Chief Frank Ovie Kokori is a veteran of the struggle for democracy and better condition of service for workers in Nigeria. As the then General Secretary of the National Union of Petroleum and Natural Gas Workers (NUPENG), Kokori led the entire oil industry on a crippling industrial action to force the military to reverse the annulment of the June 12, 1993 presidential elections. In this interview with ONWUKA NZESHI, the labour unionist takes a look recent labour strikes and the state of the nation
How do you see the recent multiple strikes by labour unions?
Yes. I’m disturbed about what is happening across the labour movement in Nigeria. Specifically, I think the resident doctors, the polytechnic lecturers and the judiciary workers unions are the most affected by the strike.
I think that these things are happening because most government negotiators just negotiate without finding out if they have the ability to pay. Usually, it is because of the labour push and they want to please labour.
They represent the government but the Federal Government does not take seriously to fulfilling agreements. It doesn’t mean anything to them. Most times, when they sign an agreement with the unions, they will just leave it there.
Whether they have ability to pay or not, they just sign it. You don’t find that in the private sector. In all my years in the National Union of Petroleum and Natural Gas Workers (NUPENG), I know how we used to negotiate with our employers in the sector. I won’t negotiate the kind of salaries and conditions of service in Shell, Chevron or Mobil Producing for a small oil service company because of the ability to pay.
First of all, the medical doctors (National Association of Resident Doctors) were not supposed to be going on strike because of the importance of their job to the society. The Academic Staff Union of Polytechnics (ASUP) are also very important to society and a serious country should not take such people for granted. But here in this country, we just negotiate with unions without being ready to abide by the agreement.
At the end of the day, the government will be procrastinating on the implementation of an agreement it signed with the unions. Why do you sign an agreement for which you lack the ability to pay?
Sometimes, you’ll find the government explaining that they don’t have funds to implement an agreement they had reached with the unions. You know these are high class professionals; you don’t joke with them but tell them how much you’re going to pay them. It has to be reasonable because they also know that those in government have so much in terms salaries and allowances.
When these young doctors and lecturers see what those in government, especially executive and legislative arms, are taking and compare it with what government offers to them, they become agitated because of the disparities.
Why are there hitches in negotiations almost all the time?
I think that most of the people handling labour relations at the government level are not very experienced and even if you are a labour leader, you are supposed to be a mediator in the process.
When I was a labour leader, if my people are demanding something that is above the organisation where they work, I will tell them the truth: If they sign this agreement with you, they will not pay because they don’t have this kind of money. You want to earn a Shell or Chevron salary with a small oil service company?
No. So, the labour leaders themselves must be reasonable and their demands too, should not be abnormal. The unfortunate thing is that when you’re a professional and you see what your contemporaries in other countries are being paid, you’ll feel pained. But again, we have millions and millions of other Nigerians who can’t even afford one square meal a day. These are some of the things we need to take into consideration.
It’s just that a few fat cats in government have everything one can think of while a huge chunk of the population are suffering. I’m talking about the ministers, legislators, governors and the rest of them. They joke with millions and billions. Then, the doctors and lecturers are being told to take whatever peanuts the government is ready to offer. But compared to other people in the society, who don’t have one tenth of what those people (doctors) are having, they still jealous them. So, the whole thing is that the country is not properly managed; the resources of the country are not properly managed.
In other words, we don’t know what should be our priorities. About two per cent of the population has seized almost 40 per cent of the resources and the rest 98 per cent of the people have been left to share the remaining 60 per cent of the resources. The people have been alienated from the government. Even, we don’t have government these days; we don’t have government in its true sense because three quarters of those running the system are thieves.
They are thieves. You can’t say you have a government when there are no checks and balances, accountability and transparency. A President or governor in the United States or Europe cannot be found doing what we see here every day.
In those countries, for every kobo you spend as a public office holder, you must account for it. This is what is alienating the people from the government.
You see the masses that are looking for N30,000 minimum wage and they can’t even get it while some people in government go home with millions of naira every month. So, it is bad, very bad. Bad government. Bad management of resources.
It is like the people who lead us are sadists. They don’t think about the ordinary people of this country. Worse still, when you now see labour leaders these days; those who are supposed to rescue the country, they are virtually kings.
It is different from our own time when there was so much sacrifice. Some labour leaders, these days, have this contradiction surrounding them.
What is responsible for this generational shift in attitude?
When I was in NUPENG, I was not just bothered about bread and butter for my union. I felt this country should be protected from dictatorship whether from the military or from anywhere. In our time, we had a different orientation and upbringing as labour leaders.
After my university education at Ibadan, the World Trade Union (WTU) during the Cold War years, sent some of us to Germany, Moscow, Cuba, Washington, Netherlands and other parts of the world to mix with notable labour leaders and train for the task of nation building.
At that time, the world was talking of egalitarianism. How can one man earn more than four times, the lowest paid person in an establishment? That was how we were trained.
But these days, everything has turned upside down. A governor pockets as much as one billion naira as security votes monthly. This is money he is not required to account for its usage. This is wrong.
Take us a little back to your struggles for democracy
As a labour leader, I had everything going for me during the military era. General Ibrahim Babangida and General Sani Abacha were my friends and they gave me the highest respect, even though I was a labour leader. They nominated me into the Constituent Assembly.
They made me part of the Constitution Drafting Committee and I was the pioneer Secretary of the Oil Mineral Producing Areas Development Commission (OMPADEC) which is the forerunner of today’s NDDC.
They did everything for me but when it came to the struggle for June 12 and democracy, I told them: ‘No.’ They offered me everything in this world but I said no, we must go back to June 12. It was a matter of principle because I was part of a group of freedom fighters who were trying to liberate the Southern part of Africa. I’m talking about our comrades in SWAPO and ANC in the 1970s. I trained with them.
So, when I look back, you discover that after the first generation of African leaders such as Kwame Nkrumah; Nnamdi Azikiwe; Obafemi Awolowo; Julius Nyerere and the others, a lot has changed on the continent. This generation of leaders is not like them.
Today, thousands of African citizens are fleeing across the Sahara Desert and drowning in the Mediterranean because they are desperate to migrate to Europe.
Those who manage to get there do menial jobs and are treated like slaves in a continent where African students were welcomed and treated like kings in the ’70s.
Its’ a shame for the black race. When some of us in our 60s and 70s see these things, we shed tears because we witnessed the rise and later unfortunate retrogression of Africa.
How do we relate this to Nigeria?
Look at what is happening. The people in government have become lords and the people are now like their servants, whereas we put them there.
They don’t care about the people. Imagine you sign agreements with people and you don’t fulfill them. It’s a shame. You sign an agreement on what you can pay and not sign what you know you will not fulfill.
You should open your books, look at the trade unions eyeball to eyeball and tell them the truth about the finances of the government and what is possible.
How can Nigeria be rescued from its current travails?
I don’t know how we can rescue Nigeria when it appears that those in charge are not interested in rescuing the country. The politicians and other people in places of authority are not interested and Nigerians are not interested in a revolution.
They have never taken part in any revolution in their lives. So, they don’t even understand what you are talking about if you say revolution.
We don’t have a reservoir of freedom fighters; people who had been involved in a revolution in the past. You don’t go to a place like South Africa today and try to oppress the people because they have veterans of the struggle against apartheid and they won’t allow you oppress them again.
Even when Jacob Zuma wanted to turn into something dangerous, they were able to rally round and remove him. Nigeria does not have a reservoir of freedom fighters and NUPENG was trying to fill that gap during the era of military dictatorship. Our struggle for the revalidation of June 12 was very popular.
It was just remaining like a week for us to make the breakthrough when I was betrayed and captured that night.
Again, if you say you want to stage a revolution, at least half of the military must be with you because the ordinary people cannot remove the government in power. In any revolution in any part of the world, the military must be part of it and that was what we had during the June 12 struggle. The military was already splitting.
Today, the military is very comfortable, especially the top hierarchy of the forces. Many of them are billionaires. Why not?
They collect so much money to purchase weapons but they don’t have to buy those weapons. The rank and file of the military can’t do anything because the last order of their commanders must be obeyed. In addition, the Nigerian military is an elitist military. It is not a military that grew out of a struggle like we have in some countries.
The Nigeria military is made up of people who were trained in Sandhurst and other elitist military academies of the West. They were pampered from day one. So, the officers will just send some privates and some corporals to the front to die if there is any challenge. I just pray that one day, God will send Nigeria a Messiah to rescue the country.
Are you saying we can’t get our parliament to rescue our country?
No. You can’t rely on what we have today as parliament or legislature. They are all working hand in hand with the executive and you can hardly achieve anything meaningful in the current system. It is even worse at the state level where the legislators are just pupils and the governor is the headmaster. How many are they in each of the states?
On the average there are 27 legislators in a state and can be easily settled; once the governor gives them one Prado Jeep each, it’s all over. These people were supposed to check the budget and monitor how the resources of the states are being spent but they don’t do it.
If anyone of them tries to raise dust, they just call them, give them five or ten million naira each and they shut down the assembly and go on Easter or Sallah Break. Who will challenge the governor.
What’s your view about the rise of regional groups in the South-East and the South -West regions of the country?
Well, Amotekun, for the security of the communities and forests in the South- West. But what can IPOB and ESN do when the governors in their region don’t support them?
What of the leaders of the South- South where I come from? Why are they not doing anything to secure their people and their forests? But I’m happy that at last the South- East governors have been able to set up their Ebubeagu Security Network to safeguard their people and land from the killer herders and marauders.
What’s your position on the widespread insecurity across Nigeria?
The issue is that the people who started the Boko Haram insurgency and those who encouraged these killer herdsmen to go on rampage have now become slaves to them.
They know they can’t send them back to where they came from and even the people perpetrating violence are no longer ready to go because they’ve found the kidnapping business very lucrative in Nigeria. How can they go when they can make millions from kidnapping instead of doing other legitimate businesses?
A man who was making like ten thousand per month, now making millions. How do you ask him to stop.