I write this with the full consciousness of the discomfort that we all suffered in the pendency of the recently called off strike action of the Nigeria Union of Petroleum and Natural Gas Workers (NUPENG) and the Petroleum and Natural Gas Senior Staff Association of Nigeria (PENGASSAN at the NNPC.
It is not likely that any one, resident here in Nigeria, did not feel the bite of the action but we then must not forget that the queues for fuel preceded the action of the unions. It worsened it all right but the hardship of those two days would not totally account for the venom that Nigerians poured at unions , neither did people really query the legality or otherwise of the action.
On the contrary, I observed that people were livid at their audacity to call a strike in reaction to what everyone saw as a noble action meant to replace the opacity that hitherto reigned at the NNPC and replace it with profitable accountability. We then quickly concluded that the strike action was motivated by the desire to scuttle the anti- corruption war of the federal government.
The first step in this direction was announced last Tuesday with the unbundling of the oil company into seven independent units. Kachukwu who revealed the development said further that each of the units would be headed by chief executive officers and went ahead to name these heads.
Following the announcement the two workers’ unions began mobilizing their members to reject the policy. This culminated in a total shutdown of NNPC locations across the country at the resumption of work on Wednesday until Thursday.
So Nigerians got furious and rained invectives on these workers. Some called for their sack and labeled them enemies of the people number one. But I still fail to understand those reactions especially as these union leaders gave reasons for the strike.
Acting General Secretary of PENGASSAN, Lumumba Okugbawa, told online newspaper, Premium Times, that the minister took a unilateral decision about the issue of restructuring the NNPC. He spoke about the laws that set up the organisation not having been repealed; he spoke about the welfare of workers of the NNPC, which is a legitimate concern and that in spite of all attempts, the minister had refused to make himself available for discussions. This same sentiment about non consultation was expressed by both chambers of the National Assembly in response to the restructuring announcement. The question of what happens to the proposed Petroleum Industry Bill, which should be a comprehensive policy document with propositions on NNPC reform, was also asked.
The minister would later reverse himself explaining that was happened was only reorganisation and not unbundling. He went ahead to call a meeting to discuss with the labour unions. This meeting agreed to set up a panel to discuss the modalities for the eventual reform of the NNPC and the strike was called off immediately. Kachukwu would also apologise for not having consulted with the Senate, after which he explained what had been done. And all frayed nerves simmered. This is the magic that effective communication does in a democracy and we would have had none of this if the discussions had preceded the announcement.
Rather than condemn the action of poor workers, a lot of whom cannot be accused of being part of the looting of the NNPC, the citizenry should have advised the minister to reach out better and build a broad consensus before taking fundamental decisions in future.
One understands that Nigerians are eager for change and that the unbundling of the NNPC signifies an important step towards this change, but part of the change that Nigeria should demand is the observance of due process in anything that is done just as the proper treatment of the working class should be part of any package that Nigeria desires.
We cannot sacrifice consensus building among stakeholders in our hunger for the disposal of corrupt agencies. PENGASSAN, for example has been an ally of the people in the continuous quest for accountability in the oil and gas sector and I do not see how it would now allow itself to be used to clog the same reform that it asked for.
Thankfully, the minister saw the sense in a rapprochement and has set machinery in motion for the seamless unbundling of the NNPC which is overdue. However, we the people, must be alert enough not to condone arbitrariness.