Ordinarily, no strike at local or national level is desirable even though the very idea of a strike is a weapon for redressing grievances. So fundamentally is the right to strike recognised over centuries worldwide, as a weapon for advancing battle against injustice. Equally, so devastating is strike on a nation’s economy that mostly, strike is adopted only as a last resort.
Before then, other avenues of negotiations would have been exhausted. One aspect of eventual commencement of strikes beyond human understanding is that in such situations not just (but particularly) in Nigeria and some parts of the world, authorities would have been recalcitrant and deaf, such that only the imminence of the strike induces common sense to prevail, forcing negotiations and even concessions on points in dispute.
Such is what clearly, as will be testified, has forced trade unions in Nigeria to serve a notice of national strike against some three pressing issues on which government is perceived to be lackadaisical. But among the three, the concern here on which can warrant the strike is the unilateral and unjustified increase in electricity tariffs. The so-called distribution companies have been so unreasonable with least or no consideration for the interest of consumers.
After decades of ever heightening demand for power supply and government’s apparent inability to cope, the bogey of privatisation aimed at improved performance sneaked in. such privatisation in other sectors in the past offered cheap luck for the lucky few in society to acquire among themselves our national assets. Something only short of a brand of looting. On those occasions, with little or no effort, the new so-called local and foreign investors were smiling to the banks after hitting gold mine. Unfortunately for these economic vermins on the privatised power sector, the expected booty did not materialise. It dawned on then that massive financial investment was needed for their new acquisitions.
As in all investments, risk determined their luck on the privatised power sector, in place of cheap and quick financial returns. Reality of investment for which they were never prepared, faced than to pour in their personal finance, something alien to them, at least in Nigeria, be they self-parading local or foreign investors. That accounted for the deterioration rather than improvement in nation-wide power supply generally anticipated despite the much-vaunted but fraudulent privatisation.
Then came change of government in 2015 and President Muhammadu Buhari took a wrong step, even if with the best intention. Nowhere in the world would three major ministries be merged and saddled to one man. That exactly was what Buhari did and was criticised in this column that the newly created Ministry of Power, Works and Housing was too unwieldy. And in the desperation to discharge himself as the generalissimo Minister, Babatunde Fasola’s expertise in tackling poor power supply in Nigeria was to approve and later champion astronomical rise in the tariffs he inherited. It was not as if tariffs had not been earlier similarly outrageously increased since the so-called privatisation or unbundling of the defunct National Electric Power Authority (NEPA), before Fasola assumed office as Power Minister.
Yet, Fasola defiantly, despite public opposition, defended the new tariff. He is wrong in his idea of imposing financial burden on ordinary Nigerians. If such financial burden were sine qua non for improved public administration, Fasola, by now, should be collecting accolades from Nigerians for improved power supply. Has power supply improved despite the new tariff supported by Fasola? On the contrary, the situation has deteriorated. In this controversy, who does the Federal Government support? Power sector investors or poor Nigerian consumers?
Power Minister cannot feel the pains of Nigerian consumers or taxpayers. At least, for the past nine years, Fasola, as Lagos State governor for eight years and (now) Minister for the past one year, could not have paid a kobo as tariff for power consumption in government accommodation. When the debate was hottest on the proposed new tariff, the minister’s argument was that Nigerians must (be prepared to) pay for good services. Must Nigerians, therefore, finance the distribution companies (discos) to put their investment in place? Or for which service(s) are Nigerians expected to pay? If, at all, Nigerians must pay for good services, such services must first be made available before we pay.
Even then, it is a wrong idea that in paying for services, any amount can be imposed by the government. Power Minister Fasola should have learnt from his days as Lagos State governor when he unilaterally increased fees payable by Lagos State University (LASU) undergraduates from N25,000 (twenty five thousand naira) to N250,000 (two hundred and fifty thousand naira) per student per session. For almost a year, the measure was resisted by the students, who sustained a peaceful strike throughout. With elections only three months away and the protesting students undisguised determination to specially campaign for the defeat of APC in the 2015 elections, Fasola had to pipe down by scrapping the new proposed fee, as he reinstated N25,000 per session, which obtains till today.
If the LASU students did not state their strike, most of them would have lost the opportunity to complete their university education. When the big rise in fees was imposed, there was no corresponding increase in wages and pensions of the parents of the students, entitlements, which, in any case, were never paid regularly. Again, today, being threatened with outrageous increase all over the place – power tariffs, value added tax, etc. – and, of course, unpaid salaries, wages and pensions, Nigerians are expected to be prepared to pay for services. When last were salaries and wages increased to cope with financial burden on the public?
In any society, the aggrieved seek redress under the law and the law is obliged to protect the weak. When power distribution companies (discos) imposed the new tariffs, some consumers sought refuge at a high court, which ruled that the discos must withhold the proposed tariff until the case was determined. Arrogantly, the power distribution companies disregarded the court ruling.
Any proof? On the introduction of the power sector, Eko Distribution sold 1,444.5 units for N20,000 in November 2012. By September 2015, the same Eko Disco raised its tariff to reduce the units for N20,000 to 1125.5. That was before Fasola’s appointment as Power Minister. So early in office, Power Minister Fasola supported the dramatic rise of, at least, 45 per cent in the tariff. A law court stopped the taking off of the new tariff but that order was bluffed by among others, Eko Distribution Company which, accordingly, for the huge sum of N35, 000 (thirty five thousand naira), sells 1263.5 kilometers, far lower than the old units of 1444 and only marginally above the 1125 units hitherto for N20,000 each. For now, Eko Disco sells 738.6 kilometers for N20,000, all in defiance of the court order.
Therefore, the proposed strike planned by Nigerian trade unions is justified in the first place against the increase. The strike is even more justified to make the foreign investors in our power sector as well as their Nigerian collaborators pay for the contempt of court.
Lawlessness portends anarchy. Confronted with their lawlessness, a staff in charge of sales at the Ikoyi office of Eko Disco had the effrontery to dodge that the company had no instruction on the court ruling not to implement the new tariff yet. When a court gives such ruling, that order must be enforced through the counsel of the potential contempt or the defendants, which include Eko Disco.
The judiciary is part of the problem or why should an injunction be granted if such would not be enforced? When ordinary citizens cannot enjoy tariffs.
In addition, Aso Rock and Chief Justice of Nigeria, Mahmud Mohammed, must through the Federal Attorney-General’s office, force the power distribution companies to instantly comply with the court ruling, which froze the purported new tariffs.
The judge must also, at the next hearing, order the discos to credit all consumers with total refund of whatever extra tariff they might already, in defiance of court order, have been charged. All that before hearing in the suit can be resumed. So doing, laws of the land would have been seen to be working.
Investors in power sector must not be allowed to get away with the licentiousness that they are above the law.
Last line: It is amusing that Nigerians with vested interests are calling on President Buhari and his government to stop blaming the last administration for Nigeria’s current poor economy. So soon after only one year. The army quit (not quitted o) in 1999. Were those with vested interests up till last year or even till now not blaming the army for its tenure in office?