On April 25, 2016, I was a guest of “Kaakaki”, the breakfast programme of the Africa Independent Television (AIT). My interlocutor, who took part via telephone, was Mr. Joe Ajaero, Secretary General of the National Union of Electricity Employees (NUEE) and head of a faction of the Nigerian Labour Congress (NLC).
The segment of the programme in which we featured was entitled “Blackout in Nigeria”. It was a suitable title, I think, at a time the power sector seems to be in a state the anchors described as “comatose”. And when, in addition to the technical issues and sabotage involved through vandalism, the problems in the sector are bound to worsen due to some labour issues for which Mr. Ajaero had reportedly directed members of NUEE in the Transmission Company of Nigeria (TCN) “to stay away from work to avoid confrontation with soldiers and policemen who,” to quote the anchors in echo of his claims, “barricaded and suddenly locked the workers out … with the intention of denying over 50,000 PHCN staff unpaid severance benefits three years after forceful takeover of power assets”.
In effect, Mr. Ajaero seemed to have intervened to ensure the payment of severance benefits to members of his union.
And while I uphold his right to secure every legitimate payment due to members of his union, as I uphold the right of every worker to be paid his or her dues by employers, I nonetheless must rely on some of the revelations from that encounter to point out the need for him to situate his rhetoric and the terms of his agitations within facts. This is important because, otherwise, we would be having agitations in which facts are manipulated or distorted to achieve questionable ends, and which prompt the query: Is it really about the payment or is there some hidden motive behind the agitation for which the payment is a smokescreen?
On its face value, for instance, Mr. Ajaero’s claim that the PHCN building was barricaded to deny former PHCN workers their unpaid severance benefits cannot stand the test of truth. How could he know the intention of those behind the barricade unless he is a mind reader? Couldn’t they have been responding to the need to secure government property from possible damage by aggrieved persons as they should?
Could his description of the takeover of the power assets as “forceful” be considered plausible, given that the takeover was the culmination of a privatisation exercise jointly overseen by the Bureau of Public Enterprises (BPE) and the National Council on Privatisation (NCE) and conducted in accordance with well-publicised rules at the end of which the power assets were handed over to successful bidders who met the relevant conditions regarding payment for them?
But these are not the only evidence of the defective rhetoric behind Mr. Ajaero’s agitation that emerged from that encounter. His blaming of the standoff on “Fashola’s ego” (referring to the Minister of Power, Works and Housing) was another. And his dismissive remark that “nobody in this country knows” the permanent secretary of the Ministry of Power – which cannot be true because many people know him, including Mr. Ajaero himself – is yet another. Not to mention his claims – as recalled by the anchors – that he knows the names of those who “in and out of government are the real beneficiaries of the privatisation exercise”, and his promise to reveal their names, which he failed to keep on the request of the anchors, even as he relies on such unsubstantiated claims to discredit the privatisation of the power sector as “a scam”.
In fact, the government agency responsible for the payment of severance benefits to PHCN staff disengaged during the privatisation of the power sector is the Bureau of Public Enterprises (BPE). It is public knowledge the BPE paid the severance benefits of about 47,000 out of about 50,000 disengaged PHCN staff, which represents 94 percent. And as it stated in a published statement, the yet-to-be-paid 3,000 or so, or six percent, are those with documentation issues, whose identity may therefore be questionable. Besides, I was privy to these facts as a staff of the Presidential Task Force on Power (PTFP), which interfaced with the BPE during the privatisation exercise.
Without meaning to hold a brief for government, I must say that since it willingly paid the severance benefits of 47,000 out of about 50,000 former PHCN workers, then the allegation that it barricaded the PHCN headquarters to avoid paying the rest – or any other legitimate debt it owes the disengaged workers – is in bad faith.
As I stated during the AIT programme, I was disengaged from the then National Electric Power Authority (NEPA) which became the PHCN in 2000, with many others. I was paid my severance benefit and have been paid my dues till date without anyone having to adopt any government property as collateral on my behalf as Mr. Ajaero seems intent on doing in respect of the PHCN headquarters.
I cite this personal experience as the basis for my considering Mr. Ajaero’s tactics in agitating for the payments in question as defective. I think the best approach would be for him to liaise with members of his union and those responsible for the payments to resolve whatever documentation issues are delaying the pending payments.
Indeed, we should all be concerned about the current dissatisfactory state of power in the country, especially considering that President Muhammadu Buhari identified it as one of his government’s priorities during his inauguration speech. But it is also fair to recognise – as a sign of hope and the potential for improvement if the right things are done – that his government also holds the record for the highest value of electricity ever generated in the country, which is 5,074 megawatts, on February 2, 2016.
Interestingly, this new peak was attained after the privatisation of the power sector, which contradicts the claim of the critics of the privatisation exercise like Mr. Ajaero that it has only made things worse.
But, as usual, after the new peak was attained, vandals moved in to wreck the good work, reminding us that there are sinister forces backed by vested interests that would prefer us to remain in darkness, and which we must tackle in order to reclaim such progress and make it sustainable.
And I believe tackling the menace of vandalism would require citizens recognising and fighting it as a common threat. Like every other crime, solving it becomes easier for the authorities when citizens see it as a common threat and volunteer information on the culprits, and in some cases play more active roles like setting up vigilante groups to check the activities of vandals.
And I cannot imagine a more common threat in today’s Nigeria than the vandals whose activities have virtually paralysed power generation in the country, taking a heavy toll on the wellbeing of the citizenry and impairing economic activity nationwide.
Ikeogu Oke, a public affairs analyst, lives in Abuja.