Comrade Elijah Okougbo, is former General Secretary of National Union of Petroleum and Natural Gas Workers, (NUPENG), in this interview with Peterclaver Egbochue, laments crisis that has engulfed the Nigerian Labour Congress (NLC). He also posits that there will be an imminent labour/government struggle even as he called General Muhammadu Buhari, to ensure implementation of Confab report. Excerpts:
What do you make of the crisis in the Nigerian Labour Congress (NLC)?
During the conference in Abuja last April, I was with some of my veterans, other international invitees and the politicians who came; Adams Oshiomhole, a former President of NLC who came with the President-elect, Muhammadu Buhari, Pius Anyim Pius, and others. I had a pep talk with my people-NUPENG. I told them that the President of NUPENG, Comrade Igwe Achese, was competent to contest for a post but that I have gone round and spoken to other members who said he should step down. I sold that idea to our people and in fairness to him,(Achese), in that conference stepped down for the position of the deputy. Why some of us did that was to ensure that there was peace. Unfortunately, the whole thing was stalemated. Many of them were saying that he was a trustee, how old is he in the labour movement to vie for the position of the president of NLC? That is not to say that he is not competent and I’m happy he took a genuine advice by deciding to step down to deputy. I left Abuja the next day. But I read in the papers that they voted in the full glare of other labour veterans including Governor Oshiomhole and that when the result of the election was to be announced, Comrade Joe Ajaero, Comrade Achese and Comrade Issa Aremu, stormed out and briefed the press that they were not happy about the way the elections were conducted. If there was any fear that the election was not going to be free and fair, there should not have been election in the first place. In fact, there should not have been any accreditation.
How would they have known that they election will not be free and fair?
If you go to the conference with your delegates and there is accreditation. If you look at the list of accreditation, you will know whether they have tampered with the list, if you are polan experienced labour man who has been attending conferences. There was a mistake along the line but for them to be patient and allow accreditation and went into the election proper without any protest. Even while the election was going on, if they noticed any infraction, they should have raised alarm at that point in time. Why did they allow the election to continue only to storm out when the results were to be announced? And then the government officials who represented the ministry of labour went ahead and congratulated Ayuba as having won the election. Comrade Oshiomhole, went ahead and congratulated Ayuba. In a situation like this, how do we manage its? Both parties should have allowed a winwin situation. I got in touch with other veterans and we decided to intervene because if this kind of unwholesome situation is allowed to continue, it is the Nigerian worker that will suffer it because the politicians are capitalists and they will be very happy. The politicians have been manipulating the political process and the economic process because nobody has been challenging them. In the administration of Abdul Waheed Umar, as NLC president, politicians earned fabulous constituency allowances-N750m, N800m at the expense of the ordinary citizen and nobody challenged them in spite of the fact that the price of crude oil has fallen. This is not the kind of crisis that should envelop the labour movement particularly now when a former maximum military dictator, Buhari is going to step into office as a born again democrat and President Jonathan in whose tenure the economy seems to have collapsed. So my colleagues intervened and reached out to both parties. So the process of reconciliation is on. Unfortunately, as the process is going on, Comrade Oshiomhole is going about calling the Ajero faction bad losers. This is not proper. You should not make propaganda out of it because what we want is peace, not peace of the graveyard but peace that will permeate the labour movement because of the struggle ahead. The politicians are not very good friends of the working class. They are not genuine friends of the society. It does not bother them whether there is physical development or not, it does not bother them whether workers are paid their salaries or not. And that is why I have continued to advise that there should be reconciliation; there is nothing one cannot give up for public good. Giving up one’s interest for the good of the people does not mean that one is a coward or that one does not worth one’s onus. It will be better for both sides to be on the good side of history.
What is the fate of the Nigerian worker if this disagreement continues?
Obviously their fate is in jeopardy and that is why we will not rest on our oars in pursuing this reconciliation. Nigerian workers need a united front particularly this time. In the imminent struggle I see ahead, those of us retired veterans will be ready to give support to labour movement. There is a very serious struggle to resuscitate the economy, the politicians will not want to give up because it is favouring them. Though Buhari may be coming with good intensions, but the politicians will advise him to fight labour and when that happens, like retired Generals, some of us will come back to join the struggle to ensure that the Nigerian worker is given his entitlement. It will be total war but we need to reconcile.
Looking at the electoral promises the incoming government made, obviously expectations are high. Do you see them meeting these expectations?
It is going to be difficult for Buhari. One, he has good intensions and two, the politicians are not ready to come down from their Olympia heights. They are ready to mitigate their exploitations of the economy. The have forgotten that the international community especially the G8 countries are not our friends because of oil. The USA is the major oil producer now in the world and because of certain extreme measures we took against them, they are not buying our oil. Then we look forward to India and China but because of the Ukraine crisis, which has made the European Union to sanction Russia and Russia produces oil so much. This has made Russia to start looking for new markets at a reduced price. So China may stop buying our oil in the nearest and the price has fallen from about $110 per barrel to about $50 per barrel, how will he cope? Then the politicians who are earning fantastic salaries- N5m, N6m per month including members of the national assembly, are they ready to come down? It is going to be a very difficult task for him unless the traditional rulers, Obas and Emirs intervenes and tell the politicians to assist Buhari by coming down from what they are currently earning. There is no need for constituency allowance. The executive is there to carry out infrastructural development of the state. It is not the politician who will corner a large chunk of the money into his pocket and say he is going to build infrastructure in his constituency whereas he may just go and renovate a few primary school blocks and say they have done something. Buhari was a maximum dictator, a situation where he will be telling politicians to cooperate with him to revamp the economy and they removed, if the situation is complex and they want to fight and impeach him, then the military may step in and labour may go to any length because we fought for this democracy. Agriculture is one of the answers to turning around the economy but it is not going to be easy in four years. All these politicians that have stolen money should go into mechanized agriculture. There should be cattle ranches where the Fulani nomads can take their cattle to graze. Buhari should be prepared to bring in foreigners into the solid minerals exploitations.
Confab report is believed to be the panacea to Nigeria’s problems. The APC did not support that conference; do you see Buhari implementing that report?
He may not want to take a critical look into that report but it is the confab report that will serve as the saving grace in the future because Nigeria is a heterogeneous society with different tribes, different cultures and different economies all welded into one from colonialism till date. People will want to do things their own way. States may want to develop at their own way, and not for one side to be developing and then you say stop and wait for other states to come up.