Banks, offices, and other businesses in many parts of the country were shut on Wednesday following a rally by organised labour in protest against the failure of the Federal Government to provide palliatives to cushion the pains of fuel subsidy removal.
Several economic and commercial business premises were shut down in parts of the Federal Capital Territory and Abakaliki and other urban areas while many travellers were also stranded. The organised labour was insisting on N200,000 minimum wage for workers and other palliatives for Nigerians as a condition to call off their protests.
The protesters led by the President of the Nigerian Labour Congress, Joe Ajaero, and his Trade Union Congress counterpart, Festus Osifo, subsequently met with President Bola Tinubu at the Aso Villa on Wednesday evening. They were also slated to meet with the National Assembly leadership on Thursday (today) after their emergency National Executive Council meeting.
During the rally, the labour leaders met with National Assembly leaders where they vented their grievances over the worsening social and economic conditions in the country brought about by the fuel subsidy removal. The protesters commenced the street rally around 8.30 am from the Unity Fountain, Maitama, Abuja and proceeded to the Ministry of Justice, and from there to the National Assembly gate where a mild confrontation ensued between them and the security personnel on duty.
The protesters had asked the security agents to grant them access to lawmakers who were screening ministerial nominees. But as the security operatives delayed, the impatient protesters pulled down the gate and thronged into the assembly complex where they interacted with the Senate Chief Whip, Senator Ali Ndume, who represented the President of the Senate, Senator Godswill Akpabio.
Speaking on behalf of the workers, Ajaero asked the government to reverse the increase in the price of Premium Motor Spirit, school fees and Value Added Tax. The labour unions also demanded immediate fixing of the refineries, adding that the Nigerian citizens must insist on the production of fuel rather than importation.
Ajaero, who read the workers’ demands at the Senate said, “We demand the implementation in good faith of all resolutions at Congress jointly signed with the government and TUC; immediate reversal of all anti-poor policies of the government, including the recently hiked PMS price, school fees and VAT, the fixing of all modular refineries; Port Harcourt, Warri and Kaduna.
‘’In the entire statement made by Mr President, no comment was made about it. And we can’t continue to run an import-driven energy system. PMS seems to be the life-wire of the economy of Nigeria. And this is a natural resource given to us by God, we have no business refining abroad, we have no business importing.”
Ajaero claimed the committee that the Federal Government set up to negotiate with the unions disclosed that not a single kobo had been saved since subsidy was removed. He countered President Bola Tinubu’s statement that N1tn had been saved since his government stopped the payment of fuel subsidy.
In a nationwide broadcast on Monday, the president had said N1trn was saved within two months of the subsidy removal. “Mr President talked about N1trn saved. The committee when we met told us that no one kobo has been saved so far. Therefore, we have not agreed on what to pay anywhere,” the NLC president said.
Responding, Ndume asked the labour leaders and protesters to call off the nationwide protest and give the Senate one week to address their demands. He said, “We have keenly followed what is going on when we realized that there was a breakdown in the discussions between the Presidency and the NLC. I want to assure you that we will find a permanent solution to this.
“Please give us one week and we will make progress and if you are not satisfied with the progress we are making, then you can take further action.” The senator also said that a committee had been set up to look at the demands of organised labour.
He added that by the close of the day or Thursday (today), they would call the first meeting with labour to start the discussions and the engagements would continue. “We will do our best as your representatives to come out with solutions acceptable to you and realistic enough,” Ndume pledged.
The Senator representing the FCT, Ireti Kingibe, who identified as one of the unionists, being a member of the Labour Party, also appealed to the protesters to give the Senate time to address its demands with the Executive and respond accordingly.
Sequel to the plea by the National Assembly leaders, the National Executive Council of the NLC is expected to hold an emergency meeting on Thursday (today) to consider possible suspension of its protests.
The National Treasurer of the NLC, Hakeem Ambali, who disclosed this to The Punch, explained that the labour leaders would also meet with the leadership of the National Assembly. He said, “The leadership of the National Assembly pleaded with us to give them one week to resolve the matter. We will also meet with the senate either today or tomorrow (Thursday). Similarly, the NEC meeting of the NLC will be held tomorrow (Thursday).”
Meanwhile, the protests paralysed economic activities across the states with many offices unable to open for business. Several banks failed to open in Abakaliki, the Ebonyi State capital, leaving their customers stranded at their gates.
Banks were shut, while overwhelmed customers who could not carry out their transactions conversed in groups. A security guard in one of the banks, who pleaded anonymity, said the refusal of the banks to open for commercial activities was a consequence of the labour protests.
He said, “We didn’t open because of labour issues but we are waiting for directives on what to do.” The gates of the state High Court premises were equally locked forcing lawyers and litigants to return home.
However, the rally, led by Egwu Oguguo, Samson Nwafor, Ikechukwu Nwafor and other labour leaders, was peaceful. The workers had earlier converged on Abakaliki township stadium from where the protest took off amid heavy security presence.
Addressing the protesters, the NLC Chairman in the state, Oguguo said, “We need to move, let our voices be heard, let them stop putting their knees on our necks, let them not intimidate and oppress us. Nigerian people, Nigerian workers, we must breathe. We must shine, we need to shine, we need to move.”