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Who bears the cost of Nigeria’s aggressive strikes?

Between 1950 and 1953 a fierce war raged between North and South Korea, claiming an estimated three million lives. On July 27, 1953, generals from…

Between 1950 and 1953 a fierce war raged between North and South Korea, claiming an estimated three million lives. On July 27, 1953, generals from the US, China and North Korea met in a little Korean village called Panmunjom to sign an armistice that allowed for a ceasefire in the Korean War which brought relative peace between the two countries, and one of the most militarised borders in the world up till today.

Even though there hasn’t been an open war since then, it is generally known and accepted that the two Koreas are technically still at war. Each side has continued to advance military capabilities to prepare for the rekindling of outright hostilities because, on paper, the war never ended; it was just pause.

Technically, Nigeria has not been at war since the Civil War of 1967-1970, but for all intents and purposes, like the Koreas, we have been in a state of armistice since eternity. There has been an eternal war raging between the Nigerian government and its civil servants; a war punctuated by an armistice every now and then.

The Nigeria Labour Congress NLC) on Tuesday renewed its armistice with the Nigerian government following its rather short and aggressive industrial action that included shutting down the national power grid and airports, disrupting flights and other vital services. As far as employment conflicts go, this is one of the most savage we have yet seen, as short-lived as it was.

It would seem that the NLC has been in a perpetual state of strike, which it only “suspends” (to be resumed at a later date) each time it reaches an agreement with the government.

So, in other words, the FG’s relationship with the NLC is not unlike that between the two Koreas, trapped in a permanent state of conflict, a state in which even in the semblance of peace, one or the other is stockpiling weapons or building a tunnel to attack the other once the chance arises. There is no question that the NLC strike is justified. However, that does not mean that all acts or actions taken during the strike are justifiable. The demand for a reasonable wage cannot be argued against, especially in the context of the policies of the current administration that have driven inflation into double digits and unleashed a cost-of-living crisis that the country has never witnessed before. The wages of not only public servants, but every Nigerian, which were abysmally low, have become untenable. One striking worker’s placard described it as a “starvation wage.

The N30,000 minimum wage, achieved with tears and sweat at the end of several strikes a few years ago, has become a national embarrassment. It translates to USD20 per month. It was tough to live on wages like that two years ago; today it is impossible. In Africa, Nigeria has one of the lowest minimum wages. For a resource-rich Nigeria that can afford to have billions looted, this is simply unacceptable. I can see why the government’s offer of N60,000 or USD40 as a minimum wage would be considered insulting by the NLC.

In striking, the NLC took some drastic measures, including shutting down the national grid. That too is unacceptable and could be said to be an act of unreasonable aggression against the state. It was not only an attack on the government, but also a direct one on the Nigerian populace. After all, only between five and 10 per cent of the population is employed in the public service sector and stands to benefit directly from the salary increase. The remaining population of traders, artisans and hustlers will have to navigate their way through these impossibly difficult times on their own.

Shutting down the national grid reportedly cost the government around N 46,575,342,466 daily. It is going to cost Nigerians even more. Those whose lives are dependent on power such as patients in hospitals undergoing life-saving treatments would have been put at extreme risk, and it is likely that some might have died as a result. Small and medium-scale businesses that rely on power have suffered incalculable losses.

The act has created some dispute between the NLC and the Transmission Company of Nigeria (TCN), with TCN alleging that its staff were attacked by NLC members in order to shut down the grid. The NLC has vehemently denied this.

In any case, shutting down the grid was a desperate act that should never have been contemplated. It is akin to holding the country and Nigerians hostage. The fishmonger who sells frozen fish at the Dutse market cannot protest or strike for increased pay since she is not employed by the government, but the ruination of her stock will not be compensated for by the NLC. In this sense, both the NLC and the FG have acted in a like manner – shoot first and ask questions later. This was precisely the government’s approach in scrapping fuel subsidies which triggered this cost-of-living crisis. It was also the same approach to hiking electricity tariffs and implementing fiscal policies that have caused the naira to devalue.

The argument has always been that these policies are for the good of the country, but did the government think to mitigate their impact first? Did it anticipate the insane spikes in the cost of living and include plans to increase salaries in the medium to long-term? Did it consider finding ways to increase income for Nigerians to cope with the consequences of these policies? Did the NLC think about the consequences of shutting down the grid for its members, which amounts to only five to 10 per cent of Nigerians getting a raise at the expense of everyone else?

It is unfortunate that this militant and destructive method of negotiation seems to be favoured in our country.

Of course, the government could have recognised the valid and legitimate demands of the NLC and taken action before it reached this point. It could have found ways to prevent the strike from happening. In the end, the country has lost billions as a result of this action.

Both labour and the FG must reassess their actions that led to this unfortunate situation and take measures to ensure that things never deteriorate to this extent again. Doing what is considered right by the FG and labour should never come at the expense of long-suffering Nigerians who are just trying to get by.

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