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Citizen Omo-Ojo v ExxonMobil: A case of wilful and flagrant abuse of the regulations of DPR

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On April 12, 2019, when Ernest Ivie Omo-Ojo got a letter of suspension from Mobil Producing Nigeria Unlimited (a subsidiary of ExxonMobil), it never crossed his mind that he would not be stepping into the imposing Mobil House on Lekki Expressway, Victoria Island, Lagos as a staff. While arbitration by the Department of Petroleum Resources (DPR) was ongoing between the employer and employee, Omo-Ojo received a letter terminating his employment on June 24, 2019.

Termination of employment in the Nigerian oil sector is regulated. Going by the provisions of the Guidelines for the Release of Staff in the Nigerian Oil and Gas Industry, 2019, an employer that wishes to terminate the contract of an employee is required to obtain the approval of the Minister of Petroleum Resources. The application for the minister’s approval is made in writing to the Director of Petroleum Resources of the DPR. The letter should indicate the manner of release, the reasons for the proposed release, the compensation due to the employee, and any proposed replacement of the employee.

According to the guidelines, the DPR shall conduct an inquiry into the circumstances of the proposed staff release and decide on whether to convey the minister’s approval or otherwise.

Besides obtaining the approval of the minister, employers in the Nigerian Oil and Gas sector are also required to notify the Nigerian Content Development and Monitoring Board of any proposed termination.

MPNU did none of these.

Employers are required to terminate a contract of employment at any time and without stating the reason or cause for doing so provided that the appropriate notice of termination is given to the employee or the employee is paid a salary in place of such notice. However, the National Industrial Court of Nigeria (NICN) indicated that best practices under international standards must be followed which mandates an employer to state the reason(s) for terminating an employee’s contract. Again, MPNU is culpable.

This is a case of wrongful termination because MPNU did not follow the procedure laid out in the contract of employment and as such, it is a wilful and flagrant abuse of DPR regulations by MPNU.

Background and chronology of events
Ernest Ivie Omo-Ojo joined Mobil Producing Nigeria Unlimited (MPNU) – a subsidiary of ExxonMobil – on February 14, 2001. He has had an outstanding career earning numerous awards in the course of his service which includes ExxonMobil Chairman/Managing Director Outstanding Leadership Awards for 2004, 2005, 2006, and 2007. His last award came in 2018 where he was a recipient of the ExxonMobil Vice President Global Public & Government Affairs for Innovation. Before joining MPNU, he was the Best Graduating Student of the Department of Mass Communication, Federal Polytechnic Auchi, Edo state in 1993.

After receiving a suspension letter from MPNU on April 12, 2019, Omo-Ojo submitted a petition to the DPR on April 16, 2019. Subsequently, he had follow-up meetings with the Assistant Director, Nigerian Content-DPR, thereafter he was informed a formal letter would be dispatched to ExxonMobil referencing his petition.

In May 2019, he was invited to the office of the Assistant Director, Nigerian Content, where he was told that the DPR had written to ExxonMobil intimating the company of his petition and that ExxonMobil provided feedback stating that his “suspension was with pay and that there was an ongoing investigation, and that when findings were concluded, DPR would be duly informed before any further action”. Omo-Ojo was consequently told by the Assistant Director that he should be patient and await a call from them. He was given the assurance that everything was under control and that no further action can be taken by MPNU as the matter was a pending petition before DPR.

What rather followed was the termination of his employment on June 24, 2019, without recourse to the DPR with any findings or why the action was taken. This is a violation of due process and lack of respect for orderliness, as the law setting up the DPR plainly states that permission/clearance must be sought from the regulator before any Nigerian is laid off from his job. This case was even pivotal, as Omo-Ojo had a pending petition challenging his suspension at the first instance.

When he handed over the termination letter to the DPR, the Assistant Director, Nigerian Content, was shocked and surprised at the action of ExxonMobil and counselled that he exercises patience so that the issue to be resolved amicably.

On October 15, 2019, the DPR invited ExxonMobil to provide explanations for its actions and explain the circumstances of the steps taken over the termination of Omo-Ojo’s employment without any recourse to the DPR. As part of the resolution of the October 15, 2019 meeting with the management of ExxonMobil, DPR insisted on his recall, unless the company can demonstrate that due process was followed under the DPR guidelines. The DPR then issued ExxonMobil a 14-day deadline to comply with the laid down guidelines.

On December 2, 2019, Omo-Ojo was invited to the DPR for another meeting with the Assistant Director, Nigerian Content. At that meeting, the Assistant Director expressed frustrations over the uncooperative and recalcitrant attitude of ExxonMobil and the violation of the 14-day ultimatum issued to the company at the October 15, 2019 meeting.

Consequently, on December 5, 2019, the DPR wrote to ExxonMobil “that having carefully scrutinised your submissions, vis- a- vis the resolution of the meeting held October 15, 2019, the Department hereby states that MPNU has violated Section 8 of Regulation 15A of the Petroleum {Drilling and Production} {amendment} Regulation 2019 made under the Petroleum Act of 1969 with the exit of Mr Ernest Omo-Ojo”.

A clear case of a breach was established against ExxonMobil.

In the December 5, 2019 letter ExxonMobil was given a 7-day ultimatum to comply with the directives. Instead, ExxonMobil reneged and did not meet the deadline rather employing all manners of delay tactics and taking advantage of the leadership changes in the DPR not to abide by the directives.

Following ExxonMobil’s deliberate action not to comply with the DPR’s December 5, 2019 resolution, Omo-Ojo was invited to a tripartite meeting with the DPR and the management of ExxonMobil convened on January 14, 2020. However, what was meant to be a tripartite meeting as stated in the letter of invitation issued to Omo-Ojo, such a meeting did not hold rather it was broken into different sessions. Thereafter, Alhaji A.R. Shakur, the Acting Director of DPR, who was the head of the meeting requested that Omo-Ojo should exercise patience for another two weeks which he was told was at the request and plea of ExxonMobil to enable it to work on compliance as resolved by the regulator.
Surprisingly, what followed after the two-week’s extension requested by ExxonMobil elapsed, was a letter Omo-Ojo received from the DPR dated March 2, 2020, signed by one Mrs Chinwe Egemba, Assistant Director, Nigerian Content, requesting him to liaise with the management of MPNU for further necessary action as the case was considered closed. The letter did not refer to the December 5, 2019 letter issued to ExxonMobil and for which they requested a two-week extension after the tripartite meeting to enable them to comply with the DPR’s directives.

After receiving the letter, Omo-Ojo placed a call to the new substantive director of the DPR, Engr. Sarki Auwalu. However, the director informed him that he was new at the job and had no details on the matter. Rather, he told him to write a petition to his office.

On March 16, 2020, Omo-Ojo lodged a follow-up petition as advised by the Director giving details of events in the last 15 months. Over the last three months, Omo-Ojo has had both verbal and written correspondences with the office of the Director, but all he was told was to exercise patience as the matter was still being reviewed.

On July 2, 2020, he lodged a formal appeal to the office of the Honourable Minister of State – Petroleum Resources, in assisting with closure on the matter.

On July 16, 2020, Omo-Ojo received a second letter from the DPR, this time echoing the same frustration of the March 2, 2020 letter. In the said letter, he was advised to go to court to seek legal redress.

The Human Resources Policy of MPNU gives credence to the guidelines of DPR under what it calls “Company Initiated Separation (CIS)”. It states that for any CIS to be undertaken, the company must work in consultation with the Industry Regulator (DPR) in arriving at its decision.

But did ExxonMobil follow the DPR amended guidelines/procedures on staff release (Regulation 60 B) in the Nigerian Oil and Gas Sector dated November 13, 2019? The answer is a resounding ‘NO”!

“My petition dated April 16, 2019, was when I was initially suspended, a termination letter was issued to me while my case was undergoing hearing at DPR,” Omo-Ojo said.

“Can a due process be said to have been followed when a termination letter was issued to me even when my petition was still under consideration at DPR? My prayers were very clear to the DPR. Though the employer reserves the right to discharge an employee, due process must be followed. The law is very clear on this from both the position of the regulator and that of ExxonMobil. This is a situation of violation of due process on staff release and the provisions/guidelines are clear on how this should be administered.

“Justice can only be seen to have been done in this matter, if there is a withdrawal of the ExxonMobil termination letter issued to me on June 24, 2019, when my petition was already undergoing hearing by the DPR. By the December 5, 2019 letter issued by the DPR to ExxonMobil, I remain an employee of ExxonMobil until this matter is dispensed with by the DPR.”

Efforts to reach the MPNU for its side of the story proved abortive.

Why always Nigeria?
“The policy of ExxonMobil Corporation is to comply with all governmental laws, rules and regulations applicable to its business,” the Ethics Policy of the company says.

The sources of employment law in Nigeria are: a) The constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999 (as amended); b) The Labour Act, Chapter L1, Laws of the Federation of Nigeria 2004; c) Federal laws enacted by the National Assembly and the State laws enacted by the House of Assembly of each state that relate to labour and employment, pension and workplace compensation including the following: Guidelines for the release of staff in the Nigerian oil industry 2019, Nigerian Oil and Gas Industry Content Development Act 2010, Employees’ Compensation Act 2010, Factories Act, Chapter F1 LFN 2004, Industrial Training Fund, Chapter 19 LFN 2004, National Health Insurance Scheme Act, Chapter N42 LFN 2004, National Housing Fund Act, Chapter 45 LFN 2004, Pension Reform Act 2014, Personal Income Tax Act, Chapter P8 LFN 2004, Trade Disputes Act, Chapter T8 LFN 2004, Trade Union Act, Chapter T14 LFN 2004, Nigeria Data Protection Regulation 2019; d) Decisions of the Nigerian courts; e) International conventions, treaties and protocols relating to labour, employment, workplace, industrial relations or matters connected therewith that have been ratified by Nigeria. Which means that no organisation, not even a multi-national, should flagrantly disregard such laws.

But then, Mobil Producing Nigeria Unlimited (a subsidiary of ExxonMobil), is not new to this act.

On July 17, 2018, the Lagos headquarters of ExxonMobil was shut down by the company’s workers’ unions over the alleged dismissal of 860 security personnel without entitlement.

The protesters accused MPNU of sacking the workers most of whom had worked with the company for over 22 years without regards for the rule of law.

Rasak Obe, the Chairman of ExxonMobil branch of the Petroleum and Natural Gas Senior Staff Association of Nigeria (PENGASSAN), told News Agency of Nigeria (NAN) that the protest was to express the disaffection of the workers with the management.

According to him, this was an unfortunate situation which the Supreme Court of Nigeria had corrected with its April 20, 2018 judgment of 508 workers.

“This underscored the scale of error in company’s assessment of the reality after the Supreme Court judgment,” he said.

“There are tens more who by the judgment are active employees of Mobil Producing Nigeria Unlimited. To say the least, this wholesale sack unambiguously conveys management’s disdain for the highest court of the country and mocks its ruling on the subject.

Obe said the company was quick to indiscriminately sack Nigerians and replace them with expatriates, “taking jobs Nigerians have successfully performed over the decades.”

“The cost of keeping one of the over 20 expatriate security personnel in Nigeria would pay one hundred of the Nigerian security personnel currently being repressed,” he said.

“This impunity has been raised with HR and Law since February 2018, but the company continues to ignore our advice.”
On May 11, 2017, workers in the oil industry embarked on protest action against “anti-labour practices in Mobil” following the sacking of 83 employees.

The workers, under the aegis of the PENGASSAN, started a gradual withdrawal from oil and gas installations belonging to Mobil Producing Nigeria Unlimited, Nigeria’s ExxonMobil arm.

“The company has no respect for the constituted authority of the land, as represented by the Honourable Minister of Labour and Productivity,” the PENGASSAN Lagos Zonal Chairman, Comrade Abel Agarin, said.

“The management disobeys the law and authority of Nigeria and we find this unacceptable to us.”

On February 25, 2020, over 70 members of PENGASSAN bemoaned the non-payment of their severance package 10 years after they were sacked by Mobil Producing Nigeria Unlimited.

The workers were disengaged in 2009 before the expiration of their employment contracts at the Qua Iboe Oil Export Terminal operated by the company. They were denied their entitlement of N600 million.

According to the oil workers, it took the management of the company nine years to authorise payment of their terminal benefits in 2018 but said that the amount fell short of the computed benefits by over N600 million.

“We were locked out while our employment contract was still running and under our labour laws, when there is such a breach of an existing contract, the terminal benefits reflect and compensate for the breach,” Peter Akpenka, a former Chairman of Contract Workers branch of PENGASSAN in MPNU, said.

“It took them nine years to pay part of the benefits in 2018 and they are still holding on to the balance, and we are at a loss as to why our union is working against us. Rather than use the subsisting Collecting Bargaining Agreement as at the time of our disengagement in August 2009 to compute our benefits they connived and used an old, discarded template and hence the shortfall.

“We have communicated them several times in writing, written reminders while this matter lingered over the years and they have taken no action.”

The way forward
A 2010 study sponsored by the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES) (an independent German non-profit organisation committed to promoting social democracy worldwide) titled, The State of Workers’ Rights in Nigeria: An Examination of the Banking, Oil and Gas, and Telecommunication Sectors by Funmi Adewumi and Adebimpe Adenugba found that:
• There is an appreciable level of rights awareness on the part of workers in the three sectors covered
• The level of compliance on the part of employers is low. Employers are deliberately avoiding compliance
• Official enforcement is low, and this is encouraged by weak institutional capacity
• There is a strong belief on the part of workers that the union is in a good position to ensure the protection and enforcement of workers’ rights.

The International Labour Organisation (ILO) expects member countries to strengthen machinery for labour disputes settlement, in line with international labour standards and consultation with the social partners, by Establishing legal and regulatory frameworks; Building effective dispute resolution systems and services within the labour administration and by independent statutory institutions and specialised labour courts; Capacity building through specialised training focused on negotiation skills and conciliation/mediation skills, as well as on international labour standards; Sharing knowledge and raising awareness in respect of the advantages of voluntary conciliation, mediation and arbitration mechanisms; and Sharing experiences of labour court judges on issues of common interest and concern.

However, the study by Adewumi and Adenugba came to the conclusion that “the provisions of labour laws and international labour standards of the ILO in, and by, themselves are not enough guarantees for the protection of workers’ rights and as such there is the need to look beyond these instruments in protecting the rights of workers. Workers, their organisations and allies within the labour movement should develop and adopt extra-judicial means such as political and social actions to secure their rights at work.”

Omo-Ojo took his case to the highest political office in Nigeria – the Presidency.

In a letter dated July 20, 2020, titled Wilful and Flagrant Abuse of DPR Regulations by ExxonMobil, and sent through the office of the Chief of Staff, Amb. (Prof.) Agboola Ibrahim Gambari, Omo-Ojo requested for the intervention of His Excellency. Below is an excerpt.

This letter also seeks your Excellency’s intervention, not only as the President and Commander-In-Chief but also as the extant Minister of Petroleum.

3. Specifically, your Excellency, on 5th December 2019, DPR issued a Violation Sanction and Directive to ExxonMobil after months of investigation on my matter bordering on an alleged conflict of interest owing to my publication of a book (The Potent Force of Sponsorship) which is a faith-based mentorship manual and my quest in seeking an elective position as Vice-President of ExxonMobil Employees Multipurpose Cooperative Society.

In the said letter, DPR affirmed that my release/disengagement from service fell short of due process and, accordingly, ExxonMobil was given seven (7) days to restore my rights and privileges and proceed with my retirement effective December 31, 2019. But, rather, ExxonMobil has continued to defy the DPR directives deploying all manner of underhand tactics and taking advantage of the leadership changes in DPR to shirk in its responsibility. The 5th December 2019 letter is annexed herein and marked “C.”

4. The continuous flouting of the directives of DPR by ExxonMobil is, by extension, a defiance of the powers of your office both as President and as Honourable Minister of Petroleum; the supervisory body for DPR. It is beyond peradventure that ExxonMobil is in breach of the following DPR guidelines:

* Resolution 4.0 of the amended guidelines and procedures on the release of staff in the Nigerian Oil and Gas Industry dated November 13, 2019, and signed on November 17, 2019, as can be seen in the within annexure “D”; and
* Resolution 4.1 requiring that any employer who wishes to release
a worker shall apply in writing to the DPR Director for the Minister’s
approval stating manner of staff release, reasons for the proposed
release, the compensation due to the worker and proposed
replacement of the worker.

5. Ludicrously, it is now over 200 days that ExxonMobil has been in disobedience of DPR’s directive and DPR seems frustrated as manifest in the tenure of two letters it has sent to me advising that my case is considered closed. The two letters are annexed and marked “E1” and “E2”.

6. Painfully, your Excellency, I have gone through this avoidable pain for the past fifteen (15) months. The unethical stoppage of my salary and allowances is taking a serious toll on the welfare and well-being of my family; the children’s university education cannot be paid for as planned. This has a severe psychological impact on me and my family.

7. It is worthy of note your Excellency, that you determine based on the prevailing circumstances and available facts if DPR has shirked in its responsibility as stated in its guidelines as a regulator viz-a-viz my case.
8. Your Excellency is kindly requested to intervene on this absurdity not necessarily for my sake alone, but in the overall interests of Nigerians in the employment of international oil companies operating in Nigeria. I have been pressured by many to let go because they fear bureaucratic bottlenecks will not let me have justice. I am, however, persuaded to fight on with the belief that your intervention would right this and similar wrongs in the Nigerian oil industry.

Conclusion
Grievances and conflicts are an inevitable part of the employment relationship. But few controversies are more damaging to a business than a dispute with an employee. It is high time Mobil Producing Nigeria Unlimited came to terms with this. An amicable resolution of the matter with Ernest Omo-Ojo is the first step to this realisation.

Juliet Ehis writes from Lagos. She can be contacted at ehisjuliet263@gmail.com


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