The #EndSARS protests and the violence that trailed it has thrown up so many issues in the polity as many political analysts struggle to interpret the scenarios and their implications. In this interview, a former Secretary General Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC), Dr. Peter Ozo-Esan explains why Nigerians took to the streets and predicts that there may be more of such uprisings in the future. He spoke during his appearance on “The Signature Show”, a current affairs programme on Africa Independent Television (AIT) monitored
What do you think about the trending statistics indicating that members of our National Assembly are the highest paid parliamentarians in the world?
When we just looking at those figures by themselves, we understate the magnitude of the problem. If we took those figures country by country and relate them as ratios or proportions of the national minimum wage in those countries, we will see that the matter is even more staggering than what those absolute figures are telling us.
If for instance, you take a country where the lawmakers earn $25,000 and they have a minimum wage that amounts to over $5,000, the proportionality will be computed. If you then take our situation, which is talking of $2,000,000 and above and you consider the minimum wage that we have in this country, you will see that the gap and disproportionality is even more fundamental than those figures are showing to us. Unfortunately, what is important from an economic point of view is that it is not the absolute amount; it is the relativity of earning between these legislators and the rest of Nigerians. This is what is important from a development point of view. If we have scarcity for instance for quality plumbers, the market should give to existing plumbers, a high remuneration. It is that relative high remuneration that will then attract some talents or manpower to come and specialise as plumbers in which case that will help to redistribute resources and human resources between different sectors. The crisis in our country, I don’t know how it happened, but clearly you’re right when you say that what we are having in the country today which manifested in the ENDSARS protests and ancillary issues, in some degree, originated from the inappropriate reward system.
If you look at the first five demands that the #EndSARS protesters put forward, one of them was that the remuneration of some political office holders should be drastically reduced and that legislators in the National Assembly should become part time workers. So, you are right. The matter is part of the basis for agitation that has galvanised anger and has created this situation.
Our legislators might feel that they are being unfairly profiled over this wage issue, so can we expand this discussion across the political spectrum to include ministers, governors and even the President given the huge remunerations and pecks of their offices?
Well, when we talk of what has created anger, take for instance you are in your small village or local community with several other youths of the same age and somehow, one person becomes a councilor in the local government council. Immediately that person becomes a councilor, some of his contemporaries who were even more educated than him, who had invested in building up human capital than himself, suddenly find out that the reward or compensation for a councilor comes in several multiples compared to what the other contemporaries who may be teachers, now earn.
They will soon see the councilor start to build a hotel and start to put up different investments around the community. The people are watching. They know that these monies the councilor is spending is from the common purse of the people. They know it is the commonwealth that has made it possible for that councilor to be amassing that type of wealth.
This is what creates anger and that is why at the community level, you find that during the recent protests, they were attacked by the mob. I saw pictures of attacks on the houses of public office holders in which even window frames were being pulled out and removed. That type of anger is not just to say: I want to carry this away. It is to say and demonstrate that this has not been fairly acquired. You have robbed us in order to acquire it. I think that is what we need to focus on.
When we mention the Senators for instance, it is merely as a reference point, it is actually the whole class of political office holders. It has even gone beyond just the class of political office holders to chief executives of public institutions which in order to make them cooperate with the political class, their own compensation packages have also been fixed up disproportionately to the remuneration of other people who work in their various establishments.
So there is a need for a complete reordering or re-creation of the reward structure and the relative position of different professions. In many countries of the world, the scientific way of doing it is to have a clear and well implemented system of job evaluation. If you evaluated scientifically all the jobs in the system including the job of the policeman, you are then able to place them in some relativity order.
You must identify the most important, the most needed, the most tasking and the most dangerous jobs. You have to classify the jobs using these relevant indices. Therefore, when you do that, you can then determine the category of streets workers that should be at the apex of the reward system. For those who are in positions well beyond their salaries, they have paraphernalia of material support like the President and governors. You do not need to put their salaries as high as they are if you have already taken care of their housing, feeding, transportation and many others of their needs.
You factor that into the relativity package in order to determine what is the correct reward structure you want to impose on the system. If you are able to do that, then you will have an economy that will develop because then, the importance of human capital development to the overall national development is clearly established.
But you cannot have human capital development and proper human capital investment if the areas that you need skills for development are not adequately recognised. These are the challenges that I think that we must address if we want to turn these things around.
Besides the humongous salaries and perks of office, these political office holders have been accused of also taking away the little opportunities that should go to the masses. They sit in the comfort of their offices and allocate jobs and contracts to their children and relatives while the rest people are left on their own. Doesn’t this warrant anger?
Well, there are two things here. I agree completely that there is a problem of inequity in access to opportunities and these are dramatically demonstrated in a number of ways. There are instances where friends
finished from the same programme, maybe a degree programme, as classmates, they finish their NYSC and they remain in touch with each other. Suddenly, you discover one telling the other that he has gotten a job. My uncle, who is a minister, helped me to get a job. Or, some allocation was made to my area and I have been given a job. Among those friends and classmates, you will find out that they know the best among them through the years that they have been studying together. Sometimes these exceptionally bright ones who may not have the connections may continue to walk the streets and have no job. Surely, there must be anger. What that is creating in our country is the pockets of disillusionment because many people feel they do not belong to the system. Because I do not have a minister; because I do not have a President and because I do not have a Permanent Secretary who will come to my aid, I am not part of the system. This system is stacked against me. That generates anger and so when this develops, you’re going to have a different reaction from such people. However, I think that we also need to be clear about the “looting” that went on recently. A number of things have happened in these last few weeks. We saw clearly that some of those who came out and started the initial violence were actually people who were hired and deployed. There are visual records of black SUVs without plate numbers dropping off armed men and youths at strategic locations and directing them to attack the peaceful protesters. So once you have created a society in which you reward and unleash armed youths on their fellow citizens, you are going to get to a stage in
which you lose control of even those people you hired and they became the first people who were breaking into warehouses. I think that breaking into warehouses or looting cannot be the reward we want to see as a response from the youths. We can canvass for jobs; we can canvass for equity but the way to do it is not by lawlessness.
You cannot campaign for justice using illegal means. We must condemn the breaking into warehouses and the looting. So while realising that the anger of the people may have boiled over and that the anger may have led to some of those things, we must condemn the cultivation of the use of force among the youths that even some people in high places were involved in creating.
Do we expect the changes that the young people are demanding to come from the same people who are profiting from the current situation? Would that not amount to asking the politicians to commit class suicide?
Well, you’re right that the political class will not willingly commit class suicide. That was brought out clearly when the youth brought out their five points demand and the Speaker of the House of Representatives made a statement – he took a number of the issues that the youths raised and highlighted them. He said that he will not sign off on the 2021 budget unless certain issues relating to the protests were addressed.
But what struck me was that although their own compensation issue was one of the major demands, he was silent on that matter. He didn’t say anything about it. So, you’re right that they will not want to do anything that will subtract from the privileges they enjoy today, but you see, if the peaceful protest of the youths have not been compromised by the organ- ised invasion of armed thugs, what would have happened was that the protest would have dragged out long enough until the political class starts realising that their long term self-interest can no longer be sustained and that they should begin a negotiation.
Although, in the short term, it may look like they are losing, negotiation is the only way to guarantee their position in the long term. This is the way that this ought to have played out given the dynamics of protests. But if that is not allowed to play out, then what will happen is that people are going to lose interest in the whole process of addressing the issues that led to the protests. The further implication is that agitations and more agitations will come in the future.
People are going to continue to insist on the changes they desire and whether you like it or not, you cannot perpetually keep an angry population down. Those who are angry are a huge and growing proportion of the national population and they will be back to the streets. Youths’ anger will again boil over and the system will have to find a way to resolve the issues.
I think that we can find a way to address these demands by either convening a national conference or intervening through a constitutional restructuring of the polity to address these matters of unfair, unjust and inequitable compensation system. It is in the long term interest of the political class to agree to a process that will allow that to happen.
Some people think that the youths got it wrong when they took to the streets instead of channeling their grievances through their representatives in the parliament for the government to address them. What do you have to say?
I think that this concept of representative democracy is actually a little bit utopian because we are all part of the system here. We know that some of those who are representing people or claim to be representing people did not win any election. We know that our electoral system is still subject to a lot of manipulations and abuse.
Therefore, the true concept of representation of the people is actually not practically in place. Ideally, if we had achieved the utopian concept of representative democracy, those who are representing us would have known that we elected them and we have a right to recall them, then it may not require the youths to go to the streets.
All that it would have required is for the youths to organise themselves and ensure that those who go from their various communities into government positions have the same ideas as themselves and that would allow for a change of the things through this the representative system.
But we are still very far; we’re still miles away from that concept of representative democracy.
We have a civil government, not really a democratic one in the true sense of it. So the struggle to bring about accountability is not just about going to the so-called representative who knows that the next time around he can still “win” the election even without listening to his people. If that system persists then this utopian approach will not be a solution.
There is the need for the type of struggle that the youths embarked on but what we need to do is that we must not leave it as the job of only the youths. We all as citizens need to come together to support and redirect the energies of our youths in continuing to ask questions and in continuing to make demands for a better tomorrow.