Nigeria’s labour unions have called off the nationwide strike that had brought activities in the populous nation to a grinding halt after President Goodluck Jonathan partially reinstated the contentious subsidy payment for petroleum.
In a televised broadcast on Monday morning, what would have been the day six of the strike action, Jonathan announced that the Federal Government, having considered the “hardships suffered by many Nigerians”, had approved the reduction of the pump price of petrol to N97 per litre.
The Petroleum Product Pricing Regulatory Agency had announced on 1 January 2012 the official removal of the subsidy, which hiked fuel prices nationwide from N65 to at least N141. The reaction from the people was immediate and negative. Tens of thousands of protesters poured out into streets in cities across the nation, demanding a reversal of the subsidy removal.
On 9 January, seven days into the nationwide protests, labour organisations embarked on a strike that shut down businesses and transportation in a large part of the country. The demonstrators grew in large numbers. The Gani Fawehinmi park saw thousands of protesters rally together every day for five days straight, calling for an end to corruption in government and an end to Jonathan’s leadership.
The President called on labour organisations to call off their strike, which he said was illegal as it went against court orders, accept the new concession from the federal government and deployed soldiers onto major protest grounds in key cities to forcefully disperse protesters and crackdown on activities.
Labour organisations backed down, first calling off street protests and asking that Nigerians embark on a sit-at-home strike while they conferred with the National Executive Council. Some demonstrators ignored the order from labour and headed out into the streets led by civil society group, the Joint Action Front.
As they marched along Ikorodu road, they were met by armed soldiers who fired gunshots into the air, effectively dispersing the crowd.
“They’re trying to enforce the [new] price using military force,” Nejeeb Bello told the Wall Street Journal, a 33-year-old music promoter, adding that he attended demonstrations in Lagos each day last week. “People are still angry. They say it’s 65 naira or else.”
Another local speaking to Channels Television was appalled by the “unnecessary use of force”, saying the President ought to remember that this is not a military dispensation, but a democracy.
In a joint press conference by the Nigeria Labour Congress and the Trade Union Congress, both unions announced the “suspension of the strike”. They denied having any part in the unilateral decision by government to put the price of petroleum at N97 per litre and said they will continue to work with the Belgore committee and look out for the best interest of Nigerians.
“In the past eight days through strikes, mass rallies, shutdown, debates and street protests, Nigerians demonstrated clearly that they cannot be taken for granted,” said NLC President Abdulwahed Omar in a statement.
While some Nigerians agree, seeing a victory in the government’s compromise, others feel let down and betrayed by labour’s capitulation.
Activist Nasir El-Rufai, who was harassed by soldiers at a protest in Abuja yesterday, said on twitter he had expected Labour’s compromise and saw it as a betrayal when they backed of their stand of “N65 or nothing”.
President Jonathan has insisted that removing the subsidy will save the country some $8bn, funds that will be channeled into much needed public projects, such as fixing the nation’s neglected roads and transportation network.
In an interview with Channels Television, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Nigeria’s minister of finance and champion of the subsidy removal policy, praised the president’s mass transit scheme, which she says is just one of the many benefits of the unpopular policy. The programme was launched with 1,600 buses and the President promised more buses on the way.
The palliatives have done little to appease Nigerians, who still insist that government out to cut out corruption and wasteful spending within its own body, instead of taking away the subsidy.
Civil society groups like the Joint Action Front and the Save Nigeria Group have not backed down either. In a press statement, JAF denounced the NLC and TUC and their acceptance of government’s concession.
“While we salute Nigerians for their resistance and legitimate demand for TOTAL REVERSAL OF FUEL PRICE FROM THE WICKED IMPOSITION OF N141 to N65, we strongly deplore the suspension of the Strike/Mass Action as endorsed by Presidents of NLC and TUC as a betrayal of this legitimate demand by Nigerians that fuel price must revert to N65 as a condition for negotiation,” the statement read.
The SNG also rejected the decision of labour to call off the strike, but said Nigerians still ought to be proud of the revolution, no matter how small.
“While we outrightly reject the unilateral fixing of pump price at N97 by the Federal Government upon which the controlling leadership of NLC & TUC threw a spanner in the wheel of peoples movement, it must not be lost on our patriotic people that the climb down by a government which had arrogantly declared that it’s decision was final is the proverbial eating of the humble pie,” the SNG said in a press release today.
It is unclear how the government will fund all its grand plans for the nation with the subsidy still partially in place. There are still no changes to the 2012 budget, which right now sits at N4.7 trillion, to include the partial subsidy.
“This is not a victory for anybody,” Bismark Rewane, managing director of Financial Derivatives Co., in Lagos told the Wall Street Journal. “Government still has to administer the subsidy, which is porous and full of corruption. The people, they’re paying more, and the unions have lost their credibility.”