The 14-Month Old Labour-Government ‘Discos’ And ‘Gyrations’ Over ‘Unbundled’ NEPA/PHCN

By Jim Pressman, Freelance Gender Reporter (with Agency report)

Finance Minister Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala and Labour Minister Barrister Emeka Wogu have been re-drafted alongside other topnotchers of the President Jonathan administration, in the wake of the added NUPENG oil to the labour fire raging in the land.

Fourteen months down the road, Nigerians are still waiting for Power to see and sleep in comfort at night, to work in the day time and to do business in all manner of enterprise. The negotiations had hit a dead end over severance packages for and the security of the jobs and future of workers whose present level of skilled competence may not qualify them to be retained by the new investors in the 17 out of 18 new corporate entities who will hold majority equity shares.

However, government may just have found the best Disco Jockey and Gyration Slammer of Labour Tangos in the land, to now head the deadlocked negotiations. Dr. Timiebi Koripamo Agary, mother, technocrat, retired (but not tired!) Permanent Secretary in places such as Science and Technology, Labour  and former Director-General of National Centre for Women Development founded by late Mrs. Maryam Babangida. Agary is perhaps the most loved government official by the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) and Trade Union Congress (TUC) who nicknamed her Mama Labour. Most often, she was the saving grace for vocal and rambunctious former Labour Minister, Hassan Lawal. She is an empowered woman; emancipated but respectful like an African woman is cultured and nurtured to be, liberated ….

Welcome the new leader of the Federal Government Negotiation Team. Good news?

Well, read this and be the judge. She was joined on national radio Saturday August 18, 2012 alongside a certain Lagos –based lawyer, Oscar Onwudiwe, who says he has never been in government, to try to get Nigerians to understand the issues at stake and why Nigerians are still Waiting for Godot, in this case electric power, remember Samuel Beckett?While wishing Agary the best of luck in this latest tango of a national assignment (remember her Media brokerage for the Post-Amnesty Committee?), given that as she says, these are ‘no negotiations of rights,’ here is what one came away with from the caller-participation radio talk show:

The Genesis:

When the Federal Government decided to ‘unbundle’ (break into more manageable and more efficient entities) and to privatize by allowing players in the Organized Private Sector (OPS) with track records of good performance to buy majority shares into 17 of the 18 new firms, while government provides an enabling and level-field regulatory environment, through the Electricity Regulatory Agency headed by Dr. Sam Amadi, widely respected technocrat.

All this, as a way out of the perennial failure of the old NEPA/PHCN to deliver the badly required service of power generation and distribution to Nigerians, the problem arose as to what should become of the about 50, 000 (fifty thousand) Federal Government’s labour force in the sector, although about 11, 000 of these have since been regularized. These, if their skills qualify them to be moved into the new, privatized entities, can earn better pay and buy out of the 10 per cent of the minority share-holding of the Federal Government and earn dividends are co-owners.

Government says the situation arises because as Dr. Agary explains, government in the face of dwindling resources being tugged at by increasing demands from a fast-growing population of citizens who are well-known to be hard-working and naturally astute business men and women, must follow the new global trend of less government and bigger business.

You then wonder why the Power workers’ Union leadership remains adamant about pushing for a continuation of the old régime, or that they will accept the change only if they retain their jobs, continue the now outdated and therefore illegal pension/retirement benefits calculated on the Superannuation Fund which their employers and Management Board (including Labour leaders) grossly underfunded. Another bone of contention in the negotiations was the one which cropped up in 2010, when the workers first opposed privatization. Their arrears from the Obasanjo regime’s ‘monetization’ policy were hanging since 2003.

Recognizing the justification in demanding rectification of the 10-years stagnation, Agary says “this government raised N57billion outside PHCN funds to pay up those arrears. This government is not a lawless government. There are local content provisions in our Labour laws and we will not stand by and watch any investors maltreat Nigerian citizens.Our skilled workers will still be used by the investors who take over the DISCOs and GISCOs of the power sector” even as she recognizes the rights of those private investors to choose who they hire and fire, in the best interest of their business.

Blunter, because he says he has never been in government, has no sympathies for either party in the dispute, and can swear to a deposited affidavit containing his expressed opinions on the radio talk show, Oscar Onwudiwe says he is always friendly with electric power workers because he pays his bills and would call them up to his light whenever there is problem, because as government agents they cannot be sued. He would however sue any investors should they fail to provide him with services for which he has paid. He therefore does not see why the Labour leaders continue to blackmail Nigerians and government simply because they know Nigerians are emotional. He reminds the citizens that we cannot desire light the way we do omelettes and not want to and not want to break any eggs!

Onwudiwe, to assure Nigerians that with effective regulation privatization through involvement of business firms will work better for Nigeria, had actually early in the day recalled the case of Great Britain, which colonized Nigeria, but had a private American Electric Company running its power from 1946 until 1996 when the country took back the sector! He therefore wondered why the hue and cry.

His recommendation is that we chuck emotions out of the negotiations and our attitudes, and seek efficiency to make things work for us in every sphere of our national life. Agary says nobody could really provide the kind of assurances the Labour leaders are asking for, beyond her sure knowledge that “when we get there, those who are good enough will be retained.” To this, Onwudiwe recalls the example of NITEL which had just about 10, 000 workers, whereas today after privatization, over 500, 000 people are more gainfully employed in the sector.

The more sympathetic Mama Labour says, “Peopleare afraid of change, but government has accepted past failure, and that old ways must change. Government is therefore inviting people with the right competences, adequate funding and effective technology, to right the wrongs of the past.” To cynics many of who called in later, to say they have heard this many times before, Agary said, “I am familiar with government in the past. This one is totally new, with a different approach. It therefore needs the patience and understanding of Nigerians to achieve set goals.” To illustrate the difference in this new administration’s approach she recalled how some hitherto ‘untouchable’ powerful persons who wanted the bids for the power sector privatization had come later than the 5p.m. deadline, expecting as usual to still get considered. They were turned away, and the heavens have not come tumbling down.

Here are signs to suggest that in future we could stem the nepotism (Onwudiwe’s word) and “as man knows man” (Agary’s Nigerian expression) which gave people jobs because of some sectional, personal or ethno-religious affiliations, rather than qualifications or competences, and the wrong notion of the ancien régime Nigeria. This would seem to be one of the reasons for workers’ complacency in government jobs, where there is so much security that whether you work or not, the pay is assured every thirty days! But it appears now that even political appointees such as ministers and special advisers, henceforth, will have to justify their pay and use of government funds, time and facilities!

So, what is in stock for the power sector workers in the new era? Agary says there are in place for them first, a severance allowance, for those who must go, and secondly a training and re-training scheme for those who are still good to go on. In which case, she argues, they would then move on to new jobs on better pay which will motivate them to work harder for more profitable because efficient companies, as are today the cases of Eleme Petrochemicals and the Telecommunications sector. Nigerians are willing to pay more for better services.

What is holding these back, as we all wait for steady, affordable and sustainable power supplyfor the country is the deadlock negoce which is full of recriminations and mudslinging between Labour leaders, PHCN Management and government.

As at June 20, 2004 when PHCN workers missed their chance of joining other Nigerians on the Federal Public Service Train to hook on to PENCOM, their old régime pension/retirement scheme tagged the Superannuation Fund, “was in deficit by as much as N80 billion,” Agary explains.

To make matters worse, she adds, someone somewhere spread the wrong information to workers that as much as 25 per cent was being deducted from they pay for the old scheme, rather than the 7.5 per cent Agary says was actually deducted. Management of  PHCN was also complicit, says Agary, as they managed to carry on retiring staff on the old superannuation package, until June 30 – July 31 2012, since not too many people retire at any given moment, thus carrying on the illusion for reasons best known to them. Agary makes the distinction between the Superannuation Fund and the Contributory Pension Fund resulting from the passage of the extant Pension Act, enjoyed by other compliant civil servants.

Despite the discontinuation of deduction of the 7.5 per cent from salaries of the power sector workers since July 1, 2004 to-date, government according to Agary has agreed to pay 15 per cent to power sector workers, which means in effect they will be paid 22.5 per cent.

The Nigerian Labour leadership, as well as PHCN, Agary reminds us have always been represented on the Board of the Pension Commission, PENCOM. Which is why Onwudiwe the Lagos lawyer-businessman says the Labour position and fears are baseless. He thinks there is an excessive emphasis on staff, to the detriment of other factors including the millions of other Nigerians who all badly need power, and the thousands of other qualified Nigerians youth who need jobs.

Yet Agary, always more cautious, says no, not completely baseless, at least not the fears but she reminds Nigerian workers of the local content components of Labour laws in the land, reiterating her position that they will be protected by law, such that 95 per cent of the (technical) work force of the new investors with majority shares will still be skilled Nigerians, even as she recognizes and respects the rights of the private owners to choose who they hire and fire.

Does privatization then always equate with laying off of workers in Nigeria? Agary’s answer is a yes-and-no (our interpretation!) given the fact that certain deadwoods must go and take a consolation in their severance package, while those still capable of learning can retrain and move onto new jobs, while the still current and competent have smooth transition to better-paid jobs and buy into the 10 per cent of the minority shares of the Federal Government in those companies.

The more combative Onwudiwe is convinced rather that the workers, goaded on by a Leadership he accuses of impunity and blackmail based on the known sentimentality of the citizenry who should insist on better service for all, insists that Power workers had been alleged to have once raised N50billion “to fight the privatization and lay-off of their members!” Weighty allegations indeed but Onwudiwe says he can depose an affidavit to a written version of all he said on national radio. No Labour leader as at the time of this report has said anything to the contrary…So is there indeed a Cabal somewhere behind all this?

VOX POP: What the people said!

One Ade Aremu called in from Lagos to remind the workers of a Yoruba saying: “Ipa np’ara e o l’oun p’ aja” – the worm is killing itself believing he is killing the dog. He added that indiscipline remains the bane of processes and systems at all levels in Nigeria and that monitoring should be improved upon by government agencies. His parting shot: Labour has failed Nigeria!

Barrister Onwudiwe: Labour flouts the law with impunity, blackmailing government because of the old mind–set that government is ‘them’ versus ‘us.’

Dr. Agary: July 2004 to August 2012! “It is time to move on to IPPIS.

Caller Adebayo: “Enough is enough! Labour should take what government is offering them in magnanimity and go and pray for God’s forgiveness; and no more holding of Nigerians to ransome.”

Caller, graduate of University of Benin: Let the government privatize and give us jobs!

Ibe, from Calabar: “Let’s clear the weed, so the crop can grow!”