Before The Fire Next Time By Denja Yaqub



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Following the week long National strike and mass protests spearheaded by the Nigeria Labour Congress, the Trade Union Congress of Nigeria and their allies in the Labour & Civil Society Coalition, LASCO, in January 2012, there have been a lot of reviews in the mass media about how the actions were managed. Indeed, even President Jonathan has also joined the fray recently with the insensitive claim that it was food, music and comedy that attracted people to join the protests.

We recall that the trade unions, as represented by the NLC and TUC were specific in their demands that culminated in the national strike and protests, which followed the mindless sudden increase in the price of Premium Motor Spirit, popularly known as petrol from N65 to N145 per litre as a direct consequence of the removal of subsidy on the same product by the Federal Government on the first day of the year 2012.

The two labour centres had meetings of the their National Executive Council, which simultaneously directed a national strike and mass protests be organized and coordinated by the two centres to protest the price increase and removal of subsidy on petroleum products. And until these demands are met, the strike and protests should continue. These were the two clear demands and the leadership of NLC did not only consult with LASCO, the coalition was indeed represented at the NEC meeting where the strike and actions were declared based on these two demands.

When the national strike and protests started as planned, civil society groups organized rallies and protests, particularly in Lagos, Abuja, Kano, Kaduna and Ibadan. These groups had various names and nomenclature. Prominent among them were the Save Nigeria Group, led by Pastor Tunde Bakare and the Occupy Nigeria Group. The demand common to these groups was regime change, which was not part of labour’s demands.

Before anyone can call for regime change, there must be an alternative regime clear, popular, dependable and acceptable by all opposition groups. There must have been several discussions based on the programme or agenda good enough and acceptable as a viable alternative to the regime that needed to be changed.

These were clearly absent. But leaders of these groups kept playing with the slogan, encouraged perhaps by the events in North Africa where popular and well coordinated mass protests uprooted sit tight regimes. The Arab Spring is not artless either. It took years of protests and good planning, albeit clandestine.

Without the strike and mass participation of workers across the country, it would have been near impossibility to have a crowd as large as the ones seen in Lagos and other major protest centres. It was certainly not the attraction of free food or music, as espoused by President Jonathan in an attempt to underscore the import of the protests. Mr. President may have been bewildered and overwhelmed by the deceit of security reports and wrong advice and could therefore not know the extent of the pains bad policies have unleashed on the people coupled with the timing of his government’s decision to inflict further pains through hike in the price of petrol. The unemployed will not require food to join a protest that ultimately will lead to policy reversals that will guarantee him a brighter future.

Mr. President clearly exposed the extent of his little knowledge of the worries and aches of the rest of the country as majority of our people groan in hardships inflicted on us by anti people policies of not just his government, but all others before his.

The civil society groups, certainly not those in LASCO, also can’t do an honest self appraisal of the January actions reading through some of the articles in the media. And if we can’t do this, we will be farther than we think from liberation.

The unions as led by the labour centres foresaw the weakness of demands for regime change and the reality of losing a battle from the onset will not encourage any serious labour centre to make such demands. You don’t demand for regime or system change; you organize for it. You prepare everything including the alternative before making such demands.

The demand itself lacked organizational coordination and insisting on going ahead will mean offering the lives of protesters for state slaughtering, which the state was ready for.

Rather than do an honest appraisal, some people have opted for the convenience of heaping all blames on the trade union movement, which didn’t make such demands as regime or system change.

For instance, when the National Union of Petroleum and Natural Gas Workers, NUPENG, an affiliate of NLC blocked supply of fuel to Abuja in August it was interpreted to mean they were fighting for subsidy thieves, whereas the union’s demands were five and not just on fuel subsidy payment. The union’s demand for payment of subsidy to genuine companies was based on the fact that there were threats to the employment of their members in those companies who had threatened to stop paying salaries because of the financial burden they claimed to be confronting as a result of the cost of importing what we should be producing locally. Aside this, the union’s other demands were: nonpayment of salaries and threat to jobs; state of the nation’s refineries and roads; labour issues in Shell Petroleum and Chevron; and restructuring of loans of depot owners and oil marketers

All these demands are basically in the interest of the workers and the country at large. The union did not demand for payment of subsidy to those already known to have used subsidy funds for other things other than supply of petroleum products.

So, when one read a piece written by Ijeoma Nwogwugwu which was mischievously titled “Economic Saboteurs in Our Mist” in This Day newspaper of 27th August 2012 where she accused the NLC and NUPENG of sabotage and also implied that the duo have become a burden on the Nigerian economy, it was very obvious that she was writing from two perspectives. One is that she has maintained a pathological disgust for the NLC and the entire movement since the struggle against fuel price hike started under the leadership of Comrade Adams Oshiomhole. The second is that she lacked understanding of the movement.

The strike NUPENG had was in real fact to ensure the economy is not overburdened with higher unemployment. We still recall that NLC have consistently called for the prosecution of those indicted by House of Representatives soon after the Lawal led committee submitted its report. The NLC made presentations to the committee during its sittings. In all the presentations, the NLC had always called for proper investigation, prosecution and appropriate punishment of everyone indicted.

By the way, we need to be reminded that the committee and indeed all the post-subsidy removal committees constituted either by the legislature or the executives were all direct products of agitations by the NLC and its allies. So, how could anyone assume the same NLC will agitate for the freedom of oil subsidy thieves, majority of whom are yet to be arrested?

Interestingly, Ijeoma also accused the leadership of the National Union of Electricity Employees and its members of sabotage at the Power Holding Company of Nigeria, PHCN. To Ijeoma, the union’s consistent agitation for a probe into the disappearance of the workers’ pension funds constituted sabotage. And now that a Federal Government panel has traced part of the pension fund to a bank in London, Ijeoma is yet to retract herself on her false conclusions. From the “resignation” of Prof. Bart Nnaji to the discovery of the missing pension funds, the union and its members have been proven to be patriots rather than saboteurs as claimed by Ijeoma.

The labour movement will continue to agitate against subsidy removal because that’s the only way a country so badly managed can be propelled to the path of strong economy, petroleum being a critical driving force.

While you can dismiss Ijeoma as a conservative writer, one cannot wish off  Dr. Jibrin Ibrahim who is close to the movement.

In his write up titled: “Is the Fuel Subsidy Cabal Too Powerful?” Jibrin alleged that the marketers or those he called “mega thieves” paid NUPENG to call the strike under reference. He went further to claim that NLC “chickened out” of the struggle against subsidy removal.

We can’t make progress in any situation where everyone is assumed to have a price. (Does) NUPENG need funding from the marketers before they stand up for their members interests? Jubrin should have taken his time to look at the demands of the union. Were their demands protective of any mega thief? All the five demands made by the union were all in the interest of members of the union, the industry where they have a stake and the entire country.

And we must be factual when alleging compromise under the influence of financial inducement. It is an easy and lazy way to destroy people and organizations; and clearly Jubrin’s write up is loathed (sic)with this intention.

Jubrin should know that no trade union anywhere in the world will ever call a strike that will not end on the negotiation table. And that’s what the NLC and TUC did in January. The January strike had specific demands and those demands were subjected to several painstaking negotiations at the end of which the price of petrol was unilaterally reduced from N145 to N97, even when negotiations were still on.  That was a clear blackmail on the part of government because should the strike continue, the movement risk losing followership. The trade unions know the limit of a strike and Jubrin should know this.

If there were threats to massively murder protesters, are we organizationally prepared to sustain mass action or even a strike?

If anyone should be accused of chickening out, it should be the likes of Jubrin who was(sic) either relaxing in the comfort of his office at Center for Democracy and Development or riding in his air-conditioned car behind protesters mainly for the purpose of taking photographs of protesters, which eventually get to donor agencies from the comfort of what they call “situation room”.

And let us come home with the truth, most of the “organizations” we refer to as Civil Society Organisations are not. They are mere one person, media driven “organisations” preferably referred to as MONGO, which is My Own Non-Governmental Organisation or DINGO – Donor Initiated Non Governmental Organisation. Some are even GINGO – Government Initiated Non Government Organisations. These “organizations” are loud in the media, particularly the social media. They prefer the comfort of their offices, if any, than attending meetings or mobilizing for popular protests. They have the “best” analysis when it comes to polemics on social revolution but too far from the mass of our people to understand what it takes to get people on to the streets for mass protests. These categories of activists are the ones who will accuse the labour movement of chickening out of the January actions. Such persons and CSOs can’t be found in LASCO where serious mass organizations in the Joint Action Front exist. We challenge Dr. Jibrin Ibrahim to give proof that he mobilized anyone for the January protests.

The January protests opened a new beginning in our collective struggle and before the fire next time, we need to understand clearly what we collectively desire and with whom we need to place our trust.

 

Denja Yaqub, an Assistant Secretary with the Nigeria Labour Congress wrote from LABOUR HOUSE, Abuja


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