Issues from suspended oil workers strike – Punch

By The Citizen

For workers in the Nigerian oil industry, strikes are fast becoming second nature. Their predilection for strikes has often made them to down tools or threaten to do so under very flimsy circumstances. There were occasions when they called out their members on industrial action merely because they were told not to obstruct traffic by parking their vehicles indiscriminately on highways, or because a fuel-bearing truck driver had a heated exchange with a security official. This is why the just suspended strike, to the uninformed, could be dismissed as one of those pranks by a self-centred group to inflict more pains on long-suffering Nigerians.

However, the points at issue in this particular instance deserve much more than a fleeting attention as they verge more on the very existence of the economy of the Nigerian state. Beyond the usual reference to issues affecting them personally, especially those bordering on the welfare of their members, the oil workers called for the passage of the Petroleum Industry Bill, which has been gathering dust for the past seven years at the National Assembly. The PIB, when passed, is expected to bring sanity to the operations of the oil industry, which has witnessed lots of divestment and arbitrariness of recent because of the lack of an up-to-date legal framework to streamline its activities.

While the fight for the passage of the bill into law is going on, there is also the grouse that an extant law, the Nigerian Oil and Gas Industry Content Development Act, is not being properly implemented. That law is supposed to pave the way for greater value added in all ramifications in the industry, which is currently dominated by foreign operators and inputs.

The oil workers are also pushing for the repair of access roads to oil facilities and installations, which have been virtually abandoned and allowed to fall into ruin over the years, despite the fact that oil remains the livewire of the Nigerian economy. The issue of insecurity also features prominently on their list of demands in a country where the value of human life has substantially nose-dived under a reign of terror unleashed by Islamist terrorists, exemplified by Boko Haram in the North. Armed robbers, kidnappers and ritual killers are also on the rampage in the South.

Perhaps, one of the most urgent of the demands is the call on the government to put a stop to the massive oil theft currently going on in the Niger Delta, which has fundamentally weakened the country's economy. A report by an online news medium, Sahara Reporters, published in September, quoted a cable news channel, Al Jazeera, as saying, '…oil theft (in Nigeria) is at its highest levels in years. The government says $8 billion in revenue were lost in 'industrial-scale' theft last year.'

London-based independent policy institute, Chatham House, which actually used the phrase 'industrial scale' to describe the extent of theft of Nigerian oil in a 2013 report, said, 'In Nigeria, politicians, military officers, militants, oil industry personnel, oil traders and communities profit (from the theft of oil), as do organised criminal groups.' Although Chatham House puts the quantity of stolen crude oil at 100,000 barrels per day, besides those that vanish at export points, it is believed that as much as 200,000 barrels of oil get carted away from the country on a daily basis. This runs into billions of dollars in the course of one year. And, surprisingly, the government appears to be helpless in the face of this massive looting of the country's resources.

Doubtlessly, the problems of the Nigerian oil industry are myriad and need to be tackled frontally if the country's leaders are interested in lifting the mass of the people out of poverty. Also of interest are the four government-run refineries that have remained grossly underutilised for over two decades, for which reason the country spends nearly a quarter of her budget, that should have gone into bridging the massive infrastructure gap, on a so-called subsidy on imported fuel. The oil workers want the turnaround maintenance of these refineries carried out so that more of the refining of crude oil could be done locally.

While these demands are not only tenable but also timely, it is doubtful if a strike by the workers is the solution to the problems; it would only further weaken the economy already facing serious threat from the ongoing free-fall in the prices of crude oil. There is no doubt that the government has been complacent over the many challenges in the oil industry. These are all demands that do not need prompting before they are dealt with in societies where the interest of the country counts above sectional and individual interests.

For instance, the government has no reason to still be holding on to the refineries today when all available evidence - including a public confession by the Minister of Petroleum Resources, Diezani Alison-Madueke - shows that the government cannot run the refineries effectively. It is also surprising that the government that regularly threatens to increase the pump price of petrol because of the high cost of crude has suddenly gone limp about the need for price reduction when oil prices have gone down by almost half.

While much of the issues raised by the oil workers are not achievable in the short term, there are some that can be dealt with presently. One of such is the passage of the PIB. Another is the transparent sale of refineries and effective implementation of extant laws on operations of the industry. This is when a government should act like a government and live up to its responsibilities. When genuine efforts are seen to have been made to tackle these problems, it will be difficult for oil workers to threaten strike at the least provocation.