The Petroleum and Natural Gas Senior Staff Association of Nigerian (PENGASSAN) is always in the news, but over the last two years it feels like they are always in the news and in the courts. It is understandable considering Nigeria hasn’t quite figured out how to transport imported fuel products from its ports to its cities and relies heavily on public-private partnerships to meet this need. As such, the PENGASSAN has become a powerful pressure group, able to cripple the economy in service of their causes.
Most recently PENGASSAN and Mobil Petroleum Nigerian have been in the courts, over a private dispute. As with many disputes involving PENGASSAN, the court case dragged since 2016, putting the lives of many of the people involved in limbo and threatening the ability of both organizations to perform their duties favourably. I should point out that this is no fault of either party, it is merely a symptom of our judicial industry which can often be very slow to reach resolution. Recently, the Federal minister of Labour, Senator Chris Ngige decided to intervene in the dispute between both parties and referred them away from the Federal courts to a the Industrial Arbitration Panel, where both parties would be required to reach a mutually beneficial compromise without having to drag the case through the courts for years.
PENGASSAN wasn’t having any of that, and dragged the Federal Minister to court, challenging his right to throw their case against Mobil Petroleum Nigeria out of court and into the Arbitration system. Mr. Rudy Ezeani, lead counsel for PENGASSAN brought up the suit, asking the courts to review the Minister’s powers and ascertain if he can indeed force both parties to settle out of court.
Now this isn’t the kind of motion you file without carefully considering the implications. It is a landmark suit, the kind that goes on to set a precedent and either dismantle or reinforce enshrined power in a political office, person or party. Ezeani argued that the minister’s powers are not judicial or quasi-judicial (meaning binding in a court of law) but rather ‘unqualified executive powers’, which means the minister draws his powers from the presidency and as such still needs to go through the legal system to enforce any of its directives.
It turns out that the Minister of Labour in fact does have statutory powers, and that his judicial powers (the power to intervene in court cases) are backed up by the Trade Dispute Act and the Trade Dispute (Essential Services) Act. What this means is that the minister’s word is law and must be adhered to. The Court also informed everyone involved, that the minister has ‘unfettered’ rights to make judicial decisions within the statues given to him by the Trade Dispute Act, and he can punish any defaulting parties.
Talk about shooting yourself in the foot.
It seems PENGASSAN and MPN are headed to litigation court and everyone else who has trade disputes capable of derailing the economy is going to have to tread carefully going forward or have their cases thrown out of court.