The recent break-up of Nigeria Labour Congress, NLC has been described as an unfortunate development for labour movement in the country.
Former President, Trade Union Congress, TUC, Comrade Peter Esele, who declared this in an interview with Saturday Sun, lamented that the break-up would hurt the interests of the Nigerian workers. He also posited that wage increase was not the answer to relieving workers of the burden of the current economic recession.
“I don’t like balkanization of NLC – the break-up should have been avoided because in the end, workers will be hurt. NLC break-up is very sad and unfortunate,” he said.
The former labour leader also spoke on other national issues, including restructuring, formation of mega party, state governors and security votes, clamour for wage increase, among a host of others. He spoke with TUNDE THOMAS.
How would you describe the plight of the Nigerian workers under the present dispensation compared with the previous administrations of Obasanjo, Yar’Adua and Jonathan?
Under this present administration the plight of Nigerian workers is tougher. First of all there is recession, and once you have recession, it is the workers that bear the brunt. Workers are not being paid as at when due, and many are losing their jobs. The present take home pay of Nigerian workers is nothing to talk about in view of the current economic down turn.
The present minimum wage of N18,000 is now equivalent of 50 or 60 dollars. Whatever workers are earning as salary now has lost 50 per cent of its value, because of depreciation of naira against dollar. Salaries are not increasing and cost of living is soaring higher and higher, how do you expect workers to survive?
The present situation may not be the fault of the current government, but the fact is that the Federal Government still needs to do a lot more to alleviate the suffering of Nigerian workers. Government should look at where we are now, where we are going and where we want to be. To provide relief is not only about increasing salaries, because even if government says it wants to increase salary to N100,000 minimum wage a month, inflation will eat everything.
There are other ways by which you can reduce pressure on salaries of workers. If a worker knows he is going to get a free medical care for himself and his family and also subsidized transportation, he will be happy, because he knows that there won’t be pressure on his salary.
Some state governments owe workers months of unpaid salaries, yet they collect security votes running into millions and billions of naira which they allegedly spend at their own pleasure. Some have suggested scrapping of security votes so that the funds can be diverted to other meaningful projects. Your take?
I think our problem lies mainly with state governors, unfortunately some people keep talking about President Buhari. We need to hold our state governors more accountable. We need to put their feet close to the fire even more than the Federal Government. It is unfortunate that most of the time, our attention is only concentrated on the Federal Government, but where you have worst administration and administrators is at the state level.
Look at the recent refund by the Paris Club which runs into billions of naira, and which many state governors have collected,.What have they used the money for? That money was to be spent for among other things payment of workers outstanding salaries, but most governors have refused to pay workers and pensioners their dues. Talking about security votes, what are the governors using this money for? Nothing relevant. Are the governors leading and living by example? No.
We also need to ask state governors what they are doing with funds meant for local governments? We also need to ask these governors what are they doing with funds accruing to the states, security votes and the internally generated revenues of the states. They are not accountable to anybody. But the interest of the people is even compromised by the legislature. I’m not saying members of the executive and legislature should fight, but there should be aform of disagreement even once in a while in areas of finance, policy implementation, execution of projects, and a host of others, but so far it is only at the federal level that we see that kind of thing. Show me which state in Nigeria where we have seen the House of Assembly tearing the budget presented by the state executive apart and disagree with the executive and saying that this is the way it should be done. I’ve not seen a single state in Nigeria doing that. You see them telling us that they have a cordial relationship with one another. But I say no, government is not for friendship, it doesn’t mean you have to fight one another, but government is there to make lives better for the people. The legislature must not be seen as a mere rubber stamp of the executive. We need radical changes at the states level.
Governors should be made to account for how they spend security votes. The present system of non-accountability should be jettisoned. What are the governors securing? How many cameras have state governors bought and install on our streets? It is only in this part of the world that accountability is not taken serious. Once you are in a public domain or holding a public office, you are accountable to the people, you have to account for whatever you are doing.
Some Nigerians have been saying that the transformation being experienced in the country is not the kind of change they voted for, that hunger, poverty and suffering have become the lot of many Nigerians. Do you share their views?
Irrespective of whatever feelings some people have, to me change is change. If you look at it truly there is more suffering and hardship in the land, but again, it is when you are confronted with difficult situations that you come out with various inventions, and new ways of doing things.
What I even expect Federal Government to do now is to evolve a 10- year plan. In 10 years, the plan will outline what we intend to achieve in the various sectors. For example nobody is looking in the direction of agriculture, but that sector holds one of the keys to our economic revival.
We need to shift away our 100 per cent attention from crude oil. We need to explore other sectors for revenue. With the way the world is going, within the next 30 years, or before then, we are going to have more electric cars. And in Europe by 2020 they are already saying they don’t want to see any emission from fuel. People are looking more towards solar generated energy supply. When prices of crude oil start going down, then there will be a problem, and the alternative key is agriculture. We must have a change of attitude in the way we do things. We must adopt new approaches in turning things around for better for the country. This is what change mantra is all about.
We also need to have a new set of leaders whose orientation will not be about using government positions to make money, but rather use the positions they are holding to better the lots of the people. You are not supposed to be richer than when you enter. It is only in Nigeria that you see public office holders leaving office 100 per cent times richer than when they enter.
In other parts of the world, it is when leaders leave office that they start making money. For instance, former United States President, Bill Clinton has been making millions of dollars since he left office. These leaders make money through speech delivery, presentations, and book writing. But here it is money politics, and nothing but money politics, and this is why we play politics of do-or-die.
Our people are also part of the problem, they always demand for money from politicians. Once they know you are contesting for an elective office, all they are interested about is how much they can make from you. This is why when politicians get elected into public office, the first thing they do is to recoup the money they spent during their electioneering campaign.
How do you see the recent polarization of the Nigeria Labour Congress, NLC with the formation of rival United Labour Congress, ULC?
It is a sad development. For those that breakaway that says that they are leaving in the interest of the Nigerian workers, I wish them well. But if their reasons for leaving the mainstream NLC is not in the interest of workers the whole thing will collapse, it is just a matter of time.
But again, the crisis in NLC has been there for some time. They’ve had two previous elections that were very canterkerous. If you remember the second term of Abdulwaheed Omar there was a crisis, and Peter Adeyemi left but after he came back to the NLC, and is now the Deputy President NLC in Wabba’s faction.
For Ajaero, and his supporters, they also felt aggrieved and now have left to form a split faction of NLC. However, time will tell whether what they are doing or what is happening now will endure or not. However the NLC is bigger than any individual, whether it is Wabba, Ajaero, Achese or anybody. I believe that in due time everything will unravel about what is happening in NLC.
I wish all the actors involved well. But I believe they should have given peace a chance. NLC need to look at itself and find out how this happens. I don’t believe in cannibalization or factionalisation. They should have given peace a chance. But again if it is the workers’ interests these actors in the NLC breakup are after, time will tell and if it is their own interests they are after, time will also tell.
Recently, the organized labour suggested that a representative of the labour movement should have also been appointed into the Professor Itse Sagay led Presidential Advisory Committee Against Corruption, PACA, but the committee kicked against the idea claiming that the labour leaders are very corrupt, how do you react to that?
The problem we have in Nigeria is that everybody seems to look at the s as being corrupt. What we don’t know that we are doing is that we are sending wrong message to our children, the upcoming generation, We are teaching them how to destroy others without being objective. If the Sagay Committee doesn’t want any labour leader to join them, no problem, but it is wrong to be maligning people. Moreover, it is wrong to generalize that labour leaders are corrupt. Are there no lawyers among them? And in view of the recent revelations about the rot in the judiciary, can one now generalize that all lawyers and judges are corrupt? There is no organization or group without the good and the bad ones. It is wrong to generalize.
Again politicians are corrupt, labour leaders are corrupt, journalists are corrupt, engineers are corrupt, doctors are corrupt that means we are all corrupt. So, if we are all corrupt then let us go and bring people from the moon or America to come and administer us. We must be careful the way we speak. It is not only when you put the gun to the head of a man that you kill him. The kind of words we use also kills. It kills individuals and it also kills the nation. Is Prof. Sagay a saint? Are other members of his committee saints? No. Are they angels? No. We all have our limitations no matter how small here and there.
Are you in support of the N300 million houses approved for the former governor of Edo State, Comrade Adams Oshiomhole, and his then deputy, Pius Odubu, as part of their severance or retirement packages by the Edo State House of Assembly, when many workers and pensioners were still being owed salary arrears?
The bottom line is that the system and not Oshiomhole that should be blamed. It is not only Edo State that passed such law, Lagos and Akwa Ibom states and a host of other states also passed such laws. The problem is with the system and not Oshiomhole. The system is bad and unreliable that when people get into office, they plan to take care or protect their interests. If the system is okay nothing like that will happen, because you know that when you put in your best and serve diligently, your reward will surely not only come, but allowances due to you will be paid regularly. Imagine a situation in Nigeria where you have ex-governors and ex-presidents still collecting same emoluments as the current office holders. There is nowhere that is done. Oshiomhole is not the problem about the issue, but rather blame the system. Moreover Oshiomhole has left office before Edo State House of Assembly passed the law. So there is no way he can reject it. If the law came after Oshiomhole had left office, there is nothing he could do about it. Again don’t forget that it is not only Oshiomhole that will benefit from this law, we are talking about other past Edo State governors like Ogbemudia, and Osunbor who will also benefit. So it will be unfair for us to single out Oshiomhole. A society is defined by its value, if what we value in Nigeria is naira and kobo, then that’s what we will get.
The mega party reportedly being put together by some individuals and groups to challenge APC in 2019, how do you see it?
We don’t need mega parties but we need mega ideas. We are far behind technologically speaking. We are far behind other nations. We need mega ideas that will transform this nation. We need mega ideas that will solve our power problem, we need mega ideas that will find solution to our transport problems, we need mega ideas that will provide succor for Nigerians in every facet of our lives. If mega party promoters feel they have mega ideas that will make a difference, fine, time and Nigerians will judge. We are still a nation not yet a country, we need mega ideas that will bind us together. However, I’m not condemning mega party, more so it will bring desired change.
As a labour leader, from your leadership of PENGASSAN to when you emerge as TUC President, you have close interactions with three former Presidents namely Olusegun Obasanjo, late Umaru Yar’Adua and Goodluck Jonathan, how would you describe your experience with the three of them?
I would say that I’m well trained in the art of negotiation. If I listen to you talking for about one minute, I already know how your brain works, and I know the kind of words that will trigger you and the ones that will make you to be at ease. Talking about the three former leaders and their styles, I will say Obasanjo was very combative. But one credit I will give to him is that he is detribalized – I would say his blood is green-white-green – he is a patriot who is committed to a truly united Nigeria. He is very passionate about Nigeria. You may not like Obasanjo’s style, but you can’t take those qualities earlier mentioned away from him.
Yar’Adua was a gentleman. He would have been one of our best presidents. While you can be talking with Yar’Adua for an hour , he will only do the talking for about 10 or 15 minutes of the one hour.
Even look at the way Yar’Adua handled the Niger-Delta militants issue, while holding the carrot, he also had the stick. Yar’Adua always looked for solution to national issues as quickly as possible. For instance, the fund for the Amnesty Programme was taken from the Security Votes, Yar’Adua didn’t put it in the budget, and there was no brouhaha.
But during Jonathan’s time, he included the funding for the Amnesty Programme in the budget, further putting much load on budget and thereby raising some questions from some Nigerians, but if Jonathan had done like Yar’Adua by using security votes for the Amnesty Programme, there wouldn’t have been any hues and cries.
Jonathan was another listening president, but the question you ask is this, what was he listening to? Jonathan listens a lot, but he later became a prisoner to some special advisers and aides who instead of telling him the truth, were telling him he was Nigeria’s messiah. He listened to you and agreed with you on some issues, but the moment he met these advisers, he became a changed person.
You have these people all the time irrespective of whoever is in power. They will always tell the president what he wants to hear, and not the bitter truth and reality. These selfish advisers will tell the president that he is the best thing to have happened to Nigeria. This is what propelled Obasanjo to want to seek a third term in office. It also happened to Jonathan.
At a point in time, Jonathan was not ready to contest for second term, but it was this same group of people, the so-called advisers that goaded him into it. But once you made an agreement, you should stick to that agreement. Jonathan was misled into running for second term.
Out of the three ex-presidents, Yar’Adua would have been the best. Yar’Adua and Jonathan were more civil in their approach to governance, but Obasanjo was more combative – you can still see the military traits in his actions. But then, no individual is perfect. The three of them did their best and left the scene.