FG withdraws contempt suit against labour, NLC may suspend strike

The Federal Government on Monday backtracked and withdrew its contempt suit filed against leaders of the Nigeria Labour Congress and the Trade Union Congress for organising a nationwide anti-subsidy protests on August 2, 2023.

The development came barely five days after the Federal Ministry of Justice sued the organised labour leaders for allegedly disobeying a court order barring them from leading the nationwide protest.

The National Industry Court had stopped the organised labour from going on strike but human rights lawyer and counsel to the organised labour, Femi Falana, insisted the union could proceed on the protest.

On Wednesday evening, the organised labour met with President Bola Tinubu and reached an agreement to end the one-day protest. This came with agreements that the Federal Government would approve labour awards and expedite the implementation of subsidy palliative.

Despite the agreement the Ministry of Justice sued the organised labour for court contempt, a development that angered labour leaders who later announced plans to begin a nationwide strike on August 14.

However, the Federal Ministry of Justice on Monday said the government had backtracked from going ahead with the contempt suit

The ministry, in a letter dated August 7,2023, and addressed to the Nigeria Labour Congress through their counsel, Femi Falana SAN, said the contempt proceedings filed against the congress for embarking on a nationwide protest last Wednesday was no longer valid.

The letter, signed by the Permanent Secretary, Beatrice Jeddy-Agba, stated that the ministry filed the contempt proceedings before the interventions of the President and the National Assembly.

The letter, addressed to NLC’s counsel, Femi Falana read, “ The attention of the Federal Ministry of Justice has been drawn to the Communique issued by the Nigeria Labour Congress  on 3 August 2023 wherein NC announced the suspension of its nationwide protests and criticised the contempt summons issued by the National Industrial Court (*Court”), amongst other issues.

“Kindly recall the exchange of correspondence between the Ministry and your Office on the need for compliance with the extant court orders, restraining industrial action of any kind on the part of the Nigeria Labour Congress and Trade Union Congress. The position of the Ministry was informed by the need to safeguard the integrity of the court and prevent avoidable service disruption or damages to public facilities.

“However, despite these exchanges/interventions, the labour unions on 2nd August 2023 proceeded with the industrial action through public protests which led to disruption of work and the eventual pulling down of the gate of the National Assembly. The foregoing prompted the Ministry to initiate contempt proceedings by filing Form 48 on the same 2nd August 2023 in accordance with Section 72 of the Sheriffs and Civil Process Act and Order 9 Rule 13 of the Judgment (Enforcement) Rules.”

The letter further read, ““It is trite that issuance of Form 48 is just the starting point in contempt proceedings which will only crystalise upon the issuance of Form 49 and the consequential committal order. Upon the intervention of His Excellency, President Bola Ahmed Tinubu and the decision of the labour unions to call-off their industrial action after meetings with the President and leadership of the National Assembly, this Ministry did not proceed further with the contempt proceedings, which would have required the issuance of Form 49 within two days of the issuance of Form 48.

“It is self-evident that the none-issuance of Form 49 as at 4th of August 2023, renders the contempt proceedings inchoate. You may therefore wish to advise or guide the labour unions on the practice and procedure of contempt proceedings, particularly to the effect that the issues or concerns raised by NLC in its communiqué on the proceedings have been overtaken by events.”

When contacted on Monday as to whether the NLC would shelve its planned strike, Falana noted that the decision rests on the labour leaders.

In 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.

Jedy-Agba, had 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.

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 initiated a contempt of court proceeding against the labour leaders, a development that angered the unions.

However, In an interview with newsmen on Monday, The National Assistant Secretary, Chris Onyeka, said in view of the letter by the Federal Ministry of Justice, the congress would call an organ meeting and give appropriate directives on the next line of action.

Meanwhile, the upper chamber of the National Assembly will meet with organised labour in Abuja on Tuesday (today), according to the NLC National President, Joe Ajaero.

Ajaero also noted that the labour leaders would hold the government responsible for every agreement reached.

Speaking during an interview with Channels Television which was closely monitored by one of our correspondents, Ajaero said, “Just like you rightly said, the protest was suspended due to the intervention of the Senate and the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, President Bola Ahmed Tinubu. When we suspended the protest, the Senate vowed to get back to us within one week and just this evening, we got a notice that we have been invited for a meeting with them tomorrow (Tuesday). On the other issues, we are yet to get the modalities on the restructured negotiating team. “We are going to do our jobs as labour leaders and we will not be tired. We expect the government to respect every agreement reached.”