Labour and Civil Society Organisations (LASCO) had planned to commence a nationwide strike on Monday, against the electricity tariff hike and increase in the price of petroleum products, but last minute dialogue between labour and the government negotiating team aborted the protest. No doubt most Nigerians currently have their backs against the wall, given the economic hardship they are going through and also the effect of the coronavirus pandemic on the fortunes of many.
There have been varying degrees of opinions on the planned protest but many others have received the suspension with mixed feelings given the degree to which Nigerians have been mobilised in readiness for what was to be the mother of all protests.
Without any doubt, the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, in its section 39 (1) has granted every citizen, including workers, the right to protest.
“39 (1) Every person shall be entitled to freedom of expression, including freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart ideas and information without interference.”
Freedom of expression is sacrosanct to the right to life itself and so, no one should attempt to gag anybody from expressing his or herself.
The beauty of section 39 (1) is that it talks of “every person”, including natural and artificial persons, such as myself, yourself and the Nigerian Labour Congress, the Trade Union Congress and the civil society organisations, who have all been granted an unfettered right to protest any government policy that is considered insensitive.
LASCO has insisted that the current increase in electricity tariff is against the subsisting judgment of the Federal High Court.
To that extent, it is illegal for the government and the DISCOS to increase the cost of electricity in flagrant violation of valid court judgment. But above it all is that such increment should be done in such a way that electricity consumers are not made to subsidise the corruption and inefficiency that have become prevalent in that critical sector, by ensuring that every consumer is metered.
The issue of estimated billing should be abolished once and for all. That should be the primary focus of the DISCOS, so that the increment is not deployed to exploit consumers who are not able to enjoy electricity supply but are yet compelled to pay for such at premium. Indeed, it will be the greatest act of injustice to ask anyone to pay for what he does not consume.
Then the local refineries should be made to function optimally such that in the years to come, we are able to refine our petroleum products and cut the cost of importation and all its associated bottlenecks of corruption and profiteering.
In this regard, it is gratifying that the government has now submitted the Petroleum Industry Bill, (PIB), to the National Assembly, in order to rescue that sector from its undertakers.
The National Assembly should in turn accelerate the process of its passage and thus help transform the oil sector for the good of the people and the investors.
There should be visible economic policies of government that affect the lives of the people positively and that can also be verified.
For instance, since the increment in the cost of electricity, supply has been fairly stable and regular, ranging between 20 and 16 hours in some locations in Lagos. A few locations have 22 hours supply, which means that all along, Nigerians do not deserve to live in a nation thrown into darkness or be the biggest importers of generators.
COVID-19 should be used as a golden opportunity to improve our health sector, to build modern hospitals and make the primary, secondary and tertiary health providers more effective and functional. The people do not ask for so much but to have good roads, functional hospitals, security of lives and property, affordable schools, stable electricity and provision of other critical infrastructure. These are not so hard to provide, considering the fact that other nations with less resources and opportunities are doing so for their people.
When one considers the plight of the ordinary worker or Nigerian, whose income has been battered by rising inflation and whose earning power has now been affected by the coronavirus pandemic, it can safely be said that the protest by LASCO is justified.
What the government should do is to engage in a roundtable in order to find a solution to the issues raised by LASCO and allow Nigerians to breathe.
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