By Daniel Kanu
Comrade Joe Ajaero has seen it all in labour matters and constant face-off with the government. The Deputy President, Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC), President, United Labour Congress (ULC), and General Secretary, National Union of Electricity Employees (NUEE) in this exclusive chat with Sunday Sun, speaks on considerations by labour to shelve strike, Security challenges, and the urgent need for removal of Service Chiefs, ASUU strike and the feasibility of President of Igbo extraction in 2023, among other sensitive issues. Excerpt:
Recently, not less than 344 students of Kankara science school in Katsina State were abducted by the bandits but were released after five days…?
(Cuts in) What is happening is a further manifestation of the state of insecurity in the country. No person is in doubt any longer that the state of insecurity has got to a higher level since nobody is in control. When you listen to people call for the sack of Service Chiefs, it is out of frustration. If students at school could be abducted, few years after the experience at Chibok, it then means you are not learning, you are not being pro-active, you are not making use of intelligence hints, security is almost 60 per cent intelligence work. In my wildest imagination, I wouldn’t have expected a bit of the Chibok experience in any part of this country, but it has happened and that is the state of insecurity in the land. And we have to face reality, that is where we are. Living on self-denial, giving excuses to justify whatever, that people are in control will not help us. I think there is a need for a national emergency in all this. No section of the country is safe, the level at which people are being assassinated daily, kidnap cases are happening, East, West, North, and South, calls for concern. I don’t know what we are waiting again, uptil this moment. What is happening shows that there are many groups that are operating underground with the sole aim of making sure that the life and property of Nigerians are not secured, and this is sad.
But do you think that if the Service Chiefs are removed things will get better?
I don’t think that we have seen the best in terms of the personnel we have in this country. Calling for the removal of the Service Chiefs is re-jig the security architecture. Now, if Mr. A is there and things are getting worse, you try Mr. B and see whether it will be better, but until you try Mr. B or Mr. C or Mr. D, you won’t be able to know whether we have the people who can solve the problem. The ones we have now have shown that they do not have the needed capacity or fresh ideas to handle the situation. And you do not retain them and be expecting that things will change for the better. That approach of removal or whatever is a problem-solving approach. Nobody is saying, keep the offices vacant, but try other people if you are expecting any change. The ones there have tried, they have tried their best and we have seen their best, but their best is not good enough. Can we try other people? That is the simple reason for the call for the removal of the Service Chiefs. We are not getting results so why still keep them?
How would you assess the President Mohammadu Buhari-led government?
Well, I don’t know where to start the assessment because I don’t want to be tagged as a member of any political party, I am not. But an average Nigerian on the street will tell you that he or she is suffering, suffering in the sense that, we don’t have good roads, the power situation is not helping matters, but even if you have all these things, with the present security situation things have got worse. Our education is nothing to be proud of any longer. If you are told that after almost four months of lockdown over COVID-19, EndSARS and all that, that students will still be at home today because ASUU is on strike and they cannot resolve it with the government till now is saddening. The transport situation is the same, getting worse each passing day, Medicare is the same thing, deterioration everywhere. Even when you look at the indices in all sectors, you will know that we are not enjoying what is on the ground. This is not what Nigerians want. From nowhere you increased the tariff and even trying to increase it the more. From nowhere you increased the pump price of petroleum products and increased again, even when you are still negotiating. From nowhere inflation has gone high, a bag of rice, oil, etc you can’t afford. From nowhere our Naira is getting to almost 500 to a dollar, now on daily basis we are borrowing and if you borrow $20, 000, for instance, when it was N200, by the time it is N500 it then means that the money will be more than double when paying back. The purchasing power in terms of machinery and other items that come into the country, it means that you need bags of money to be able to buy. This is sad and I am not happy about the development because I believe that given the material and human resource deposit in Nigeria, we should do better than what we are doing now.
You just mentioned the case of ASUU and the prolonged strike with its negative impact on the education sector. Some Nigerians are beginning to blame ASUU…?
(Cuts in) I do not think it’s proper to push the blame to the doorpost of ASUU. What I saw in the case of ASUU and the government is purely industrial relations matter. ASUU may have their own approach, other unions have their own approach, but to a very large extent, no government should go into any agreement that you cannot keep. Don’t sign an agreement with any union or any organisation and you fail to implement it 2, 3, 4, 5 years after. On the basis of that, no industrial relations expert or labour expert will tell you that ASUU is not on the right part. This is because the very moment you demystify an organisation by signing an agreement that is not worth the paper that was used in drafting that agreement, it then means that organisation is gone. If ASUU is not doing what they are doing now, lecturers will be the worst paid, lecturers will be so demoralized, the number of brain drain would have worsened and on daily basis, ASUU is campaigning to see whether the issue of autonomy, the issue of the sanctity of the university, even in the midst of the proliferation of private universities, ASUU wants to make sure that the few public universities where they are operating can stand and compete with other universities in the world. That is why they are emphasizing on research, funding of research, and all that. I think that ASUU is on the right part in terms of demanding such rights, but when you talk of a prolonged strike, it takes two to tango, I think the government should meet them, at least, halfway, so that the parties will resolve the problem once and for all because the masses are suffering. Those that can afford little money will send their children and wards to private schools, some send theirs abroad. I think we also need to equally have a national conference on education or dysfunctional in education which I felt that strike has created more problems in the university. I was doing a study, I was calculating that for a period of 10 years, we have lost about three years. So, when you look at the effects on the students, the frustrations on the parents, even some students die while roaming about and you cannot bring back that life. You can see that part of the problem of EndSARS was that these students have been at home for months and they were frustrated, they are angry, so even if you call another action tomorrow, you have a ready army to prosecute such action. When we look at the implication it’s not just ASUU, we have to look at the overall effects. Some of the female students are doing something that they are not supposed to do, just like some of the male students doing what they are not supposed to do because the government and ASUU have not been able to resolve the problem.
You also raised the issue of the increment in the pump price of petroleum products again and again and the NLC seems to be helpless as Nigerians have lost confidence and hope in NLC struggles. How do you feel about this as one of the labour leaders?
The issue is that, apart from the night where the strike was called off, I was in other meetings and a few weeks back, I happen to have represented the NLC president as a deputy president of NLC in the negotiation. Initially, labour saw itself as a pan-Nigerian organisation, clear commitment on project Nigeria, that Nigeria must move, so when the issue of …if you don’t increase this, the economy will collapse, that we are coming out from COVID-19 and all such issues, labour now said okay, they (government) have to look for a solution. Let us take this solution from two prongs, you can’t continue to be import-dependent of petroleum products. They were told to go and do turnaround maintenance on those refineries and to make sure that the products we need, we refine them here. Then part of the palliatives like mass housing project, transport projects, creating more jobs, those in power sectors a lot of things were put forward that should be done, it was on the basis of this that that action (to go on strike) was suspended and then a committee was set up to review the extent of implementation, but we were worried at the point that they now announced another increase in pump price, and that was where we had challenges and in one or two meetings I happened to have presided we had a workout, we had another stalemate until finally we got to a level and said okay between N5 and N7 that was the increase, remove the N5 increase so that the situation and effect can also be reduced on Nigerians. But as of today, we are getting feelers that some of the marketers had not implemented the price reduction which will open another avenue for action. It was based on that patriotism that they felt oh there was no money and looking at the level of devaluation, looking at the price of crude at the international market, etc, all those arguments were put forward for evaluation. I don’t think Nigerians should lose hope in NLC because now if there is no alternative, you don’t say you have lost hope. If we own NLC, all of us will be pushing despite the circumstances and the times we are in. Ordinarily, one wouldn’t know whether there would have been magic if not for COVID-19, but definitely, COVID did a lot in terms of the economy of the country. Nevertheless, to have increased the pump price of petroleum products and electricity tariff wasn’t sensitive enough, government was insensitive in increasing it at the peak of COVID-19. Countries all over the world were rather giving relief, palliatives, some countries were even paying their citizens to survive in that period while Nigeria was increasing punishment on her citizens, so to that extent I will tell you that those things shouldn’t have been there. But if we shot down this country for one-week the situation will worsen, labour has the capacity. But when people start to be sympathetic to the government, in most cases such government can take them for granted, which was what they tried to do by increasing again, we now said no this won’t happen. NLC within 24 hours can shot down this economy, but if we shoot down this economy for one week, where are we going to be? It was difficult for most organisations to pay their workers salary, those in the informal sector were groaning, most banks were sacking, hotels were declared redundant, etc, so the economy is so bad and NLC took the decision after deep and patriotic considerations. It was obvious that the pandemic brought unprecedented challenges for businesses both locally and globally, frustrating business operations, investment, and supply chain. I am not sure we have seen it this way before, but I think we need conscious economic planners for us to come out of this present situation and we can’t come out of it by running our economy based on imports. My worry most times is the government penchant in implementing anti-people policies and they do it with impunity.
What do you think the government is not getting properly in terms of fixing power given your vantage position in the electricity sector?
The issue is that there is a lot that is happening in the power sector. I have not seen genuine or raw commitment of the Nigerian state in fixing power, very difficult. As of today, I don’t know the policy direction of President Buhari’s government in terms of power. The government of former President Jonathan came up with the policy of privatisation. When the government of Buhari took over they didn’t reverse it and they have not come with their own, so they are continuing with what they met. However, they are lamenting that the policy has not worked. It is a policy that is aimed at collecting the little that the Nigerian government has for the Nigerian people and giving it to few individuals, that is the height of capitalism and capitalism is a very wicked practice, no apology. When they sold the power sector, they sold it about N100 billion, but between that time and today, the government has given the new investor N1.7 trillion. You sold your house at N20 million, you released N50 million to the buyer to paint it, do tiles , etc, that is a prodigal economy. But such things could happen where the buyer is the seller, if the buyer is the seller you see some proxies parading as the owners of such companies are somewhere, the buyers could be people in government or people who are close to people in government. So, as far as I am concerned the entire political class in Nigeria is guilty of what is happening in the power sector, whether they are in the PDP, APC or APGA etc because they are benefitting from it. And how do you generate electricity 70 per cent or more through gas which in other economies of the world should have been emergency situation? How do you produce gas in Nigeria and first dollarise it before selling it for power, now the tariff is going high because they were meant to buy gas that is produced in Nigeria, that was not transported out and back the way they are doing in petroleum products and you fix the price on the dollar and then you now sell it to Nigerians? How do you make tariff structuring and modeling dependent on inflation and foreign exchange, why? The electricity we are generating here is it travelling to the US and coming back? And when you confront them with these issues they will be telling you that they buy machines and other things, so whenever the interest rate changes, they will think of adjusting their tariff. Now, it is only in a situation whereby you don’t understand whether there is a welfarist disposition of those in government or not that these things continue to re-occur year in year out and we have not bothered to find out what our people are doing even in Section 16 of the constitution where it talked about commanding heights of the economy. How can the Nigerian state abandon such responsibilities to a core private sector whose aim is the maximization of profit, who doesn’t seem to have any interest in Nigeria apart from milking it dry? So, that is the problem we have and even the simplest economic policy of demand and supply should teach us certain basic lessons. As far as there is no power plant constructed even in the last seven years that the private sector took over the demand on the little will continue to go high and as demand is going high the cost will be going high. You say you have handed over to the private sector…at what return on investment will somebody start building a power plant that will take you four years to construct, it may take you more than 20 years to recover, now tell me that Nigerian investor that can build a plant and will recover the investment from 10 or 15 years time? The truth is that ever since the present government came into office, I have not seen any good effort to wrest the power sector out of the suffocating hands that seem to be holding it down now, so the lamentation will continue.
The Southeast is positioning the zone for the 2023 presidency…?
(Cuts in) They have a right to that, they are Nigerians, and it is doable. The peace it is going to bring in Nigeria will far outweigh the disquiet. More than ever before the consciousness on Igbo presidency is getting high, more than ever before people saying Biafra are being heard even for people you won’t believe will listen to them before now. More than ever before Biafra’s agitation and Biafra state are being seen as an alternative for Igbo presidency as we talk now; 50 years after the civil war and for equity, justice, and fair play balancing the Igbo can get it, but it must be with somebody that can unite Nigeria, it must be somebody who can fix the economy, not just that you want to give Igbo presidency and you just bring anything around, no. Nigerians should be in sincere search of the best brain that can fix the Nigerian economy, that can make sure that the peace and unity of Nigeria is not dashed. It must be one with real commitment to develop this country and fix it to the extent that people will not border to know where the person is coming from, but they will know that the country is back again. So Igbo presidency is feasible, it’s possible, it must be an Igbo president of Nigerian extraction, he must be able to unite other tribes, he must not be an Igbo irredentist, the person should be able to show that he has something upstairs to offer. If we can get such a material many Nigerians will buy into it.
Do you think such material exists in the Southeast?
They exist. Even that geo-political group has some of the best brains the world over, I don’t want to limit it to Nigeria. But what I don’t know is whether most of the people that fall within this category are interested in politics. Brain is not synonymous with money, but you need money to run for such offices. Some of those best brains do they have money? There must be a balance on how to go about it because running for the presidency in Nigeria or any political office is becoming too expensive. Those are the issues I think we have to look at dispassionately.