Wobbling Wabba – By Louis Odion, FNGE

President Buhari

Even the most ardent of his supporters would
have felt ashamed at Comrade Ayuba Wabba’s lame showing in Abuja this week. A
moment that should have been seized to showcase personal gumption and a good
reading of the national mood was alas squashed on the altar of petty ego and
The consequence was
the humiliating blow the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) suffered Wednesday, the
opening day of the “grandmother of all strikes” the nation was told
to await, in response to last week’s increment of petrol price from N86.50 to
N145. Other than a sparse procession Wabba and like minds led through some
deserted Abuja streets and a whimper at a few isolated locations across the
country, the strike was a huge failure. 

Most workers – both in
the public and private sectors – reported for duty in clear contempt of the
earlier call to action. Never in recent history has the leadership of the
organized labour been made to look like a toothless bulldog.
But this
demystification was self-inflicted. It started when labour turned up at
the negotiating table with the government team on Monday. Beefy Wabba, a
factional leader of NLC, would not agree to share the same table with willing
pint-sized Comrade Joe Ajaero who leads a smaller faction. At the venue on that
fateful day, the story is told of how “concerned elders” present
laboured in vain to convince Wabba to consider burying whatever differences he
had with Ajaero, even if momentarily, in order to present a united front before
the “oppressor” (the government), if only for the sake of the
hard-pressed workers.
Specifically, Edo
governor and “battle-hardened” labour veteran who should know, was
said to have frantically tried to persuade Wabba on the wisdom in labour
sitting as a united family at the round-table. In any case, given the numerical
strength of his own faction, no one would have contested Wabba’s privilege to
speak on the movement’s behalf at the enlarged gathering. 
But like a man acting
under a spell or what the Yoruba call “edi”, Wabba stubbornly stuck
to his guns. It was clear that the chubby-faced, bespectacled gladiator had
completely misread all Karl Marx’ manuals on battle tactics and strategy in the
circumstance. So, the government team had no other options than to meet the
workers’ “champions” in separate sessions!
To begin with, how far
did Wabba really think he could go with TUC and critical affiliates like
NUPENG, PENGASSAN, electricity union backing out of the action?
Indeed, what
transpired before, during and after the Abuja twin negotiations would have been
more than sufficient to script a Nollywood comedy movie. Only that the point at
issue was not exactly a laughing matter. Worse, it was at the expense of
Nigeria’s long-suffering masses. Whereas Ajaero sat through with the government
team and later partook in addressing a joint press conference on the outcome of
the engagement, Wabba chose to stage a walk-out during their own session. It
was clear he came to the table with only one idea: reversal of the petrol price
to N86.50 or nothing. Outside the hall, he told waiting pressmen that night the
strike would go ahead as planned the following morning. 
Comrade Ayuba Wabba
Well, this is not the
time to be drawn into the distractive argument on the propriety or otherwise of
the Wabba still calling out workers on strike in view of subsisting restraining
order by the Industrial Court. In labour circles, such is often dismissed as
“black market injunction”. That is beside the more fundamental point
that needs to be made. Most disturbing is the lack of rigour Wabba and the
other faction demonstrated during all the lavish media opportunities they had since
the official announcement of N145 as new pump price. 
One had expected a
more strategic labour would come up with a more nuanced argument, framing the
terms for a more rigorous national conversation on the matter. Ideally, the
first salvo in the counter-attack expected should be a forensic scrutiny of the
template adopted to arrive at the N145. Since workers themselves are
embedded in the system, one would have thought the labour would, by now, have
clinically taken the figure apart, item by item, with a view to exposing to the
public whatever skeletons the usually cynical government might still be hiding
in its closet.
If truly the
downstream sector has been liberalized how come a ceiling is still prescribed
to the price? In case demurrage cost had been built into the new price, how
justifiable is that? Should consumers be made to pay for the efficiency of
government’s agency? How equitable is the new forex policy proposed to drive
the deregulated downstream sector when a few would appear to have more access
to official rate than their competitors? What is the guarantee those so
favoured would not, as usual, succumb to the temptation to round-trip? In fact,
who said the labour, as a major stakeholder, should not be involved statutorily
in arriving at the price for petrol by the regulatory agency for transparency
and accountability?

Chris Ngige

Instead of steering
the public debate in this wholesomely critical direction, the labour leaders we
saw in the past few days appear only adept at sloganeering, certainly not like
the fraternity of deep thinkers the nation once had. For instance, the vacuity
of a sustained argument for subsidy retention at this hour is starkly exposed
when juxtaposed with the non-allocation of a single kobo for such in the 2016
appropriation act signed into law only last week by President Buhari.
A far-sighted labour should, therefore, have seen the arrow coming long
before now. The tragedy of the matter is that the Nigerian people increasingly
seem stuck with guys unwilling to accept that weapons used in getting quick
results last century have now largely become antiquated and may no longer be
efficient today.
Even if Wabba has a
superior argument, he has thus far denied himself the opportunity to let us
know what it is with his washy-washy tactics so far. Overall, Wabba’s colossal
error of judgment has been parlayed to a substantial capital by his rival
(Ajaero). By agreeing to engage the government further in the next two
weeks during which all the options would have been sufficiently explored, the
latter clearly showed more strategic prudence and a better reading of the
politico-economic forces at play presently. 
Truth be told, Nigeria
today is already gasping for breath as the global commodity crisis plunges
oil-dependent economies deeper and deeper into misery. For example, Venezuela,
another major oil producer, is already on the verge of social chaos as
public queues lengthen for essential commodities. Brazil’s president has just
been suspended for six months on account a crisis ignited by fall in oil
For Nigeria, it is
case of a perfect storm. Not only has oil price plummeted steeply, daily
production average has fallen from 2.2m to 1.2m bpd on account of resurgent
militancy and pipeline vandalism in the Niger Delta. Available records indicate
that the nation’s total oil receipt for the month of April was a paltry $600m
out of which a staggering $225m was spent on petrol subsidy. Clearly, this is
no longer sustainable. Already, more than two-third of the 36 states of the
federation are owing back wages. Even the Federal Government itself has for
months been hawking bonds, literally raiding the money market to raise cash to
pay its own workers.
Against this dark
backcloth, the labour needed at this time is one that can negotiate creatively
and realistically. Sure, more cash will be available to the government once
petrol subsidy is banished. Then, demand for a top-up of worker’s pay would
become logical. Besides, efforts should be geared at exploring avenues
through which the pain brought by the price hike on the most vulnerable in the
society could be better cushioned. More fundamentally, it is high time the labour
itself shook off its present lethargy and be alive to its historic duty by
rallying other progressive forces to initiate and sustain a new offensive
against the culture of waste in public office. Only then would more resources
be freed to touch people’s lives more tangibly.