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John Dubre: Nigerian who put fear in oil majors

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John Dubre

By Owei Lakemfa

THE story of Labour leader, John Enas Dubre, and the transnational oil corporations operating in Nigeria, reminds me of the temptation of Jesus Christ.

There were 19 unions in the oil and gas industry before they were merged in 1977 into a mega industrial union called the National Union of Petroleum and Natural Gas Workers, NUPENG.

The oil majors might not have paid much attention to this process until the 39-year-old Dubre, a worker in the Agip Oil Company, emerged the founding NUPENG President.

Immediately, alarm bells went off in the industry. He was a known committed and uncompromising trade unionist.

He was a staff in the Agip Photo Reproduction Office and had been denied promotion because the company claimed that under its structure, Dubre had reached the apex or terminal stage of his career. This might have been punitive. With Dubre emerging NUPENG president, the oil majors sensed trouble. So they decided to tempt him.

Within two months of his election, Agip decided to promote him by moving him to the Administration Department as Assistant Personnel Officer, APO. But the caveat was that he would have to relinquish his Presidency of NUPENG because it is a union for junior staff, while the position of APO in the Agip structure is a senior staff position. Dubre rejected the Greek gift.

First, he had been denied promotion over the years because the oil company claimed he could no longer be promoted. Secondly, there was as at then, no union for senior staff of the petroleum industry. Thirdly, the position of APO under the Trade Union Act is not a “senior” but a junior staff, one to which only non-graduates qualify. Fourthly, and perhaps most importantly, he had a three-year mandate as NUPENG president which he had to serve out.

Agip again met  Dubre. This time pointing out that his promotion meant a far higher salary. When Dubre replied that he already had that as he is entitled to N1,500 annual allowance as NUPNG president, Agip offered to pay him the allowance in addition to his higher salary in his new post provided he resigned as NUPNG president. Dubre rejected the temptation.

The battle line was drawn. A furious Agip which was obviously working in tandem with other oil majors to ensure the union has a weak leadership, petitioned NUPENG through its  General Secretary, Asiya Effion Otu, demanding that Dubre should be removed or voted out as he had been promoted a senior staff which made him ineligible to be a member of NUPENG. The union rejected the employer’s interference.

Faced with the union’s rebuff, Agip stopped forwarding Dubre’s union dues to NUPENG. Rather, it started paying it to the Petroleum and Natural Gas Senior Staff Association of Nigeria, PENGASSAN, which had been established in November 1979, two years after Dubre’s election. Dubre resorted to paying his dues by cash directly to NUPENG because a basic criterion to be a member of a union is to be dues-paying.

In November 1979, Dubre attended a short term intensive training in Collective Bargaining and Dispute Settlement at the International Institute for Labour Studies, Geneva, Switzerland. The company said Dubre had not informed it he was travelling out of the country, and suspended him. There was an immediate mobilisation of NUPENG members for national strike. The oil majors and the government panicked and Agip quickly rescinded the suspension.

In the 1980 NUPENG elections, Dubre campaigned on the basis of his achievements in office, his new programmes and the need for the union to be independent of employers and government. Aware they could not match his campaigns, those opposed to him came up with three devices. First, they argued that since NUPENG had three zones- Lagos, Port Harcourt and Warri- the Presidency should be rotated among them.

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That since Dubre was from the Lagos Zone, he should no longer be eligible to contest the elections. So the Port Harcourt Zone produced  Mr. G.C. Okolonta, then Chairman of the AP Branch as the candidate to replace Dubre.

Secondly, they argued that given the promotion by Agip, Dubre was no longer a junior staff and, therefore, was not a member of NUPENG. The third leg of their campaign was that Dubre had become close to the NLC leadership of Comrade Hassan Adebayo Sunmonu which they termed ‘Marxist’ and argued that there was the need to save NUPENG from going communist by voting out Dubre. However, the delegates voted overwhelmingly for the re-election of Dubre.

The following year at the 1981 NLC Delegates Conference in Kano, Dubre was elected one of the two Deputy Presidents of the Congress.

His profile rose, and his reputation as a thorough bred, upright and principled labour leader was acknowledged nationally. A campaign began to get Dubre succeed Sunmonu as NLC president at the February, 1984 Delegates Conference.

As the NLC elections got closer, Dubre emerged as the candidate to beat. In fact for many, he was merely waiting to be voted and sworn in as the next NLC president. Since it was apparent that the Progressive wing of the NLC which had overwhelming majority of votes had endorsed him, the only way to stop Dubre and discontinue the radical leadership tradition of Sunmonu, was to stop him from contesting. A well-funded ‘Stop-Dubre-By All- Means’ machinery was put in motion.

With the NLC conference and elections scheduled for February 27-29, 1984 in Enugu, Chief Kehinde Sofola, a former Minister of Justice and Attorney General of  the Federation went to court on February 9, 1984 seeking an interlocutory injunction to stop Dubre from parading himself as NUPENG president, stopping the union from attending the NLC Conference and Dubre from contesting the Congress elections.

Sofola was counsel to Mr. Linus Ukamba who had been sacked as NUPENG vice president.  On February 24, 1984, Justice J. Oladipo Williams granted the injunction.

It was only three days to the NLC Conference and Dubre and his team had no time to extricate themselves from the judicial ambush. So Dubre became one of the best presidents NLC never had.

He fought on and for the next three years, the oil industry was in turmoil until his team which included S.A. Dada as President, Frank Ovie Kokori as General Secretary, and Joseph Akinlaja and Elijah Okougbo as Deputy General Secretaries, smashed the sell-outs in the union along with their oil company backers.

On August 27, 2020, the unconquerable soul of Dubre marched on, and his earthly remains were interred on Friday, November 20, 2020 in his hometown of Okpare Olomu, Ughelli South in Delta State.

The Nigerian Trade Union Movement no longer produces giants like Michael Imoudu, Wahab Goodluck, Gogo Chu Nzeribe, Hassan Sunmonu and John Enas Dubre.

Vanguard News Nigeria

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