Labour: It’s time for intellectual engagement, not aluta

Unless there is a last minute volte-face, the nation’s labour body will tomorrow embark on an industrial action to force the government to rescind its decision on the withdrawal of subsidy on Premium Motor Spirit (petrol) and electricity which resulted in price hike for the duo. But the fact is that the decision is beyond the government because the subsidy removal was part of the conditions attached to the $3.4 billion emergency financial assistance the International Monetary Fund (IMF) granted Nigeria under the Rapid Financing Instrument to mitigate the economic impact of COVID-19 pandemic and the sharp fall in oil prices.

So, as much as the government may want to reverse the decision due to pressure from the labour bodies or empathy for the people, it is almost certain that it will not because its hands are tied by the agreement it signed with the IMF. Consequently, the government would rather deploy the instrumentality of law to frustrate the strike or where that is impossible allow it to go on till everyone is worn out and the people prevail on the labour to call off the strike.

As a result, I am of the opinion that rather than going ahead with the strike that would not produce any respite for the people, the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) and the Trade Union Congress (TUC) should go into discussion with the government on how to make the best of a very bad situation.

One of the arguments by the government for withdrawing the subsidy is that advanced by President Muhammadu Buhari who said his government had spent close to N1.7 trillion to supplement electricity tariff shortfalls in five years.

Similarly, the Minister of State for Petroleum Resources, Timipre Sylva, in his submission, said as a result of withdrawing subsidy from petrol, the government would be saving more than N1 trillion annually. According to the minister, while the subsidy regime held sway, the government was budgeting about N500billion annually for subsidy while at the same time losing about N500billion yearly to foreign exchange concessions granted oil marketers.

Put together, by withdrawing subsidy from PMS and electricity, the Nigerian government would be saving over N1.5trillion annually. I think this is where the labour leaders should get creative, channel their energies and engage the government rather than threatening to shut down the country with strikes and protests.

Going by its antecedent, there is no guarantee that the government would deploy the money saved from this exercise in any way to improve the lot of the people. That is where the labour should come in and ensure that the freed fund is not frittered on non-essentials. Labour should work with the government to guard against the money being wasted on ministers, legislators and even the presidency. Labour should insist that the money is used to improve the lot of the average Nigerian whose disposable income and purchasing power have been weakened by the resultant price increase.

Rather than letting the money get lost in routine government activities, labour leaders should prevail on the government to use the money to make life better for Nigerians by channeling it to bridge the country’s massive infrastructure deficit.

As pointed out in this column penultimate week, if the savings from the subsidy withdrawal is channeled into building a Dangote-like refinery, the government will have a brand new refinery in three years. With that, the price of PMS, kerosene, diesel and even aviation fuel would crash in the country and this would result in improvement in the life of the average Nigerian; more employment opportunities for Nigerians, respite for our embattled currency and more revenue for the government. That would be more beneficial to the people than a strike that would not move the people beyond the point they are currently.

If the money saved from subsidy removal is deployed to building world-class hospitals in different parts of the country, this would go a long way in improving healthcare delivery across the country and put an end to the agony people are subjected to in their search for good healthcare, reduce medical tourism and give the nation’s foreign reserves a measure of reprieve. With a world-class 1,000-bed health facility costing N2billion, savings from subsidy removal would be enough to afford the government build 500 world-class hospitals across the country in one year and 1,000 in two years. Should the NLC and TUC persuade the government to invest the savings in this wise, Nigerians would be the better for it.

Should the government invest the savings from subsidy removal in setting up cottage industries in the country, working on the average of each cottage industry costing N100,000,000, it would be able to set up 10,000 of such industries in one year. This means each of the 774 local governments can have 12 cottage industries in one year. With each of these employing 20 people, no fewer than 200,000 would be gainfully employed. If this is done for five years, it would make a huge difference in the country. That would have a greater impact on the life of the average Nigerian than going on protests and downing tools.

There is time for everything under the sun. There is time for aluta, there is also time for intellectual engagement. Given the Catch-22 situation which the country has found itself, this is time for labour leaders to review their strategy and take steps that would take the country from the current rut to the much desired pedestal of improved living for as many Nigerians as possible.

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