News BitePolitics

ECONOMIC HARDSHIP PROTEST: Labour Mobilises, Fuel Queues Begin As Tanker Drivers Strike

Labour

The organised Labour on Monday began mobilising its members for a nationwide protest slated for February 27 and 28 over the cost of living crisis in the country.

Sources in the leadership of the Nigeria Labour Congress told our correspondents that the National Executive Council met via Zoom on Friday, February 16, to review the resolution of the National Action Council of the NLC and the Trade Union Congress via-a-vis organised labour agreement with the Federal Government.

Rising from the crucial meeting, the labour unions, sources said, agreed to demand the implementation of the agreement with the Federal Government without further delay.

“The NLC at its Zoom meeting held on Friday, February 16, 2024, resolved in line with the resolution of NAC of NLC and that of the TUC, which demands that the agreement between the leadership of the two labour centres and government be implemented without further delay,” a source told The PUNCH.

The Federal Government’s failure to fulfil its promises after the 14-day ultimatum by Labour, according to sources, will be met with two-day nationwide protest already slated for February 27 and 28.

The Head of Information of the NLC, Benson Upah, who confirmed the resolution of the meeting, told one of our correspondents on the telephone that the NLC affiliates were being mobilised for the protest just as state chapters of the congress vowed to join the nationwide demonstration.

Upah told one of our correspondents that the protest would be held as planned and agreed at the meeting.

Asked if the union would shelve the protest, he responded, “Why would we back down? Has anything changed to warrant that? For your information, we are mobilising in earnest,” he added.

A memo obtained by one of our correspondents and dated February 18, 2024, also confirmed the meeting and the resolution reached.

Signed by General Secretary of the National Union of Public Service Reportorial, Secretarial, Data Processors, and Allied Workers Union, Duro Adebisi, and titled, ‘Mobilisation for Nationwide Protest’ the memo read, “I write in reference to the subject matter above to inform you that the NEC of Nigeria Labour Congress at its Zoom meeting held on Friday, February 16, 2024 resolved in line with the resolution of NAC of NLC and that of the TUC, which demands that the agreement between the leadership of the two labour centres and government be implemented without further delay. But that if otherwise, after the expiration of the 14-day ultimatum, which will elapse on 22nd February 2024, affiliates should direct its members across the board for a two-day nationwide protest on 27th and 28th February 2024, respectively.

“Comrades, arising from the paragraph above, the National Secretariat of our union is hereby requesting your council to start mobilising our members in collaboration with your state/federal NLC to ensure/encourage our active participation in the said action (s).”

As labour unions mobilised their members for the nationwide protest, there were fuel queues in Kano, Kaduna, Rivers, and Ogun states, as well as Abuja, on Monday following the strike embarked upon by the Nigerian Association of Road Transport Owners.

It was earlier reported that the country might witness another round of fuel scarcity as NARTO vowed to stop lifting petroleum products beginning from Monday (yesterday) due to the high cost of operations.

NARTO strike

NARTO members raised concern over the high cost of diesel required to power their trucks to transport petroleum products across the country.

The Federal Government had ordered oil marketers to negotiate with NARTO to avert tanker drivers’ planned suspension of operations.

It was learnt that oil marketers and the officials of NARTO met about six times between Saturday and Sunday following the declaration of the petroleum products’ transporters to halt operations.

As the Federal Government battled to end the tanker drivers’ strike, the NLC on Monday vowed not to back down on the planned protests.

The NLC’s National President, Joe Ajaero, said last week that the protest would begin a week after the expiration of the 14-day ultimatum it issued to the federal government, which will expire on February 23.

The organised labour lamented that millions of Nigerian workers were facing hunger, erosion of purchasing power, and insecurity due to reforms that drove up inflation.

Ajaero, who spoke during a briefing with journalists in Abuja, noted that the decision followed an emergency National Executive Council meeting on the state of the economy and matters related to insecurity in the country.

Though the NLC and its Trade Union Congress counterpart commenced negotiation with the government for a new minimum wage for workers on Monday, the outcome of which it said must reflect the realities on the ground, which include the high costs of living, inflation, naira devaluation, and the general economic shocks, the NLC leadership vowed that the protests would go on as planned.

Also, the state chapters of the NLC expressed their readiness to participate in the protest, which is expected to ground commercial and economic activities across the country.

The Kano State NLC Chairman, Kabir Inuwa, in an interview with The PUNCH, affirmed the workers’ willingness to participate in the rally as directed by the union’s national leadership.

Similarly, the Zamfara State chapter of the congress explained that its members would participate in the demonstration.

The acting secretary of the union, Ahmed Abubakar, said the members were waiting for the directive from the national body to participate in the protests.

The leadership of the NLC in Bayelsa State also said the workers in the state were ready for a showdown.

The state Chairman of the NLC, Simon Barnabas, stated that the members had been sensitised about the rally.

Asked if workers in Osun State would join the national protests, the state TUC Chairman, Abimbola Fasasi, said the leadership of the labour movement was ready for the challenge.

Fasasi, who said the oath taken by the labour unions was to fight for the rights of their members, also noted, “We are good to go anytime, any day. It is part of the deal and the oath we took to fight for our rights, especially the people we lead. We will do it.”

In compliance with the directive, the Delta State chapter of the NLC said it had started mustering its members for the protests.

Delta NLC

The NLC Chairman, Delta State, Goodluck Ofobruku, confirmed the preparations for the event.

However, his TUC counterpart, Mr Martin Bolum, said, “We have not been communicated to; we are still waiting. If they communicate with us, we know what to do.”

Among others, the Federal Government agreed to pay N35,000 wage award to workers until a new minimum wage is agreed on.

Responding to the insistence of labour to press ahead with its protest, the Minister of Information and National Orientation, Mohammed Idris, in an interview with The PUNCH, urged the leadership of organised Labour to exercise restraint, stating that the government has started implementing many of the 16-point demands they agreed on.

As the pains of the food crisis bite harder, on Monday, youths disrupted commercial activities in parts of Ibadan, the Oyo State capital, in protest over the situation in the country.

The protest, which started at the popular Mokola Roundabout, spread to Adamasingba, Ekotedo, Onireke, Sango, Bodija, Agbowo, and Ojoo, as the security agencies deployed in the areas to prevent a breakdown of law and order.

The incident caused a traffic gridlock on the ever-busy roads to Ojoo, Adamasingba and Bodija areas.

The protesters were seen carrying placards complaining about the spiralling current cost of living, the fluctuating prices of food items, economic hardship and the urgent need for the government to take pragmatic steps towards making food affordable.

Their mantra, ‘Ebi n pa wa’ (we are hungry) charged the atmosphere.

Some of the inscriptions read, ‘Mr President, this is not the hope you promised,’ ‘This is shege,’ ‘Is this the renewed hope that you promised?’ ‘End hardship,’ ‘We want peace’ and so on.

The youth moved from Mokola to the vicinity of the University of Ibadan at Agbowo while security agencies comprising the police, Nigerian Army, Department of State Services and the Nigeria Security and Civil Defence Corps trailed behind them to forestall violence.

Meanwhile, the strike embarked upon by NARTO led to the closure of many filling stations in Kaduna, Ogun and many other states as well as the Federal Capital Territory as the Federal Government told journalists in Abuja that the meeting with the association would continue on Tuesday to resolve the concerns.

In Abuja, the Nigerian National Petroleum Company Limited filling station on Arab Road in Kubwa, Abuja, was locked on Monday morning. The Conoil filling station along the Zuba-Kubwa expressway had long queues.

While the tanker operators insisted that the suspension of operations was still in force, they met with the Minister of State for Petroleum Resources (Oil), Heineken Lokpobiri, oil marketers, and the regulator of the downstream sector on Monday to resolve the issues.

Speaking in Abuja after the meeting, Lokpobiri expressed optimism that the concerns raised by the petroleum products’ transporters would be resolved, adding that the meeting would continue throughout the night till Tuesday.

In attendance at the meeting was the President of NARTO, Yusuf Othman, who led other executive members of the association; officials of the Nigerian Midstream and Downstream Petroleum Regulatory Authority, led by the agency’s Chief Executive, Farouk Ahmed; oil marketers in the downstream; as well as the minister and his team.

Allaying fear over the strike, Lokpobiri stated, “We hope to find solutions to the concerns as soon as possible. Engagement will continue throughout this night till tomorrow and at the end of it all, we will be able to tell you the outcome of our engagements.

“But it should be pointed out clearly that they have demonstrated patriotism. It should also be known that the issues have nothing to do with the government, they are basically commercial. So as a government, we have intervened so that Nigerians will not suffer.’’

Meanwhile, the Major Energies Marketers Association of Nigeria said the decision of NARTO to stop transporting fuel might not have much effect on its members, some of whom had separate transporters.

The Executive Secretary of MEMAN, Clement Isong, said the association did not have the power to negotiate the cost of transporting fuel, adding that the law does not permit that.

Isong said members of MEMAN had negotiated the cost of lifting products with transporters of choice, adding that was what the law allowed.

Reacting to the claim that NARTO and MEMAN could not negotiate and agree on freight rates, Isong said, “That is not exactly true, the law does not permit us, NARTO and MEMAN, to negotiate transport rates. It is like saying, can we fix fuel pump prices? Will that be legal? I can’t fix fuel pump prices, they too cannot sit down to negotiate transport rates. It is the same principle.’’

However, the Vice President of the Independent Petroleum Marketers Association of Nigeria, Hammed Fashola, said the industrial action would affect all marketers and it would lead to fuel scarcity.

Calling for dialogue, he said, “We have to tell ourselves the whole truth, if major marketers are saying they will not be affected, I think they are trying to play smart because NARTO members lift products for major and independent marketers.

I don’t know how it will not affect them.

“Definitely, it will affect us all once there is no loading at the depot. Whatever we have in the stations, once it dries up and there is no lifting from the depots, it will affect our operations,” Fashola said.

He maintained that the demands of the tanker drivers were genuine.

“I think the stakeholders have to look into their case. The government has to come in to look at their case because everybody is in the business to make minimal profit. I am sure the government will do something; they cannot just keep quiet.

“The strike starts today and there won’t be any activity in most of the depots. I know the government will call them for a round table, including marketers too,” he added.

Speaking with one of our correspondents, the Secretary of the Depot and Petroleum Products Marketers Association of Nigeria, Olufemi Adewole, said he could not confirm the effect of the situation as of the time of filing this report.

Efforts to get the reaction of the Nigerian National Petroleum Company Limited did not succeed as the spokesperson, Olufemi Soneye, could not be reached on the phone.

Meanwhile, filling stations dispensed fuel in Lagos and Ogun states as of noon on Monday; but there were concerns that the stations would be closed if the tanker drivers refused to resume work.