Rather than gloating over the eventual resolution of the labour issue that precipitated a two-day strike last week, which coincided with the release of a depressing inflation figure for October by the National Bureau of Statistics, the federal government should rather focus on policies and actions that will restore confidence in the economy in the last quarter of the year, writes Festus Akanbi
After initial prevarications that incensed the organised labour to press for a showdown on Tuesday, November 14, the federal government, through the office of the National Security Adviser, on Wednesday was able to persuade the labour unions to suspend their indefinite strike triggered by the savage beating and the arrest of the President of the Nigerian Labour Congress, Joe Ajaero in Owerri, Imo State on November 1.
NLC had earlier listed six conditions it said must be met by the federal government before it could call off the strike. The conditions contained in a series of posts via its official X handle included the arrest and prosecution of Special Adviser to the Imo State Governor on Special Duties, Chinasa Nwaneri, police officers, as well as thugs involved in the attack on NLC President Joe Ajaero in Owerri, and arrest, prosecution, and dismissal of Chief Security Officer in Imo State Government House, identified as SP Shaba.
The frustration over the strike which led to the closure of some public and private offices was compounded by the report of the National Bureau of Statistics on Wednesday which put Nigeria’s inflation figure at 27.33 per cent in October, a 0.61 per cent increase from the 26.72 per cent level attained in September.
The NBS said in the latest consumer price index (CPI), which captures the inflationary trend in Nigeria’s economy, that the headline inflation rate on a year-on-year basis was 6.24 per cent points higher, compared to 21.09 per cent rate on the corresponding period in October 2022.
However, the latest inflation report appeared to have been overshadowed by the disruption in the economy caused by the labour crisis.
Setting the Stage for Labour Showdown
Following the notice of an impending workers’ protest, the federal government went to court to restrain labour, but the strike did not only begin as planned, it was also joined by the judicial workers union, paralysing activities across the nation.
Some of the affiliate unions that joined the strike are the Petroleum and Natural Gas Senior Staff Association (PENGASSAN) and the National Union of Electricity Employees (NUEE). Others included the Association of Senior Staff of Banks, Insurance and Financial Institutions (ASSBIFI) and the National Union of Banks Insurance and Financial Institutions Employees (NUBIFIE).
In the education sector, the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU), National Association of Academic Technologists (NAAT), Senior Staff Association of Nigerian Universities (SSANU), Academic Staff Union of Polytechnic (ASUP), Colleges of Education Academic Staff Union (COEASU) and the Senior Staff Association of Nigeria Polytechnics asked their members to stay off work.
Attack on One, Attack on All
Labour industry commentators, who faulted the argument on the political dimension brought into the crisis, especially by the Imo State government, argued that it would be unfair to overlook the harassment of Ajaero by officials of the state government. They insisted that the labour leader’s ordeal was a direct affront to the Nigerian workers whom Ajaero represents.
“Today, it is Ajaero, tomorrow another Nigerian could be equally harassed if the labour fails to use whatever it is in its arsenals to protest the savage beating given its leader,” a Lagos-based analyst said before the strike was called off.
Labour, which said the plight of Nigerian workers remained the major concern in all of its undertakings, however, said it would not condone the desecration or humiliation of its leadership.
But National Security Adviser (NSA), Nuhu Ribadu, seemed to pre-empt the labour leadership when he announced that those believed to have attacked Ajaero had been arrested and were already in custody.
There was also a crucial intervention by the National Assembly leadership, which stepped into the national impasse, pleading with the labour movement to review their stand and call off the nationwide strike.
However, the Human Rights Writers Association of Nigeria (HURIWA), a non-governmental organisation (NGO), called for vigilance by the hierarchy of the National Industrial Court of Nigeria to stave off encroachments on its independence and integrity by the executive arm of government.
Apart from demanding that the government arrest all those involved in the brutality against Ajaero during a protest in Imo State, organised labour also accused the state government of violating workers’ rights by illegally sacking over 600 workers.
The labour union further accused the state government of owing workers and pensioners over 42 months arrears, declaring thousands of workers/pensioners ghost workers/pensioners, and not properly implementing the national minimum wage.
It accused the Imo State Government of trying to use the courts to stifle a lawful protest and attempting to break the ranks of the unions in the state. It said the authorities were undermining the NLC in the state by foisting on the state council a leadership not constituted by the provisions of the constitution of the congress.
NLC, which also dismissed insinuations about the motive of the strike, said organised labour was sensitive to the sufferings of Nigerian workers, occasioned by fuel subsidy removal, hence, the need for a nationwide strike to express the grievances of workers.
The NBS revealed that pressures on domestic prices intensified in October, as the lingering challenges stoking prices remained intact amid the impact of the low base effects from the prior year.
The report said the food inflation rate in October rose to an average of 31.52 per cent on a year-on-year basis, about 7.80 per cent points higher compared to the 23.72 per cent rate recorded in the corresponding period of October 2022.
The report shows that food prices, which maintained a consistent rise across the country for months, deteriorated further in the last couple of months as a result of the impact of the government’s inconsistent policies, like the removal of fuel subsidy in the pricing template of petroleum products as well as the inability to rein in the slide of the exchange value of the Naira to international currencies, like the dollar.
Since May 29, when the present administration came to office, the rate of inflation has continued to climb, with the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) tweaking its monetary policies in an attempt to stabilise prices.
According to the Statistician General of the Federation and Chief Executive Officer of the NBS Mr. Adeyemi Adeniran, the increase in the headline index for October 2023 was attributable to the increase in some items in the basket of goods and services at the divisional level.
These increases, he said, were observed in Food and non-alcoholic Beverages (14.16%), Housing, Water, Electricity, Gas & other Fuel (4.57%), Clothing and footwear (2.09%), Transport (1.78%), Furnishings & Household Equipment and maintenance (1.37%), Education (1.08%) and Health (0.82%). Others are Miscellaneous Goods & Services (0.45%), Restaurants & Hotels (0.33%), Alcoholic Beverages, Tobacco & Kola (0.30%), Recreation & Culture (0.19%) and Communication (0.19%).
Analysts believed there is an urgent need for President Bola Tinubu to personally wade into the labour crisis, especially given the spiralling inflation which paints a picture of a bleak end of the year for the Nigerian people. Already, the tension over the rise in hardship is pushing the people to the brink and only a quick resolution of the issue will avert a deterioration of the economic situation.
They also expressed the hope that the two-day labour unrest must have sent the signals to the authorities to address all the issues raised by the unions especially on the welfare of the Nigerian workers to avoid similar actions that may erode the modest economic gains of the current administration.