THE president of Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC), Comrade Abdulwaheed Omar, on Monday, January 9, 2012, made good Labour’s threat to paralyse economic activities in Nigeria until the Federal Government reverts to the N65 original fuel pump price. Flexing muscles with President Goodluck Jonathan for five days before the strike was suspended to enable them get refreshed for Monday, January 16 protest, NLC’s industrial action really grounded the nation, throwing out millions of Nigerians on the street.
Civil society groups were also holding separate rallies protesting corruption, bad governance and the removal of fuel subsidy.
ENCOMIUM Weekly asked NLC president, Omar how the strike would go and the bone of contention. (That was in the Federal Capital Territory, FCT, Abuja on Sunday, January 8, a day before the strike).
Abdulwaheed Omar equally opened up on family life, how union activism started for him as well as the challenges of his job.
In the exclusive interview the NLC president granted us in company of Owei Lakemfa (NLC Secretary General), he reiterated the resolve of organized labour to fight for Nigerian citizens, who have been negatively affected by the fuel price hike. We later had a phone chat with the labour leader on Friday, January 13, where he briefed us on recent development as regards the five day old strike.
How is life as NLC President?
The NLC President is a Nigerian. So, his life is like that of any other Nigerian. But there are a lot of challenges.
What are those challenges?
One of them is the challenge of the Federal Government’s rigidity on the issue of the removal of fuel subsidy, which the majority of Nigerians have rejected. In fact, they are experiencing the hardship. And that is just eh beginning. That is also the reason the organized labour is saying that it is not acceptable.
We will get back to that. So, how have you been handling these challenges?
We have been doing our best. The NLC president is just one amongst colleagues that coordinate and also work on behalf of Nigerian workers. Like one-time president of Nigeria, Alhaji Shehu Shagari said when he was asked how he was feeling about the office of the president: he said, ‘The seat is hot but I enjoy sitting on it.’ I think that is the best way to describe my office.
Were you a unionist in school?
Of course, yes.
What did you study?
I’m basically a teacher, but I studied Social Studies. I also read Psychology.
In Ahmadu Bello University (ABU), Zaria.
Who was your last employer?
Kaduna State Government.
Can you please tell us a bit about your family?
I’m married with so many children. I have one wife and I have many children. Almost a basketball team.
How do you balance work with activism?
Activism is actually the work. So, it is not about any form of combination.
Does your family (Madam) complain?
Seriously. In fact, the latest entrant into my family, a baby boy, who is not up to a month is even complaining. I have seen him only twice.
Not at all. Serving Nigerian workers is the ultimate.
Back to the strike action, what is the NLC position?
The NLC position on the planned removal of fuel subsidy is that Nigerians cannot afford it and therefore, we cannot accept it. And we say no to it.
But the Federal Government seem to be on their own?
As you have rightly said, they are on their own. And we Nigerians are on the other side. So, it is government versus Nigerians.
What about the palliative measures President Jonathan rolled out last week? What are the palliative programmes?
He talked about providing 1,600 luxury buses, opening the railways. Mr. President also talked about encouraging states and Federal government to pay workers on or before the 20th of every month, and he also hinted that he would cut his salary and that of political appointees by 25 per cent.
Let’s be realistic, if government is providing 1,600 buses, do you think these are the things that will bring down prices. By my analysis that would amount to two buses per local government. When the president was talking about reducing the basic salaries of political office holders of which the president is the highest, his basic salary per annum is N3.5 million. If you reduce it by 25 per cent that will give you about N750,000. Even if all the others follow suit, how much would that translate to? But if you look at their allowances, you see a lot of money. For instance, the President has made provision for about N1 billion for entertainment allowance. He didn’t say he is reducing that by any per cent. You can see that is mere window dressing. That is not what Nigerians want.
What we want him to do is to go in there, tackle the very serious corruption in the issue of fuel subsidy because even in the 2011 budget no more than N260 billion was appropriated for it. Then how come you are now talking about N1.3 trillion. That means that the bulk of the money is going down the drain on account of corruption. Rather than the government tackling corruption, they are inflicting all the hardship on the citizens.
Our argument is that if the government today decides headlong to tackle the corrupt practices in the issue of subsidy, they can now bring the expenditure to the original amount appropriated for the subsidy. We believe any government can live with it.
Some said that that N141 per litre price is even fake?
That is another aspect of deceit. You say you are deregulating while the minister is determining how much would be sold. That is price fixing. That means they will still be talking about removing subsidy next year.
Why did you go ahead with the industrial action while a court of law has stopped NLC?
I don’t know about that. I don’t know anything about court injunction other than what I have been hearing you journalists say. They never served us any injunction. We have not even been put on notice.
The fear about the NLC strike is that hoodlums will hijack it?
We are not doing this for the first time. We have done it before. The only difference here is that security agencies might want to over react because judging from the pronouncement of the President that security forces will deal decisively with people. I hope that does not mean killing innocent Nigerians because Nigeria belongs to all of us. And we have freedom of association and expression. Nigerians must be allowed to vent their anger so that they will be at ease.
But if government denies them this right, I think that means government is overstepping their bounds.
Why is the strike total?
The strike is total because of the importance of our demands. It is what touches every Nigerian.
So, why are you shutting down the economy?
We are trying to make government realize that Nigerians do not want fuel subsidy to be removed now and forcing them to revert to N65.
So, how would the sick get medical attention and the people enjoy services from the critical sector?
There are critical services we allow to go on when we are on strike. For instance, we don’t shut oil rigs down on the first line. Our agenda is not to subject people to hardship unnecessarily. But we are making sure we are carrying out the strike in such a way that government feels the pains and feelings of citizens and respond to it appropriately.
How long would this strike last?
The National Executive Council of NLC told me to say that the strike is indefinite.
Any future for Nigeria?
Of course, the future of Nigeria is very bright provided we have leaders that mean business, have focus and do what is expected of them.
You initially said you won’t talk with the federal government, how come NLC is now negotiating with Jonathan?
Yes, initially we said we won’t talk but we have to respect the intervention of the National Assembly, particularly the Senate.
So, what is the situation now?
We have made significant progress.
You still insist on N65 per litre?
Yes, but they are negotiating between N90 to N120. And we are insisting on reversing to status quo. So, we have to go back to the National Executive Council of NLC.
But many Nigerians say you are on your own if you go beyond N65. We have even been told that the protest by civil society groups would continue if you agree with FG?
We can’t afford to betray Nigerians. Let’s see what happens on Saturday (January 13) when we are meeting again.
How would you assess the strike so far?
The success and level of compliance is well beyond our expectations. We thank Nigerian workers and citizens for taking their destiny in their hands.
- UCHE OLEHI
This story was first published in ENCOMIUM Weekly on Tuesday, January 24, 2012