By Charles Kumolu, Deputy Editor
National Chairman of All Progressives Congress, APC, Comrade Adams Oshiomhole, in this interview, speaks on the new minimum wage, Nigeria’s debt profile, his relationship with former Imo State governor, Rochas Okorocha and his efforts at ensuring party supremacy in APC among other issues.
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One of your cardinal points when you became the National Chairman of APC was to instill party discipline. How far have you gone in that regard?
The process of change is continuous. I think we have found the courage to do a couple of things. But the truth is that it is not in the interest of anyone to undermine the party. It is in the interest of every member of the party to respect the party. I think the APC under my leadership has found the courage to do a lot of things. For example, Aisha Alhassan the former Minister of Women Affairs, who was a minister during Buhari’s first term, said she would not vote for the President. And she wanted us to give her our platform to contest an election. We dared to say no. We also saw a Minister who did not participate in the National Youth Service Corps scheme and he was proud of it. He even said that being a Minister is even more important than the NYSC certificate. At the NWC we decided that if he did not participate in NYSC, not because he was exempted, we will not give our party ticket to the person. Some courage goes into that because in this country big men always want you to do their bidding. I think we probably got it wrong under the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP. The National Chairmen of political parties were hired and fired at will. The office was demystified and because they were in power for 16 years that was the only model most people knew. I will say that being the chairman of a ruling party is a very tedious and thankless job. That is what I always tell my friends when they come and find me at 10:30 pm holding meetings. As a party chairman, you are running a political clinic for patients with different political ailments. I think the luck I have is that all my life I have been troubled. I have had very challenging responsibilities and duties. God in his mercy has always protected me.
Okorocha still my friend
I have a job to do and I have to uphold the rules that guide the process. I have the responsibility of ensuring that these rules are obeyed by members and leaders. Happily, most leaders overwhelmingly subjected themselves to these rules apart from a few who chose not to, and that is where you have a problem. I think Okorocha is my friend. I appreciate him because he was the only southeast governor that joined the APC at its formation. Okorocha myself and a few other governors contributed to the process that brought APC into being. I have huge respect for his contributions. However, nothing in our rules gives me the discretion not to follow the rules as if you are just any other member. Unfortunately, in Nigeria, if a policeman enforces the law we say he is a wicked man. But tomorrow when things begin to fall apart we say these police people are not working. I subscribed to the constitution which among other things said that my decisions and actions shall be influenced neither by affection nor ill will. It means that one should not favour anyone and should have no malice towards anyone. Rochas knows I did my best to help him to the extent that those actions were not offensive to the principles of our constitution. He knows how I supported him. It’s all in the past, I don’t think that one year after we should be discussing it. There is no better proof that I have nothing against him. I signed his nomination form as our nominee and as we speak he is a Senator. Sometimes people count only their loses. They don’t count their gains. Sometimes we need to remind people about their gains. If he counts his gains he will not say that I was unfair to him.
What is your position on the reluctance of most states to implement the new minimum wage?
The primary purpose of government is the welfare of its citizens. Even the Bible recognises that the labourer is entitled to his wage. And the wage must be such that should sustain the labourer. Regardless of any position I occupy, I am very convinced that wages in Nigeria are not competitive. They are not inspiring and in any way. That is why people resort to certain practices that are corrupt to survive. There is something basically wrong with our system. I am in support of the trade union movement in terms of fighting for not just wage increase but a living wage. Unfortunately, over the years, particularly in public service, government has not appreciated the fact that salary administration is a matter for experts. There are labour economists who have the necessary training. You must have a seasoned personnel manager to determine your employment level and compensation level. He needs to ensure that he pays competitive compensation to attract and retain the best brain. Unfortunately, in the public service, I think they see the Ministry of Establishment or Labour, or those responsible for workers, as unattractive. Therefore, they are manned by people who are deployed there maybe out of malice. That is why we have these crises.
I think the government needs to recruit the right expertise and revisit their organogram and determine what ought to be its actual level of employment. But he who must employ has a responsibility both in law and in morality to pay not just wages, but also living wages. The crisis in the public service is unfortunate. Sometimes I get embarrassed when I hear that we are paying ghost workers. This is a silly word to describe huge fraud in salary administration. And what baffles me is that government at various levels laments the fraud in salary administration, which they attribute to ghost workers. I am not aware anyone has been arraigned in court to explain where he found the ghost whose name was on the payroll. And everytime I hear that billions of naira have been saved from ghost workers. As for me, whosoever discovered the ghost has an additional story to tell. I believe that if government can clean up the fraud in salary administration, they will find enough revenue to pay those who work.
However, there is a complete misconception about what minimum wage is all about. The minimum wage is not even supposed to be paid by government. Government should pay above minimum wage. Minimum wage is meant to protect workers who have no bargaining strength. I am talking of people who may be unable to form a strong trade union to negotiate. The state is easily the most organized employer of labour, they need to pay far more than others. When I was President of Nigeria Labour Congress, NLC, we increased minimum wage to N5,500 monthly. We insisted that the Federal Government cannot be paying minimum wage. We agreed for a minimum for federal employees at N7,500 a month even though the law prescribed N5,500. The point I am making is that the Federal Government should not be paying the minimum prescribed by law, they should pay better. We also said that Lagos State, given the cost of living in Lagos and its vantage position in revenue profile, should pay N7,500. We also agreed that oil-producing areas tend to have a higher cost of living for a variety of reasons. We identified Delta, Rivers, Bayelsa, and Akwa Ibom and said they should pay N7,500 like the Federal Government. Even though the law is N5,500 and we went on to negotiate with Kaduna State, Plateau State, Benue State, Borno State, and Edo among others. That was how we had certain levels of the minimum wage that rose between N5, 600 and N7, 600. Even with the law that prescribed N5, 500, we had states that paid N5, 600, and those that paid N7,500. Now, this is what we call true negotiation. For me, it is even shameful that the public service is paying minimum wage, it should pay more. That is the truth.
We are not running a communist economy. We are running a market-based economy. It means that prices rise according to market forces. Why will every other price change and the price of labour remains static? It is simply not sensible. I do not accept the principle that those who work for the government should be paid less.
Ability to pay
There is no position I will take tomorrow that will make me change my views. The truth is that there are some states that should be able to pay more than the Federal Government. You cannot dispute the fact that there is a difference between wage review and consequential adjustment. I do not like it when the issue is reduced to the ability to pay. How about the minimum cost of survival? Government must remember that its primary purpose is the welfare of the people. I know there are challenges but I decided to increase the minimum wage when I was governor. When some governors were complaining, I increased the minimum wage in Edo to N25, 000. Somebody called me from Abuja to ask how I was going to cope with that. I said that was not a problem. I said I will save to pay. It is on record that until the time I left I was paying and my successor is paying it.
Nigeria’s debt profile is rising once again after former President Obasanjo attracted debt forgiveness for Nigeria. What is your take?
Most Nigerians think Obasanjo negotiated debt forgiveness. The issues were more complex than that. The developing countries got to a point where debt servicing now became a problem. Not only in Nigeria. In Peru they even classified some countries as highly indebted. I was involved in those negotiations. The trade Union Movement was involved. The civil society organisations around the world were involved. They said it was immoral for rich countries to insist that the debts that they made poor countries to borrow at the expense of development should be repaid. Many developing countries benefited from debt forgiveness, debt cancellation, and debt reduction. So don’t take it as if the PDP administration of President Obasanjo got that for Nigeria. Obasanjo came in at that time and took advantage of the international campaign.
But the debt profile is rising again?
Yes, it is, and it is likely to continue to increase unless we find the courage to do some things differently like President Buhari is doing today. Last month the President took some decisions which some people may have downplayed. But they are indicators of the concern of the President that we must cut our recurrent expenditure. Some times what people spend on travels is much more than they pay as wages. And I know the President said this during the retreat we had with ministers. He said we would not have enough money to spend on capital projects if we continue to travel indiscriminately.