By Daniel Kanu
Comrade Joe Ajaero, a vocal labour activist was a delegate at the 2014 National Conference.
The vibrant Deputy President, Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC), President, United Labour Congress (ULC), and General Secretary, National Union of Electricity Employees (NUEE) in this encounter with Sunday Sun speaks on sensitive national issues including Southeast agitation for 2023 presidency, the gale of defections, failure in power sector reforms, and Resident Doctors’ strike. Excerpt:
Recently, there have been this gale of defections especially to the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC), even by politicians Nigerians thought had principles…?
(Cuts in) The issue is that I wouldn’t really know whether it’s pure defection or people going back to where they came from. It’s like some people are returning back to their villages, of course, there seem to be only two political parties for some time now. It’s like the same person living in Lagos and living in Umuahia, he visits home, he comes back to Lagos and they are welcomed because the doors are opened for them. It’s not clear defections based on ideological persuasions, no, and there is no ideological difference between the two parties, APC and PDP. Most of the people that formed the PDP were also part of those that formed the APC, so for some of us who are not right-wing politicians their movement is not making any sense. But what will save the system might be getting a genuine Third Force. A Third Force based on an ideological framework, so that when people are now leaving to the other parties there will be questions because of what they believed in. Somebody that didn’t believe in anything you can’t hold the person responsible for leaving your party. So, I think there is a need for another party, a Third Force or else anybody in the PDP is at home with APC and vice versa.
But how feasible is the Third Force because former President Olusegun Obasanjo tried it, but it couldn’t work?
Yes, because Obasanjo belongs to the same political class of PDP and APC, so even if he forms a political party it will be consumed by these two (APC and PDP). In fact, they will be talking of a merger even before the conclusion of formation because they believe in one thing – how to get power. We might have a Third Force when we decide to and the very moment it happens you will have a party of the oppressed and party of the oppressors. The parties that you are seeing now are parties of the oppressors until we form the party of the oppressed then there is no balance, and then it will be we and them, but now they are in a class of their own and they will continue in their oppression. Even if they are up to 20 or 30 political parties, as they are today, they are in a class of their own.
So, you see more defections coming?
Of course, it will continue. Now they are trying to look at which of the platforms that will win political power, it is still permutation, but something will happen, the emergence of any new political party will lead to equally further movement of the people in these parties now in trying to align with the new political parties so there will be movement. Secondly, there may equally be a tendency for the people moving into APC now to migrate to another party. Now, apart from the fact that APC is the ruling party and some people believe that they may capture power, most of the people going in there might be looking for a ticket to run. Of course, you know that not everybody will get the ticket, those who are going there to pick a ticket from the ruling party to run, if they can’t get it, they will continue the movement. Those are some of the things that you will see as the alignment towards 2023 gets closer. It will be more by 2022, more people will migrate, more political arrangements and alignments will show up, INEC may register more political parties, they may not, but others may run into an existing political party and collapse it and form a new alignment, but there is an urgent need for a party or parties that will take care of the interest of the working people of Nigeria. A party that will take care of the liberal class, a party that will take care of the farmers, family members, teachers, etc.
But we have the labour party?
Yes, but the Labour Party (LP) has been emasculated by a conspiracy of the ruling class, they have held it by the jugular because the people that emerged maybe as the Chairman and Secretaries of the Labour Party are playing a mercantile role where people now use it as a platform to run an election, meanwhile the people that are controlling Labour Party take their directives from any other place, but the NLC, but it was the NLC, TUC, and the workers of Nigeria that set up the Labour Party. I used to be the Chairman of the political commission of the NLC, we fought the battle of our lives to wrest it from their hands and they are still battling for the soul of the party, the NLC is still at it today, and if we are able to wrest it out of their hands we may work towards having an alternative political platform.
Let’s look at the continued agitation of a Nigerian President of Southeast extraction and how feasible it is in 2023, especially with some groups in the North insisting that the North will retain power after President Buhari’s tenure?
Well, that is an area I don’t normally jump into. I was at the Constitutional Conference (2014) and we looked at all those issues: Rotational Presidency, we looked at issues of equality, fair play, etc, then we looked at the issue of even the equality of states in the regions and there was a proposal for at least two more states to be created in the Southeast. It was just equalizing with what you have in other political regions. You know some have seven states while the Southeast has five. And I think that all these things are conditions that people from that area can equally agitate. I equally think that they have the right to make such demands that they want to rule the country. Part of the issue of citizenship of this country is that if you are a citizen of this country, especially by birth not by naturalization, you have the right to aspire to the governorship, Vice President and the President of this country, so in exercise of that, I think they are equally entitled to it. I have equally watched parts of this country agitate. I remember the time the Southwest was agitating. In fact, the two main political parties then, the ANPP and AD, had an alignment, merger, then the PDP too had an alignment and they fielded two people, two frontline politicians from the Southwest (Chief Olusegun Obasanjo and Chief Olu Falae), it was in an effort to balance power and to say that they were denied the position clearly won by Chief M.K.O Abiola. I could remember then the candidate of the ANPP that emerged was Dr. Ogbonnaya Onu and he relinquished the position to Chief Falae, so they are free to aspire and if they calculate that 1970 till date, that is 51 years, nobody from there has been president, they have a case to make. But I think it should not be on the altar of just balancing, I believe in merit and I believe that if somebody from the Southeast is coming, from there they must select from their first 11. They must select somebody who can fix Nigeria; if not the other mere agitations are so pedestal. If you are talking of somebody of Southeast extraction who can fix Nigeria to be on the move again then so be it. Ndigbo have legitimate power to aspire for Presidency, but they must go with their first 11 and they should work for it. They have the capacity to deliver.
Do you think the Southeast has such caliber…?
(Cuts in) I don’t think that there is any ethnic group, any nationality in Nigeria that doesn’t have the caliber of people that can fix this country. We are blessed with both human and material resources. So, in sincere search of a material, you will get the best brains that can compete with anybody in the world from any ethnic group in Nigeria.
Some critics say the economy is in the doldrums, but could we say it’s a global issue as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic?
I have not heard this government say that the current economic situation in the country is a global issue, no. Once in a while they can accuse the fall in the price of oil globally, but that doesn’t make the economy of the country, the way it is now to be tied on a global excuse. Ninety per cent or more of other countries of the world don’t depend on oil, yet their economy is fine. So, I will not support the argument that the problem with Nigeria’s economy is global. The oil should have been an added advantage, but it is not. I sincerely think we have not been able to manage our economy well and to a large extent we have relied on a mono source, the mono-economy on oil rather than diversifying. If we rely on that mono source of oil, should anything happen in the sector we will suffer the shock, but if we are able to explore other areas: agriculture, even some countries depend on tax too, but not the way we do it here, rather than getting it from the rich, we strangulate the poor, other things like foreign exchange, tourism. If you look at all that we have, you will discover that we can make it, but we have not been able to diversify and we have not been able to look at the economy of tomorrow. We seem to revolve in subsistence, even when we are into agriculture it’s hand to mouth, not to give us a comparative and competitive advantage in terms of being a global player. But in the 60s the regions that make up this country were players, specializing in major crops, and based on that they were developing their regions and there was healthy competition, this is not what we are seeing now. The states we are having now are renteering states, states that go to Abuja and collect peanuts, come back and pay salaries they have not thought of the revenue base, internally-generated revenue of their states. They don’t think of how they can sustain the states without depending on Abuja, without depending on oil revenue. That is why the politics of who collects VAT is becoming interesting. Apart from being a legal issue, it’s a clear test on what happens to constitutional provisions, just like the 13 per cent derivation was. It is equally going to be a challenge if in my state there is nothing to VAT, it then means there is nothing to collect as VAT, but if I have amenities, for instance, my power generation, good roads, security network, etc companies are coming to establish in my area, it then means I am attracting many companies and the issue of VAT will be high and if it is high, it then means there will be something for the state. That is why Lagos State and Rivers are talking loud. This is challenging the basis of our federalism. The states that are not ready to construct their roads or assure good power or good security should not expect any big company to come and establish in such states. When states are viable the country is viable. I think each state should look at its area of specialty and face that area and maximize its benefit. It shouldn’t be the Federal Government alone.
Let’s look at the power sector reform; we seem to be talking more of cash, less electricity. Why is it so?
We have talked on this issue on and on, but we are having some kind of lethargy. The simple reason is that some people have taken over the power sector and their aim is nothing, but to make a profit and in capitalism profits even if it’s made unfairly is allowed and it is worse when you have weak institutions. It is like having survival of the fittest and maximization of profit. You are telling the person there that there is no service, but he is making a profit, he is unconcerned. It is public disaster, private gains, that is the basis for privatisation. The public will be crying, the private people will be smiling to the banks and they are doing it maximally. There is this issue of regulatory hijack. If the person that regulates the sector is hijacked or pocketed then there will be no fair deal for the weak because in every market there is a contest, there is usually a conscious effort to protect the weak in the society, the reason the strongest is not allowed to eat or to muzzle the weakest in the society. What we are seeing now is that they are telling you of 18hrs, 5hrs, band this, band that and there is a band that is for the poor, that band for the poor they will say that because they received this they will pay this, but you discover they are not receiving anything. Now, why would you run a discriminatory banding style in the society? Why is the person in Ikoyi going to have a need for power more than the person in Ajegunle, in the first place he can afford his own generating equipment? And the person that is in Ajegunle or Orile that requires a public power is giving 2hrs or 3hrs in the night and he doesn’t have an option to generate his own power. So, when you look at the entire thing the whole essence is to make profit and that profit is what they are making, but that protection we are talking of, we are not getting it from the state and it is the function of the Nigerian state to provide maximum or minimum freedom and pleasure for the citizens of this country. And to protect the weak either in the economic participation or in the political participation, but that protection is not coming and if we continue this way, there will be problem ahead. The 4,000 megawatts from the public and given to the private hands is still what they are generating, the private sector has not built any new power plant in the country. So, what they are enjoying now and they are collecting billions is still our money, still the same facility built by the Nigerian state. The Nigerian state is still building and still handing it over to private hands, so there is confusion, they will continue like that until we have a state that will ask questions on how these things are done. Till then Nigerians should expect more tariffs and services will not be better.
What is your take on the resident doctors’ strike that has continued to linger?
It’s just like any other sector of the economy. Those that work in the hospitals you should know that this is a critical period for them, one should be able to understand that they are saving lives at a time that even their own life is at high risk. What are the insurance policies for doctors? Assuming a doctor is working in a clinic and contracts COVID-19 and dies, is there any insurance provision for them? But you ask, why won’t the government keep to an agreement it signed? The ability of the state to address these issues matters, the ability of the state to be proactive matters. The medical profession is in the essential services category and the critical rule or law is that crisis or strike in that sector should be apprehended. The operational word is “apprehended” to that extent you don’t expect doctors to be on strike before you start to talk to them or negotiate. Even if you hear rumour on the pages of a newspaper that there will be strike you should take the bold step and engage them, you save a lot of lives. A lot of people have died as a result of this strike. This is a crisis that is avoidable because the cost of the strike is too expensive. Non-implementation of agreements lead to more crisis. Government should not enter into any agreement that is not enforceable, or that you can’t implement, it is bad.
Are you gearing up for another governorship contest in your state in 2024?
If Imo State remains the way it is some of us may find it difficult to go into any political race. Without prejudice to the courts, I can’t say whether what emerged in Imo State was what the people voted for. Between now and 2024 we have to watch the scenario play out, but from what is happening now and the gladiators, it is difficult for anybody to conceive any idea of running for even a local government chairman or counselor. Events may change tomorrow, but for now one has to just watch.