation, all these views will be taken into consideration."
But labour leaders are not ruling out a return to the battlefield. In an exclusive interview with The Guardian, General Secretary of the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) Peter Ozo-Eson said: "If anybody contemplates reduction, we will be back to the trenches and our members would direct us on the next step to take. But we think in the interest of industrial peace and harmony, what needs to be done now is that this compromise amount is forwarded to the National Assembly because reducing it will be extremely problematic."
On his part, Peter Esele, a former president of Trade Union Congress (TUC) and a member of the team that negotiated the 2011 minimum wage, said neither the National Council of State nor the National Assembly could renegotiate a figure already agreed upon by the tripartite committee.
According to him, "The biggest problem we have as a country is our government. Government officials do not know what it means to negotiate; they have no respect for negotiated agreement and contracts. This is the scenario: government appointed the chairman of the committee, appointed its minister as deputy chair, and then the president says he will 'look' into the report. What is the president looking for in that report?
"N30,000 is a negotiated figure done by its own representatives. Does it mean that the presidency does not trust the capacities of those it appointed? Labour started with N66,500 and later came down to N30,000, which is a negotiated figure arrived at as a result of negotiation. And now, government is 'looking' at this? How?
"If government will 'look' at the figure again after negotiation, why didn't it legislate the figure instead of allowing people to waste their time for one year? The truth is that whatever is negotiated cannot be changed. Otherwise, labour goes back to the trenches."
The immediate past NLC General Secretary and now Executive Secretary of Organisation Trade Union of West Africa (OTUWA) John Odah, added: "It is in the interest of this government not to allow this process to drag longer than necessary because minimum wage affects the large chunk of workers of this country. I know labour knows this and will not allow anybody to mess with them. Tripartite negotiation is sacrosanct and people should just respect it."
In a related development, Kaduna State governor, Nasir El-Rufai, yesterday stressed that matters of a new national minimum wage should be worked out by individual states according to their financial abilities.
He stated this in Abuja during his presentation at the fourth National Internal Generated Revenue (IGR) peer-learning event organised by the Nigeria Governors' Forum (NGF).
"I do not agree that national minimum wage should be under the federation. I think minimum wage should be done by each state according to the level of income," he said.