James Ojo, Abuja
Head of International relations of the Nigeria Labour Congress(NLC), Comrade Uchenna Ekwe, has justified the visit of the Labour leaders to felicitate with President Muhammadu Buhari after he was declared re-elected for a second term. In this interview, the former lawmaker said Labour did no wrong with the visit. He spoke on other issues of interest.
Why did Labour visit the president after he was declared re-elected?
We didn’t congratulate the president after he was declared winner because of the minimum wage issue. We are first Nigerian citizens. The president has been re-elected so says the electoral umpire, so we went to congratulate him and use the opportunity to canvass policy issues. Somebody is going to run the government and we saw an opportunity to make inroads into the policy programmes of the country. We read some of the issues and we told the president we are going to send some of the document with detail issues, vis-à-vis our thinking about electricity, railways and the economy at large. Those are the challenges naturally, and some of the prices leadership has to pay, and especially in a political era where emotions usually overcome people. Some people might be doing it from the emotional point of view, or through political interest, I mean by just criticising. We saw it as an opportunity and we choose the interests of the Nigerian working people and their families beyond the politicking. It’s not like there’s a huge ideological difference between the two major political parties. But we would try to look at some critical issues.For example, in the build up to the elections, one of the leading candidates said he would privatise NNPC. If you follow the stand of Labour from the military regime, we have opposed such suggestions. So, nobody can say why would we just do that, we have done it. We provided alternatives to issues of privatisation of refineries; we have always canvassed alternatives knowing the regular effects of those decisions on the Nigerian working people and their families. Remember, we are trying to influence. We are not a political party. To be sure we don’t just wait for the policies to come, we are trying alternatives. So the visit is justified because policy issues relevant to achieving better working conditions were raised. It was not a visit to wine and dine at the expense of workers’ interest.
What about the issue of Minimum wage?
We look forward to the president signing the bill into law. That’s the first step, we believe he would sign it but he has not signed. We are looking forward to him signing it, I don’t think there is any delay tactics, in any case, what or who will benefit from it? We are still believing he will sign it so that we move forward to the next stage of implementation, and there is a ray of hope because during the public hearing on the budget, the minister of Budget and National Planning said they made provisions for the minimum wage in the 2019 budget estimate now undergoing scrutiny at the National Assembly. That’s for the workers at the Federal level. It is a good thing that a number of state governors have said that they will pay the minimum wage which some captured in their budget. For the employers of labour in the private sector, they too must have done their own calculations to implement the new minimum wage.
What is Labour’s expectation from Buhari’s second coming?
As an integral part of the society with fundamental assignment, we have shown through the visit that Labour is not antagonistic. We expect the president not to delay the signing of the minimum wage bill as passed by the National Assembly into law. There is no cogent reason for foot dragging again. Labour expects a radical policy in tackling the problems of unemployment and underemployment. Apart from the minimum wage issue, in about a week or so, we will forward to the president what we are working out as some directions and give concrete solutions, and suggestions. For example, if we develop the power sector properly and there is steady electricity supply, we know that government does not provide majority of the jobs, they provide the enabling environment. Look, Nigerians are not lazy, but the manufacturing industry in the country, their greatest crisis is the cost of power generations. That’s why we are really concerned about how and the approach to develop electricity.
Secondly, we want to push that even further development should take place in the railway because if that happens, movement of goods and service becomes easier. Even employment, even if it’s temporary employment, it will generate because of building the railway lines, the rural communities along the routes will benefit because building rail lines will require so many unskilled workers. Once there are activities, it would help and when it starts functioning, movement of goods and services become cheaper, faster because if there is a functional rail from Lagos to Kano, to move Tomatoes will be easier, cheaper, and more safer than what we have now which is mostly done through trucks.
You went into active politics at some point, what is the experience like?
I went into politics to actualise my childhood dream as the son of a teacher. The respect for teachers was extended to every members of the household and my parents used to buy me lovely sandals so that I look different. After using the sandals for few months, I will dash it out and when asked what happened, I will tell my father that I have given it out, instead of rebuking me, he would remain calm, even when I walked straight to my teacher and demanded that he dropped my English name for my Igbo name. I wanted to be a medical doctor. I was a science student. My best subjects were physics, mathematics and chemistry. Along the line, I started thinking about doing electronic electrical engineering and tried to discover something to help the society. During the second republic, the new government brought a change which made my school not qualified to offer science subjects because there was no laboratory. I became interested in politics. When I started going to political rallies to listen to Awolowo, Zik and was excited, that was it and I joined NPP youth wing and was elected the youth coordinator. The position led me to have an encounter with trade unions and other socialist activists. From there on they were talking about socialism and what it provided. I saw my dream coming into reality and showed interest in ideological studies. I was in Bulgaria where I obtained a Diploma.
By 1999, I was a member of the House of Representatives at the beginning of this democratic experience. Our experience was traumatic because it was the first experiment after a long period of military rule. The president then, Chief Olusegun Obasanjo with all due respect to all the criticism about Buhari, you can’t compare Buhari to Obasanjo when it comes to high handedness against the legislators. We can’t forget our history. I know how many times he made moves to get Speaker Ghali Nabba out and even Bello Masari. Remember, he turned the Senate presidency to a revolving chair. During our time, it was not a total loss. With the gains we have made, no president, how powerful or highly influential would found it easy to do that again anymore. The Nigerian people are getting more aware of the need to defend the institution, not minding what they think about that institution. In a Parliament, there are two different things, you have your disagreements on the way the institution operates, and the individuals operating the institution, but you agreed on the need not to destroy the institution. These are the two major issues; we didn’t have such leverages in our time. We were Nigerians and almost alien to the need to keep that institution. But now they are becoming more aware of the need to keep that institution. What I can say is the major missing link was the commitment to legislative development in1999. It was robust for the journalists and members of the public who look forward to see debates. The passion was high. People were dreaming. Those passions are missing now.
Part of the problem that happened along the line was in 2003, Chief Obasanjo pushed the ‘do or die’ politics to the front burner, and the trend was worsened in 2007. People who really never thought deeply about the legislature and what it means to be a legislature, found themselves at the National Assembly somehow.
The public now see the legislature as a place where you can easily become rich. Another was the mismanagement of the vision of constituency projects, and I say it authoritatively, in the first place the constituency project came as a way to address what was a crisis. That crisis started by the South East caucus over the budget of 1999. When that budget came, for the whole of South East, N54 million was provided, whereas, a particular road in Adamawa got N317 million. So the South East started looking at the challenge and felt that this was not right. In trying to address this, the parliament reasoned that there should be a way to have a minimal balance and making sure those projects at least spread across constituencies. A long debate followed and at the end an agreement was reached that it desired; and they must agree that they would share their senatorial zones so that all states would be equal. That time, it was agreed that in the budget, about N500, 000 would be allocated to each senatorial zone.
This N500, 000 is for the Senator and the House of Representatives members in that senatorial zone. Members would suggest projects that would go within this. I remember I proposed Water project in one of my local government areas. The budget and projects sharing is for the ministry of water resources. It is not intended that I would get to execute that project. It is intended that the ministry, wherever it comes, will do it. Where will I find my interest? I don’t need to be a member of water resources, but because it’s a committee and I am a member, I would alert them in the oversight function to check if my project was being done. So, this was the dream and because the Obasanjo regime never released those funds because he didn’t agree with the concept, it was like that until Yar’Adua came, that was when the funds began to be released. More money was put in and it was increased to billions and then the idea was supplanted and members have to go to do these projects themselves. Once you are elected into government, you should pull out your interest. We should respect this because we must all rise up to insist that the cost of governance must be reduced. So the attraction of the perceived force that turn, and started driving people to want to go to National Assembly must be redefined. Again, Nigerian citizens must also change their attitude because I could remember I went home to do several constituency briefing after each project. Some other people realised that you don’t need to do that. You just need to find some money and share on the day of election and they will win for you.
People started expecting lawmakers to buy them motorcycles. Where would you get the money to buy the motorcycles? So the Nigerian people must also make up their mind on what they want. Elsewhere in the world, parliamentarians don’t go to setup foundation.
Has zoning of leadership positions benefit the National Assembly?
From experience, I can say yes. Because zoning has nothing against the quality of the parliament because zoning does not appoint one parliamentarian.