Following suspension of the week-long general strike by organized labour, complimented by civil society organizations, UCHENNA AWOM looks at the pivots of the truce, especially the role of Senate President David Mark, and the way forward.
The general strike and street protests occasioned by the removal of subsidy on petrol have come and gone, at least for now. But in its wake are discordant tunes from several quarters, with some applauding the return of normalcy in the socio-political system with the suspension of the strike by organized labour. Others also were miffed at the turn of events and in fact accusations are flying here and there; particularly from some Civil Society Organizations that Labour may have sold out since the demand for the reversal of pump price of petrol to N65 per litre was not met by government.
However, the question is - what next? What will happen now to the people in the light of the present circumstance? President Goodluck Jonathan in his speech enunciated several policy actions, which according to him would ameliorate the pains of the eventual total removal of subsidy. That being the case; what will be the role of the Senate in the circumstance, especially against the backdrop of the role it played in bringing about the settlement of the dispute?
Continually, the question would be asked again and again, the place of the President of the Senate, Senator David Mark in what had happened and in particularly his dexterous effort to almost single-handedly mobilize men and deploy the delicate, critical diplomacy needed to broker peace between the organized labour and the federal government.
The emerging consensus is that Mark came off the subsidy storm smelling like roses given the quality of intervention he spearheaded. The argument is that Mark was able to hold a middle-of-the-road approach in deference to the collective decision of the senate throughout the negotiation. It was that approach that conferred on him leadership of the team in the dialogue process according to a minister who actively participated in the negotiation with labour.
He told LEADERSHIP SUNDAY that though the federal government was aware that the Senate had a position, which they armed Senator Mark with, yet the presidency was very comfortable to have Mark as the face of the negotiation process. “He indeed influenced the presidency’s decision to bend backwards, ditto for labour. In the same way it was learnt that he enjoyed overwhelming trust of the leadership of organized labour all through the negotiation process. “We were very comfortable starting the process from his residence. He deployed candour and frankness in all our dealings with him and the entire leadership of the senate, this was without prejudice with the House of Representatives, which equivocally threw their weight behind our course through a resolution’, said a labour leader who would not want his name in prints.
How Feat Was Achieved
Neutrality and a mature approach, said the Senate spokesman, Senator Enyinnaya Abaribe. “The role of the senate was very pivotal to the resolution of the crisis. Usually an arbiter does not take centre stage. Senate has to take the responsibility of making sure that both sides in the dispute were brought together. And the only way you can bring both sides together is that you are not supposed to take sides prior to the time you are going to do negotiation. That is why it seems as if the senate did not come out frontally.
“But I think that events as at today have shown that the and in particular our President, Senator Mark took the best possible approach and helped to douse an imminent crisis that would have engulfed our nation or put us in a situation that would have been very untenable,” he said.
Perhaps, what encouraged the parties; government and labour may have been the Senate President’s no-hold-bared speech welcoming senators from the holidays, wherein he acknowledged the unpopularity of the decision to remove the subsidy on petrol among the Nigerian people, but yet courageously declared that the economic argument in support of fuel subsidy removal is compelling. He also added that the political and social imperatives must also be considered.
According to Mark, “On the other hand, this government is compelled by a genuine drive to transform the country and expand opportunities for economic growth. In order to overcome this impasse, it is imperative that we engage each other honestly on this issue. In line with this, during the recess, I directed the Senate Committee on Labour, Employment & Productivity to interface with labour groups. I had also urged individual Senators to engage with Labour and Civil Society Organisations.
“The Senate Leadership has also been interfacing with the leadership of the Nigerian Labour Congress and the Trade Union Congress as well as the Executive. These talks are ongoing and I hope that it will lead to an outcome that will be in the best interest of Nigerians”, he said.
The speech was concise and apt. What it means was that from the onset Senator Mark, carefully studied the situation and the apparent demeanour of both government, organized labour, civil society groups and of course the Nigerian public.
Though, it looked very much as a high risk approach that could have goaded the discerning public to label the senate as anti-people. But like Senator Abaribe pointed out, it would be illogical for an arbiter to be identified with a position. Such would of course be antithetical to the basic norms of a conciliator. The leader of the senate, Victor Ndoma Egba expatiated more on what could have influenced Senator Mark’s none partisan approach to the dispute.
He explained that the upper chamber did not take a position on removal of fuel subsidy unlike their lower chamber counterparts because the senate he said was focused on ensuring that the nation makes progress adding that the issue for the upper chamber now is not “whether we support it or not’
Senator Ndoma-Egba however recalled that “some weeks back senator Saraki had brought a motion on fuel subsidy which was debated.”Subsequent to this the senate set up a committee to investigate the fuel subsidy scheme. To debate a matter that is ongoing by a committee will be undermining the mandate of the senate to that committee.”
He added that when deliberations begin on the 2012 budget, the subsidy issue will be debated again. “So we have had two opportunities to debate the subsidy” adding that the senate will address the issue in all its ramifications; economic and corruption inherent will be at the base.
All said, may things however played out during the dialogue. It was learnt that Senator Mark became very conscious of the unity of the National Assembly and as a result he felt that the leadership of the National Assembly for which he is the chairman must all be united in finding solution to the impasse. Consequently, he was reported to have deployed an uncommon skill to co-opt the House of Representatives leadership, especially the Speaker Aminu Tambuwal and his Deputy, Emeka Ihedioha to be part of the negotiating train.
It could be recalled that the House had summoned its members back from holidays for an extra-ordinary emergence session to discuss the state of the nation. At the session, they passed a resolution urging the presidency to revert to the old price of N65 per litre of petroleum, while it also advised labour to suspend the planned strike. The posturing of the lower chamber-lawmakers may have unsettled the presidency and expectedly they may have decided to trudge on without them since their position was known.
What Is The Way Forward?
Speaking to LEADERSHIP SUNDAY in an exclusive interview, Senate’s spokesman, Senator Enyinnaya Abaribe, said the way forward now is that the 2012 budget would have to be tinkered with in the light of the president’s speech.
“Precisely, what will be done is to reduce the recurrent expenditure and increase the capital budget, particularly in roads and infrastructure in view of the anticipated increase in the Medium Term Expenditure Framework. It will also reflect the change in the oil bench mark, which will be increased from $70 to $75 per barrel of crude oil”. All these he stated are measures that have to be fast tracked to take care of the painful effect of subsidy removal. And again Abaribe said the efforts would assuage the fears of the people that the recent settlement of the dispute was pyrrhic and one that will not last.
The senate spokesman however assured that the Senate on its own would tighten its oversight functions, to bring it in tandem with the renewed commitment to sanitize the system and fight corruption. “We will channel the oversight function properly especially focus in the petroleum industry to checkmate any inherent profligacy and plug the leakages that have been witnessed in recent times”.
Like Abaribe most senators believe that at the base of the popular agitation was lack of trust and the seething corruption in the oil sector especially in the way the subsidy fund has been managed by government. The lawmakers, opined that organized labour and the civil society groups were equivocal in there call for the probe and arrest of oil marketers involved in round tripping with the subsidy fund.
So, to underscore their seriousness to clean the oil sector, which is at the centre of the current crisis, the senate came out fully yesterday to charge the Economic and financial Crimes Commission, (EFCC) not to spare any beneficiary of the oil subsidy scam. It even tasked the anti-graft agency to intensify search for the cabal and arrest them for prosecution as economic saboteurs.
The senate nonetheless reassured Nigerians that the ongoing investigation by its joint committee into N1.3trn fuel subsidy will be in the interest of Nigerians adding that it would be made available to EFCC and others to effect immediate prosecution of those found culpable.
Senator Abaribe who had earlier addressed a press conference to elucidate the senate position, declared that the crisis facing the nation today was caused by the activities of saboteurs in the oil sector.
“It is necessary to mention here that the senate as an institution of government has commenced an investigation into the management of fuel subsidy and so many things were revealed in the investigation. And it led to the naming of all those who benefitted from the oil subsidy scam as we have known it now and we call on the EFCC to ensure that no one is spared because those are the people that have brought us to this avoidable hardship.
“And we think that those saboteurs should be brought to book. The senate is fully behind it because the senate started this investigation. And the senate is also very willing to go all out to make sure that Nigeria is a country where everybody’s interest is fully protected.”
Senator Abaribe however, debunked insinuations that the senate did not wade into the faceoff between labour and government “frontally”
What we seek today, he continued, is to ensure that whatever decision will come out of the meeting between the Belgore Committee and labour will be faithfully implemented.
Senator Abaribe also spoke of the Petroleum Industry Bill. According to him the senate is still waiting for the bill to be reintroduced by the government. “We are still waiting on the presidency to forward. It is an executive bill, right now we don’t have any such bill as PIB, it is important particularly now that a task force has been set up on it by the President. You will recall that the Minister of Petroleum Resources did tell the Petroleum committee (upstream) last year that the bill will be forwarded, but that she need to have a closed door session on it with us before it is reintroduced.
The bill he stated is quite crucial in reforming the oil sector. “It is one bill that would resolve all the noticeable flaws and controversy in the oil and gas sector. There is no doubt that senators are ever ready to expedite action on the bill considering what the country is going through presently.
The Senate spokesman, would however not like the senate to be dragged into the organized labour/civil society altercation over the manner the crisis was resolved. He said the senate will not want to get into what is purely an internal matter between labour and the CSOs, but what is important to the senate he added is for all the groups and other stakeholders to seize the momentum and resolve all grey areas for the benefit of all and in the overriding interest of Nigeria as a budding democracy.
“I do not want to believe that there is any individual or group of people that will like the country to come to a standstill. That being the case, it will not be in the interest of anybody to hold a rigid position.
“To us in the senate, Labour’s prompt action to call off the strike is a tacit recognition that Nigeria cannot be at a standstill and that the country must march on to the path of total socio-economic and political transformation. The senate however, urges all the parties to adhere to the terms of the agreement and for government to ensure the full implementation of the palliative measures, which it has promised in the light prevailing circumstance”, said Abaribe.
In the final analysis, the strike has come and gone, but surreptitiously a leader has emerged in Senator David Mark. Whether he will sustain the tempo remains a matter of time.