Nigeria is a bundle of contradictions. For years we've lost sleep over the amount of money wasted on private electricity generation, how the lack of regular power supply has shut down businesses, led to job losses, and turned thousands of artisans into commercial motorcyclists that constitute a menace on our roads.
For years we have pressurised the government to clean up the fuel subsidy scheme, clampdown on the cabal that has been feeding fat off the regime, and prosecute the fraudsters who have taken advantage of a policy meant to subsidise our consumption of petroleum products and keep the refineries from functioning.
And yet, just when the government seems to be getting round to reforming the electricity sector and is half-heartedly prosecuting a couple of oil marketers, the labour unions rise up in arms against the government, threatening to shut the economy and foster hardship on the same masses that they claim to protect.
Starting from the power sector, it is apparent that the junior workers are being led by the nose by Joe Ajaero, the general secretary of the National Union of Electricity Employees to scuttle the reform and privatisation programme for self-serving reasons. Ajaero, as this column has pointed out in the past, has grandiose dreams of some day emerging president of the Nigeria Labour Congress. He is also currently one of three deputy presidents of the NLC.
But his ambition is under threat, as the transfer of electricity assets to private sector operators, will whittle down his stranglehold over junior electricity workers, one of the biggest affiliates of the NLC. So, for selfish reasons, Ajaero has been running amok in the electricity sector, threatening to shut down the power grid and costing the economy several billions of naira.
His latest grouse with the Minister of Power, Professor Bart Nnaji stems from a disagreement over the severance benefits to be paid to electricity workers, post-privatisation. Despite the mismanagement and decimation of the in-house Defined Pension Scheme, which NEPA (the predecessor of PHCN) operated before the commencement of the Pension Contributory Scheme in 2004, the government has accepted to plug the gap by committing to set aside N85 billion as severance pay to PHCN workers.
In addition, the government has committed to paying the backlog of contributions of 7.5 per cent apiece by the employer and employees as provided under the Pension Reform Act, which, again, PHCN failed to comply with. In total, severance benefits to be paid PHCN workers, who have been largely incompetent and contributed very little to the economic development of the country in almost two decades, will cost tax payers some N140 billion, much of which will come out from the privatisation proceeds.
Still, Ajaero would have none of it, insisting that the severance package be left at 25 per cent from the day the in-house pension scheme was set up to date, unmindful of the fact that the in-house scheme, which was barely funded by PHCN workers in the first instance and was mismanaged by its trustees, ceased to be operational on the day the Pension Reform Bill was signed into law. Should the government succumb to such a spurious demand, it will increase its liability to PHCN workers to N433 billion.
As if Ajaero's demands are not unreasonable enough, he has also threatened to shut down the power facilities on the grounds that military personnel have been deployed to safeguard them from terrorist strikes and misguided PHCN workers who might want to vandalise electricity installations. But what does he care about the implications of shutting down the grid for a few days? What does he care that Nigerians for the last few weeks, even if it is short-lived, have enjoyed some measure of stable electricity supply? Insofar as Ajaero gets his way, and attains his inordinate ambition to someday lead the NLC, he will do whatever it takes, including committing a crime against the state.
It is not just Ajaero that has been leading the workers under the union he leads astray. Another union, in the very vital oil and gas sector - the Nigerian Union of Petroleum and Natural Gas Workers - has been equally irresponsible. Its president, Igwe Achese without any consideration for the hardship he would cause Abuja residents, stopped fuel supply to the federal capital for over a week and threatened to extend the strike to the rest of the country if the federal government failed to pay all outstanding subsidy claims to oil marketing companies and importers.
Although the nationwide strike was averted in the nick of time and fuel supply to Abuja has been restored, it took this newspaper and some other concerned voices to point out that Achese was not fighting for the workers in the downstream oil and gas sector but for indicted oil marketers wanting to escape prosecution for defrauding the fuel subsidy scheme.
For the record, Achese caught this column's attention over a year ago when NUPENG threatened to go on strike over some oil marketing companies whose bad loans had been called in by the banks. At the time, he offered himself as a willing tool for bad debtors who were trying to fight the system. The goal of the marketers was to force the government or Central Bank of Nigeria to grant them some form of forbearance on depositors' funds that they had borrowed and obviously frittered away on private jets, expensive mansions and other luxury items. Fortunately, his attempt to call a strike was stymied by CBN, which made it clear that the bad debtors must repay their loans or lose their businesses.
As if that did not serve as lesson, Achese, again, offered himself to the same set of marketers led by the so-called Jetty and Petroleum Tank Farm Owners Association and Depot and Petroleum Products Marketers Association - both unions, mind you, boast some of the biggest fraudsters of the subsidy scheme. The bigger irony is that NUPENG is supposed to represent the interest of junior workers in the industry. But somehow, Achese always seems to serve the interest of the ownership or employers in the sector, not the other way round.
What is worse is that in the midst of these mindless threats to sabotage the economy and open attempts to commit crimes against the Nigerian state by the leadership of its affiliates, the NLC never deemed it necessary to call them to order. Owing to the check off dues they all contribute to sustaining the umbrella body, the NLC foolishly backed their misdeeds with myopic zeal.
But if the leadership of the NLC, NUEE and NUPENG must know, they derive their support base from two major sources - the workers and the streets (the masses). So as they continue to disenfranchise and erode their support base for selfish and personal gains, they should be mindful of the fact that Nigerians are wisening up to their antics.
Besides, the reform in the electricity sector that Ajaero so desperately wants to stall cannot be stopped, even by a speeding train. Nigerians are desperate for improved electricity supply, so if the likes of Ajaero are incapable of staying on the bandwagon, he should be pushed off. He needs to kiss his ambition to lead NLC goodbye and thank his stars that he was even given the chance to lead a union in a sector in which he's never worked for one day in his entire life.
Just the same, what is expected of NUPENG and NLC is to push for improved management of the fuel subsidy scheme and the prosecution of fraudulent oil marketers and their accomplices in the public sector that the government continues to shield. When they threaten to stop fuel supply and hold the government and nation to ransom, what they don't realise is that they become allies of the fraudsters in the system and will be painted with the same brush. That the unsustainable fuel subsidy regime has been sustained and abused for so long is as a result of NLC's insistence that it is the only benefit enjoyed by the masses. That being the case, when any of its affiliates sides with the fat cats that have taken advantage of the system, the NLC should see through the scam, and with all sincerity, act in the interest of the Nigerian people.
Finally, some serious thought ought to be given by the National Assembly to passing some form of legislation to protect critical infrastructure in the country. The law should include penalties, ranging from harsh penalties to long prison terms for individuals and the unions who form the habit of vandalising and sabotaging government and private sector infrastructure set up for the benefit of the people. Since electricity workers have shunned the Industrial Court where employer-employee disputes can be settled and have continued to disobey a Supreme Court judgement, which, owing to the essential service that they render, bars them from strike actions, perhaps a law will serve as a deterrent against their penchant for flippant strikes and threats of vandalisation.