By Deborah Tolu-Kolawole
Barely 24 hours after meeting with President Bola Tinubu where an agreement was reached to call off their protests, the rapprochement between the organised labour and the Federal Government appeared to have collapsed as the unions on Thursday night vowed to embark on a nationwide strike from August 14 if their leaders were summoned for contempt of court orders.
The Nigeria Labour Congress hinged its decision on the contempt of court application filed by the Federal Ministry of Justice against the labour leaders on Wednesday.
It threatened to down tools should the Federal Government fails to withdraw the lawsuit accusing the labour leadership of disobeying court orders.
The NLC President, Joe Ajaero, announced the decision on Thursday night after the union’s National Executive Council meeting which was held in Abuja.
n a bid to avert a strike by the labour movement last month, the FG had through the Federal Ministry of Justice secured an order from the National Industrial Court restraining the NLC and the Trade Union Congress from embarking on any strike action over issues bordering on “removal of fuel subsidy, hike in prices of petrol and consequential increase in cost of living,” pending the determination of the suit.
The Solicitor-General of the Federation and Permanent Secretary, Federal Ministry of Justice, Mrs Beatrice Jedy-Agba, in a statement, urged the NLC to withdraw the seven-day notice it issued on its plan to commence a nationwide industrial action from August 2, if the demands of labour unions were not met.
The justice ministry sternly warned in a statement on July 26 that the planned strike by the union would be contempt of court, an offence that is punishable by imprisonment.
According to the FG, such strike action would amount to a resort to self-help since the matter was already pending in court.
But dissatisfied by the slow negotiation process with the FG and the delay in rolling out palliative to cushion the pains of subsidy removal, the organised labour declared a nationwide protest despite the court injunction.
Lagos lawyer and solicitor to the organised labour, Femi Falana, SAN, however, insisted that the proposed protest was lawful.
As a result, the protests, which were held on Wednesday, paralysed economic and commercial activities nationwide, leading to the shutdown of banks, offices and courts in several states.
As a payback for the labour leaders’ defiance, the Federal Government on Wednesday initiated a contempt of court proceeding against the labour leaders, a development that angered the unions.
The “notice of consequences of disobedience to order of the court”, titled “Form 48,” was filed before the National Industrial Court, Abuja.
The applicants are the Federal Government and the Attorney General of the Federation, while the various leaders of the organised labour were listed as respondents.
The notice was addressed to the NLC President, Joe Ajaero; Deputy Presidents, Audu Aruba, Adeyanju Adewale, and Kabiru Sani; General Secretary, Emmanuel Ugboaja; TUC President, Festus Usifo, and General Secretary, Nuhu Toro.
“Take notice that unless you obey the directives contained in the Order of the National Industrial Court, Abuja, delivered by Honourable Justice Y. Anuwe on June 5th 2023, as per the attached Enrolled Order, you will be guilty of Contempt of Court and will be liable to be sentenced to prison,’’ the contempt notice signed by Senior Registrar, Balogun Olajide, read.
Responding to the charge, the NLC President, in a statement on Thursday said the Ministry of Justice and National Industrial Court have continued to ‘’allow themselves to be used as agents of anti-democracy.”
The labour centre noted that though it agreed to suspend its protests based on its meeting with the President, it would embark on a nationwide strike starting from August 14, 2023, should the government fail to withdraw the lawsuit filed against the labour leaders.
Highlighting the decisions of the NLC, Ajaero said the NEC resolved to support and affirm the decision to suspend further nationwide mass protest and to commit to maintaining the required vigilance needed to hold the government accountable for its assurances and governance in general.
The union further resolved to commit to the terminal date of August 19 within which the issues around the petroleum price hike would be agreed given the assurances of the President and the National Assembly.
The statement added that the NLC resolved “To go on total strike across the country any day labour leaders are summoned to court by the government through the NICN 5; 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.”
The counsel to the Organised Labour, Falana, SAN, urged the President to call the permanent secretary of the Federal Ministry of Justice to order over the contempt charges filed against the organized labour.
He also noted that the NLC had in no way breached any agreement it had with the President on the suspension of the nationwide protests.
Falana who spoke in an interview with our correspondent on Thursday night explained that his client had already challenged the ex parte order obtained by the justice ministry from the National Industrial Court.
The human rights lawyer said, “Labour is not in breach of any agreement. They were in a meeting with the president when a ministry official went behind to file contempt charges. That was an embarrassment.
“If the organized labour were in contempt, would the president have met with them? Would the police have marched with them? We have challenged the jurisdiction of the court, and we have challenged the competence of the ex parte order so she (Jeddy-Agba) knows she can’t be talking of contempt of court until our motion challenging the jurisdiction of the court and competence of the ex parte order is taken.”