ONE of the finest ministers that has superintended the Ministry of Labour and Productivity since the return to civil rule in 1999 is Chief Emeka Wogu. The Abia State-born chieftain of the All Progressives Congress, APC, is an administrator per excellence on Labour Matters among other areas of human endeavour.
In this chat with VICTOR Ahiuma-Young, Chief Wogu, a barrister, speaks on Labour sector, the economy among others.
Relationship btw incoming govt, Labour
The incoming president should take labour issues very seriously. As far as I am concerned, I served in many salaries and wages committees recommending salaries in the public sector and the judiciary while I was serving on Revenue Commission. It is not the quantum of money, but how much can the money purchase. We need to build a strong economy.
A civil servant will prefer to have N10, 000 as salary that can help him through a month than have N100, 000 salary that has no value. To fix Nigeria, the economy should be uppermost in the mind of the incoming President and in the mind of his appointees. If you reform the public sector in terms of education and health, you can’t have a policeman behaving anyhow because the salary will be enough to send his children to public schools and access quality healthcare. But because those areas of the economy have failed, you find out that everyone has his or her child in private schools. How much are they paying in private schools? You want to access healthcare you go to a private hospital. In all, a man who is a Director cannot afford all those luxuries; except he steals. A Permanent Secretary or a Minister cannot afford those things, except he or she steals. The least a private school in Abuja charges as fee is not less than N250,000 per term.
How can a public servant afford it? In public schools, you might afford it with N5, 000, or N10, 000. We all went to public schools. A boy has needs to undergo appendectomy, and a private hospital charges him N700,000. I remember when I was in secondary school, I don’t think my appendectomy cost my parents more than N5,000 in a public hospital. In the house we lived in the GRA, my father paid only N20, had access to a brand new car among others. He had no reason to take bribes. So, my not taking bribes started from the background where I came from. Why can’t we fix those things? As a former minister, I found it even more difficult to sustain my kids in private school. To worsen matters, these private schools are ill-equipped and do not have professional teachers.
Labour should engage the new administration in dialogue and the new administration should reach out to Labour because there is this doctrine of tripatism in labour. They are partners in progress. The employers, the employees and the government. It is better to jaw-jaw than to war-war. At times, there are labour agitations that are unnecessary. There is labour agitation; when you look at it, it looks more like treason. You do not engage people and you go to switch off the national grid. You don’t engage the government and you go to shut down the oil wells and all that. During my tenure, I made sure that NUPENG and PENGASSAN did not have reason to shut the oil wells because it takes a lot of money and time to restart a shut-down oil well. Those things are the main sources of revenue for this country. It is like Nigeria Police going on strike. It is unheard of. There was a time the national grid was shut down when the current NLC President was the General Secretary of the Electricity Union. It was during my time, and it took me almost 26 hours to resolve it. On switching back, the losses were quite huge.
So, power is critical and the oil sector is critical. In fact, health and education are even more critical. These are places we should not allow strikes to happen. If the previous reports set up by past administrations, particularly during the Jonathan administration in the health sector and education are implemented, there would not be a problem of strikes in those sectors.
In as much as people dread Comrade Joe Ajaero, it might be a misplaced dread or fear. I worked with him. If you engage him, he is quite reasonable. He is a man who comes with a lot of facts, and he comes in strongly on the position of principle. So, they need to engage on both sides. There should be honesty on the part of the government and on the part of trade unions.
When there is agreement, I believe in the sanctity of agreement. It needs to be implemented.
Areas of focus in economy
Over the past decades as a sovereign nation, we have been a mono-product economy. But there appears to be an active process of diversification of the mono-product economy. We are now earning more money from the non-oil sector. The reasons for that are various. One, we have had a very corrupt subsidy regime in the oil sector, our refineries are down, and our domestic crude is sold at a dollar-denominated price and brought back to us as a finished product. Why should a country that is a major oil producer and member of OPEC be importing fuel after almost 100 years of crude oil exploration and exploitation? It is shameful.
That is an area I would advise the President-elect to look at and make sure that both government-owned refineries are fixed and new ones built, and the private-owned refineries should be encouraged to be productive. The data from the oil sector are quite disheartening. From my hindsight of experience as a Federal Commissioner in the Revenue Mobilisation and Fiscal Commission, I am sad that we almost lost the oil sector. But it is an eye-opener that we were relying so much on oil. However, we have better prospect outside oil. The new frontier is gas, and Nigeria has a lot of gas. Other minerals like gold and others are found in almost all the 36 states of the federation including FCT.
I advise the incoming government to diversify our sources of revenue. It does not really need to be on tax or royalties and loans because it is not good to over-tax citizens. It is a herculean task for the incoming administration because we have gone down with N46 trillion debt. It is quite huge. When you compare the GDP against our borrowing, you find out that it is not humongous. We have come to a situation where we borrow before we can pay salaries. It is a thing of concern. In addition, the President-elect must have a robust economic team. He must hire the best hands for the Ministry of Finance, Budget and Planning, the Governor of Central Bank and of course, the Ministry of Labour and Productivity. It is quite central and strategic to the national economy because a strike that is prolonged can bring down the economy. Like in the other countries, it is a key ministry.
After the Ministry of Budget and Planning, the next is Labour, because Labour is central to the economy of every nation. It should be his focus and total reform of the oil subsidy regime. It might be painful to both the Nigerian workers and other Nigerians, but if we are going to remove the subsidy on petrol, we should return the subsidy on diesel and kerosene and have a robust bus transportation system like what the Malam El-Rufai regime in FCT did. Those big buses run on diesel, which means the civil servants can have easy access to transportation. The train from Abuja to Kaduna also runs on diesel. The one that will impact on the common masses and the civil servants is diesel and kerosene, not petrol. How can you be subsidizing big men who have about 10 cars in their houses?
2023 general elections
The 2023 general elections have come and gone. All those who were declared winners have collected their certificates of return. In my own estimation, the process of electing new leaders at all levels has been completed. Kudos to INEC.
It is an assignment that has been completed irrespective of the argument by some people that the elections were not free and fair or perfect. There is no perfection in election as far as it is being handled by human beings. We have our foibles that made it impossible to be perfect. I don’t see in any democratic setting where the election is 100 per cent perfect. We have been witnesses to elections in the US, where there are cases of alleged electoral frauds.
There are constitutional provisions for INEC to decide its duty. In my own estimation, it has discharged its duty. This election of 2023 is different from 2019 and quite different from 2015. From 1999, there had been a metamorphosis in the process of election.
In 2023, there was a great attempt to use BIVAS in transmitting both the accreditation of voters and the results. It was technologically driven.
The INEC chairman apologized on national television that there were glitches. When the glitches were fixed, the commission continued with the process which culminated in the announcement of Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu as the President-elect and Senator Kashim Shettima as the Vice President-elect.
There were so many people who participated in the election, and what you cannot deny any participant in any electoral contest is his or her right to contest results in any established court of law. That is the next stage.