The President of Nigeria Bar Association (NBA), Barr. Olumide Akpata, in this interview with NETA NWOSU, speaks on the rights of Nigerian Labour Congress to protest, court injunctions and organized labour negotiations with government.
A legal luminary, Aare Afe Babalola, said workers under the law can only agitate over a trade dispute and ‘trade dispute does not include government policies. The Trade Dispute Act defines “Trade Dispute” to mean “any dispute between employers and workers or between worker and worker, which is connected with the employment or non-employment or the term of employment or physical condition of any person but not on issues like the petroleum pump price, electricity tariff and all that? May we have your views?
We must pay careful attention to the word they used. Now, their right to protest cannot be fettered; their right to protest on any issue, it depends on the individual to protest any infringement that he or she perceives on the part of the government or anybody else; they can picket. Definitely, I think they have that right. I haven’t read newspapers in a number of days because I have been travelling. So, I ‘Government has no respect for the judiciary and its pronouncements’. But if they decide that they want to strike based on actions of government that have no direct relationship to their employment, I might be able to align my views with that of Aare Afe Babalola that strictly speaking, if they get up today and say I am not coming to work because government increased fuel price, that may be very difficult to sustain have to be careful with the word that they used. Did they say that they were going on strike or they were going to protest?
They said they were going on strike.
My understanding when I spoke with the Minister of Labour is that they were going to go on a protest and, you know, invariably that protest, it’s just that the way that protesters manifest themselves in Nigeria, before saying it, everything would be grounded. There is a fine line between strike and protest. So, if they are all out there, protesting that you cannot as government decide in one fell swoop to increase electricity tariff, at the same time deregulate the petroleum sector, with concomitant effects on the common man, almost a doubling of the family budget, so they now decide that they are going to protest that decision of government by going on a mass action. So, are they actually going on strike or are they protesting? If they are ready to protest, I don’t think anybody can deny them that; it’s a universal right. But if they decide that they want to strike based on actions of government that have no direct relationship to their employment, I might be able to align my views with that of Aare Babalola that strictly speaking, if they get up today and say I am not coming to work because government increased fuel price, that may be very difficult to sustain. But if they get up as a union to say well, we like to protest government decision to increase fuel prices or deregulate the sector and increase electricity tariff, you see that it can get blurred, the lines can get blurred.
Prior to the abortion of the strike when the NLC President was confronted on why it is going ahead with the strike despite injunction, barring workers from embarking on the strike, he accused the Federal Government of disregarding a subsisting court pronouncement against the electricity tariff increment. Is this not a form of lawlessness from both parties; Federal Government flouting a court order, NLC planning to flout in return? From all indications, you can see that court injunction is gradually losing its respect?
Well, at the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), one thing we recommend is that everybody must respect court orders and court judgments. What we found out is that government is one of the biggest culprits, and then, other people tend to copy government in this regard, and the judgment and rulings of our courts are no longer what it is that was written. One thing we can be sure of is that the NBA under my watch will ensure this cannot be the state of affairs, judgments and court orders must be obeyed. Is there indeed a subsisting order that stops government from increasing tariffs? By the way, is it government that has increased tariffs? Government does not sell electricity. There are companies that are called Discos, distribution companies, and then, they have their multi tariff orders. So, I don’t know whether government is the one that the court should be ordering or whether it’s the distribution company that should be ordered because that sector too has been privatised. To answer your question, is there lawlessness in the land? Yes, there is lawlessness in the land. Government has no respect for the judiciary and its pronouncements, there’s no doubt about that, and very soon, citizens will follow suit. And then, of course, we will descend into a state where everybody will just do what they please. But we are going to work hard to avoid that.
There is this ease with which these court injunctions are gotten and abused; it’s so easy to get a court injunction, why?
That’s a blanket statement that I don’t agree with; I don’t think it is so easy to get court injunctions.
We have had cases where a party is about to hold its primary election, and just 48 hours to the exercise, a court injunction is obtained to stop the election?
Why are you unhappy that the court system is working? The court system is working. I don’t know that I would approach the question from the ease with which it is gotten because, yes, the court system should work. Systems can be abused, I agree. But the general principle is this; if I see that my right is about to be infringed, if I see that the wrong is about to occur, I will approach a court, and tell the court that this action should not happen, and then the court will give an injunction. Now, if it is found that the judge overreached himself or ought not to have given that injunction, the question is, is our disciplinary procedure that tends to watch over our courts and the judges in the way they carry out their function effective? Is it working, if indeed an injunction is given where it ought not to have been given? That’s number one. Two, is our system working expectedly enough, such that if we appeal against such an order, it can be reversed? So, I am not going to say it was too easy to get an injunction. You should be able to get an injunction if you deserve one; if the facts that you bring before the court are compelling enough for the court to issue one. So, I just think in our society, we shy away from sanctioning offenders and badly behaved people. And indeed, Chief Justices of Nigeria over time have warned judges not to give injunctions where they are not meant to. If it is found that judges are doing that, the National Judicial Council (NJC) is there; they should be taken before the NJC. In fairness to the NJC, some of these judges have been disciplined. So, for me, I will approach it from the point of view that where there is bad behaviour; where there is aberrant behaviour, they should be sanctioned. What we find is that because judges are so afraid of comments like this, that it is so easy to get injunctions, matters that require injunction, courts are now afraid, they don’t want to even give injunction for anything. When you know that if an injunction is not given, the ‘reps’, as we call it, will be dissipated. Even if we go into the substantive matter, it’s useless; there’s no point because it would have been overtaken by events, determining the matter in court substantively from remote cause, is now useless. So, injunctions have their own purposes that they serve.
Are you satisfied with the way and manner the Organised Labour handled the negotiations with the Federal Government?
I was not in the room, so, I can’t really know the way and manner in which Organised Labour handled the negotiations, and I am not going to give my comments based on what I have seen in the news media or on social media.
Are you aware of the palliatives to cushion the effects of the petrol pump price increase and the negotiations that were arrived at?
No. What I’m aware of is what I read in the headlines in the papers. I saw in the headline that the proposed protest was called off, one. Two, deregulation is here to stay. So, we are going to have increase in petroleum prices if market sources return, that is what we have. All index is depending on market sources, and that to cushion its effect, there will be some palliatives offered to I don’t know who, whether labour, Nigerians; I’m not so sure about this in detail. So, I can’t comment on the palliatives.
Government said they are out of subsidy, and they will introduce an alternate fuel, which will be cheaper than PMS; how feasible is this, considering the fact that the average Nigerian has a car that runs on petrol because they are looking at compressed gas?
It’s feasible. I mean, alternative fuel can be gas; alternative fuel can be ethanol. I want to presume that those that are driving those points have done their analysis, and they know that they can do that. There is also electricity. You know that there are cars that run on electricity. There are electric cars in many countries. So, the question is, it is quite possible to reconfigure a car and change the source of fuel; it’s quite possible. It may also be that government is hoping that they begin to feel clout because when they made that pronouncement, I’m sure you are not expecting that pronouncement is a matter of tomorrow; taking effect tomorrow, it’s a matter of policy. So, government is probably telling you that in the process of developing technology or bringing technology to the country, that we would ensure that we will be able to produce or we have alternative source to fuel. So, maybe, we have more electric car in Nigeria so that the dependence on PMS would be reduced over time because I’m sure you would not be expecting that, that would happen overnight. You know there are already cars that run on diesel; diesel is cheaper. Maybe that’s the plan that they have. You know I can’t hold brief for government.
The Federal Government said that they are introducing it next month. More so, they are presenting 133 compressed natural gas mass transit buses to NLC, and they said it would take effect next month?
That’s one group of people. It will deal with one group of people, who use mass transit. So, that’s a start. But generally, most of us run cars on PMS; so, it will be a process overtime for us now to begin to move to vehicles that use all those sources of fuel. So, if they say that mass transit is easier to deal with, we will be buying buses and all of that; they will be buying new buses to have a different source of fuel. But the bottom line is that changing source of fuel in any economy or in any system definitely will not be overnight, and I will not believe any government that tells me that they are going to change overnight. It’s going to be a target approach; there’s no doubt about that.