By Daniel Kanu
Comrade Joe Ajaero, deputy president, Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC), president, United Labour Congress (ULC), and general secretary, National Union of Electricity Employees (NUEE) and delegate to the 2014 National Confab, in this no-holds bar interview with Sunday Sun speaks on the state of the nation vis a vis insecurity, rising agitations, the gale of strikes, the problem with labour, APC leadership, among other critical national issues. Excerpt:
What do you make of the strikes that we are witnessing everywhere, health workers, judiciary workers, universities, polytechnics etc? What does this portend?
That is the situation at the moment because the issue of strikes by these various unions and workers is a state of the industrial relations in Nigeria. Those that are not on strike are not better off, maybe for obvious reasons, or one reason or the other. Some of them have expressed the threat that will equally explode in no distant time, some their matters are being managed. In a situation whereby the employer does not pay what was agreed or does not obey the rules, there is no other option than what we are witnessing. If you check some of the strikes, either an amount was agreed and is not being obeyed, either the employer is sacking workers. Some are giving reasons with COVID-19, some are giving some other reasons which are not tenable and the state which is supposed to be both an employer and a regulator seems to be helpless in handling this situation. When such happens, you see things like this. In my sector, the power sector agreements reached since 2019 even after the intervention of the National Assembly up till now, with letters written for conclusion of the matters are not even acknowledged, so what happens in such a situation? When workers are frustrated they stay in their houses and when they stay in their houses you now see it as a strike. In some states now there are lots of provocations. In Kaduna State, for instance, the governor there (El-Rufai) is sacking thousands of workers and he is still talking tough on a daily basis, saying that part of his job is not to pay workers’ salary and he is boasting about it. So, don’t you know that the governor will be engaged by the labour movement? So, will anybody say he is surprised if we (Labour) engage him tomorrow as we are going to engage him. That is the situation. The employers have continued to attack and attack and in most instances when you have bad managers, not just that they are not paying or that they are not doing what they are supposed to do, but their comments and utterances are such that you doubt whether they have any knowledge of personnel or industrial relations management.
Some critics say there seem to be a lot of politics being played on the minimum wage controversy…?
(Cuts in) So much politics. It is an issue that may determine the future of Nigeria because the constitution is clear in matters that are in the Exclusive List, it is only the Federal Government that has jurisdiction over that. Matters in the Concurrent List and Residual List, in that order, explain who is responsible for what and whose power supersedes in case of conflict. There are matters in the Residual List that are supposed to be addressed by the local government as the case may be. Now, if the state government on their own decides what goes in the Residual List which they don’t have powers to legislate on but through proxy now decides to influence it to be brought in the Concurrent List, you will know that it is not based on any altruistic consideration and they are looking at it from the point of salaries and industrial relation matters, that just makes it obvious. Now, it’s like asking them to take military issues, take printing of the national currency, take customs, police, etc and give it to states that is what they are asking. But for them to select salaries and wages alone is because they want to determine what they will pay. There is no country that doesn’t have basic rules; there is no country that doesn’t have laws. When you have a state of lawlessness when the state wants to share the same powers or even stronger powers than the centre then we are not practicing true federalism and if we are not practicing true federalism we should sit down and re-negotiate what we want to practice. These are issues that comment has brought about but, however, as a labour movement, we will know who owns the land when they tamper with the issue. All over the world, go to America, for instance, they have what they charge, how many hours a day, just like in any other countries. What happens is that employers of labour including state governments will have what is called a benchmark, that benchmark is that let’s say minimum wage is N30, 000 but those organisations like banking, oil and gas firms and many more are not paying that amount as minimum wage, they pay higher, but you have to provide that benchmark especially for the weak, so that nobody will now say: I will pay you one thousand whether you like it or not. There must be a rule guiding industrial relations practice, there must be a rule guiding us as a federation, there can’t be two rules of a person in Kano receiving N20,000 a month and a person in Lagos receiving N40,000 a month, at least such for now is not in the provision of our constitution as a federation. Labour is committed to engaging them on this as far as we have a Federal Government with a single constitution and we know the position of the constitution on this matter. The minimum wage issue is in the Exclusive List and it will remain there. Some states are paying more than N30,000, nobody has disturbed them, that is how it should be, but some states with a bad example like Kaduna State who will not pay, but who will want to alter the structure of the federation because they think that they are very powerful people then they will have us (labour) to contend with.
Despite what the government claims as their efforts to contain bandits, bandits are still talking tough and carrying out their nefarious activities…?
(Cuts in) When you increase the army of the unemployed you are creating a tool for recruitment of bandits, when you introduce poverty and hunger as a way of subduing the populace, some of them resort to all manner of practices in other to survive. Now with the recent sack of workers like the Kaduna State government embarked upon now, you don’t need anybody to predict to you that banditry will increase in that state. Apart from those workers not being able to do anything, if their children are in school they will come out and fend for themselves and when you have a state where the end justifies the means, then anarchy will reign supreme. So some of the bandits you are seeing are people who were either offended by the system or the system did not include them in protection. Some of them if they were enjoying scholarship, if they were in good school system some of them will be in school, some of them will be doing either post-graduate programme or whatever as at today, some of them will be in employment or some people that have finished school for some time now are working, they won’t think of any other thing talkless of becoming bandits. So long as the people leading will have thugs who they will use during the election and after the election, they will not disarm them and they will not even give the thugs jobs those thugs will fend for themselves and this is how these things continue. Our educational system since they say they are looking for a system that is science-oriented, fine, and good, but educational system without some moral consideration, that will tell you that kidnapping is sin, is bad, that armed robbery is sin, it’s bad and doesn’t pay, prostitution is sin, bad, it doesn’t pay if we don’t have such equally moral situated education, no matter how scientific your education maybe it will not help the system. Those are some of the things we have to look at…. Our value system, our moral system, where did we get it wrong? There are people that are kidnapping to live. Some are buying expensive cars, living in choice areas. There are equally some people that even if they don’t eat today and they don’t eat tomorrow and next tomorrow they will not steal or do anything of such. It is the issue of nature and nurture, moral development. So, we have to revisit this. The leaders must think for them to lead, they must think of how tomorrow will be. Any leader that is only thinking of today and not thinking of the products of tomorrow is not a good leader. So we have to look at our value system, educational system, reward system, etc we have to review them. If we review all this, we may be thinking of Nigeria of tomorrow.
How will you react to what is happening in your state (Imo) between the governor, Hope Uzodinma, and his predecessor Rochas Okorocha?
Ordinarily I wouldn’t like to comment about what is happening in Imo State because Imo people, all over we are ashamed. We are ashamed that the materials we have in Imo are not reflecting in the leadership we have in the state. Imo is one of the states that you have the best quality human resources all over the world, but unfortunately, I am not sure that all the leaders we have had apart from Chief Sam Mbakwe has reflected this. I am not going to talk about their educational qualification; I am going to talk about the reflection we are getting from leadership by these men is nothing to write home about. The fight between them or the fight or the fight that has been ascribed to them they don’t see it as anything, but the state will suffer or continue to suffer, but there is a great hope that no matter what happens, Imo State can still get it right, but whether it is through the current people there that are busy fighting themselves without caring how Imolites are faring, I doubt it. There is serious infighting in the state, even the workers there, somebody will see a worker that is alive, that is going to work and still call the person a ghost worker. Labour will go there to tell you to do biometrics and you say no, that those ones are ghost workers that they are just talking nonsense and we (Labour) say okay, those people who know that they are not being paid and they are working should come out for verification and they came out in their thousands and you decided to attack them with police and army. And then the leadership of NLC in the state complained, you take over their office with thugs and you mark their office for demolition. Now, what type of state is that? Is that what Imo stands for? Is that what Imo should look like? Is that the democracy all of us fought for? These leaders there now where were they when some of us were fighting for democracy in this country? They were nowhere and they are today busy bastardising democratic institutions in the state. It’s not going to remain permanent like this. I dare any of them there who has ruled Imo since this current democratic dispensation to say where they were when we were fighting the military and let me tell them where I was. So for us to now finish the process and enthroned democratic politics and they are now behaving with impunity…it’s a shame, coming from a state most of us come from.
There is this gale of agitations that have deepened everywhere…?
That is human nature, but you see when it becomes so much then there is a need for you to pause as a leader. The dimension we are witnessing these days, the dimension in the East, West, North, and South is alarming. This is unlike before where one part of the country will be agitating, but today the whole country is agitating. Everywhere there is agitation and in such a situation the people have to come together, not like that of 1957 constitutional conference or 1960 Independence constitution, we have gone beyond that but here is people coming together to decide how to solve this problem, to ventilate their anger and say: This is how we want things or this country to be, call it a sovereign conference. I happen to be a member of the last conference (2014) and everything we needed for this country to move forward was discussed there, nobody has dusted that document to look at what is in it. I can tell you that the solution to build a strong, united country is in that document. In that conference, all issues concerning Nigeria’s problem were comprehensively discussed and the agreement was clearly a consensus. If you pick out the people that attended that conference, you will see that Nigeria was there. Everybody saw the reason for whatever decision and it was taken on the floor there. There is need to look at or review that document or be ready for more agitations because what we have cannot work.
How will you assess the President Buhari-led APC government so far?
I have said it before; you cannot say this is the policy direction of the party. I checked where I am coming from, the power sector for instance. As of today, I don’t know their policy direction. I am aware that the PDP did privatisation of the power sector and it’s not working, but I have equally seen that since the APC came on board they have not made a statement of sustaining that policy or discarding it. I have seen them implementing most of those policies, driving it down even where it is paining Nigerians. I have seen tariffs going high consistently under their watch and there is no solution to it. I have watched the issue of fuel prices going up high and high, you don’t know the policy they have there. By the time they came to office the price of pump price of petroleum products went high they said they had deregulated, as at today nobody knows whether they are regulating the sector or they have deregulated the sector and the policies they have. What we are seeing is that for six years they could not build a new power plant, no new refinery then there is a problem. If you must be independent in handling our petroleum products then you can’t say you have deregulation that is import-dependent. We still try to find out: Do we regulate in a deregulated sector? Why must the government continue to announce a price increase if it had deregulated? Is it on employment? Workers are losing their jobs on a daily basis and you see a prominent member of the party, an APC governor in Kaduna leading the assault on the destruction of jobs, is that not the policy of APC? Has anybody come up from the party to say that this is not our policy? If you know or remember what we saw, somebody like Chief Akinloye under NPN will come out and disagree with President Shagari based on their party manifestoes; he will say no this one is not it. He will go to the National Assembly and meet with the caucus of the party but this time around I really don’t understand from the PDP to APC, I have not seen the desired change.
Are you aware that most Nigerians have lost confidence in labour?
Those Nigerians I hope they are living in the moon to say that they have lost confidence in labour. The issue is that I don’t know who they will have confidence in. Whatever you are seeing is the mood of the moment. Labour leaders cannot be the only angels where you have others as devils, it is not possible. Some of us came from the Students Union background, have you heard of the students of late? I remember the anti-SAP protest of 1988, then labour was not in existence, from school we led it. We led various affronts against Babangida as students, against IMF. There was the human rights community, the activists where we organised the two million man March, and we engaged the military. We fought against the annulment of June 12, where are they? Where are the students, where is NANS? Where are the human rights groups? Where is CD, CLO etc. If labour calls for action some Nigerians will criticise them, but do we have alternative? They may not be getting all that they want because of the peculiarity of the time, there is hunger, there is poverty etc. What is affecting other Nigerians is equally affecting labour. The workers that were making labour tick, their population you are sacking them by the day. They have sold NITEL, NEPA is managing to exist, they have sold Nigerian Airways etc that is the labour you are talking of, they have sacked them and this will affect labour vibrancy too. If labour had let’s say four million workers and now has one million you don’t expect things to be the same. We should take what is happening to labour within the framework of what is happening in Nigeria today. Is the NDA, NUJ, NBA etc as vibrant as they used to be with all the attempts to polarize them now?