Trade Union Congress (TUC), President General, Mr. Peter Esele, has left no one in doubt that the he knows his onions. He has continued to change the face of collective bargaining through robust and well-informed arguments on national issues without compromising the welfare of workers.
In this interview with DELE FANIMO and ADEWALE SANYAOLU, he ex-rays the state of the economy, power sector and the one-year in office of the current administration.
YAR'ADUA promised massive job, constant power supply via a declaration of emergency in the power sector. One year down the line, what is your assessment of his administration?
One year down the road for the current administration has been more of urge purge, more of motion without movement but still credit goes to the administration in the area of rule of law and arbitrariness of the previous eight years, which there are some changes.
But after that, what next? In the area of power generation, which the President said he is going to declare an emergency nothing has been done in that respect.
For creation of jobs, how many jobs have been created since this government came to power?
In Europe, or America they know the amount of job that he has been created. And they also know the number of people that get employed every month, because they have statistics for that.
But in this part of the world, nothing like that. So, if you ask me, I will say this government has not really given us the clear-cut agenda. That one will be able to say this is what I will hold them for.
What is your assessment of the real sector of the economy? Has it really improved or the sector is going down the line, almost to extinction level?
If you are asking me about the real sector, I will say how can the real sector improve or grow when there is no power. So, if you ask me, I will say the real sector is going into extinction. They are barely surviving. And those that are still in operation live on generator.
And when you notice what is going on now, by getting power for an hour or two some of them virtually run their generators for 24 hours in a day.
So, I think they are worse-off now.
That means jobs will be lost and people will be dislocated. What is the labour movement doing, to at least mitigate some of these serious issues?
It is not that jobs will be lost. Jobs are being lost. Because we have real serious problems that this government should address. We have the problems in the Niger Delta. Companies are leaving that region, and people are losing their jobs. And these are creating more problems in the society. Now, if we are labour have the capacity to generate power, probably we would have done that.
We pay our taxes, and we expect government to provide all this infrastructures, because that is what we have government for. For government to put resources together and then solve the problem that will serve as a catalyst for the development of the society, and the country.
You and I will agree that infrastructurally, we are not there. And that is why sometimes I laugh when we talk about this Vision 2020. Because if you talk about 2020, you are looking at the 20th biggest economy in the world, and I think that is Belgium.
So, if you at where we are and where Belgium is, it's a long way off. But then for us to even get there, the infrastructure to get there is not even on the ground.
Besides, you can't even lay your hands for the plans to take us there.
Though we can say the banks via banks' consolidation are there, yes. But after that, what next, where is power, rail and road. So this decay in getting too much.
Now, we will say Yar'Adua is one year old fine. But I am looking at it from the chain that we have been under the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) government nine years. And I am looking at it from a composite perspective. That we have been under PDP government for nine years. And nine years is enough to at least address some of these problems like power.
Nine years is enough for government to ensure that we have adequate supply of power. For rail, nine years is enough for government to build it to ensure the cheap movement of good on our roads.
These are a lot of challenges that we face as leader and which is affecting the Nigerian workers.
What we try to say is that we are a pressure group. We try to bring it to the attention of government. And there are several ways we do this. Either by picket or strike. The last time, we had to go on strike over the sale of some refineries, which we feel we lead to job losses. And also, areas that were not cleared by government privatisation and the issue of due process. These are the things that we can also do.
But we have not rested on our oars to ensure that Aluta continue which is, we will continue to talk about things that are affecting Nigerian workers. Because, if things are not good for Nigerian workers, things cannot be good for Nigerians.
So that is the only way we can agitate for the people. Because we cannot carry guns or any other armed weapon to break the law. But what we can do is that, we must at all times bring this to the attention of those who are in power. And also to make Nigerians to be aware that this is how far we have gone and this is the stage we are.
Yar'Adua said recently that he is going to create 10 million jobs by 2011. But from what is on ground, do you think that is visible?
Yes I heard it. But if you want to create 10 million jobs, I think even in the most advanced countries of the world they can't create 10 million jobs in three years.
Well, he is the President may be there are some things he wants to do that we are not seeing. But my worry is that, if you say you want to create 10 million jobs, you should be able to tell the people how you intend to create it. In which aspect of the economy does he intends to create it and work on to create that job? Because the aspect of the economy that that can create a 100,000 or 200,000 jobs now in one year is the textile industry. And the textile industry is as good as being in a state of comma at the moment. Though everything is been done now to see if they can be brought back to life. But at the moment, it is as good as dead.
However, even if they are trying to bring them back to life that cannot happen within a year.
So, now if you look at the Oil and Gas, the sector is a specialised area. So, how is government going to create jobs in that sector?
Now, if government says 10 million jobs in 2011, and we are in 2008, that means we have three more years. Which means on the average, government wants to create 3.5 or 3.3 million jobs in a year.
If the President can do that, we all will be very happy. But if you ask me what is on ground towards achieving that, I am scared and worried. Because there is really nothing on ground for that to be achieved.
The first thing that can help you, if you say you want to create job is power. Because you need power for the formal and informal sector of the economy. And you know we have a large pool of people in the informal sector - artisans, small-scale industrialists and so on.
So, how do you encourage them? But if we have power today and the President says by the end of the year the country will generate up to 10,000 to 15,000 megawatts, fine.
This now gives you room to say, okay, if they cannot achieve the 10 million jobs, probably they can achieve a million. But this is a tall order. Though I wish him well. But I just feel probably there is a way he can do it.
Elsewhere where governments make such policy statement or pronouncement, governments let you know which area of the economy they are going to put interest and attention to generate those jobs.
I read the statement and speech. But I could not lay my hands on which aspect of the economy that is going to receive that kind of attention to create such jobs.
In the next few days, the one-year oil price freeze will lapse. But when you were negotiating, it was about $82 per barrel. Today the price is about $130 per barrel. What are Nigerians going to expect?
First, let us commend all Nigerians for their understanding in the last one-year. And also commend the government as well for sticking to the terms of agreement. We have lived through government that don't live by agreement. When they tell you one thing, they do something else. And also, one reason why we took the one-year option was that we say it as a way of creating stability. As at the time we made that agreement the price of crude was between $60 and $70 per barrel. Now the price is around $135 per barrel as at today (Thursday) last week. The issue. What are the options available to us? We are currently having informal discussions with authorities. I have had one with the Energy minister, where we are looking at things from holistic perspective. To say, where are we going to go from here?
But at the moment, there has been no agreement to the issue currently. However, we are still doing an exploratory discussion on how best to address this issue.
And we had already spoken to government to look at the issues on ground and keep it the way it is.
If government is however, thinking of increasing, we need to also sit down and say increase by what. And what are the benefits for the Nigerian people?
Secondly, we don't want a situation whereby previous government telling us that they want to increase. And subsequently telling us that they want to reduce subsidy, provide more infrastructure. But you and I know that nothing was ever done. Instead they created more hardship.
If you ask me, I will prefer that whatever we do or are going to do with government should be based on the law. If there have to be a bill, we will have a bill to tell that if an amount is coming in into the country that is been generated. That is what it is going to be used for. If there is going to be a board, it has to cut across, both labour and government and see how to tie the whole thing in.
Because if we are able to do that, it will be good. Why are people so particular about been against the increase in price of petroleum products? The reason is just because people have not seen an improvement in their life. If you are telling me to tighten my belt and you are loosening yours, so how do you now expect me to trust you?
So, these are the fundamental issues that are making labour and Nigerians so aggrieved and upset when government comes up with anything that has to do with prices of petroleum products.
At the moment, I will say we are still talking. But I don't expect government to go ahead and increase the prices of petroleum products without having discussions with labour.
When you have an agreement and the agreement laps courtesy demands that you go back to the people and then talk about it.
Lets look at the level of human capacity development in the country. In your own assessment, can the present state of education and skill acquisition take us to achieving the Millennium Development Goal (MDGs)?
I keep hearing about the idea of condemning everything that has to do with our educational system. There are problems. I agree to that. And there is very big room for improvement. This does not mean that you throw the baby with the bathwater away. Let us look at areas where we feel we are lacking and concentrate on those areas and see how we can improve on it.
But when I hear people in government making a sweeping condemnation of our educational system is not fair.
You still get people who are out of this system and are still excelling in what they do. But what they don't know is that when you hear a minister or people in government condemning our educational system, it shows that they too are responsible for it.
It was not like this before. So, what I expect us to do, is to do an overhaul, a kind of audit on the educational system of our country and try to find out what is lacking.
Then, what do we need to do to address this concern? And in our growth, in the next 20 or 30 years, what aspect of our national life or educational aspects are we lacking that we think we should pull all our resources on to ensure that we develop it?
Science and Technology, how are we handling it? Same for IT. How are we able to ensure that Nigerians improve in that aspect of capacity building? But again, if you are talking about capacity building. You must also look at your standard of living. To improve the people, you must ensure that they have sound education. But this days, what we have is that most people now go to private schools.
So, attention is no longer paid to public schools because nobody goes there anymore. The children of the poor are the only ones you find in public schools. But instead of government to ensure that the gap between the public and private are bridged, that is not done.
Formerly, nobody goes to private schools but all goes to public school. That shows there is a decay. But I will not want to make a sweeping condemnation of our educational system. I will say there is a huge room for improvement, if we want to compete, because this is the era of globalisation.
For us to be able to compete and develop our country, then we need to carry out an overhaul in our education system and improve on it.
But the welfare of our teachers, because it is not only about making chairs and tables and you put it there. The lecturers, teachers in university, polytechnic, primary and secondary should be well motivated through up to date training and adequate remuneration, in that way they can impart knowledge; but not when you don't take care of them.
The first law of life is survival, the lecturers, teachers need to survive and in the process of struggling for survival, they might want to do anything to survive.
And all these are responsible for them wanting to take their skills abroad. Formerly, non of our lecturers want to go out. Rather they want to stay in the country. But the situation is different now.
But, if we don't do all these, in 20 to 30 years time, we are going to have a very serious social uprising in our country. Because the gap between the rich and poor is widening everyday.
So, if the government does not correct this imbalance, there will be problem because it is also for our own security and that of the country. So, that the situation does not degenerate to what is currently happening in South Africa at the moment, where people are ready to kill for the sake of joblessness and homelessness.