*Says deregulation is the greatest threat to amnesty
*Reveals how to get the refineries working

With professorial confidence, Isa Aremu, vice president, Nigeria Labour Congress, NLC, fielded questions from Sunday Vanguard at his Textile Labour House office on ACME road, Lagos.  It was the day we have come to describe as black Wednesday in Lagos when a seven-hour downpour sacked the State – the rains rendered virtually all roads in Lagos impassable.

Aremu, who came all the way from Kaduna to honour the invitation spent seven hours on the road just between Ijesha and Ogba, a distance of less than 15 kilometres. But that did not stop Aremu from creating linkages between the past and the present Nigeria.  He spoke extensively on the proposed deregulation of the Yar’Adua administration.  He did not only criticise, he also provided solutions.  And, interestingly, where necessary, he gave kudos to President Yar’Adua.  Excerpts:

THE word is here again: DEREGULATION?  Would it make sense to Nigerians any more?

From the logic of deregulation, this cannot work because deregulation assumes that you want to address the issue of pricing as long as the issue of supply and demand is addressed. But there is a supply crisis in Nigeria, refineries are not working. So, are you going to deregulate us to pay import price in a country in where the only source of energy remains petrol? Electricity is not there and you have not provided gas.  This planned deregulation is going to ground the remaining industries to a halt and to take the remaining jobs out of Nigeria. Let me tell you that the greatest threat to the amnesty agenda is this deregulation because the labour absorption capacity of the economy, the remaining one will disappear once you deregulate and so, these militants, where will they be absorbed?  The big impact of this policy will be devastating. Let me also tell you that even the way this policy is being managed, that also tells you how unaccountable and irresponsible our government could be.

Being managed, how?

What I mean is that, a casual NNPC official has the audacity to tell 140 million Nigerians that by November 1, we are not reducing price, we are not bringing more products, on the eve of Christmas, on the eve of Sallah – because that is what the month of November is -we are bringing more hardships to you. He put us on notice, Nigerians prepare to pay more and without being told how we are going to pay. Already, the impact has been devastating because Nigeria is back again to the 1990s, people are now sleeping in filling stations because there is already panic buying. Then, the marketers who want to profit are hoarding and nobody is being held responsible.

Aremu...the minister who announced the policy should be sacked

I think this is one policy assault too much.
I said before that the key to Nigeria’s progress in the 60s and 70s is the relationship between the led and the leaders. Yes, the leaders flow from the people, they connect to them, they interact with them, but the followers were also willing to interrogate them and fight. The challenge is that Nigerians must learn how to fight for their rights.

Fight?  Fight who?  We end up fighting one another at filling stations when petroleum products prices are increased?

Good point you’ve made. But that is the promise of democracy. If we do not want any alternative for this democracy, which is worse, which we are not looking for, then Nigerians must do more sacrifices and fight. What they do in other countries is that when you irresponsibly announce such policies, citizens must demand for resignation of whoever is in-charge. It is not late. I am saying, the least that Yar’ Adua can do if he is sensitive to Nigerians is that the minister of state who has now confirmed this policy arrogance and insult, must be sacked. You do not put us on notice to pay more in a country that has all the mechanism and institution. Why is it that those who we supposedly elected are pushing for more hardships for us? The major problem that we had under Obasanjo when labour battled against him was that he did not even consult with anybody, but he accepted that what he did he did on his own. But this time around we have deregulated governance in which everybody just passes the burden on us, Nigerians.

If the government refuses to respond to the plight of the citizens, then citizens must go extra mile to fight. Beyond those struggles and negotiations for independence, the citizens were also behind our leaders through protests and mass actions insisting that they want independence now. So, if we can fight the British and demand for welfare for ourselves, I think we should be able to engage our own relations who want to turn this nation to a colony where it is a play ground for them. Nigerians have to wake up. In Egypt for example, a single announcement that you want to increase the price of bread led to riot. People did not go to queue at bakeries waiting for bread. I think Nigerians must regain their consciousness that they are citizens. We cannot be sleeping in filling stations. Fighting ourselves in the filling stations is no substitute. We must interrogate our leaders; none of them should be on the road if we are not moving.

Let’s pick these things one by one: Why can’t the refineries be made to work?

This our territory, well endowed with all the resources. I just came from Hajj. In the 60s, 70s, the Saudis would wait for Nigerian pilgrims and if Nigerians are not there, they are unhappy because they know Nigerians can pay to buy rams for the Id-El-Kabir. But today, Saudis are asking that Nigerians be sent back home immediately because they see them as nuisance. Can you imagine?  Look the whole drama of Sony. The Federal Republic of Nigeria is the one engaging a company. We are not engaging Japan. We can’t even do proper engagement.  Our own engagement should be done by our own brand. Where is our own brand that will do our engagement?  We are the largest buyers and we are the one consistently being insulted. Japanese do not buy Sony the way we buy. How do all these relate to refineries? Refineries were built before to add value locally. But it is also wrong to say the British did not know that Nigeria had oil. They saw oil. Oil was already on the drawing board, Olobiri discovery was 1956. They knew about the commercial quantity, but they were also aware of the nature of the Nigerian leaders of that time and so they could not stay a day longer. This is not Mozambique or Angola. They knew they were going to face more troubles, so they had to withdraw. But when they withdrew, what were they doing?  Between 1958 and 1965, it was an era of deregulation, market forces; government had no business in business because the British represented the business, Shell BP. It was the Nigerian parliament then who said no, we must add value locally. That was what led to the first refinery in Port Harcourt in 1965. Then, the Warri refinery and after the civil war, Kaduna refinery basically for political calculation and then second Port Harcourt refinery. They then built the pipelines. It is amazing, the largest in the continent. That is a developmental state; that you can pump crude through the pipelines to all the depots. Look at the local value added. From crude with which Shell BP were having fun, we now had our refineries. That was a poorer Nigeria. What was the price of crude oil at that time? It was less than $8.

Aremu...If you leave Nigerians with those jackals, the price will not even go down

But the Olusegun Obasanjo administration had as much as $140 per barrel, yet he could not even fix the refineries. He was so incompetent to even privatise. He was very efficient to privilege the same oil companies, Mobil, Shell, Chevron, BP, now through import, what they could not get done in post colonial Nigeria, they got it done 40 years after by importing petroleum products into the country.  So, what happened? So, why the refineries are not working is that our leaders are not looking at the faces of their people. It is no more a productive economy because if it is, you will not leave your people with imported prices. In Obasanjo’s eight years, more countries built more refineries.

Some of them do not even produce oil. China has more refineries, almost about 25 or so, yet what is their commercial quantity of oil.  But you can take crude there and they will process it for you. You can relate to any other sector. You can say you have deregulated the telecom sector to the extent that the providers are here. I am asking, where are your own refineries? None.

Still on refineries, the government people say there are a lot of legs to the issue and not just….
(Cuts in) Look let me tell you, one fallacy is the argument that it is lack of the free hand for the marketers to fix prices that is hindering the setting up of refineries. It is fraudulent. First, in normal basic economic theory, price flow from demand and supply. The other fallacy is that it is the lack of free hands for marketers to charge prices that is inhibiting the setting up of refineries. I think it is complete fallacy. It is stupid. In fact, it is fraudulent. It is not the price first; there must be the product, before the price. Secondly, talking about pricing, Nigeria in real terms, charges higher price for fuel. I am not talking of nominal terms because if you do dollarisation, it does not make sense. You have to look at the purchasing power parity and what is the value of Naira in relation to domestic good.

That is why in fairness to President Yar’Adua who himself was embarrassed that at the time international price of crude came down, he had to, on his own, reduce the domestic pump price of petrol which shows a departure between civility and crude military mentality of Obasanjo who would have preferred to increase the price. I pray that President Yar’ Adua carries that civility through and I believe he has done relatively well. He has brought a lot of systematic thinking to governance. What at times we call his weakness, may very well be a sign of strength, ability to listen, to be quiet and so on. We can see the way he worked it through with Niger Delta and the way he has even worked it through on petroleum.

Nigeria Labour Congress, NLC, had a pact with him in 2007, and he has kept to that pact. In fact, he has gone out of his way to even review the pact. Let him not at this stage get derailed by unelected, unelectable and unaccountable officials who at the end of the day will not carry the cup, like rascals in the NNPC who collect pay without service. What is NNPC doing? They are not producing. What we expect Yar’ Adua to do is call the NNPC and others to tell the nation what they have done with the money given to them to do turn around maintenance. They should not pass that burden to the citizens. Look at the templates for the price. This is the only country in which you are not paying for the price, but you are paying for demurrage, financing, haulage, landing cost, Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA) charges, and the rest. If they do not pass it to consumers, they pass it to government.

What the government should do is to assert itself and punish those who are involved in all these sharp practices. There is no substitute for governance. Market is not a substitute for governance. In fact the market is the home of corruption without rules and regulations. So, if you deregulate tomorrow, you have only shifted the burden from you (government) to your citizens. So, if the federal government of Nigeria with commander in-chief of the army, police and all the security agencies, the Directorate of Petroleum Resources (DPR) surrender and say no, I cannot face the marketers, they are cheating me, is it we the ordinary citizens who have no voice, no power, that can face the marketers?  You can see what has happened, announcement alone, fuel is no more following. They know you cannot move from motorcycle (okada) to your car without using fuel. You cannot use water. While some have stopped selling, some sell and instead of ten or more pumps, they use only one pump. Before you know it, they tell you, light has gone off. Is that the promise of our independence? No governor including the president should be on duty for any day we have no fuel because they are paid to protect and service us. They cannot go to work with their siren while citizens are sleeping in the filling stations. They must tell us why we should not have fuel which they are not given us free. This is the only country in which you beg to pay. This tells you the way the madness will be when it starts. This is just an announcement. If you leave Nigerians with those jackals, the price will not even go down, it would be worse that what they are speculating.

One of the arguments the government is putting up for this deregulation is that for this year alone, it has spent over N600billion for subsidy which they claim the economy can no longer bear and that it needs the money for other critical sector. What is your response?

Let me tell you, again, if there is the will, there will be a way. First, who is complaining? I need to sound very rhetorical.

Who is complaining? Is it not government?

Are we not part of this government? It is not somebody’s father’s money?

Nigerians say no, that if energy is critical in our survival, to keep going even at N65 per litre, some children’s meal is missing. They take breakfast, they do not take lunch. This government, are they Ghanaian government? Are they Sierra Leonean government? They are Nigerians in government and they are supposed to flow from us even with the fact that they rigged themselves to power. The constitution says, “we, the people say” they took oath on our behalf. Has there been any protest from us to say increase the price, the so-called subsidy is too much? Who said so? Nobody has said so. Where is the referendum to say people are complaining? It is the same government officials who are complaining who now said, you know this money, it is not even reaching the people. So, these people are just fraudulent, they are just collecting money. It means you know them, deal with them. If the government is helpless, identify them and turn us against them, we are willing.

Let’s assume their claim of subsidy is correct. How much has Sanusi, the governor of CBN, rolled out now to bail out less than ten officially recognized criminals, few corporate managers engaged in financial misdeeds? Almost one trillion naira now to bail out money market, not even the entire financial market, just bank market. What makes the bank more important than the citizens?  There is a labour market, there are industrial markets. I told you, industry is fast collapsing, where is the intervention funds?  I think it is a purely political choice and President Yar, Adua, has so far, chosen the people in the last two and half years. That is the remaining thing left for him because he accepted that the way he came to office is flawed and Nigerians accepted him. With the issue of petroleum, he has chosen the people so far.  May God not let him derail. He must look at Nigeria and see through and if there is the will, there will be the way. We can corporately remove the problem; we can collectively and corporately fix the refineries.  All they have to do is transparently lay the cards open.  And they should not be derailed by the forces of those who profit from crisis.

What is the way out?

Aremu...Nigeria in real terms, charges higher price for fuel

Suggestions have been done before about the way forward. That is why some of us have different opinions. I strongly believe in labour. In post independence Nigeria, government built refineries and they worked. One possible solution is that we must return to corporate governance. Let me tell you, there is no miracle of the market. The whole idea that the private operators are better, they are better to the extent that they are better to be on duty. You have seen what has happened to the banks that when the corporate governance is not in place, the private sector and private businessmen are as useless as any ministry official.

The type of money any permanent secretary will loot to buy private jet, will be the one a bank executive will also make if the shareholders are not on duty. So, there is no miracle. One way we can get out this mess is that if the federal government of Nigeria already has already accepted its crass incompetence as a way of life, communities where these refineries are located should be encouraged to own and run them. Let them look for partners who would run them. Kaduna refinery for example, all the Northern states can be encouraged to work out a synergy to run it. The same thing can be repeated in Niger Delta – in fact that is the best way to kick-start the process. Even for whatever reason, the whole states are not willing or they do not have the structure, you have corporate Nigerians who can do so.

I have always said that the issue is not whether it is privately or publicly owned, the important thing is that you deliver the goods. But we will be happy that it is Nigerians who constitute the private, it is Nigerian public because even in this market, everybody has its own brand. So, if your citizens say they can manage it and you have a transparent process, let them have it and manage it.  In Sierra Leone, their public telecommunication company and other public companies work. That is a country out of war. So, if there is a will, there is a way, and you maybe shocked to know that that Nigerians are the one running these institutions.

Looking at the polity, especially with all that have happened even in the last one week for instance, a governor is to emerge in Anambra State next year and they are supposed to have primaries. None of the political parties went through a normal process of primaries?

It is sad that Herbert Macaulay under colonial rule won a free and fair election in 1926, but in year 2009, we cannot conduct elections without rancour. It is a sad commentary that Zik, a non-native, in down town Lagos could win election to the federal legislative council without any qualms. But today, it is so bad that Governor Suswan of Benue State virtually wrote off Anambra people; that he had to bring people from Benue for internal party election. It means that by the time we are going to do the real election, we have to bring people from Sierra Leone. I think we are in a mess. It is at all levels. The only thing is that, that of PDP is so visible. But every day we point one accusing finger at PDP, the remaining four fingers point to the remaining parties. You cannot say there is any robust internal mechanism. What we have is individual without institutions. You have them; you are not sure what they stand for at all level.  Let me tell you something about the end of the party. The president has a seven point agenda which is fair enough. The governor in Kaduna, has 11 point agenda, the one in Oyo has nothing. They are in the same party, the PDP, but there is no idea. You can say this is a synergy. People talk much of Fashola, not AC – it is a shame that it is Fashola and not AC. There is no connectivity in terms of what they do. We are talking of Comrade Adams of Edo State that he fixed so, so and so, he fixed ASUU, but he’s not linked to AC. It is not a party philosophy. You cannot say if AC is in power, this is what the government will do. It is about individual. But go back to Second Republic, UPN stood for education. They had other progrommes, but education was paramount. He now asked, how do we do the education?

Nigeria marked it’s 49 years of independence early this month and, to many, it was the same lamentations that we have been familiar with. As a Nigerian, if you are to catch up the essence of your country today, what are those things that you would reflect on?

Well, I think, we essentially reflected on this exactly that day because we, as a proud outlet of the Nigerian Labour Congress, the Textile Workers Union, which I am the general secretary of, had big manifestations to mark the country’s 49 years of  independence where we did some reflections and what we did was spot analysis of our country. We looked at the strength of the country for the past 49 years, its weaknesses, possible threats to our to efforts and we equally looked at the challenges. We came to the conclusion that  there is a lot to thank Almighty Allah that we have survived as an entity for the past 49 years given that by the design of the British they never believed we would survive because Nigeria is a collection of multi-cultural and multi- diverse people with different interest, and, if you look at even parties in those days, they were largely regional base.

So, that we have survived for four decades and effectively five decades as we are close to the golden anniversary, I think it is something to celebrate and we may not know the import of this until we know that many nations actually collapsed within this period. Somalia for instance is far more homogenous than Nigeria but it is the most notorious independent state today. Liberia, Sierra Leone, actually collapsed but Nigeria revived it  and those are the countries that came after Nigeria’s independence. So, that we were kept as an entity I think is important. The second point is that to test the strength of independent Nigeria, even you can’t do justice to it by looking at the five decades after independence,  rather, we should look at the six decades before independence. What was colonialism? Unfortunately, we forgot now especially with things like bank failure, lack of roads and electricity. The problems are enormous and the pressure is so much  for us to say things are not working but what was it before the beginning? Of course colonial rule was a disaster. Nigeria was occupied effectively. Lagos was occupied in 1951 and declared a colony.

*Comrade Isa Aremu...we should thank God for surviving 49 years

Since  we got independence in 1960 minus University of Ibadan which was a college, an appendage of University of London, there was no federal educational institution instituted by the British. You can’t talk of any institutional growth. The rest came after independence. How many of us could afford radio stations or even set up independent television? You can get the statistics. Through out the hundred years of British rule, there was no public service. What the British did was to turn us to be producers, cutters and gatherers of cottons to take to Manchester which they would now weave into cloth and then bring back to be sold to us here. It was the independent Nigeria that brought the first textile industry here. The reason  I have to bring this point up is because I can say that we are more or less back to that colonial rule. This time around  without the British but with our own people. So, what I am saying here is  that to the extent of defect, I think that we have been able to have structures that we can debate it today which is extremely important and of course the weakness of  the economy. We saw that even in the independence speech of President Umaru Yar’Adua where he admitted that the promise of independence was yet to be fulfilled.

Many have consistently blamed the country’s woes on its leadership. Specifically, what do you think is responsible for our economic backwardness?

It depends on what leadership. So, there are leaders and there are leaders. You know, what  you want to give to all these leaders as at independence is that they were clear about their vision for Nigeria without things like 2010, 2020, and the global agenda of MDGs. They were clear,  they didn’t procrastinate, rather they acted  to vision.  Then it is left for you to make your choice. So, what I am saying is that those leaders were clear about  patriotism.  Zik had multiple degrees. In fact he was a lecturer in the US when he left. The same thing with Awolowo, then the late Tafa Balewa who had golden voice. When you listen to his queen’s English, none  of our leaders have that eloquence but they said,” no, the British, you are too nice; keep your flag. We want to build our country”. That’s why they had that consensus and were clear in their vision.  And you can see that right in a decade before that dastardly coup. That military coup was the real reversal of our purpose and I am not surprised because the military itself was a product of colonial trade. I think it was a programme of study who engineered that coup because it was meant to distract our development as we were the most promising developing country in the world.
What has happened to the country’s leadership?

I think the greatest disaster that ever happened to the country was military rule; and we are saying today that with the  frustration that we contend with  so far, we need deeper democracy not less because we would get it right. So far, things are not right just like Father Cooker said  that what we have now cannot be called politicians but  militicians because they are  products  of regimented military regime. The administration of Obasanjo was obviously not driven by a civilian and you could see the difference between civility and  people who ruled with the brawl  rather than the brain. You can even see it on the Niger-Delta issue. How many retreat did Obasanjo not organise on Niger-Delta and then once he has any provocation it is fire for fire. He would order for arms and make sure those guys look for more arms but look at the simple mechanism that you spread water to fire.

Now voluntarily the militants  surrender their arms.  What I am saying is that all previous successes recorded in Nigeria were driven by civilians. We had less labour conflict in a  Shagari led administration than under Obasanjo. The only strike we had was in 1981 and it lasted only 24 hours. It was on  national minimum wage. But during Obasanjo’s regime we had three days strike, 10days strike until the strike became indefinite because the orientation is not problem solving, it is about conquest not about solving  the problem. So, what I am saying  here is that the missing link is leadership but in summarizing  that let me quickly say that there is no miracle about those leaders,  possibly they had  charisma, brilliant, educated but we have more better educated people today. We have doctors, governors, graduate presidents. Our early leaders were not even graduates. Alhaji Ahmadu Bello, the Sadauna, as  premier had  days when  he was visiting colleges, public schools to find out how many students have passed and how many not passed.  That is the connectivity and it is also global standard.

You said Nigeria was the third largest producer of textile in Africa.  In specific terms, what are those things that you think were  responsible for the loss?
I think the promise of independence has been abandoned. The main agenda that would build  Nigeria industrially was the promise that exactly the way the British industrialize, we must also industrialize, the way they educate their people, we must also educate our people. That was the vision and with that in mind, our founding fathers  moved into action. They didn’t go anywhere, what they did  was to build the structure to attract investment and then laid out the  facilities, infrastructure; even railway lines entered  the factories.

In the 80s, we were more left behind who are selling the house. So, what I am saying here is  that by 80’s we are more  than what you can imagine. The third largest textile mills employ about 500,000 direct jobs, today we are nowhere to be found. So, if what happened to textile happens  to all sectors, there would be  no more shoes in this country. All the shoes we wear are imported. All the cars are gone, no automobile factories. This is the only country with all the assorted vehicles- Volk wagon, Camry, Peugeot, etc with no Nigerian brand. That is why when Akunyili is talking of re-branding, she got it wrong. You can only re-brand the brand you have, you have no brand now, no product, so, you can’t re-brand.  I  attended recently a  made in Nigerian exhibition.

I  saw mechanic there selling  generators. There was non-made in Nigeria.  I  think before we re-brand  we need to invent the brand which we had before and Nigerian brand was excellent. When UNTH Kaduna was in  full production, it  was  employing 30,000 direct jobs, now we are far less than 25,000. Not only that, out of every four Nigerians  that wore African print, possibly one is made in Nigeria. The others were  mostly from Ghana and China. Chinese now give us African print which they don’t put on because our real wax factories are closing down here. Again, that is also linked to the issue of independence because the vision of the founding fathers was that we should not only attract investors, with time, we should run the business. So, by 1960 or 70, Nigerians were already in partnership with the Chinese and Indians. So by now we should out run them. In fact, the global economic crisis to an extent contributed to the closure of the textile industry but in some  countries  like  India, Bangladesh when the citizenry own the factories, they survived. It is only in Nigeria that we are badly affected because once there is a shock, there  is no more power supply, you can’t protect your market as we are now importing because we have now replaced imperialism with Chinese imperialism.


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