Vivian Okejeme, in this piece, captures Wednesday’s NLC mass protest despite the avalanche of legal actions initiated by the federal government to stop same.
On Monday 29 May, 2023, in his inaugural speech, President Ahmed Bola Tinubu, announced the scrapping of fuel subsidy citing budgetary concerns, a decision which led to a stupendous rise in fuel pump price, precipitating widespread panic-buying of the petrol and hike in the price of other commodities.
The ripple effects of the decision to remove the fuel subsidy will have on the peoples daily lives has left millions of Nigerians terrified, with many low income earners worrying that they will be unable to meet the costs of education, food and healthcare.
Reacting to the federal government’s decision, the Nigerian Labour Congress (NLC) saddled with the statutory responsibility to protect, defend, and promote the rights , wellbeing, improve the income and other working conditions of all workers, promptly kicked against the move.
NLC, through it’s President, Joe Ajaero, submitted that Tinubu’s decision on fuel subsidy removal is not well thought out, adding that It is going to draw the economy of the country backward by over 50 percent within the next 48 hours.
Consequent to the above, the Congress issued a seven days ultimatum to the FG to reverse “all anti-poor” people policies including the hike in the price petrol, adding that the government has shown enormous disdain and contempt for the Nigerian people and have declared a war of attrition on Nigerian workers and masses.
Riding on the strength of Section 40 of the 1999 Constitution as amended, NLC, on June 7 threatened to embark on a nationwide protest on August the 2nd against fuel subsidy removal.
Sequel to that, the Federal Government, in it’s reaction, instituted a suit to stop the union, stating that the proposed strike might gravely affect the larger society and the well-being of the nation at large.
While ruling on an ex parte application, Justice O.Y Anuwe ordered the unions not to embark on their planned industrial action or strike of any nature pending the hearing and determination of the motion on notice dated June 5, 2023.
The court held that the industrial action, if not circumvented is capable of disrupting economic activities and essential sectors from carrying out vital functions.
Irked by the ruling, the union approached the court asking it to set aside the interim order stopping the protest, insisting that it lacks the jurisdictional competence to hear and determine the matter and or make any orders as regards the trade dispute.
They argued that the suit offends the lucid provisions of Order 3 Rules 1 and 6 of the National Industrial Court Civil Procedure Rules, 2017.
The union further contended for their rights to strike “under the Trade Unions Act, the Trade Disputes Act, the ILO Convention and under several international treaties the 1st Claimant/Applicant is a signatory to.
However, the court in it’s ruling, maintained that it’s order stopping the actions of the union subsists.
Calling the bluff of the court injunctions, long-drawn negotiation meetings as well as ignoring the warning of the Federal Ministry of Justice on intending contempt of court should they flaunt it, the union made true it’s threat and stormed the streets to protest against recent fuel price hike, tuition fees hike in public schools and withheld salaries of lecturers and workers in universities.
Meanwhile, government through the Solicitor General of Ministry of Justice had, in reaction to the decision of Nigerian workers to participate in peaceful rallies and protest against the worsening economic crisis in the country, accused the leaders of the NLC of treating the order of the National Industrial Court (NIC) with contempt.
Justice, Beatrice Jedy-Agba had twice stated that the industrial action by organised labour was illegal, noting that there was a subsisting interim order restraining NLC from embarking on any industrial action.
FG prayed the court to commit NLC President, Joe Ajaero; Deputy Presidents, Audu Aruba, Prince Adeyanju Adewale, and Kabiru Sani; General Secretary, Emmanuel Ugboaja; TUC President, Engr Festus Usifo; Scribe/ Chief Executive, Nuhu Toro to prison for being guilty of contempt of court.
However, the NLC has described the Industrial Court and the Justice ministry as “anti-democracy” agents as it has issued a stern ultimatum demanding the withdrawal of the lawsuit.
Rising from the NLC’s NEC meeting in Abuja on Thursday, the union said that failure to comply with this demand could lead to a nationwide strike on August 14, 2023.
“While the NLC temporarily suspended its protest following a meeting with President Bola Tinubu on Thursday, they have made it clear that they will not hesitate to initiate a nationwide total strike if labour leaders are summoned to Court by the government through the NICN.
“The NLC remains resolute in its stance to protect workers’ rights and interests, emphasizing the importance of the government respecting their demands and refraining from legal actions perceived as undermining the democratic process,” the statement said.
Furthermore, it highlighted some of the resolutions of the union which include “To commit to maintaining the required vigilance needed to hold government accountable on its assurances and governance in general; to commit to the terminal date of August 19th 2023 within which the issues around the Petroleum price hike will be agreed given the assurances of the President and the National Assembly.
“To go on total strike across the country any day labour leaders are summoned to Court by the government through the NICN; to demand the immediate withdrawal of this litigious terrorism by the Federal Ministry of Justice before the end of work Friday, the 11th of August, 2023.
“To embark on a nationwide comprehensive strike beginning Monday 14th of August, 2023 if this contemptuous Court summons is not withdrawn by whosoever initiated it.”
Concluding, the union urged all affiliates and state councils including its civil society allies to stay further action but to remain focused and eternally vigilant.
Also reacting to the lawsuits by the FG is a human right senior lawyer, Femi Falana SAN, who said that NLC protest does not violate any law or court order.
In a letter addressed to the Permanent Secretary of the Federal Ministry of Justice and Solicitor General of the Federation, Falana said that NLC is not in contempt of any court order, adding that NLC and her allies have the legal right to protest against government policies that negatively affects their members.
He said that the right to demonstrate and the right to protest on matters of public concern are rights which are in the public interest and that which individuals must possess, and which they should exercise without impediment as long as no wrongful act is done.
According to Falana, the NIC or any other court has not granted an order of interim, interlocutory or perpetual injunction restraining Nigerian workers from participating in peaceful rallies convened by the NLC.
Falana further said that freedom of speech and freedom of assembly are part of democratic rights of every citizen of the country, adding that: “The legislature must guard these rights jealously as they are part of the foundation upon which the government itself rests.”
Falana said: “Contrary to your unwarranted allegation, the Nigeria Labour Congress does not intend to disobey the ex parte order of the National Industrial Court to the effect that the defendants/respondents are hereby restrained from embarking on the planned industrial action/or strike of any nature, pending the hearing and determination of the motion on notice dated 5th June 2023.”
“Since the constitutional right of Nigerian workers to protest peacefully cannot by any stretch of imagination be classified as an industrial action or strike of any nature, you ought not have threatened our client with contempt of court.
“It is pertinent to draw your attention to the case of INSPECTOR-GENERAL OF POLICE v ALL NIGERIA PEOPLES PARTY (2008) 12 WRN 65 where the court upheld the fundamental right of Nigerians to protest without police permit. In the leading judgment of the court, Justice Adekeye said as follows:
“The right to demonstrate and the right to protest on matters of public concern are rights which are in the public interest and that which individuals must possess, and which they should exercise without impediment as long as no wrongful act is done.
“If as speculated by law enforcement agents that breach of the peace would occur, our criminal code has made adequate provisions for sanctions against breakdown of law and order so that the requirement of permit as a conditionality to holding meetings and rallies can no longer be justified in a democratic society.”