– Was Pengassan really going to shut down the oil wells? Why did they not? Peter Esele tells us the inside story of the #OccupyNigeria negotiations, in this interview session with Joachim MacEbong
The Occupy Nigeria movement didn’t have a leader, and that is also dangerous because if you are moving into something of this magnitude, you must be able to seize the political angle
How did you get involved in Unionism?
It all started where I worked. Everything was okay till one of my bosses was fired, and I thought his pay-off was too small. When I asked why, I was told it was none of my business, but I felt that if they could treat a member of management staff that way, any of us could be next. That was the beginning.
We didn’t have a union in place, so about 30 of us got organised and applied to be a members of PENGASSAN. 25 people changed their minds when management cracked down, and I was considered to be the leader of the 5 who remained. After a bit of intimidation – especially being threatened with sack – they knew we wouldn’t budge, so they decided to let us unionise. We just wanted our terms of employment to be defined, with rules and a structure. I became the branch secretary of that unit, then deputy president of PENGASSAN, president of PENGASSAN, and later president of TUC.
Your rise to prominence seems rather quick, and you are considered to be a progressive on account of your relative youth. Is this responsibility something you accept?
Yes, it is. I’m not the kind of the person who asks: ‘what do I do with power?’ Once responsibility comes, I seize the moment. Most times, it is people that come up to me. I was in the service arm of PENGASSAN, and we started organising ourselves and produced the PENGASSAN president from our arm. Later, they prevailed on me to become Deputy-President of PENGASSAN, and I took up the challenge. Throughout, I got a lot of support especially from the women. They backed me when I was running for TUC President, an election I won by two votes. My biggest constituency has always been women. You always know where they stand.
Is the next step NLC President?
I can’t be NLC president. The TUC is for strictly senior staff. The NLC used to be exclusively blue collar workers, but there is a mixture now.
Over the last several years, people are beginning to wonder what the fruit of these strikes has been. Do you think Labour has done enough?
You can’t take away the fact that labour has played a key role in bringing about the democracy we are enjoying today. PENGASSAN and the NLC were proscribed during Abacha, and the June 12 struggle was spearheaded by Frank Ovie Kokori and Milton Dabibi. I would say that the glass is half full instead of half empty, because you can’t take the movement away from the society. It is influenced by the society and we still have room for improvement. Because there are no opposition parties in the country they now want us to play that role, so sometimes they cannot see the difference between industrial action and other things we do. Those blurred lines lead to misconceptions of what labour is all about. The primary role of labour is to defend and protect the interest of its members. My first obligation is to the people who elected me, and the secondary role is to influence the external factors that may also affect them. That is where the larger society comes in. If our interest and the interests of the larger society align, it is easier for us to go on the streets together. At other times, if our interests don’t align, I go alone. The union goes alone. Life is all about interests.
Where there is a better track record of governance, labour can stick to its primary role. But in Nigeria, where opposition parties are not that different from the party in government, don’t you think that labour should go a little beyond its primary responsibility?
We are already doing that. The president of a labour union is not like the president of Nigeria. We don’t function that way. If I bring up a suggestion to the National Executive Council and they vote against it, I must defend it in public irrespective of what I feel. We are very democratic, so when we move into that space, we don’t forget our training and our discipline. We have tools like Pressure, Protest, Negotiation and Dialogue, and we must find various ways to deploy those tools. In deploying those tools, you have application of interest and sometimes it becomes difficult for people to understand why you do what you are doing.
Give an insight into the negotiations during the strike in January. Do you think labour got the best deal it could get?
We didn’t get the best deal, because we didn’t deploy our tools. Those from civil society who said they didn’t know anything about the strike being called off, knew about it. It was just that when pressure came from the public came, they were not man enough to say ‘we discussed this’, and everyone started talking from both sides of the mouth. We went into the strike action solely as a labour movement, and there was no agreement between labour and civil society about anything. I learnt so much about human nature and how fickle humans are. The mandate I got from the NEC of the TUC said ‘don’t negotiate’, but as things started spinning out of control in a number of states, that position had to be reviewed. First, we asked ourselves: if this government falls, can we replace it? The answer was no. Second, we asked if the protests had a structure, and again the answer was no. Outside the NLC and TUC movement, other protests didn’t have a leader.
The Occupy Nigeria movement didn’t have a leader, and that is also dangerous because if you are moving into something of this magnitude, you must be able to seize the political angle. We studied the history of past protests, and we saw that we may end up repeating the June 12 mistake. I can tell you that if we had deployed our tools we would have been able to get N85 or N80. It is not leadership if we had let things get out of control because we want to play to popular opinion. We also had serious internal schisms that were playing out, which we won’t make public. So the best thing was, like General MacArthur said: ‘we are not withdrawing, we are only fighting in a different direction’. If there was no strike, or no protest, they wouldn’t have reduced to N97. That was a gain in itself, but some people saw the protests as an opportunity to restructure Nigeria.
There were so many things coming out of it. One of the ways to mobilise people is not to change the narrative. No matter how bad you think the government is, you elected it. Wait for 4 years to either renew or sack. Let us go back to June 12: Several protests and strikes were staged to have Abiola’s mandate restored, but it never happened. Abacha then seized the moment. Where are Abiola’s disciples today? Situate Abiola’s case with Aung San Suu Kyi of Burma. I have taken particular interest in her life, because I see her as a torchbearer. She also had an election annulled, but the fact that she remained alive and built up a political structure has paid off for her in the long run. She once said: ‘This struggle has been all about adaptability and flexibility, and we deploy it when we think it is necessary’. That is what we’re doing right now. Labour and civil society must be able to put structures in place that can give us political power, because it is only political power that can bring about systemic change and long-lasting change.
After the protests, you were put in a committee to review the Petroleum Industry Bill (PIB). Has that committee submitted its report?
The draft of that report is almost ready. Right now, we are doing what we call ‘clean up’. Once we are done with the clean up, we will now pass it on to the executive. When that committee was set up, the story was that I was compromised. When I was PENGASSAN president, I was part of the Oil and Gas implementation Committee which was the fore-runner of the PIB, so it was only natural for me to be part of the PIB committee as TUC President as a continuation of that work. If we all decide that we are purists, and we don’t get involved in shaping our destiny, I wonder how we are going to do it. They say that ‘bad things happen when good people keep quiet’.
The PIB will strengthen a lot of things. Government is the problem and we try to take government [of the petroleum industry] out as much as possible.
Another fall-out from the protests was the Farouk Lawan report. As regards the subsidy probe, we have to look at the glass as half full, because now we can say for sure that there is fraud. Before the strike, we had several meetings with lawmakers, in particular with the Speaker of the House. One of those meetings necessitated the House convening on a Sunday. It was unprecedented, but we didn’t put that in the papers. I think that as a movement we are more effective under the radar. After the strike, we did our compilation of all the fraud in the industry and presented it to the House of Representatives, but we did not observe a similar follow-up from civil society. Now, there is documented evidence you can use. If you know you care about the country, we should now think about how to form one mass organisation and mobilise ourselves. Because you are dealing with human beings, it is tough, but it is not impossible.
What are your views about the Oronsaye report?
Our take on it is that if there are areas that need to be trimmed, fine. But we also have to look at the issue of wages and allowances of political office holders, the amount that goes into security votes, and so on. There is a lot of wastage in the system which needs to be addressed. The report should also not be used as a personal vendetta to close down those agencies – like the EFCC and ICPC – that can hold them [government officials] accountable.
Was there any contact between Labour and any representatives of Occupy Nigeria?
No, there was none. The only person I spoke to before the strike was Pastor Bakare. Then you have JAF (Joint Action Forum). I felt disappointed with JAF because they had always been with us. They were in the room when the decision was made to suspend the strike, but when the heat came, they released a statement saying that the NLC/TUC had betrayed them. We felt very sad about that. We also had discussions with the Nigerian Bar Association, and they were fantastic. They gave us all the legal advice and backing we needed. Femi Falana was also part of the decision to suspend the strike. It is not that we cannot work together, but just as we try to understand what the civil society represents, we also expect them to find out what the labour movement represents. There is no labour movement in the world that has shut down a country for 6 days. When labour called off the strike, people started looking for scapegoats, and myself and the NLC President (Abdulwaheed Omar) became of the target of allegations of ‘selling-out’ and ‘betrayal’, but they refused to look at themselves. I keep saying that we need to mobilise enough to get political power and enthrone a government that can satisfy our yearnings and aspirations.
How close did PENGASSAN come to shutting down oil production in this country?
Very very close. They were two hours away from shutting down oil production in Nigeria. After x-raying all the factors, it was decided not to take that action, so as not to play into the hands of anyone who will want to take advantage of the situation.
What is your take on the security challenges facing the country, with Boko Haram in the North and oil bunkering in the Niger Delta?
The government must see our current challenges as an opportunity to beef up our security through data collection, tightening borders, and intelligence gathering. After 9/11, the US tightened its security, they changed the way they operate so that such an attack will never happen again. In our case, we keep repeating the same thing but expect to get different results. It is not just about the leadership, it is about the followership because a society gets the leader it deserves. The aggregate of the consciousness of who we are as a people is manifested in those who lead us. It is difficult for some to accept, but it is the truth. You cannot plant corn and expect to reap wheat.
Thank you for your time, sir.
Thank you. Y!