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Great 2016 expectations, we will be alive to our responsibilities – NLC

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*Being New Year Message from the Nigeria Labour Congress

Instead of using our current economic reality as a basis for deep reflection on how to revive and rebuild our economy, our political elite have instead chosen to engage Nigeria workers in battle by Governors threatening to abandon the payment of the N18,000 national minimum wage.

Ayuba Wabba, NLC President

PREAMBLE

The outgoing year has been an eventful and challenging year for Nigerian workers in particular, and Nigerians in general due to a number of developments in our polity, which tested our resilience as a people. The March/April general elections took place against the backdrop of a lot of apprehension and doomsday prediction that our country would be unable to overcome the attendant crisis that would emanate from it. The outstanding performance of Prof. Attahiru Jega-led INEC, and the remarkable statesmanship displayed by the then incumbent President Jonathan, as well as the firmness of his challenger, General Muhammadu Buhari, combined to give Nigeria its first authentic transition from one ruling party to the other in our 55-year history as an independent nation.

On the security front, our armed forces within the year, regained its reputation as a resilient fighting force, and gallantly fought the Boko Haram terrorist insurgents, inflicting severe defeats, routing them out of occupying any part of the North East Geopolitical Zone, which they had terrorized for some years. Though the war is still on, Nigerians now have a sense of belief that it is only a matter of time for these evil forces to be overwhelmed and defeated.

On the economic front, the year 2015 was a particularly trying one for Nigerian workers and Nigerians as a whole. The combination of falling crude oil price, our main source of foreign exchange, compounded by the legacy of massive corruption and maladministration by the Jonathan administration at the federal level, and at the state levels by state governors across political parties, had combined to further incapacitate workers and the masses of our people. The governors had so recklessly plundered state resources that by the May 29, 2015 handover date; a number of them could not perform the ceremonial handing over, a number of them left unpaid workers’ salaries ranging from three (3) to nine (9) months. Our economic crisis was further deepened with the free fall of the naira, which has lost over 30% of its value since the price of crude oil began to crumble.

Against the above adverse economic situation, rather than being creative about how to revive the economy, our political leaders (the political and economic elite) have sought to find scapegoats for their mismanagement of the economy and lack of foresight in Nigerian workers and the downtrodden masses of our people.

OUR EXPECTATIONS OF THE NEW YEAR

The working people and the rest of the poor mass of our people are entering the New Year against the backdrop of these uncertainties and other challenges. Given the massive support Nigerians gave President Buhari as a symbol and icon of change, they expectedly harbour tremendous expectations that his government will deliver on a number of areas and provide succour that has for decades eluded them. For the NLC as a vanguard organisation of the Nigerian working class, we wish to use the occasion of the New Year to highlight a few of these expectations and indeed also our fears.

ELITE RESPONSE TO OUR ECONOMIC SITUATIONS

Instead of using our current economic reality as a basis for deep reflection on how to revive and rebuild our economy, our political elite have instead chosen to engage Nigeria workers in battle. This is symbolised in recent threats by the Nigerian Governors Forum to abandon the payment of the N18, 000 national minimum wage which was enacted into law in 2011, or in the alternative sack workers to join the army of the unemployed.

Another threat against the poor masses of Nigeria is the vigorous advocacy by several representatives of the ruling class, their business elite collaborators, the World Bank and IMF, is that the Nigerian government should use the opportunity of the low price of crude oil to remove the subsidy on petroleum products. The argument, as we have heard over and over in the last 30-35 years, is that the money so freed from paying subsidy will be used to upgrade our infrastructure, provide educational and healthcare facilities among others.

For us, the fall in the price of crude oil provides a unique opportunity for our country to go back to the basics; to diversify and make governments at every level to look critically at areas of its comparative advantage and concentrate efforts to make the difference in. Virtually all parts of our country is blessed with one form of agricultural produce or the other. Our governments need to invest in modern agricultural infrastructure so that we can bring back the groundnut pyramids, the cocoa and palm plantations of the First Republic. In Ikeja Industrial Estate and the Apapa Port in Lagos, the infrastructure built to handle bulk export of cocoa are still lying waste. These can be revived.

In the same vein, our business elite and multinational companies are notorious for evading paying taxes. The federal and states revenue services need to step up identifying those that had not been paying taxes and get them to do so efficiently in the New Year. Government needs to impose property tax on the several hundreds of flashy estates and other structures in Abuja and several state capitals across the country. Some of these structures have laid unoccupied for years, making us to believe that they are properties developed with laundered funds.

It is such a big national shame that Ajaokuta Steel Company conceived to be the foundation and cornerstone of our industrialisation has been wilfully neglected and abandoned all these years after over $5 billion had been sunk into the construction of its huge and vast edifice. Additionally, Ajaokuta was also meant to produce the steel we need as a country to replace our obsolete rail lines with modern standard gauge rail lines. On a recent visit by a delegation of Congress leadership to China, and following discussions with top officers of the ruling establishment there, shows a clear readiness to partner with Nigeria to make functional our steel development sector, which the western world has over the years conspired with our unpatriotic elite to prevent from functioning.

Campaign Against Corruption

We believe that one of the fundamental problems of our country presently is endemic corruption! This has permeated all facets of our society and it manifests in varying dimensions with the greatest casualties being the average Nigerian who are in perpetual economic bondage, lack of basic infrastructure and violence and general insecurity of lives and property. The recent exposure of the massive corruption scam superintended over by Col. Sambo Dasuki (Rtd), is one sordid example that graphically illustrates how bad things went under the last dispensation.

In the light of the above, the Nigerian Labour Congress is giving its full support to President Muhammadu Buhari in his resolve to fight and defeat corruption.

In fact, there is a convergence between our own promise to Nigerian workers during our 11th Delegates’ Conference in February/March 2015, (when we were elected), and President Buhari’s campaign promise during his own election campaigns which came after ours on March 28, 2015. In our programme we had stated: “It is a fact that the level of corruption in our public life has reached an unacceptable dimension”. We then said we would take up the campaigns against corruption more vigorously as we move into a new dispensation post-May 2015. This, we said, is as a result of the corrosive effect corruption has had on our quest for development. This informed our decision early in September 2015 to mobilize our members and allies in civil society to have the one-day “National Rally Against Corruption and for Good Governance”.

Campaign for Good Governance

In the New Year we shall also intensify our campaign for good governance side by side with our battle against corruption. The national leadership of Congress had long before now acknowledged the fact that the performance of most of our political office holders across the various layers of the governance structure has been less than satisfactory. As a result, we had pledged to “institute a mechanism of accountability and assessment of all public office holders”. We promised to work with professional bodies and other credible organizations to make these assessments and publicize them annually.

Before the end of the first quarter of 2016, the Congress shall convene a National Civil Society Summit. The summit will, among other issues, address how trade unions, professional bodies, religious organisations, market men and women organisations, students and youth bodies, other mass organizations and civil society bodies attending the summit can fashion out ways of holding our political leadership at all levels accountable and responsive to the developmental aspirations of our people. The summit will also agree on mechanisms for developing a scorecard for cabinet ministers and for state governors on good governance index that will subsequently be released every December.

The summit will also (hopefully working with the Nigerian Bar Association as lead), devise ways in which we can ensure that the use of existing loopholes in our justice system to prevent treasury looters to evade justice for upward of seven to ten years as is currently being witnessed in the country, are identified and blocked. As happens in civilized societies, we want to see people being tried for corruption to have their cases concluded within a maximum period of 9-24 months.

On the Campaign to withdraw Subsidy on Petroleum Products and Deregulation of the Downstream Sector of the Oil Industry.

In the last 30 to 35 years since successive Nigerian governments – military or civilian – have found it necessary to increase prices of petroleum products in the country, no other group in Nigeria has engaged government – both in dialogue and on the streets – as much as organized labour and its allies in civil society. The NLC is therefore familiar with government’s arguments, rhetoric and other tricks. We must admit that all these have sadly not changed over the years, even in the current dispensation under President Buhari.

The Honourable Minister of State for Petroleum Resources, Dr Ibe Kachikwu’s latest effort to clothe his (or multi-national oil corporations’) desire to increase fuel prices in the name of “price modulation” is therefore nothing new to us. It is in fact coming straight out of an IMF briefing on how to enforce fuel price increase on Nigeria.

Despite Dr Kachikwu’s antics, Nigerian workers and the mass of our people will in the New Year, hold President Muhammadu Buhari to his words that there is indeed no fuel subsidy to be removed. The president having been Federal Commissioner for Petroleum Resources for three years (under General Obasanjo as military head of state) and superintended over the construction of two of our four refineries, is in a vantage position to speak with authority on the issue of subsidy.

According to Buhari: “What I understand that Nigeria should charge Nigerians is the cost of one barrel at the wellhead and then the cost of transportation to the refinery, the cost of refining it and its cost at the pump. If anybody says he is subsidizing anything, he is a fraud. So all these people talking about subsidy, who is subsidizing who?”

During his maiden visit to the United States shortly after his inauguration as President, while addressing Nigerians in diaspora, President Buhari had emphatically explained in detail: “When people ask you to remove subsidy, ask them to define it. Who is subsidizing whom? Let me make it clear. These people are gleefully saying, “remove subsidy”… they want petrol to cost N500 per litre. If you are working and subsidy is removed, you can’t control transport, you can’t control market women, the cost of food, the cost of transportation…if you are earning N20,000 per day and living in Lagos or Ibadan, the cost of transportation to work and back, the cost of food. You cannot control the market women. They have to pay what transporters charge them. But I’m thinking more than half of the population of Nigeria virtually cannot afford to live… where will they get the money to go (to) work? How can they feed their families? How can they pay rent?”

The issues the President highlighted above have been at the core of the struggles by organised labour on the economic logic of the removal of subsidy and deregulation for over three decades. In the process, our members have been killed, maimed and imprisoned. In 2009, the NEC of NLC commissioned a committee of ten to do a detailed dialogue with government and other stakeholders on deregulation of petroleum downstream. The committee’s report entitled; Report of NLC Committee on Deregulation, which is still available; provides detailed arguments that supported the assertions of the President above.

While we would naturally have been happy to refer all those clamouring for more taxes on the poor masses of Nigeria to listen to Mr President patriotic counsel; we have however become very disturbed that he may have become converted by the ideologues of market forces in the oil industry symbolised by the boldness of Minister Ibe Kachikwu.

In his contradictory statements in the last few weeks – first making a categorical statement about fuel prices moving to N97 per litre and then retreating to hide behind IMF catch phrase of “price modulation,” which we know is an “updated IMF strategy” of imposing fuel price deregulation on the Nigerian people, it has become clear that Mr President has like his predecessors in office become another captive of the forces of subsidy removal and deregulation.

We note further that leading figures in the ruling party, the APC, have recently become vocal advocates of the removal of fuel subsidy. We wish to remind the APC and President Buhari that any U-turn now to force price increases on Nigerians will amount to betrayal of confidence.

What needs to be removed is the massive corruption that we have and which has been documented in the state’s efforts to make available these essential products for Nigerians. We still support President Buhari to go after the cabal involved in this monumental corruption and dismantle them. That is one of the reasons that Nigerians passionately rooted and massively voted him in March 2015 in spite of the glaring intimidation and threats to their lives.

Nigerian workers and the masses of the people have fought IMF/World Bank-inspired destructive economic policies in the past like the Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP), and this very fuel price increases which usually come in the name of removal of subsidy. As workers, we refuse to carry more burdens on our meagre wages.

Way Forward on the Petroleum Sector

We are against the corrupt enrichment of a few that has gone with scams in the name of fuel subsidy. But it does not have to be taken as given that corruption in oil sector cannot be tamed. Equally, while we commend efforts at getting the present refineries capacity utilisation levels increased, we call on the federal government to be more creative for us to ably expand refining capacity by building decentralised modular refineries. The State of Texas alone in the United States of America, has 26 refineries with a capacity of refining 4.72 million barrels per day. As a national priority, we must work to establish without any further dragging of our feet, modern refineries that will provide 100% of our national needs.

What we are against is the IMF-inspired fuel price deregulation. The current 50 kobo reduction in fuel price is obviously a gimmick. The pathway of international financial institutions which the current fuel subsidy removal act is taking will lead to increases in fuel pump price and attendant worsening of the hardships of poor working people.

Reducing Cost of Governance

Another key problem of our current democratic dispensation is the high cost of governance across all three (3) tiers of government. According to a 2009 Revenue Mobilization and Fiscal Commission (RMAFC) figures, the salaries and allowances of “certain political and judicial office holders”, totalling under 18,000 persons earn an astonishing N1.126 trillion annually. When we visited the Senate President in July 2015, we canvassed that drastic action be taken to reduce this in the light of dwindling revenue from oil. We also canvassed for greater transparency in the budgeting and determination of allowances of members of the National Assembly.

Regrettably, the effort of the leadership of the Senate to review downwards their take home wages and allowances was shut down by the entire Senate. Business in the National Assembly, as in virtually all other tiers of government, is continuing as usual with the political elite not willing to make any sacrifices that will impact on their current comfort zone.

Massive amount of money is also being squandered in the name of security vote. A typical case in point can readily be found in Bauchi State. It is public knowledge that in eight years, the Governor Yaguda administration of the state, for instance, squandered N91 billion in the name of security vote. It is also public knowledge that the entire members of a State House of Assembly in our current economically despondent situation still find it inoffensive to travel out of the country to engage in legislative tourism.

In the New Year, we must all have serious conversation to trim down the excessive wasteful spending going on in our public life. We will use the Freedom of Information Act to force into public domain how much, for example, our governors have spent chartering private jets and helicopters; how much is spent annually on long motorcades of governors, and the security votes of states, among others.

A New National Minimum Wage

An issue of great concern to the working class in Nigeria today is that of the national minimum wage which is due for an upward review. The National Minimum Wage Act of 2011 established parameters for re-opening negotiations for a new national minimum wage, which is to be reviewed every five years. Such review would take into perspective the purchasing power of the naira and prevailing rate of inflation. As things are right now, with the sharp devaluation of the naira, the existing N18, 000 minimum wage equally declined in value, thereby worsening the cost of living for workers.

It is however bothersome that the governors flew a reprehensible kite of minimum wage reduction in 2015. NLC did realise that this was a stratagy to get us talking about retaining the paltry sum of N18,000 as minimum wage instead of calling for an increment. We had responded accordingly and made clear our resolve to fight against any attempt to reduce the minimum wage, which would be illegal, as would be efforts to curtail an upward review, in line with the provisions of the 2011 National Minimum Wage Act.

It was therefore discomfiting that President Muhammadu Buhari appears to have given tacit support to the governors’ gambit, in the course of his maiden presidential media chat on December 30, 2015. Echoing the claim that states might not have the capacity to (continue to) pay a mere N18, 000 as minimum wage. For us in Congress, the position of the governors supported by the views of the Mr. President cannot be empirically defended. There is no state of the federation that cannot pay much more than N18, 000 as minimum wage if corruption and extravagance on the part of the public office holders are stamped out. If people are at the centre of states’ policies, which is of the essence for ensuring development, the focus should be on economic empowerment of the working people.

This is also important for kick-starting the economy from its present comatose state by increasing aggregate effective demand, through their enhanced purchasing power. Further, experience has shown that there is no amount which the employers private entrepreneurs and particularly as government will not initially claim is too much. For example, during the 2-year negotiations which led to the 2011 National Minimum Wage Act, NLC and TUC demanded N52, 000 as minimum wage. Several states that said this was too much and they could not pay more than N32,000 would later still say that even N18,000 was too much!

It equally has to be stressed at this point in time that the reviewing the national minimum wage upwards is a multidimensional necessity. Economics, legality, politics and morality are pillars on which we stand. NLC will be ready to negotiate, but with the precondition that minimum wage must be reviewed and this has to be upward.

We will fight to defend the right of workers to be paid take home wages that can actually take us home.

Unemployment Crisis

The unemployment crisis in the country is assuming a frightening dimension as there is hardly any household in the country where there is not at least two to three long-term unemployed persons several years after they had completed their schooling. We will continue in the New Year to dialogue with government and its various agencies on how the government of President Buhari intends to actualise its programme or promise of creating three million jobs annually.

We shall also be canvassing that governments at all levels embark on labour intensive alternatives in their development strategies as a conscious way of utilising available human resources.

The National Assembly’s self-aggrandisement

It is shocking that our lawmakers at the national level – Senators and Members of the House of Representatives – would continue with the bizarrely ostentatious standards they have set for themselves, for spending our collective patrimony. The planned purchase of 496 exotic cars costing several billions of naira, after getting car allowances, is not only outrageous but a mark of the manifest insensitivity of our legislators in the period of severe famine in the land.

How can we, poor working people, millions of the unemployed and the poor masses, be expected to tighten our belts, while those supposedly elected by us to manage and provide succour for our collective wellbeing intend to live like emperors at a time that our economy is facing serious challenges? We call on the leadership of the National Assembly to remove this item from the budget for the National Assembly, and in the spirit of accountability and transparency, begin to make public the budget of the legislature. Failure to do this, Nigeria Labour Congress will in the New Year mobilise mass action against the National Assembly on these issues.

Fighting Insurgency in the North East

NLC appreciates the efforts of the armed forces in combating Boko Haram insurgents, but must point out that there is much more to be done, before the government can claim to have defeated the insurgents, technically or otherwise.

Those being killed and the 2.3 million displaced persons are poor people. NLC is keen to have this macabre moment in our national life upturned. This would require boosting of the military’s actions; enhanced care for internally displaced persons, and; implementing the North East intervention plan for the socio-economic development of the zone.

The fate of the Chibok girls will always remain a litmus test of how victorious the state is in the war against Boko Haram. It is thus worrisome that there is no information whatsoever about their possible whereabouts, according to President Muhammadu Buhari. We enjoin the federal government to redouble its efforts at finding the Chibok girls.

Irregular Payment of Pensions

One of the legacies of the misrule of the preceding years is the incidence of irregular and non-payment of payments of our retired civil servants and senior citizens. While salaries were been owed for up to nine months, the situation of the pensioners were worse as many states were in arrears of pension payment for between 12 months or more.

This sorry situation is against the background of virtually all recent past and serving governors awarding themselves scandalous and end of tenure benefits while members of the legislature immorally awarding themselves outrageous retirement benefits running into hundreds of millions of n aira for serving their states, some for just a tenure of four years.

While the Contributory Pension Scheme first introduced in 2004 and further amended in July 2014 sought to provide long term solution to our pension crisis, many of the states have not made enough effort for their civil servants to join the scheme. as at April 30, 2015, only eight (8) states had commenced remittances to contributions into the Retirement Savings Accounts (RSAs) of their workers, while another six states have commenced funding of their retirement benefit bond redemption fund accounts.

In the New Year, the Congress would work with State Councils of NLC to engage state governments to pay up pension arrears of their retired employees, and to conclude arrangements to join the Contributory Pension Scheme as provided for in the Pensions Reform Act of 2014.

In the same vein, we shall mobilise for all employers to pay the new pensions contribution of 18% of total pay which came into effect with the signing of the new pension Act into law in July 2014.

Internal Organisational Issues

The Congress in late August held a National Leadership Retreat to map out a number of organisation development issues. In the New Year, we will engage in a systematic tour of our affiliates and state councils to have first-hand knowledge of their current challenges, and together, we shall fine-tune a coherent strategy to address their problems and challenges.

In the same vein, we shall embark on a new membership drive and anti-casualization campaigns in the New Year.

Finally, our leadership of Congress wishes to use the occasion of the New Year to recommit ourselves to the founding tradition that makes it the historic duty of the NLC to lead the vanguard of the oppressed people of Nigeria. In doing this, we shall act and conduct ourselves in a responsible manner and in ways dictated by the renowned principles of the working class movement. We shall use the democratic structures of our organisation and liaise with our allies when the need arises as we prepare to engage government and other critical stakeholders. All we ask is the support and prayers of Nigerian workers and the masses as we enter the New Year.

Comrade Ayuba Wabba, mni

President, NLC

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