Comrade Francis ‘Niyi Ogunremi is the Chairman of Trade Union Congress (TUC) in Lagos State as well as the President, Association of Senior Staff of Banks and Financial Institutions (ASSBIFI), Skye Bank Chapter. He spoke to EJIKEME OMENAZU on the place of Labour in a democracy as well as some crucial national policy issues. Excerpts:
The recent fuel crisis has led to a fresh call for President Muhammadu Buhari to relinquish the position of Minister of Petroleum Resources and appoint an expert who will report to him. What is your take on this issue?
Our problem in this country is that we do not face reality. When President Buhari was coming in, maybe he lacked the proper understanding of the nature of the country or the economy. But, when former President Goodluck Jonathan came in, the issue of subsidy came up.
We need to face realities. All the stakeholders should have met to determine price of fuel. It is difficult to fix price of fuel due to marketing forces.
I would have suggested that all the stakeholders in the oil industry should meet to look at the issue holistically. What obtains in other countries? Government is not sincere.
It is obvious that the payment of subsidy has been going on. A meeting of stakeholders should be able to determine the way forward. Let market forces determine the price of petrol.
What is your view on the $ 1 billion withdrawal from the Excess Crude Account (ECA) by the Federal Government for the prosecution of the war against insurgency?
Our major problem is our experience. We were here when former President Jonathan initiated a foreign loan to fight the Boko Haram insurgency. But, the money was shares among his party members. If the money was used for what it was meant for, there would not have been any problem.
The money released for the Boko Haram war, how was it spent? The government must be accountable. Government must be sincere. With what has been on insurgency, herdsmen have been terrorising the country. We know what happened in Benue just of recent.
Would you agree with the National Assembly members who felt that the President should have forwarded the request for the ECA withdrawal to them as they have the power to appropriate funds?
My fear with this country is that if an issue is taken to the National Assembly and the lawmakers do not see their interest in it, the matter will not see the light of day. Then President Jonathan was given a huge amount. It was later we knew that the money was shared.
The National Assembly (NASS) has the power to approve, but have they been representing the people well? People do not have trust in them anymore. They believe that President Buhari had exceeded his authority. Budgets are not passed on time. The money they approved under Jonathan, what was it meant for? Who is sure that the lawmakers are kicking because they need their own cut of the $1 billion?
Once again, the National Assembly has delayed the budget presented by the President by early November last year. Do you think the lawmakers are justified by their action?
Everybody knows that if the budget is not passed, it will affect the economy. Why didn’t the lawmakers pass the budget before they go on recess? If they have the interest of the nation, they should have finished work on the budget by now. What is the use of having committees? All of them just protect their interests.
My advice is for the National Assembly to review the budget. If there are issues, they can return it for the executive to revisit it.
How many times do they go on recess in a year? Budget is the backbone of the economy. Without the budget, there will be no direction for the economy.
What do you think should be the focus of the Federal Government in 2018?
My suggestion is that government cannot solve all the problems at the same time.
The biggest challenge we have in Nigeria today is energy. If they tackle energy, 60% of Nigeria’s problems have been solved.
Now, everyone needs to run the smallest business. Government should solve energy problem, address infrastructure, the government should be sincere. The government should address the issue of herdsmen so that it does not spread. If the herdsmen’s issue is tackled and there is energy and infrastructure, business will boom. Where we stay, we run six generators. Without energy, we cannot address the issue of employment and empowerment.
The Labour Movement has challenges. Part of our problem is people we are leading. Government and workers contribute to our problems.
The economy also contributes. The people may have reasons for not trusting their leaders. If you call people out for labour actions, people will use the strike to sleep at home. They cannot come out for rallies or protests.
Labour leaders and their followers do not face realities. Many organisations do not make profit due to the economy. Many companies cannot afford wage increase because of the situation in the country. Energy, infrastructure deficit affect the companies’ profit. Many labour leaders do not have the Adams Oshiomhole’s luck, who rose from labour to become a governor. Many labour leaders are fighting for personal interests. We cannot adopt the Pa Michael Imoudu’s style today.
We have been fighting casualisation of workers. But the bill in that National Assembly has been there because most of the lawmakers engage casual workers in their offices and companies. Even the government engages casual workers. But if the casual workers are disengaged, how will they take care of their families? The situation in the country does not allow labour to practice.
On the National Minimum Wage, has the committee set up by the Federal Government on the issue been meeting? I doubt. The National Assembly has not attended to the bill on casualisation because they have the companies that engage casual workers, including hotels.
What part do you think Labour should play in a democratic dispensation? Why has it been impossible for the Labour Movement to enthrone a masses-oriented government in Nigeria?
Before now, the belief was that labour leaders should not be partisan. But the time has come for us to be mouthpiece of the masses.
The time has come for labour leaders to participate very well in politics. It is time for us to take the mantle of Nigerian leadership. We should take politics passionately.
We have allowed area boys to go into government through the support of area boys. But, being in labour does not make one a good leader. It is one’s education and knowledge. We have a state that has the largest number of professors. But they cannot produce the right governor.
This is the time for labour to participate fully in politics to have a credible leadership.
It is time for us to reactivate Labour Party and send out those who hijacked it. On the alternative, we should have a Fresh Labour Party, just as some people are talking of Fresh PDP. But if we go with the existing parties, who are their promoters? APC and PDP and other parties have lined up their candidates. If Nigerians allow independent candidates, Labour could have lined up behind someone like the TUC or NLC President. I believe that Labour should start something serious and meaningful now.
How do you see the nation’s financial and monetary policy?
When they started Treasury Single Account (TSA), we expected it to work. But the Central Bank of Nigeria is competing with commercial banks in the area of accepting deposits. If people cannot get enough interests on deposits from commercial banks, they go to the CBN because that of the CBN is higher. Instead of keeping the amount in TSA, it should have been with the commercial banks.
The money in TSA lies fallow in the CBN. There should have been regular meetings between the CBN and the bank chiefs to review policies. There should have been avenue for feedbacks on policies.
Right now, the banks are crying, they are not doing well because of stringent policies. The CBN and banks are now competing in deposits. Federal Government should let economic experts operate the economy.
The Federal Government should give the CBN governor power to operate as CBN governor. The holder of that position dances to the tune of his appointees. This is not good for the economy.
The CBN governors are experts in banking and economics. But they are not given free hands to operate. That is why they come out with anti-bank policies.
Following persistent calls for President Buhari to re-jig the Federal Government’s Economic Team, do you think the team has been doing well? Or, would you suggest a re-jig bearing in mind that the administration has about one year and six months to go?
The chairman of that Economic Team, the Vice President, is a lawyer. If there is no law making it mandatory for the Vice President to head the Economic Team, the President should invite experts like Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala and Charles Soludo. These are the experts and there are many others.
We cannot get results from what we have now as Economic Team. How can an accountant be the Finance Minister? That position should have been given to a finance expert or an economist.
Everything is not politics. That is why Nigeria needs a young President. Babatunde Fashola is a lawyer and not an engineer and he is made the Minister of Power, Works and Housing. Is he the only one who can perform? Why should he be given three portfolios when he is not an engineer? These are the reasons why we do not get results in this administration. It is not too late for President Buhari to review his Economic Team; he should dissolve the team and bring in experts.
With experts, the economy of the nation can be revived within a short time. His cabinet is outdated and is overdue for reshuffle. He took six months to give us ministers and the results are not showing.
As a labour stakeholder, how do you see the performance of the Labour and Productivity Minister?
The Labour Minster is our minister. The current and former ministers had problems. When they want to do something, they look at the body language of who appointed them.
However, the current minister has done his best. But, the time has come for him to be changed like the other minister. He is a medical doctor.
He should be reassigned to the Ministry of Health. Ministers should be taken to their areas of specialisation.
The problem with President Buhari’s cabinet is that over 50% of them are lawyers. They should go back to their chambers and practice law. We need professionals in governance.
You work and operate in Lagos State. How does the Labour Movement feel about Governor Akinwunmi Ambode administration?
Lagos is where I operate. One thing I like about Lagos State is that Governor Ambode is one of the few governors that do not owe salaries.
As a labour leader, that is my joy. If government does not pay salaries, people will go on the streets.
Labour in Lagos is peaceful because the state does not owe salaries. It has been paying pensioners. If we have any reason to protest in Lagos, it will be a sympathy rally. Governor Ambode is performing. But, he should not concentrate only on the metropolis.
He should also pay attention to local roads and streets. Water is a disaster in Lagos. Ambode should work on it.
In some states, workers are not paid for several months. But, they are constructing flyovers to create avenues for embezzlement. They are constructing these bridges because of what they will get and not because of the interests of the people. But Lagos gave workers bonus in December.
Someone who does not pay workers cannot give bonus. A state that has not paid workers is creating Ministry of Happiness and building statues of foreign leaders.
This is crazy. That is why I give kudos to the Lagos State government. It is paying salaries and building infrastructure, which people see. That is why you cannot have labour unrest in Lagos State.