Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Labour and current challenges of governance

With a coalition of organised labour and reputable civil society organisations as arrowhead, the push for people-centred policies and legislations is causing ripples around the country. Already, protest rallies in Lagos and Asaba on May 12 and 15 have attracted record crowds eager to register alternative viewpoints on major issues.

The Nigerian Labour Congress, Trade Union Congress and civil society allies had President Umaru Yar’Adua address State House correspondents for the first time in two years, while Labour and Productivity Minister, Adetokunbo Kayode, was constrained to declare, “We will ensure that the average Nigerian worker is at par with any other worker anywhere in the world.”

On the key issues raised in the protest rallies, President Yar’Adua said deregulation of the downstream petroleum sub-sector became imperative after government realised that subsidies only enriched a few smart middlemen in the fuel supply chain. The policy, he emphasised, was desirable to guarantee uninterrupted supply of petroleum products and eliminate loopholes exploited by an existing cartel.

In regard to electoral reforms, he argued, quite plausibly, that Nigerians could submit to the National Assembly private bills expressive of their wishes and that government’s rejection of certain recommendations of the Uwais Electoral Reform Report was based on sound judgment.

Deregulation, as rightly emphasised by government, will encourage private sector investments in onshore crude oil processing and marketing. Investments mean new companies, businesses and job creation which, in the final analysis, is what organised labour and the Nigerian populace at large really desire. All the same, government must understand that its failure to provide the requisite guidelines, legal framework, and pro-competition laws, has created doubts about its sincerity and capacity to implement the policy to the benefit of the generality of Nigerians.

As the prelude to deregulation, the supply side of the equation ought to have been sufficiently addressed through diversification. Local sources of supply ought to be operating efficiently, so as to prevent the emergence of cartels and also check any tendency on the part of marketers to make the nation totally dependent on imports. The government needs to understand that its policy flip-flops and inconsistencies are largely responsible for the reluctance of potential investors to establish refineries in the country. A refinery owner wants guarantees that the government will not make fuel importation unduly attractive, fix prices and ensure that appropriate pro-competition laws are in place to protect its business.

On the subject of electoral reforms, the standpoint of the government appears logical on paper. But its insistence that the power to appoint key functionaries of the Independent National Electoral Commission should remain that of the President is objectionable, given the very sad experience of our country, from the era of Dr. Abel Guobadia to that of Professor Maurice Iwu, when electoral umpire proved to be a tool in the hands of the ruling party.

Labour and civil society groups have initiated the right line of action, by seeking 20 or so million signatures to enable them to prepare and submit to the National Assembly a private bill reflective of the standpoint of the generality of Nigerians on the issue of electoral reform. The activists have made it clear that they want wholesale adoption of the recommendations of the Uwais Electoral Reform Report, and Nigerians should give them the necessary cooperation to achieve their goals.

Given the rather unhealthy political circumstances of our country, where the legislative arm is literally incapacitated in providing the necessary checks and balances and lawmakers preoccupied largely with self-aggrandisement, labour and civil society have stepped in to prevent a void, giving voice to the generality of Nigerians on key issues of governance. They have to be accorded that recognition if government is truly desirous of popular participation in governance. It is encouraging that the Federal Government has already pledged, through the Labour Minister, to enhance the take-home packages of workers. It equally needs to manage its deregulation policy in a way that will lead to self-sufficiency in the supply of refined fuel products.