‘Labour must renew pacts with Nigerians’
The General Secretary of Non-Academic Staff Union of Educational and Associated Institutions (NASU), Peters Adeyemi, in this interview with COLLINS OLAYINKA explains why labour movement must take realistic step on deregulation of the downstream sector of the Nigerian oil and gas industry, among other issues.
It appears labour is at crossroads over deregulation policy. How can labour arrive at a decision that will not pitch it against the Nigerian people?
The time has come for us in the labour movement to engage credible consultants, who will critically examine the oil and gas industry and compare our experiences with other countries that had gone through similar route in time past and how they overcame the challenge. Then, the experts will be able to come up with appropriate proposals on how we can engage the government. Because of our old stand, we are yet to learn that when things are changing, we must find a refined way of changing the orientation of our people. This idea of demanding a reversal to the old price of petroleum is outdated. Through our engagement in time past, we had unwittingly raised Nigerians’ hope and then dashed it when negotiation did not go the way we envisaged. What we are experiencing is that whenever the Nigeria Labour Congress threatens to strike, Nigerians will jeer at us knowing nothing concrete will come out of such threat. It is also because we had used strategies that did not work effectively.
We have to be innovative in the way we deal with this matter because there is no way labour can compel the government to sell petrol at N97 per litre. We have to also consider the value of our currency. When people cite the example of Ghana, they forget that the country went through a process of devaluation of the currency. In those days, a few bananas cost thousands of Ghana Cedi before they re-evaluated their currency. As we speak, things are getting better in Ghana. It will get to a point when people will be going there to access medical treatment as our children now rush to Ghana for education.
When a new leadership emerges in labour, the movement has to call its members together for self-evaluation on how to proceed from where we are as a movement. I think labour must and needs to purge itself of certain toga and behavioural patterns it has adorned that are alien to the movement. When we talk about returning to tradition, we need to put into consideration emerging new realities to ensure the continued relevance of the movement to the working class. We must return the movement to the working class because that is where the movement draws its strength. Pa Michael Imoudu style of labour unionism cannot survive today. They can’t, because people are more enlightened now. The reality is that the Nigeria of today has seriously been bastardised where individuals are richer than the state.
The economy is indeed in a bad state but what are the factors that contributed to the collapse? Corruption is at the centre of it. The greed of our leaders is increasing. Since this government came on board and facing these challenges, how much has been provided for in the budget of the National Assembly, which has been growing fatter year-on-year while Nigerians are growing leaner? Has the budget of the National Assembly reduced since 2015? What is happening in the agencies where money has been declared missing or not accounted for? How many heads of agencies have been arraigned and jailed for corruption by a government that declared fighting corruption as one of its cardinal principles?
What that means, at the end of the day, is that the ordinary workers and Nigerians are made to suffer for government refusal to deliberately punch the stomachs of those that are eating too much and overfed illegitimately because those in power today benefitted and still benefitting from the stealing.
Why were NECA and NACCIMA not part of the negotiation on the deregulation policy with government?
I may be wrong but I think they were deliberately left out because it is easy to bamboozle labour on the negotiation table. Organisations such as NECA and NACCIMA are well-structured organisations and are very serious with actualising the mandates their members demand from them. They have experts and government cannot easily bamboozle them. Apart from the days of Oshiomhole and Omar, how many times has labour gone to meetings with sound Economists and well known and respected professionals that can stand toe-to-toe with government officials figure to figure and words for words? Nowadays, how many experts come to meetings with experts? They don’t come with experts anymore because they know the calibre of people coming to represent labour. In those days, the government would come with their best such as Oby Ezekwesili, Kupolokun of the NNPC, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala. These were timber and calibre people that were not only intimidating but also serious-minded. No one could go to meetings to confront these kinds of people with sheets of paper and phones! No. You will have to go with experts that are known the world over. COSATU in South Africa and Ghana TUC have research and development department functioning optimally.
Are you calling for the re-establishment of the office of chief economist of the NLC and other critical offices?
There are a lot of offices that needed to be filled in the NLC. We cannot run that place without qualified economist more so now that we are facing economic and unemployment issues. Not only that, we must have a functional economic department. No one can run an effective labour centre without a functional research department. Where do you get information to counter employers and the government? Okay, let me ask this: what benefit do industrial unions derive from the centre for paying dues that run into millions into the NLC monthly? For instance, if my union in the education sector wants to engage our employers in the sector, I should be able to walk into the research department of the NLC to obtain and consult materials such as credible journals and publications on any subject matter. In some cases, the staff in the research department could even join unions during negotiation as technical back up staffers. That is my idea of running a labour centre. It would be burdensome for industrial unions to establish research department when many of them cannot pay the salaries of their workers and rents. The major benefit of joining a centre is that it can support you with credible back up during industrial crisis and negotiations. In Public Service International (PSI) where I am the President of the African region, after the General Secretary presents a report during any of our meetings, the heads of departments present their reports, which is a detailed report of activities in their department. Head of departments is supposed to be experts in their fields. The President and General Secretary are not experts that know it all. There are segmentations and compartmentalisation of duties in the labour movement. Problems arise when these functions are hijacked from those that should execute them.
The attraction in engaging in trade unionism is the benefits that members derive from being members of the group and not the quantum of money you can make while you are at the helms of affairs.
Unfortunately for us, poverty has been weaponised in the labour movement and that has bred servitude. Stomach infrastructure is emerging in the labour movement, which is very unfortunate indeed. Our people can no longer express their opinions on happenstances in the labour because of fear of what one man can do to them in terms of ambition and feeding. We have deserted the truth in the hunt for what we will eat. Today our civil society allies have left us. Would anyone have imagined that a governor will declare the NLC dead and buried in the full glare of television cameras? There has been no reaction to that up to today.
But was the governor not speaking on behalf of bewildered Nigerians who are wondering what labour has become?
Well, probably yes.
Are you convinced that the time has come for Labour to adopt a new strategy as far as deregulation policy is concerned?
As a labour activist, I try to understand a little bit of everything. On this matter, it is better to involve experts in the process.
Labour must take a position that is anchored on knowledge and understanding of the reigning realities. Even if such a position would be criticised, we would be able to stand firm and if not immediately vindicated, posterity will vindicate us. We should not take decisions that are based on sentiments. During Oshiomhole’s time as President of Congress, we engaged him and even insulted him. But that did not stop him from inviting us to meetings. He is a clever man. He benefitted immensely from those intense debates. There is no trade unionism where there are no debates.