Nigeria: The Ominous Pall of Nationwide Industrial Unrest

26 February 2024

The majority of citizens can no longer feed themselves.

Stirrings of industrial unrest in the country are palpable with the decision of organised labour to embark on a two-day nationwide strike on 27 and 28 February, in response to what it considers as the Federal Government's bad faith in implementing a 16-point mutually agreed pact. The dual policies of fuel subsidy removal and liberalisation of the foreign exchange market, which President Bola Tinubu introduced with élan when he assumed office, have etched on the national economic canvass stratospheric increases in the cost of living. The majority of citizens can no longer feed themselves.

On 8 February, the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) and Trade Union Congress (TUC) issued a 14-day notice of a warning strike, stressing that they were constrained to do so, "to demonstrate outrage on the mounting hardship and insecurity around the nation." Considerable anger against the government is very much evident in the growing number of major cities convulsed by public protests against the economic dislocations created by the government. The protesters are calling for a quick fix to the rising challenges. Sadly, there are no easy solutions to the unravelling mess.

Eerily, the agitation of the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) over the government's infidelity too, in the implementation of a pact over its member's welfare and better funding of university education, has moved in sync with labour's protest calendar. There are ongoing zonal congresses of the Union, which began on 19 February in Abuja and Calabar. They would be rounded off on 26 February in Owerri/Akure/Yola. Ultimately, ASUU is expected to make important decisions on the state of the nation and crisis hobbling the nation's ivory towers. As an affiliate of the NLC, ASUU is unlikely to be aloof, against the backdrop of earlier calls by labour to its affiliate unions, councils and civil society allies to mobilise "for an effective action."

According to labour, if its charter of demands is not met after the warning strike, a seven-day notice of an indefinite strike will be issued on 2 March. The country can ill afford an apocalyptic drift such as this.

The seed of this industrial pall of darkness was arguably sowed on 2 October, 2023, in a pact that the government had with labour. Although a Minimum Wage Committee was inaugurated one month after the date of the agreement, however, the 37-member panel was launched only a few weeks ago, oddly with N500 million spent, on what has not been explained or justified yet. The government is not up-to-date with the payment of the minimum wage award of N35,000 to every worker in the country, which was supposed to have been the gain of the previous strike.

No state government has demonstrated any inclination towards the fulfilment of this award either. The promise to roll out Compressed Natural Gas (CNG) buses for mass transit to ease the increasing cost of transportation is still a mirage. Fuel now sells for about N900 per litre in some parts of the country, which the average Nigerian worker, the poor, and owners of small-scale businesses cannot afford. The refineries are not working. The joint visitation to the Port Harcourt refinery to ascertain its operational readiness was only made last Wednesday, since 2 October when the agreement was reached.

Lamentably, the palliative of N25,000 paid to 15 million households - especially to the most vulnerable, for three months with effect from October, was mired in sedulous sleaze in the Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs. The Minister of Finance, Wale Edu, has said the scheme will soon resume in response to the prevailing grinding poverty in the country. And only two months out of eight months of ASUU members' withheld salaries have been paid, according to its President, Professor Emmanuel Osodeke. We see this as a frenetic government's embrace as industrial down-tooling looms.

However, in defence, the Education Minister, Tahir Mamman, says that the government has fulfilled its pact with university teachers with the 35 per cent increase in their salaries, the removal of universities from the vexatious Integrated Payroll Payment Information System (IPPIS), thereby granting them autonomy and the power to recruit staff.

All things considered, these are veneers in our view, as they are not profound enough to redeem the universities from their well-known decrepit states. After ASUU's National Executive Council meeting recently, Mr Osodeke bemoaned the free fall in the value of the naira, which has reduced the average salary of a Nigerian professor to $210 a month. This is a pittance and laughable in comparison to what his counterpart is paid in other jurisdictions.

The revitalisation of public universities through massive funding, encapsulated in the 2009 Federal Government-ASUU agreement, with a N200 billion annual injection into the system for five years, which has however been reneged on and renegotiated several times since 2013, remains a sore issue in the lingering impasse. As a result, universities went on strike for eight months in 2022, thus leading to the loss of an academic year.

Salaries and wages have largely remained static in the country. If a new minimum wage was implemented as soon as the fuel subsidy was removed and the naira floated, the food inflation at 35.41 per cent, and headline inflation of 29.90 per cent - all January statistics of Nigeria Bureau of Statistics (NBS) - would have effectively eroded the gains of the increment.

Undoubtedly, an economy in a roller coaster like this is baying for the blood of the most vulnerable members of the Nigerian society - the over 133 million multidimensionally poor, jobless youths, pensioners - many of whom are owed arrears of pensions and gratuities, the aged, sick, children and students. This is dangerous.

Since organised labour has rebuffed the government's entreaties not to embark on the coming strike, it behoves the Tinubu government to take the unions seriously this time, and not repeat the chicanery of dabbling into another pact it has no intention to faithfully implement. All efforts must be made to stave off the planned indefinite strike, and this can only be achieved by demonstrating sincerity of purpose in implementing the agreements with labour.

With mass hunger and anger in the land, it is feared that the warning strike may resonate with the generality of Nigerians. The government should not repeat its mistake of deploying the divide-and-rule tactic adopted the last time by isolating the NLC in its negotiations with the TUC. It was disappointing when the TUC teamed up with NLC at the last minute, to hold last year's strike. The petrol tankers driver's association, an ally of the NLC, suspended its planned strike last Monday over the rising cost of transporting petroleum products across the country. Any guarantee of its members' insularity as the country boils over the daily degradation of human lives is suspect.

The resolve of Governor Babajide Sanwo Olu of Lagos State, last week, to begin feeding residents, at 1,500 per local government area, daily for two months, through street canteen operators, popularly known as "mama put," speaks to how horrible the situation is, and the panicky mode of government. How long the populist gesture will last and what happens thereafter are critical.

Ironically, no regime of palliatives, whether at the federal or sub-national levels, can pull Nigerians out of the seeming cul-de-sac the economic policies of the Tinubu administration have hauled them into. Everything is wrong with their execution. It appears that corruption and profiteering - two market leviathans have come into the mix. They need to be dealt with.

The government has to discover where it got it wrong, fix things and arrest the seething cauldron the country has become. No Nigerian wants to live on tokenisms with their ephemerality. Consequently, the economy must be made to work for all!

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