Veteran labour leader, activist and former General Secretary of the National Union of Petroleum and Natural Gas Workers (NUPENG) speaks on the new minimum wage, poverty and suffering, corruption, insecurity, and the government of President Muhammadu Buhari, among other national issues. Excerpts:
The implementation of the new minimum wage is fast running into a cul-de-sac with the fresh dimensions it is taking. The Federal Government, after a long delay, culminating in the new wave of threats of strike has finally given indication that it will downsize the workforce as a condition for full and unimpeded implementation. It has also asked workers to make the sacrifice in the interest of the nation. What is your reaction to this development?
Well, I have not heard that. What I know they have been talking about is adjustments between levels seven to 17. Initially, it was expected to be done on pro-rata basis. But pro- rata is not good for the low-income workers. So, an arrangement that will improve the lot of this vulnerable set of workers is what people have been talking about for some time now. That is how they have arrived at percentages for the various categories of workers. But the percentage the government is talking about is too low, ie, from levels seven to 17. That is where the crux of the matter is. They need to sit down properly, dialogue and iron out these differences and move ahead. I believe that government should make some concessions to labour, if they don’t want trouble from labour, because you can’t be talking of adjustments of five per cent, seven per cent in this kind of bargaining. That is the normal annual increment for workers. That is normal. So, I do not see any big deal in the offer the government is making. We expect that an aggregate percentage that is higher than what is being dangled may thaw the ice. I think the refusal of the government to reach a common ground with labour may lead to a national disaster; a national strike, which in itself is a national disaster, because the entire trade union groups will strike and ground the nation. If the whole trade unions decide to unite to fight the government, then the government will know where they are. Unfortunately, the labour unions these days are split among themselves. But the question of the new minimum wage, government should move a bit further to make workable and acceptable offers instead of the ridiculous five per cent, seven per cent they are offering which they know will not be accepted by labour. The question of downsizing the workforce is an insult to labour. And I hope they know that. I just hope it is not true that they are putting this kind of thing forward at a time like this.
That is blackmail. That is sheer blackmail and labour must not accept that kind of blackmail. Government should move and make its stand clear and labour should make some concessions. But this talk about five per cent, seven per cent offer should not be countenanced under any guise. We should be talking about 10 per cent to 15 per cent up. That is what I want to hear.
Let us talk about the imminent return of tollgates on our highways. Labour is also spitting fire saying that before the tollgates are returned, government must reduce the price of fuel. What do you say on this? Labour is also saying that the proposed tax on GSM calls should also be dropped. Of course, you know about the Vat increase to 7.5 per cent and the bank charges on deposits and withdrawals that have already taken off in six states. Do you think that Labour is right on the demand too?
I believe that government should be sensitive to the plight of the masses. The charges and increments are coming at a time and in bulk. Those who are to pay these are the same people and at the same time. Everyday, tax, tax, tax. You want to kill the people? The people are suffering. Such things can be introduced piece- meal or in batches. I do not know the point the government is making by introducing these charges at once. The roads are so bad. There is infrastructural decay in every facet of the economy. Financial measures such as these have to be gradual and carefully weighed so that the people are not over burdened, and so that they are happy, and productive in the quest to revamp the economy. If the people are not happy, there is a problem. It is not good to be fighting the people every day. No, no, no, no! Nigerians are taking too much while the fat cows are getting fatter, fatter and fatter. The gap between the earnings of the lowest and the highest is increasing every day by one per cent – four per cent on an unacceptable level. But these days you see some people going home with N15m, N20m, N10m in a month and you are paying some people N30,000. You are widening the gap and that is the duty of labour to remind them in case they have forgotten. Government is taking advantage of the division in the labour union to drive these obnoxious policies down the throats of the people. They are getting everything to themselves and leaving the whole country in a state of poverty and suffering. Labour should pick up and do their job for the country and the people. The parliament that should fight for the people has become a rubberstamp, especially the states’ parliaments. They have become rubberstamps. They don’t care about the people. They don’t care about putting checks and balances on the excesses of the executive. It is because we found ourselves in this dilemma that the government is not sparing a thought for the people in their policies. If they don’t do their job the people should take over the job from them. If the labour movement was united, shall we be in this sorry state? That is the question we should all ask ourselves. Labour should put their house in order. There is so much impunity in the country at the moment. I am an APC chieftain, but truth must be told.
Are you saying that the labour union is not alive to its responsibilities?
Yes. This is a wakeup call. Take, for instance, they are allowing the Federal Government to be sharing jobs. My Job at the NSITF was sold and they were there. The job was sold out immediately I was given the job by some cabal in that place or what some people call kitchen cabinet. Labour looked on. They should shine their eyes and know what is happening in the nation. They should not allow governance by subordinates. A lot of things are happening in the country that people do not care to know about. If we have a leader, he should not surround himself with people who will be governing. All over the place, they say Buhari is a good man, a good man, but he must watch his lieutenants and take up the responsibility of driving the government for the good of the nation. There is rot all over the country because of what is going on in power. The roads are bad. There is corruption all over the place. The hospitals are not equipped and they charge unnecessarily high. Tell me one thing that is working optimally in the country today? Yet, they find it very easy to get up and introduce all kinds of taxes on the people. The jobs are not there for the teeming masses of the people. The schools are decaying and that is why there is an upsurge in private schools. Yet government is insensitive that these social services are not there for the people. It is the responsibility of government to provide these things for the people all over the world. The schools are not taking care of, and everybody is going to private schools. The private schools are making a kill. They charge exorbitantly and exploit the people. You see an infant in a kindergarten paying over 100,000 and some more. How many Nigerians can afford that? So, people like us, we see that the country is not moving the way we wanted it to move. In fact, it has gotten to a level that is frustrating. The government ought to have a burden on its conscience and refrain from taxing people where the pervading perception is that it has not improved the lot of the people. At the root of these things is corruption, which was the number one thing we voted Buhari for. When you allow corruption to thrive, the country will not make any headway. The security agencies are neck-deep in it. No one hides corruption anymore. It is done in the open in a brazen manner and nobody cares. You report a corrupt practice to the security agencies; they take money from the accused and let him off. Some will even come after you for daring to report. Corruption has come to be a normalized practice in our country and those who venture to scream at it are called fools. So, everyone has joined them and it is flourishing. Look at what the Nigerian Police Force is doing with corruption even on the roads, which has become a lucrative posting. I am not saying that everybody in the Nigerian Police is corrupt. Perhaps only about 70 per cent of them are corrupt. We are corrupt; extra corrupt. You cannot run a country like that. The country will go to the dogs. Buhari came with the mantra that he will kill corruption. We are still waiting for him to do that. Corruption in the judiciary and the police is a scar on this nation and it must be tackled if we want to get anything out of this country. In 2015, the talk was all about corruption. What happened?
Your analysis of the sickening events in this country, does it not amount to call for a revolution? Do you think that Nigeria can actually experience a revolution based on these issues?
What do you mean by revolution? Is it the type of Sowore’s revolution you’re talking about, where you carry placards and chant songs? Is that a revolution? Labour should monitor the government and attack the government in conjunction with the civil society and not allow government to pocket it. If the government treats labour shabbily, labour knows what to do. There should be collective engagement and bargaining. Labour must not allow itself to be shunted aside because they represent the working class who are the people. We were trained to work for the people and defend them. Labour must not be seen to be indulging fat cows in government. We have fat cows in government who want to continue enjoying at the expense of the people. They don’t want to suffer any deprivation and they don’t care whether the people are suffering or not. In Nigeria, we have been talking about wage increase for workers, which they reluctantly approved, but are holding on the implementation for a variety of reasons. The worker pays for everything and that means the wage increase comes to naught. If you pay for everything – education, health etc; what is left for him? It is offensive the way and manner the new minimum wage is going. They are making a whole big issue of it as if 30,000 is enough to wipe away all the problems of the people, or when you give it to them they will no longer regard you as the powerful government of Nigeria. There are no social benefits. Majority of Nigerians take care of themselves. You leave them in useless conditions to live and many have taken to petty trading and other things to augment their income. Look at the National Assembly, which is made up of a small minority of Nigerians. You can see how indifferent they are to the cause of the people because of the huge sums of money they cart away every month in many guises. How do you expect them to stand with the people when they are suffocating from the luxuries of life? In today’s Nigeria, if you are not close to a minister or somebody up in government you cannot get anything that is due to you. That is how bad it is. That is the situation in the country today. Labour should be the watchdog of the people. Labour should not fraternize with the government that majority of the people see as their oppressors. The voice of labour must be heard on anything that negatively impacts on the people. The media must also wake up. There should be a nationalist press, a press that should fight for the people. A small group of people who are involved in corruption will hold a press conference and the following day it is given wide prominence in the media. But when human rights activists talk, the same kind of prominence is not given. The situation is really, really bad and disheartening. Let the press rediscover its role as the conscience of the nation, the fourth estate of the realm. We need them in the country to make things work. When we were in labour and even during the June 12 saga, journalists struggled and struggled to get news from us. If it were like today, we will even demand money to give them news to sell their papers. I don’t know if it is still like that today? Even in detention, when underground, they will struggle to link up with you to extract news from you.
Let us talk about the National Social Insurance Trust Fund (NSITF) saga where you were to be the chairman, but lost out in a power struggle. Is it over now?
It is over. They have had their day.
How did you feel when it was taken from you?
Of course, I was bitter. The acting President gave me a job when the president was away and they rallied round to take it from me. It was so easy for them because they have become so strong in power. They say they are the cabal. Buhari is no longer acting the way he used to act when he was a younger man. He has grown so indifferent to things happening around the corridors of power that people are now wondering whether he is actually in charge. I have a reason to say this and a good one at that. When that appointment was reversed, he was back in Nigeria and had resumed duties. If it was those people around him that did it, I never saw him raise a finger while the controversy lasted.
The acting president then, Pastor Osinbajo gave you a job and they took it from you in a barefaced manner and nothing happened? Now, the vice president who gave you that job is presently fighting a battle of his political life and fingers are pointing at the same people who took your job as his nemesis? How do you look at the storm he is presently embroiled in?
The storm swirling around him and threatening to get him out of power?
There is no storm. If there is a storm he should speak out. The storm as far as I can see is contrived by the same cabal. It is exaggerated. What they have done is self-serving. If there is a storm, he should speak out. It is serving their objectives for being there and to pitch the vice president against the president. Nothing more. They should be able to discuss in-house instead of playing to the gallery. Osinbajo has not spoken. They are working together, I believe. There is no storm. It is exaggerated to make the vice president have bad relationship with the president.
There is a lot of insecurity in this country with insurgency, banditry, herdsmen attacks, kidnappings etc. How do you look at the future of Nigeria with this high level of insecurity?
That is why I said that corruption is at the root of the problems in Nigeria. It is corruption that is not making it easy to arrest insecurity in the country. That is the truth of the matter. Unless and until corruption is tamed, the chances of the country getting out of these crises of insecurity are remote. The security people are corrupt themselves. Some of them know the bandits and co-operate with them. It is all about corruption. I appeal to the police and the judiciary to speed up matters of corruption around them. Speed up everything that has to do with corruption in their jurisdiction. Any country that can’t fight corruption that country will start going down, down the drain. Corruption has touched every facet of the nation’s life and insecurity is on the rise and the attempts to curb it are not working because of the same corruption. You embezzle N1 billion and you know you will spend N300 million to get out of the case, you go ahead and embezzle it. You set aside something for the agencies and the judiciary. Finished. A man steals a goat worth N10,000 and is jailed 10 years with hard labour. Look at the raging case of $9.6 judgment against Nigeria involving IP&D. It is a clear case of corruption. Some people reaped heavily from it. The whole thing, the buck stops at the president’s table. It is the president that will decide what we will do with corruption. Through this case in London, we have exposed ourselves to the outside world. We are making the country a caricature to the outside world. The president should get people who are more serious to work with him.
What are your personal regrets and pains as a labour leader?
I have no regrets for being a labour leader. It was a deliberate decision of mine to be in the labour movement and I did my bit. It did not happen by accident. I was ready for deprivation. That is what Sowore is suffering now. How many days has he been in detention? All the risks I took were to fight oppression. You can’t say you want to make a change without deprivation. You can’t make an omelet without breaking an egg. In the process of fighting oppression, you will be exposed to all kinds of risks and face deprivation most times. I was in detention (prison) for four years plus. I was prepared for it. They can’t even take you to court and even if they do, they will still return you to prison. When I was just seven years old, I had started reading about great revolutionaries in the world. I read about people like great American presidents, Franklin Roosevelt, people like Chairman Mao, Lenin, Joseph Stalin, Patrice Lumumba, Kwame Nkrumah, Julius Nyerere, and many others. At that young age, I had already become a fan of those great people. I studied about the lives of those who led the struggle for the liberation of South Africa. We were trained in Russia, Germany, Afghanistan, and Vietnam. We were raised as proud Africans, not Nigerians. We were prepared to make sacrifice for our continent and our country. We had respect. It is a shame what activism has turned to today. Labour activist must be prepared at all times to make sacrifice, and if need be, pay for it. We could travel at short notice. You just alert them and even at the airport they give you visa. Bad governance has ruined Africa for long. Some of us are afraid that we will not see a new Africa.