interviewBy Mohammed Shosanya
Lagos — In this interview, the President-General of Senior Staff Association of Electricity and Allied Companies (SSAEAC), Comrade Bede Opara bares his mind on the power sector reforms and reiterates that new investors would not be allowed to take over any PHCN facility until all outstanding labour issues are addressed.
Do you entertain any fear that the new investors may not pay serious attention to staff welfare but only on the profit motive of their business?
We will always prevail on them to appreciate that labour is the most important resource in any industry or workplace. The interests of Nigerian workers remain paramount because without the workers, where will the company go? No matter the type of machines you install, human beings are going to operate them. If you treat human beings right, they treat the machines right. Therefore, we have reasons to talk and we will continue to talk so that we understand ourselves and avoid any communication gap which can be counter-productive.
Part of the reasons why I am seeking re-election as President- General of our association is that if I leave at this point in time, I fear that there might be a disconnect from what we are doing and what we are going to face in the near future as a union. You and I know that dealing with government is not the same as dealing with private sector operators. Therefore, we have to use every strategy we know or have learnt, to go to work and ensure that there is industrial harmony between the workers and the new investors in the power sector; that even if there is need for any worker to leave the organization, we will be able to find a way to get him/her back to work through outsourcing.
Do you also fear that the federal government may back out of the agreement it reached with labour towards reforming the power sector and privatization of PHCN in particular?
Yes, we entertain such fears and that is why we say we won't let go until every worker has been paid his due. Promising us that the new investors would retain every worker is impracticable. It is not possible. If a man buys a company, you do not tell him who to employ and who not to employ. But we believe that the best hands will still remain in the system.
You were quoted in the media recently, as saying that no new investor would be allowed to take over any of the PHCN facilities until all labour issues are settled, can you explain further?
Yes, I did and I stand by that comment. Why did I say so? We have been negotiating with the government over the years and we know that government officials are experts in violating agreements. But we are appealing that this latest agreement between government and the industrial unions in the nation' power sector is implemented to the latter.
You will recall that federal government's side was led by no less a person than the Secretary to Government of the Federation, Senator Anyim Pius Anyim, who in every sense of the word is President Goodluck Jonathan's spokesperson. We appealed to him (Anyim) to make sure that the agreement does not go the way of previous ones, whereby, we struggled to get government to honour its own side of the agreements. But if he (Anyim) reneges, we will fight him. But we know that Senator Anyim will not fail because he is an honourable man.
You are seeking re-election as President-General of your union, what were your achievements to justify your bid for a second term?
Four years ago, when I assumed the leadership of our union, I promised on behalf of my colleagues in the executive committee that we would build SSAEAC as a socially responsive and effective organization. I promised to build a union which would command respect and the trust of the general public.
Four years down the line, I want to say with all sense of modesty that through hard work, collective commitment, courage and unity of purpose, we've been able to build a union that is not only respected by government but other employers of labour. Today, SSAEAC is respected as a voice and player in the Nigerian economy and comity of trade unions. We have demonstrated purposeful leadership, defended and placed the interests of senior electricity workers on the front burner of public policy, among others.
And do not forget that we are still evolving as a union. This is the first executive committee of our union. Before now, we were operating as a branch or an appendage of SSASGOG. Following the registration of SSAEAC as an industrial union, we held our first Triennial Delegates conference in 2009. I inherited four junior staff at inception. But between then and now, we have employed a General Secretary who is a lawyer, two other professionals, who retired as senior managers from the services of PHCN. We employed them to strengthen the administration of our national secretariat. We also employed five other graduates who are working in the secretariat.
Furthermore, we have opened branch offices in different parts of the country just as we are putting in place, other structures in line with the unbundling of PHCN. The whole essence is that as PHCN is unbundling, we are also unbundling as a union by creating branch offices. For each unbundled company, we also set up immediately, a branch unit of our association with a branch president who will in turn, report to the President-General of our union.
Why are you committing a whopping N42 million towards building a new national secretariat and what are the unique features of the project?
We are still talking about the achievements of this leadership. It will interest you to know that the renovation of our national secretariat was not one of the promises that I made when I was running for the office in 2009. But somewhere along the line, we realized that it had become imperative to have a befitting national secretariat for our great union. Yes, on completion, the project would gulp N42 million. But I can tell you without fear of contradiction, that the figure is very conservative. I say it is conservative because the project is being executed through direct labour. Some of our members offered free consultancy services for the project without charging us a kobo. Yet, if the figures given by contractors who wanted to handle certain aspects of the job are anything to go by, then the entire project would go for over N60 million.
On the imperativeness of the project, I just want to say that the office structure we were using before was too small. That was before the PCHN management gave us this place. When we moved into the building which was constructed more than fifty years ago, we discovered failures in certain places due to age. We decided that we would make maximum use of the structure by renovating and reinforcing it. This is to avoid the incidence of collapsed building because we are an engineering-based organization. What non professionals do, we cannot afford to do them here. We decided therefore to consult experts in civil engineering.
You talked about the uniqueness of the project. We are building an ultra modern secretariat. And what you are seeing is the first phase of the project. The next phase would consist of a multi-purpose conference centre and state-of-art ICT equipment where we can talk or communicate with anybody in any part of the world from here. With this edifice firmly in place, I want to assure you that the days of desperately searching for convenient venues to hold our activities are over.
What are you promising your members in the next four years if you get a second mandate as President-General of SSAEAC?
As I said earlier, our association is still evolving. If I am given a second mandate, I will strive to consolidate on the achievements we've recorded so far and also move the association to the next level. There is no doubt that we are going to deal with a lot of challenges. But they will not be insurmountable.