Comrade Adams Oshiomhole, the National Chairman of the All Progressives Congress (APC) and former governor of Edo State, has said the gradual easing of the lockdown over the COVID 19 pandemic which begins today, is ill-timed.
Speaking during an interview on‘The Morning Show’ programme of Arise Television on May 1st monitored in Abuja, he spoke on various issues including what state governors must do to survive the crash in oil price.
In your address on May Day as a former NLC President, you said solidarity is the mood of the moment, do you want to clarify that?
You know traditionally, workers talk about solidarity because as individuals, they are powerless and they need solidarity which is based on a certain principle that injury to one is injury to all. And because the worker as an individual is not incapable to counter the enormous powers of capital or even in the public service to counter the enormous powers of those who operate the apparatus of state, they need solidarity among themselves to defend their individual and collective interest. So, we usually have workers sing solidarity song, that is the most popular song around the world. On the other hand, business executives, CEOs, presidents, ministers and those who are powerful whether economic power or political power, they don’t need solidarity, they have individual strength to dominate, exploit, oppress, extract what they want. But we have now seen in the new reality that we face, the world leaders are beginning to recognize that the principle of everybody to himself and God for us all can’t work in the world that we are in. And that just as it was recognized in 1944 under the ILO declaration in Philadelphia as it was said then and is valid today, poverty anywhere is a threat to prosperity everywhere. Now, we know that public health challenge anywhere in the world can become a problem anywhere in the world. And so we are beginning to see not ordinary workers now; people who thought they were powerful whether they were presidents, prime ministers, CEOs of multinational companies are now using the word solidarity. We are beginning to see Western governments calling for solidarity from Cuba, now that for me is a fundamental thing for us to note that there are positive lessons to learn from this COVID-19 pandemic.
You also urged employers not to sack workers or cut salaries to deepen the content of industrial relations. Now the COVID-19 pandemic is said to shrink the world economy by 20 per cent, so of course, it is going to have an effect on a lot of workers and businesses. But there is a role for governments and there is a role for business in cushioning the effect on workers. Can you help us to analyse those roles?
The point I am making is this, you know the truth of the matter is Nigeria has opted for a market-driven economy and business people simply look at wages and workers sometimes only as a cost element; they look at the salaries they pay in terms of cost and in the process, they forget that the workers receive their salaries as income and that the level of income that a worker earns that determines his purchasing power. And unless people procure goods and services, employers have nothing to sell, I mean they have no one to buy. So, for you to move away from the vicious circle which could be triggered, if it is not already triggered by the current coronavirus to a vacuous cycle, employers must look at other ways of cutting cost and see workers as their most important assets in the production process. In fact, the lesson that coronavirus has brought home to all of us is that the industries, machines are still there where they are; they are not threatened, they are just locked in. All the facilities that are meant for production and services are there. I am here in Hilton hotel, the hotel is beautiful, clean, ready to work but there are no people. So, the lesson to learn is that if you look for quick fix solution in terms of just cutting cost, reduce workers, stop paying salaries, we are going to deepen the recession, deepen the number of people in poverty. And when you have too many people in poverty, we now know that all the armed forces in the world cannot guarantee security if we just look at security in terms of military and police protection. That the real basis for sustainable security is that there must be justice, people must have a reason to look forward to tomorrow, there must be hope. So, I expect employers at this time to avoid what I call Unitarianism, a situation in which the employer thinks that he has the prerogative to hire and fire without looking at social consequences. The logic that is being celebrated today on May Day is the day unions were formed upon which they became legal, when the status changed from being illegal combination at the beginning of industrial revolution to where they have now where they are being recognized as social partners; it is that every decision that an employer wants to take, he should take it to the bargaining table, make your explanation to the social partner particularly the trade union and the labour movement and get input of workers. And together, they can find solution that will lead to a win-win approach, one that does not make one feel that he is just a tool that is required where he is to be hired and to be dispensed with, with a list of excuse. And for government, the issues for me are much more imperative, no government should sit down and make decision that will affect people without carrying the social partners along. And in terms of the states, the social partners go beyond the labour, we are also talking about the responsive segment of the society. Because, being in government does not give you the monopoly of answers but I believe you can get all the answers by getting all the stakeholders in the system as to what do we do given this reality. There are hard choices to be made, there are difficult trade offs to be looked at, there are hard policy choices to be settled for and because government and governance is not value free, it is out of set of mandates and biases, that is what you call ideology, who gets what and who pays.
What else do you think government should do in terms of bailout for strategic sectors in other to prevent job losses. And in the event that these companies retrench, what should workers do?
Well, my central message to workers is that the part of being organized and belonging to organized labour is that they are not exactly at the mercy of employers. They must be ready to organize, deepen their capacity for solidarity, reinforce the principle of injury to one is injury to all and defend their collective interest. Because, we are in a class society, inequality is widening. It is not an act of God; it is the result of decades of our socio economic policy choices that government after government has pursued. Now, for me the challenge of Nigeria is not so much about policy gap, we do have huge issues about accurate data, how do you ensure transparency.
When you use tax payers money to support private initiative because don’t forget that the logic of capitalism is that if you cannot compete, you parish. Now if the state must take tax payers money to support corporate interests, then there must be a way in return that they provide verifiable guarantees not only to keep their workers that when things go well, whatever they have been given, they refund because, the state can’t fund private enterprise. But I agree entirely with the logic that given the situation we are in, that there are interventions that the state will need. In fact to have argued in some fora where people lecture us about the weaknesses of the state, why government is so inefficient, and that there is the need to private everything and all of that. I always say, if there is anyone that needs the state, it includes business because as they say, when crisis such as this comes just like it happened in 2008, when Obama was in Washington for example, it was statesmen like Obama, Merkel in Germany and some other prime ministers around the world that were talking; we were not hearing the voice of IMF, we were not hearing the voice of the World Bank because the condition was much more than them. It is statesmen that saved General Motors based on public policy but they do have very transparent processes of monitoring who gets what and how do you pay back.
What will you do differently if you were still a governor or what will you advise governors to do to be self reliant?
If you look at my record, I assumed office precisely on the 12th of November 2008 and around that time, the price of oil crashed to $30 at that particular time. So it is not the first time that oil prices are dropping and revenues accruing to states are also dropping. I remember that under Gen. Abubakar, the price even dropped to $9. So everybody knows, government, private sector players, every Nigerian will know that oil prices are not stable. So, long term sustainable development plans cannot be based on particularly an item that historically has never been stable. And so the price that we currently see is not for the first time.
Now, what I did when I became governor and was sworn in, in the kind of crisis is to call my commissioners and say wait a minute, I am not going to be able to tell the Edo electorate that because the price of oil has fallen that I am not going to do XYZ because somehow, during the campaign, I did tie my commitment subject to oil prices. And so my task is not to lament that price of oil has dropped radically. My task is in the light of this situation what do I do differently. It was clear that there were number of things I could do differently, one of them include aggressive collection of taxes from all those who ought to pay taxes and also widen the basket and know that they are people with property and property tax has never really been pursued aggressively in Nigeria. There are several other taxable items, governments are run on taxes not from money from liquid gold or solid gold. In some other jurisdictions, government does not pocket the money that comes from oil, they are owned by individuals but government collects the taxes. But that is in one side, looking at other ways of making up for the shortfalls of the revenue that actually accrues from Abuja. And I was able to raise our monthly internally generated revenue from about N275 million a month and at a point we got up to N2.1 billion, such that even without allocation from Abuja, I was able to pay salaries, and if anything comes from Abuja, we devote it to capital projects.
The second thing I did is that there is a lot of wastage in government in the area we call overhead. You know when people hear of recurrent expenditure, they think is synonymous with salaries, it is not. You will find that every other week, there is one national conference on tourism, national conference on education, national conference on information and so on and so forth. And to be honest, there is nothing that you can generate now in terms of ideas that are not already there. Hundreds of thousands of communiques have been issued that deal with various aspects of the Nigerian condition. So, what we need is to sit back and see what we can cut, reduce traveling, reduce other wastages in the system, and reexamine your budget. Because sometimes government budgetary system I have discovered is that there are subheads that every year they are just putting things on top.
The gradually easing of the lockdown in Lagos, FCT and Ogun. We have been on a lockdown in these three states for the past one month but some analysts are warning that seeing the rising number in cases, that maybe relaxing the lockdown may have come too soon. Others have also called for the easing of the lockdown because of the economic implications and the hunger virus. How do you see this gradually easing of the lockdown?
Well, to be honest I am in a very difficult situation, I am the national chairman of the governing party in the country, I am also a Nigerian. As I said, what I have been doing is thinking and reflecting. I think that when we unlock or when we relax should be informed not by political considerations; it should be informed by scientific findings. This is the time we should listen to the experts who know about public health and who have the facts and who are knowledgeable in terms of the way in which this pandemic spread. If in their judgement they think we should relax then we should, if they think we shouldn’t, then we shouldn’t. Personally, I worry. You know I mix with everybody vertically and horizontally. People tell me if people don’t work, how are they going to survive but I also ask if they are sick and they are dying, how are they going to survive?
It is not a choice between go and work, make some money and survive and nothing else. There are hard trade offs. If you expose more people and you have more spread and you have the kind of situation that we say in Italy, that we saw in Spain and some other places. I listen to the presentation by Dr. Reuben Abati when he talked about the number of hospital spaces available, how people should be treated at home and so on and so forth. For me, the evidence shows that rather than flattening the curve, the curve is rising sharply. I want to believe that at the end of the week, there will be a reflection about the possible consequences if we unlock completely.