Comrade Peter Esele was the President of the Trade Union Congress of Nigeria (TUC) for six years and a one time member of the Task Force on the Petroleum Industry Bill (PIB). He had also served as a member of the Presidential Committee on post-election violence after the 2011 elections. He is currently serving on the board of Subsidy Reinvestment programme of the Federal Government (SURE-P) and a member of the National Conference declared closed yesterday.
In this interview with JULIANA TAIWO-OBALONYE in Abuja, he expressed full support for troops deployment during elections, stressing that it “is better to over-police than to under-police”, in order to avoid a repeat of the killings and destructions that characterize the 2011 elections. He spoke on the gains of SURE-P and cleared the air on allegations that he rushes to serve in government committees for personal gains. Esele also spoke on the benefits of the just concluded National Conference called for the implementation of its recommendations. Excerpts:
The National Conference has just been concluded, has it accomplished what it was set out to do?
As I always say, I will rather see the glass as half full than half empty. It is going to be something that people can look up to but if you ask me if we achieved what we are desirous of, I will not say totally yes. In the sense that there are critical areas, critical issues that I feel that we could not really negotiate on. One thing I have found out about our country and which has been a learning curve for all the years I have been President of PENGASSAN and TUC, I have been able to travel around the country. If you look at the country, you will find out that the people that are a lot older are very fixated in their thinking and in their ways. And they find it difficult to want to let go of certain things and whether we like it or not, they are also powerful influencers in their communities, and that is a very big challenge.
When I look at the country, I don’t think that there is any part of the country that is very poor, if you look at derivation of powers, the issue of state police, the issue of local government autonomy and all that even if we go ahead to have the best laws we need to have people to enforce, implement and respect the laws. One danger we actually face is that when you look at the temperament of the Nigerian elite, he does not give you the feeling that he is supposed to respect the law. He feels that he is a big fish and so as a result, anything can happen. I will give you an example of the day we were inaugurated, when everyone had to queue up to enter the hall. Right there, these were the creme-de-la-creme of the society and majority did not want to queue up. And when I saw some respected people in their 80s queuing up and some others were going through the back door, I had to draw attention to some of these things.
Yes, we want to make laws but I think most times our problem is attitudinal. Even the constitution we have right now is a wonderful document but how have we been able to respect it? How have we been able to show example to that 10-year-old, 15-year-old who will be our future that this is the way to live life? That for me is a major problem that we are facing. If you look at our constitution compared to that of China, America, you will be shocked at how bulky ours is, even the British, theirs is unwritten. But again, it would be good if we are able to negotiate this road. Because I don’t believe in calling people statesmen, what we have sincerely is that we have more politicians than statesmen. Because a politician is after the next election while a statesman is after the future of the country, where the country will be 100 years from now, that has been our biggest problem.
I will give you an example, I am in the conference not as a Federal Government nominee but a nominee of the TUC as an ex-officio, and we are 12 representing the TUC, meaning I don’t have business with the federal side of the coin. Now as a labour movement, what are we coming to the floor with? The President of the TUC is the leader of the delegation, he talks for everybody, makes the presentation on that. So, what did labour come to the floor with? We said ok let’s talk about the fact that, we need to have a common pool and develop the natural resources in the North, put a gap and say for instance for the next 10 years, (I was a member of NEITI so I have an idea of the mineral resources that are domiciled in the North), we will use this 10-year circle and focus on aggressive development. We will look at bitumen, limestones and several other natural resources domiciled in the North and look at how these mineral resources will serve as catalyst for economic growth in that part of the country. And when you do that, as my professor in Oxford University will say, it will bring about mutual gains.
The South-South, for instance, has its worries that after 100 years this crude oil will be gone, it’s not going to be up to 100 years because what you have to realise is that our population is increasing, and then they are left with very damaged environment, nothing to tell the story. And the North feels right now that they are being isolated, nothing to fall back on. So, they feel if we give you the whole 50 per cent, then we are in trouble. So, how do you now strike the balance of addressing the worries of the South-South and also addressing the concerns of the North? So, in addressing that you have to come to a point where every side knows that there is something for them to benefit . For both sides to benefit, it will be easier to negotiate. Actually, we don’t negotiate in Nigeria, what we do is that when we hit a brickwall, we just say okay so that you will not be angry just take this. Just like what we did with two-third, initially it was 75 per cent, then they set up a committee of 50 people and they came up to say, okay you will not get 75 per cent, you will not get two third, let’s settle for 70 per cent. But there are better ways of addressing all of that. If we now go ahead and say these are the concerns of the North, these are the worries of the South-South, if we are able to build the economy of the North in such a way that they now see that all their mineral resources are being developed, there is no way there would not be gas deposits in the North, it is a matter of time for them to find out about that, there is no way in that 10 years circle that the labour movement is talking about, when we talk about derivation, it is the North that will now come and say do it this way.
But the downside to all of these things we are doing is that there is a Nigeria but we have few Nigerians. And it is sad. There is a Nigeria but where are the Nigerians? Because when I know I am a Nigerian and you are a Nigerian, why will I want to hurt you? And the mindset of our politicians and the elite is as if Nigeria will only be around in the next 10 years. So, you see that reflects in the way we do things. If I know that this country is going to be around for the next 1000 years, why would I want to grab everything for myself? That is the mindset that now goes to everything that we do, that you hear us say, this is my turn. The only way people think that this is my turn is that they believe that this thing can pack up tomorrow. Oh it’s my turn, let me pack what I can today and I don’t care what happens tomorrow. Until we also change that mindset, and say this country is going to be around for the next 1000 years, let’s be fair to everybody. Because what people don’t know is that today, there is the objective and subjective sides, you may not see the subjective side but it will happen.
The bottom line to what I am saying is that the national conference, irrespective of what it’s going to deliver, really does not have the power to enforce, really has no power to implement its recommendations. So, at the end of the day if the state actors don’t act, don’t implement, don’t enforce, it’s not the duty of those at the national conference to do that. We have played our role and it is better we jaw jaw than war war. So, at the end of the day if they don’t enforce, we are also building a library for the future generation.
You made mention of critical areas that the national conference might not have addressed, what are these areas and what would be your advice?
I think one of the areas that we looked at, we have a middle of the road approach now on the economy, there is disagreement on derivation but I’m sticking to labour’s position on that as the representative of labour. NLC and TUC have 24 members on the committee and labour’s position is that, why don’t we look at derivation of 50-50, 50 of whatever you are producing, 50 to the centre in future but after ensuring that there is mutual gains, the concerns of the North are addressed so that we have this sense of one nation, one Nigeria and one destiny.
What about the issue of creation of states, do we really need additional 18 states at this time?
Of course, when you are in a place, majority carries the day but I’m in the minority side of it and I don’t subscribe to that but it’s a resolution of the national conference. But as a person I don’t think that we need that at this time. Even if you look at the way it was debated and the ideas behind canvassing for creation of states, some people feel that a particular ethnic group in a particular state are always producing the governor, so if you split the state then others will have the opportunity. Second, some feel that is the only way you can bring development but we don’t have the resources for additional states for now. But the bottom line again, this is as a result of institutional failure. Those canvassing for creation of states are also not totally wrong, but they are thinking within the prevailing circumstances. But what we need to do is to think outside the box and look at the country in the future, when you know that this country is on a journey.
Let me give you an example, where we borrowed this democracy from, there are primary health centres owned by the local government, an improvement of that is owned by the state government and then the biggest of them all is owned by the Federal Government which is capital intensive, researches are being carried out, some serious surgical operations are being carried out. I was privileged to be in Boston, USA and when I saw a particular hospital that I went to and I was told it’s owned by the local council, I was in shock. So, if all our institutions are working well, nobody will be thinking of creating states so that my people will be governor, creating states so that it will bring development. When we had this argument on the floor of the house, somebody made reference to his state that but for the state creation there would have been no development at all and he was right. It’s not the best solution to things like that, the best solution is for us to make our institutions work, once our institution works, it does not need a Peter Esele or a Goodluck Jonathan or an Adams Oshiomhole for it to work. It just moves on but when everything is tied to a personality, then we will have problem and that is one of the major problems that we have in this country, everything is tied to personality. Even when you have the best suggestions people will always tie it to the fact that you want to attack me or you are insulting my person.
Did you have a personal grudge against former Ebonyi State governor Sam Egwu because your outburst at the national conference suggested that?
You know you can say anything and you don’t expect everyone to support you. One of your respected columnists in The Sun whose column is a must read for me also made reference to that. The message I was trying to pass was very clear, when we all hold offices what did we do when we were there to change things. When we do what is right then we will all face the consequence of it. When he was the governor of Ebonyi State, of course I got report from workers and when he was minister of education, there was a strike for a long period of time and he celebrated his wedding anniversary elaborately and in the attitude of wanting to say my time was better than the now, said things that didn’t go down well with me. I was not shouted down, what they were simply saying was ride on.
Some of your colleagues believe the recommendations will restructure Nigeria, what are the key recommendations and how will they restructure the nation?
Some people were looking at regionalisation and I can tell you that won’t fly. Those who say what they are bringing will restructure Nigeria because what we have now is a draft which we are all going to read and compare with what the resolutions were and all that, before it becomes a document of a national conference acceptable to everybody. One thing we have to look at it is that, I am very real about where our rights and privileges end, no matter what we recommend, no matter how beautiful it is, we are not backed by any law to enforce it. The national conference is not a law on its own, the national conference was set up by the President using his executive powers. For anything to become law, be in our constitution, it has to go to the National Assembly and has to have the backing of two thirds of the federation which is the states. So, if you can’t have that there is really nothing we can do. And that is what I have been telling some of my colleagues, I try to say it the way it is, let’s be very frank with ourselves. I know our rights and privileges, we are not the National Assembly, we are not elected by the people. The President chose some, the labour movement chose theirs, the civil society chose theirs, states chose theirs. So, at the end of the day if we come up with a very beautiful document, no matter how beautiful it is, it has to go to the National Assembly.
But many feel that it should go through referendum?
Even if it’s going to go to referendum, we do not have referendum in our constitution. So, for you to put referendum in our constitution, the National Assembly and the two thirds of our federation which is the states must also agree. So, I try as much as possible not to get too emotional and then no matter how beautiful the document is, if it’s not implemented, you start feeling aggrieved.
Those in favour of referendum do not want the huge resources pumped into hosting the conference to waste. What do you suggest?
The only thing I can suggest is for the National Assembly to do its job. There is nothing we can do because for me to have a document that says we the people, it must go to the National Assembly. It is a wonderful document but then you know it was not debated. Yes, we may have discussed but it has to be debated in National Assembly and the various state houses of assembly. It is their constitutional role to play, they are obligated to play that role, so we must give that to them.
But you will agree that the National Assembly is made up of politicians, so what role can Nigerians play to ensure they look at this document dispassionately and adopt it knowing that it is for the benefit of Nigerians and those yet unborn?
One of the roles Nigerians can play is first to clamour for this document to be made public. It is not yet a public document, so that every Nigerian can see its benefits. If you see your benefits, then it becomes easier for you to go to your representative in the National Assembly and in the various state houses of assembly and say go ahead and pass this thing. What this invariably means is that one; make it public, two; create awareness around it and three; that we all now form pressure groups to make sure that it is passed.
Take for example the NLC and the TUC, the first area of their concentration was the area that affects the workers which of course is about interest as we have talked about earlier, the constitution must also be about interest, various interests agreeing that this is now the book we are going to be led by. As a Christian, you are ready to be led by the Bible, a Muslim you are ready to be led by the Quran, so it is for all us to agree that this is the document that we will be led by. So, when everyone of us now sees our interest being protected in it, it now makes it easier to go ahead and push to the various organs of the state that are responsible in making this draft constitution into a constitution that governs everybody.
There was the allegation of smuggled items into the document. What is your reaction?
If no item was deliberated and accepted at the plenary, it can’t be part of our draft recommendations. So, it’s dead on arrival.
If what was added was not discussed; it can’t fly. Without sentiments, do we really have powers to amend the constitution? The power resides in the National Assembly. No matter how good what is on paper is, it is a proposal. That we have come this far with all the mutual suspicion and distrust is a miracle.
But one thing I have learnt from all my years of being in labour movement, is that once there is a camera rolling, what people say is different from when there is no camera. I just laugh when I hear certain things because when the camera is rolling people will threaten fire and brimstone but when it stops rolling, you’ll be shocked at the different person you are meeting. So most times there is a lot of grandstanding going on. We will go through it, we have hazards of all the discussions, the various resolutions that were agreed and voted on, if there are areas we feel things are smuggled in, we can discuss it. Because sometimes when we also make some comments, we forget that they are a lot of people in international community listening to what we are saying. If we keep running down our country, if some of the things we say, there are no basis for them, we will regret it. I have seen several of these comments where somebody said this and that in the media and when we all sat down at the end of the day and go through it we find out it is not there. If it is there, there are also checks and balances to get rid of it.
One thing I always tell people is that I don’t expect a hundred per cent backing in whatever I’m doing, no! One other thing we are afraid of is somebody criticising us, and criticism can make us better. If somebody says what you are doing is not being done well, sit down and look at how different you can do it that it can be better. So, whatever misgivings, grievances about whether something is being smuggled in or not, the chairman, the vice chairman and the secretary, I believe they have done a fantastic job in making sure that this conference was held together, I am also confident that the leadership of the conference will take it to its logical conclusion.
It is alleged you were not regular at the confab, is that true? If so, what happened?
I think one thing I don’t know how to do is to repeat the point somebody else has already raised when an issue was being discussed because I don’t see the need to over-flog the issue. It’s not a matter of coming and seeing who talks more, who did not. The committee work was for how long? And I was always at their meeting, for me that is the nitty gritty of the whole thing, the essense of being at the national conference. I was on the social committee, I was also away to Oxford University and I wrote a letter to the leadership of the National Conference and to the TUC who nominated me, that I was not going to be available for this reason. Before I was even nominated, I made it known to the TUC President, my boss who nominated me about my planned programme that I can’t back out. But as I said before people will always say what they want to say, and the negative things being said just show people are also interested in you.
Another allegation is that you are always in committees set up by government to tackle one issue or the other, like SURE-P, the post-election violence committee etc and as such not giving others in your union a chance. Why?
One thing you have to know is that I have never pushed to be in any committee in my life. For example, you are interviewing me now, did I invite you to do so, didn’t you seek me out for the interview? What you cannot take away is that if people notice that you have something they are looking for with all sense of humility, or you will add value, they will naturally come to you. I have just told you now that I was nominated for the national conference by the TUC, I was among the 12 nominated. Not until the names were released, the union president told me just like he told 10 others plus himself making it 12. I was driving from my village when he called me that he has submitted names and I was one of them. I also informed him about all my programmes that I have and that is that.
For post-election violence committee, the TUC was one of those that monitored elections in 2011, we were supported by some foreign organisations who funded what we were doing but we didn’t tell anybody that. Actually, I was assaulted while monitoring the elections in Rivers State, in the home town of the governor of Rivers State, but nobody talks about it. If you don’t have anything to offer, there is no way anybody will be coming to ask you to be part of any committee. Take for instance the Petroleum Industry Bill, after the fuel subsidy protest, I was also driving to the airport when the Minister of Petroleum called me and asked that I be part of the Task Force for the PIB, and then heat was also generated this way. Unfortunately, they are people who don’t read beyond the headlines, they don’t go for the substance. They forget that I was also the PENGASSAN President, and it was in my time that we have OGIC – Oil and Gas Implementation Committee. I was nominated and I served in the committee, so all the OGIC documents I have, and I have been in the vanguard of talking about PIB like forever. I’m telling you that for the three months that we sat, I never got seating allowances. They were never responsible for my travel tickets and allowances, that was paid by the TUC. But then when things like this come up it just shows that those raising them are also interested in me. I’m not looking at it from the negative angle, there is a positive side to this. You will have some detractors but I will be worried if I have more distractors than those who think I have a lot to deliver. Not too long ago I ran into one professor who taught Pastor Tunde Bakare in the university, and he was telling me how he saw me on TV talking one day and he was saying, who the hell is this guy that has a grip on issues and his son turned and said, dad don’t talk about him that way, because is an alumnus of University of Pennsylvania (UPenn). I try as much as possible to improve and build my capacity. As I was telling somebody that the current CBN governor and I were coursemates at Warton Business College, we took the same programme when he was Deputy Managing Director of Zenith Bank before he became the Managing Director.
So, I have tried over the years to build capacity in anything I’m doing, I’m at the National Conference now, I still excused myself because I have a programme at Oxford University. If people are asking me to come it’s because of the capacity I have built over the years, but the bottom line I want to tell you is that for those who know me over the years, I’m not the kind of person that will go and ask anybody to give me anything. I’m living my father’s philosophy of “build it, they will come. Try to be the best you can be and you can never be hidden”.
Let’s talk about another national assignment you’re involved, SURE-P, what is the current report card?
You know when you have a dream, there is nobody that will interprete your dream more than you. I know what it was like when we matched on the streets during fuel subsidy crisis. If there is one problem we have in this part of the world, it is that we have this way of not doing what I call follow through. I’m trained to do a follow through. When I was growing up, one of the responsibilities I had in my place of work was HSE – Health Safety and Environment. I try to think where are the problems likely to come through, prevention mechanism and follow through to ensure whatever measure is taken is implemented. Out of all of us that matched on that streets I think I’m the only one that goes to SURE-P and ask questions, for me that is follow through. Mind you I’m not the only one from labour movement that is in SURE-P. I’m out to ensure that the benefits of why we marched on the streets in the first place are realised. People may say SURE-P is not effective but I say probably it’s not effective as you will want it to be, from your perception.