interviewBy Victor Ahiuma-Young
In this interview with the President-General of Trade Union Congress of Nigeria, TUC, Peter Esele, he speaks about the nationwide strike action in January against the sudden increase in the price of petrol, the allegation that organized labour sold out to government and plans to ensure that government acts on the findings of the House of Representatives which investigated the management of subsidy funds. Esele says that workers and union members voted for the executives of the NLC and TUC and, therefore, the loyalty of the executive committee members of these bodies are to their members and not the generality of Nigerians, insisting that if Nigerians are feeling betrayed by whatever is going on in the country, they should hold the people they voted for responsible, including President Jonathan.. Excerpts:
What is your take on the subsidy probe report by House of Representatives?
My view is not different from the statement TUC issued when the report was realised. In that release, we said we welcome the release of the report of the House of Representatives' Probe panel on the Subsidy regime in the Oil and Gas sector in Nigeria. We view it as not only timely but far reaching in its findings and recommendations thus signalling a clear departure from the norm especially as it concerns the reports of such probe panels set up in the past by the National Assembly. The Ndudi Elumelu probe of the power sector remains a mirage even till date
The Lawan Faruk probe is a landmark report because it did not shy away from identifying the culprits by their names but it also recommended punishments and penalties including refunds from those identified to have meddled or were used to siphon public funds through the subsidy regime. This, it was able to do, despite all the pressures from within and without which were brought to bear on the members of the panel and the panel itself, to water down their findings or to allow it go the way of the other probe panels in the past.
The report is a clear affirmation of our earlier insistence on the existence and prevalence of deep-seated corruption in the subsidy regime of the downstream sector of the nation's petroleum industry. It is a further justification of the decision by Nigerians as led by Labour and Civil society Coalition (LASCO) to embark on the January 2012 struggle to reclaim Nigeria from the hands of the cabal that was hitherto holding the country to ransom and were feeding fat on the sufferings and deprivations of fellow Nigerians through the petroleum price hike.
You people described the subsidy figures as false?
Yes we described the figures as false and padded, our position on the procedure which we described as crony-led thus inefficient; our description of activities in the waters between Cotonou and Nigeria which we showed to be unwholesome and fraudulent and our calls for sanctions against some of the operators in the industry have all been confirmed and justified by this report.
We therefore call on the various agencies of government responsible for implementing the findings and recommendations of this report especially the EFCC (that is before those who are in a hurry to scrap it succeeds) to swing into action immediately. Nigerians and the workforce want to see arrests made in the coming weeks and people brought before our various courts of law. This will go a long way in assuaging the populace, warning those that are thinking of treading the same ignoble path to have a rethink thus guaranteeing the nation a protection against continued pillage by a few fat cats.
Anything to the contrary will cause restiveness in the Land and raise the spectre of compromise and an attempt to cover up the identified crooks. It offers the President and the government an opportunity to reconnect with the people rebuilding trust and confidence in the process which is what is imperative within the ambits of the security challenges confronting the nation.
We are still worried that some of the people especially the public officials that openly and willingly peddled false figures during the debates and subsequent probe are still sitting comfortably in their respective positions. We call on these officers to immediately, if they still have any honour left in them, hand in their letters of resignation as this is the only course that will propitiate for their perfidy against the Nigerian people. We shall consider their refusal to remove themselves from public offices an insult on the collective psyche of the Nigerian people and workers and a brazen affront on our intelligence. This we assure them will not go unchallenged by Nigerian workers in the most constructive and effective way.
While we commend the members of the panel and its chairman Honourable Farouk Lawan for doing a good work on their mandate and refusing to be hoodwinked into silence or compromise, we also commend the entire House of Representatives for having the courage to have instituted this panel which has made this report possible.
From the discordant tunes that have been coming from the Presidency, there are fears that the report may not be implemented.
We are worried because after the President said he's not going to spare any indicted individual, we started hearing different things from the Attorney-General of the Federation, Special Adviser on Political Affairs, among others, who are now expressing contradictory views. Some said it is just a mere fact finding exercise, some dismissed it as lacking credibility and all that. However, we as organised labour we will bring pressure to bear to ensure that the report is implemented.
Never the less, there are those who claimed they were not giving fair hearing and the presidency claimed it has not received the report. We expect the House of Representatives to address the issues raised by those that they were not giving fair hearing and send the report to the President for implementation. When the president fails to implement the world will see it. So it is a moral burden on the President and his anti-corruption crusade.
The report has vindicated our belief that there was no subsidy but fraud. We shouted that government must address the corruption in the subsidy system they said no, there was no corruption. So, if there was no strike in January, there would not have been probe and this monumental fraud would not have been uncovered.
TUC has continued to say that we are not against deregulation of the sector, but what we are against is increase in price and import driven deregulation. In fact, what they wanted to do in January was to ensure that no refining takes place in Nigeria again. But the strike has made them to have a change of heart.
Many have alleged that the leadership of TUC and NLC, were compromised to call off the January strike against the petrol pump price hike. How would you defend this?
Well, if you check the dictionary meaning of compromise, and what Nigerians think of being compromised, you find out that they are two poles apart. I am saying it categorically, we were not compromised. Comrade President Abdulwaheed Omar of Nigeria Labour Congress, NLC, and I simply announced the decision of the National Executive Council of both the NLC and TUC, and those were the people who elected us into office and they are those we take instructions and directives from.
Why was it that N97 per liter of petrol was not negotiated according to your statement on the day the strike was called off as against the practice in the past?
We take full responsibility for that and one of the reasons we have to do that was, we were a kind of being boxed into a corner because the instruction given to us by National Executive Council, NEC, was not to negotiate. If NEC says, do not negotiate, you do not negotiate and the same also took decision and said, call off the strike, we had to act according to NEC decision. But if you asked me with hindsight, probably we should have negotiated as in the past because I also got calls from past union leaders, past presidents, General Secretaries, who also felt that we should have negotiated because it is a kind of a tripartite; you make a demand and you also get a counter demand. But we did not do any of that because we just felt that it had gone beyond demand and counter demand. That was why we did not negotiate, but immediately after the strike I felt we should have done that. We were simply following the instruction of the NEC. We do not expect to do anything and expect everything to be perfect.
In any situation, any place where there is perfection, it means there is no growth. But there are also lessons to be learnt and there are areas we feel that we can improve upon. The compliance by the unions who elected us was almost total and I do not think we have ever had that, not even since the history of this country where we had a near perfect strike whereby we got so much compliance from our members, first because this is not the first strike we have had. We had one in 2007 when the late Yar'Adua was newly elected. We did not get this sort of compliance at all but we were still able to negotiate and pushed those things through. Though people would continue to question why we did not negotiate, but as things go bye, people will come to see some reasons why we did not negotiate.
Why was the Petroleum and Natural Gas Senior Staff Association of Nigeria, PENGASSAN, prevailed upon from shutting down the platforms and export terminals, because we have had a lot of stories?
PENGASSAN takes instruction from TUC. If this was an entirely PENGASSAN strike, it would have been a different ball game. This was a nationwide strike, so PENGASSAN takes instruction from the TUC because it is an affiliate of TUC. What we told PENGASSAN was hold on. When PENGASSAN said members would shut production by Sunday, it was also acting on the instruction of the TUC. First, do not forget we are a pressure group and all kind of pressures had to be brought to bear.
One thing that came out of the whole thing was that I just found that, yes, we may be educated, people are not informed about how the unions actually operate. You can deploy all manner of pressures to get what you want to get. Take for example, I go to my management and say, I want to be earning N10million a month, it is N10 million or nothing.
Meanwhile, maybe I am earning N1miilion a month. So, between that N10million and N1million that I am earning, there is now room for negotiations. I can bring whatever pressure I want to bring on the management for me to get my N10 million. Sometimes, I may not get my 10 million. So, there are some of the things Nigerians need to know. First, we just look at it, PENGASSAN is going to shut down 2.4 barrel production per day. We just multiply by 1000 dollar per barrel. It is about 240 million.
So, we weigh all the options and agreed that whether we like it or not, we are all also going to pay for that. So, between the TUC and NLC, we agreed that no, PENGASSAN should not shut down. There was no pre-arranged agreement with any external body. I tell you, TUC NEC and PENGASSAN NEC took place in the same hotel. Everybody was on the same page.
What I also want Nigerians to know is that as leaders, our first primary constituency is the workers. So, my primary responsibility is to the Nigerian worker who elected me.
The person that Nigerians elected is Goodluck Jonathan. So, if they felt betrayed, it is Goodluck Jonathan (who has betrayed them). It is the workers that I am directly responsible to and they are not telling me that I have betrayed them. So, it now comes to a matter of understanding how the union works.
When we looked at it in the NEC, we asked what our end gain is. If you ask me, if we want to do a revolution, I will belong to a revolution when I know that a member of the revolutionary would take over power, who understands our pains, knows where it pinches when the shoe hurts and we looked at it, there is no anyone among us, even from the Occupy Nigeria Group, that can take over power. So, at the end of the day, you find out that we may just end up playing into the hands of those who are lurking in the winds, they would take over power and then we would go back to square one.
These are the same things that happened in the past. Take for example, I was a teenager during the June 12 struggle and I asked at the end of the day what that was for? Ernest Shonekan came, we said he was illegal even though Shonekan as a civilian was better that the illegal man in kaki that came. If not for divine intervention, maybe we would have been fighting like the Egyptians or Libyans or others. At the end of the day, they are still the same particular group of people, directly or indirectly who are running this country.
If we say we want a change, I believe that change should come through lawful and constitutional means. I will support that. Let me tell you, labour can never support any take over of government through unconstitutional means. Maybe some people do not understand what labour stands for. Labour stands for democracy. Labour can never bring down a democratic government, but labour can fight to help bring down an undemocratic government.
Labour can put pressure to change policies. But labour would always believe that if you want to change policy makers, you use legal means. So, our intention in the last strike was to change the policy and not the policy makers. Even if it were possible to change government, I would want those who understand the pains we are going through, those who know that we are being marginalised, who believe that unemployment is on the high side and other things drawing us back and who must be the person we know. I would not be party to supporting somebody we do not even know who suddenly want to take advantage, the kind of opportunistic. Whether you like or not, even if you look at the way Nigerian leaders emerged, their exposure and the rest reflect when they get to power.
What was or were the real reasons why the strike was called off?
One was first; there were many centres of power. Our training is that we are organized, we have hierarchy and we have a structure. So, when things are going out of that structure, we are not party to it. So, those structures and organs must be respected.
But we now had various people who also believed in the struggle, but who just would not allow things to be in one process. We also have our own internal challenges, which of course, I cannot make public. We have done our own internal postmortem and it is for our own internal consumption. But the external threats, like we did SWOT analysis, where we looked at our strength, our weaknesses, our opportunities and our threats. So we had both internal and external threats.
In looking at our external threats, the external threats were like, fine, there were many centres of authorities, so many people given different counter directives such as this is what they want, this is what they want to do. Some people went as far as saying, even if labour went out of the way, they were going to continue. We also had some calling for a regime change and that did not go down well with us. A regime change in a democracy, the only way you can have a regime change at that point of time, is through a military coup because we are a democratic institution. We did not find it funny. So, those were the external threats and like I said, the internal threats are those we keep to ourselves and would address in our own way.