He may not have told the story in this manner before. At 65, he has seen the good, the bad and the ugly sides of life. He’s dogged, resilient, stubborn, “quarrelsome” yet humble. He looks petite but very large-hearted. He’s like a gadfly that provokes thoughts, a spider that fights with its web. From a small background, he rose to become big so much so that many saw him as nearly indispensable to society. Today, the story of the Nigerian Labour Congress, NLC, and Edo State can never be complete without a mention of his name. And this was the story the immediate past governor of Edo Indeed, Comrade Adams Oshiomole is a journalist’s delight. Read about his many battles.
How has life been since you left office?
Well, it’s about five and a half months since leaving office. From November 13, 2016 to the end of April 2017, I think I have done exactly what anyone would expect. I have had to find time to rest just to make up for 16 years of hard work. If you play back the activities, I had to lead, as President of the NLC for eight consecutive years and, I left NLC, February 18, 2007 to contest for governorship on April 14 and, since then, it has been a struggle in a state that played host to political godfathers and to operate on a completely new political party in the state and work through that platform to become the ruling party and sustain that for three consecutive elections was tasking. This is to say nothing about the challenge of having to deliver on the public’s expectations. So it has been 16 years of hard work both in labour and in government and to God be the glory that we finished well and strong. So, the logical thing to do was, like I said to some friends, to make up for all the sleepless nights for those 16 years.
If you have an average of 4 – 5 hours a night rather than the 7 –9 hours that the doctors recommend to make up for lost sleep alone, you need more than 6 months. So, what I have been doing basically was to take time out to really rest in the truest sense of the word and find time to stay with my family and make up for my absence from home, free my brain from tension and worries. So, obviously, I have been resting and I spend more time in the village with my people; I still have a mum. I have brothers and sisters. Even when I was in labour, I always found time to go to the village to reconnect with my people.
What informed your choice of venturing into politics from labour activism in 2007?
I think the truth is that as you grow and begin to appreciate the forces that define the quality of life of the majority of the people, you realise the limitations of the organised labour, however militant it is and however dogged the leadership and the membership are to reorder the socio-economic order in a way that will deliver prosperity and welfare.
So having risen from the floor and walked to the most subordinated level in the factory to becoming the General Secretary of the Textile and Garment Workers Union and then to the presidency of the NLC and led strikes both at the factory and industry levels, and later at the economy level, you sit back to ask yourself; how much change have you really brought about? Each time you organise and you seem to get a concession, before you finish celebrating the concession, the ruling class has moved on to enact fresh policies that erode almost completely, sometimes, much more than you had gained in terms of welfare and purchasing power and then you are back to renewing negotiation. As soon as you go through this process and circle, you begin to ask yourself, when we say the struggle continues, till when? And can we really, with the power of organisation, activism, protest and strike, compel the ruling class to govern according to our own wishes and abandon their own class interest? Of course, one arrived at the conclusion that because governance isn’t value free, it is value driven. Those who govern would always pursue policies that protect their class interest and so, if you spend all your life agitating for welfare related issues; whether it is about a fair wage, living wage, social protection, all sorts of social economic issues, you begin to realise that as indispensible as the organized labour is, you can’t be, in the final analysis, the most effective tool to reorder the social economic environment in a way that delivers welfare to the vast majority of the people .
It is not just a political theory, it is also a political reality that if you want to fundamentally change the course, the way the society is managed and reorder who gets what and who pays, the only machinery available is the political machinery. I think by the time I ended my tenure at the NLC, these facts became very well known. Some people write sometimes unfairly because they are limited to their understanding of the forces at play. I believe that in the course of eight years I must have led more than 10 national strikes and in some cases succeeded in shutting down the economy which shows the power of the organised labour and which helped to reaffirm the NLC logo which says that labour creates wealth and on such occasion we ended up with some concession which we believed constituted some level of relief to the workers in terms of the minimum wage.
As President of the NLC, we got the legal minimum wage revised from 2,500 naira a month to 5,500 Naira and a practical wage for employees at minimum of 7,500 naira for federal, Lagos and the oil producing states particularly the core ones in the Niger Delta with the exclusion of Edo. After 100 percent increase in minimum wage and then causing an upward review of wages from levels 1 to 17 while also signing agreement for subsequent 25 percent increase the following year and 12 percent increase the year after and establishing a regime of annual adjustment of wages in line with the rate of inflation, you will think that you have gotten so much.
It was legislated upon once we signed the agreement with the Obasanjo government. But then you find out that the combined effect of other social economic policies was such that in no time this 100 percent gain in purchasing power begins to whittle down without anybody touching your pocket physically, the system simply devalue and put workers at the disadvantage and you begin to go back to the negotiating table.
So you find that, at the end of the day, you are generating so much heat, seemingly accomplishing so many gains, yet in real terms, the people are wondering if anything has fundamentally changed in their material conditions. So it was clear to me by the time I ended my tenure at the NLC that you needed a combination of activism as well as political power to fundamentally reorder the way the society is managed; who gets what and at whose expense? So this is what led me to the conclusion that I needed to get involved in politics. Now, the question was, at what level do you go in? You remember that there were people who said I should contest for presidency.
Meanwhile, I also knew that the process of converting public goodwill to political asset and electoral asset required more than just being known and well respected. There are levels of organisation, there are core issues, there is time factor and several other issues and I was convinced that I had spent so much time of my life doing communiqué, resolution, threat, strike, collective agreement and disagreement etc. Now, let me go even if it is at a sub-national government level but, even at that level, there are limits to what you can do; but, even at that level, it is possible to get things done as government and, in some fundamental ways, address those issues that you have been trying to address through negotiations, through executive orders and I think that is what really motivated me and I said the way to start was to go to Edo State. To be honest, it would have been more convenient for me to contest election in Kaduna State because that is where I have lived all my adult life but, under the rules, you have to go to your state of origin and I went there and, of course, as they say, the rest is history.
You must have faced some terrible situations in the course of negotiations with government. What can you remember about those days that were so daring?
Anytime you engage the state and you do so in a manner that commands the support of the people and here we have to redefine the issue because we talked about fighting for workers, things are relatively easy. I believe labour is always fighting not just for the workers but for the country because the worker is not just a factory hand, he belongs to a community. He spends only eight hours at work and spends 16 hours outside the work environment, in a community. So, what affects him and the issue you canvass goes beyond the work environment. For example, when we engaged government over fuel pricing policy, it wasn’t about wage.
Like I had to argue with the President and the government then, when you say you are going to give us buses to go to work, that’s not just what a worker needs. How does the increase in price, which affects my parents in the village, how does the provision of bus for me to go to work and come back from work address the cost of moving food from the farm to the market? The issues were much wider. Even though our immediate constituency was workers, the social agenda that we sought to push went beyond working families. It had to do with entire the voiceless people. Secondly, it is often not readily clear that, sometimes, the organised labour fights more for businesses but unfortunately business people, by reason of individual comfort and fear, are used to taking business risk but not often political risk .
They can take business risk but when it comes to agitating for policies that would make the environment for doing business more conducive, they go beyond quiet persuasion to political leaders and, even as we speak today, I still see Manufacturers Association of Nigeria, MAN, etc, talk about the cost of doing business, the challenges, the bottle necks in double breasted suits, cozy conference rooms, well written letters to ministers, while we are the attack dogs that go beyond the rhetorics to engage the government that they must pursue policies that emphasise production rather than importation.
A lot of the arguments we had to make, for example, talking about how all of these will affect the cost of doing business while public policy should focus more on protecting local production.
For example, my first contact with Aliko Dangote was based on this; we were in a committee together on Vision 2010 and he was in a subcommittee that I was also in and, when he listened to my own articulation on public policy as it affects the private sector, after one or two days, he called me and said ‘I thought you were the union man but you seem to be so committed in protecting business interest and the way you understand the issue is even much deeper than some people in the private sector and people outside just think that you people only fight business, you fight employers, and I said it was not even out of love for business, it was just a matter of self- interest because when business prospers, collective bargaining makes sense, but when an economy is in recession and businesses are in trouble and they eventually begin to fail, the first causalities are workers and even under the law, if a company goes to bankruptcy, you would be surprised that the terms of managing the liabilities when they appoint a receiver manager, the bank tends to take precedent over employees interest. So,the receiver manager will auction assets to settle bank loans before settling workers wage obligations. Therefore, it is a matter of enlarged self-interest for trade unions to defend the business environment in a way that would keep businesses alive so that jobs can be secure and employers can be prosperous and therefore give the union the basis to negotiate how to distribute the prosperity that has been generated.
So, when people say that unions fight for workers, it is only part of the truth. Unions fight for the country in a way that no other group seems to be able to do and, because labour occupies a very strategic position in the economy, it seems to be the only exclusive group that has the capacity to really engage beyond rhetoric to hold the regime down to specifics. So, we fight for everyone. I remember a lady saying to me when we were talking about pension reforms that when she watched my argument, she thought it was like she had spoken to me about the problem she was facing but she is not a member of the union but the issues we were canvassing affect people both at the vertical and horizontal lines.
In the course of these negotiations, did you have squabbles with the powers-that-be?
Of course, we don’t need to say these things. I think you are in a better position to know the reaction of government. Of course, it isn’t a novelty match. It is like a World Cup final, the stakes are high not just in terms of prestige but also, issues of reordering and redistributing national income and there are vested interests.
Maybe the best way to summarize the attitude of the state and what we might have gone through because there are many things I cannot tell you in an interview is to play back President Obasanjo’s broadcast of October 8, 2003 or 2004 in which he accused me of behaving like alternative President and running the NLC as if it was an alternative government and said our plan ultimately was to overthrow the government.
It was a national broadcast and when you saw his face, he thought he had had enough of an organisation that wasn’t recognising his right to govern according to his wishes and often reminded us that, while we claimed to be elected to represent labour that, he was also elected not only by labour, but also by other Nigerians and therefore he had the right to pursue policies that reflected the basis of his election.
So, I think that broadcast will tell you the mood of government when you succeed in mobilising public action in a way that really threatens the policy environment. But a trade union is like a permanent opposition that has no vision or an objective of forming a government. So, it is not like a political party opposition that if it succeeds in bringing down a government, it will take over.
Now labour, even if it succeeds or attempts to bring down a government, it is not in a position to profit from the defeat of a government because the government will be taken over by another political party and, when the political parties belong to the same class, how much difference exists? So, whereas we have no intention to bring down the government, we have the intention to defeat a particular policy or set of policies that we consider inimical to the welfare not just of workers but also of the silent majority of the people.
Many Nigerians believe you got good help from some personalities and one of them they won’t shy away to mention is Ashiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu who is a former Lagos State governor. How much help would you recall getting from Tinubu at the time?
People look at politics and political support often in terms of naira and kobo. The election in Edo was cheap. If I recall very well, the total money we spent for the election was less than N300 million for my first term because I didn’t need to pay to introduce myself. I remember some women said to me: ‘You are the one who say kerosene price shouldn’t go up because we are too old now to carry fire wood’. So, I didn’t have to buy votes. In politics, the people are the drivers and players. All that was required was to remind the people they couldn’t reduce themselves to ‘dem say, dem say’.
It had to be ‘we’ and that was why my slogan was ‘let the people lead’ and I was emphasising it to them. Now the lesson to learn from Tinubu, more than anything else people want to talk about, is the fact that, whereas in the South-West, the preference was clear as evident in the fact that AD controlled all the states which they won, but by the time Obasanjo realised that he was President without the support of his home base, he decided to launch an attack on the zone. I believe only he and those involved in the game knew what tools they deployed but, at the end, it was only Lagos that survived under Bola Ahmed Tinubu.
So, you can’t but find that as a source of inspiration that it is possible in a game that many can be felled and one man can remain standing and begin to organize and mobilize rather than agonise and, overtime, claim that region substantially back to his fold.
You cannot fail to appreciate the fact that when the then Federal Government took over AD through undercover agents and manipulations, Ashiwaju led a revolution to leave AD completely to found AC where he later became the only governor and I think now people have forgotten that, at a point, Tinubu’s ADC was withdrawn, his police details were withdrawn, the Commissioners of Police were changed every other day depending on whether they were ready to be used or refused to be used.
INEC changed the EOs the way you change your underwears even a day to the election and the Lagos Army Garrisan was put on alert to ensure that Lagos was captured by all means by the ruling party and Tinubu, without control of the official instrument of rigging, fought hard to sustain his hold on Lagos.
There is something to learn about conviction, about not agonising, about believing in your own capacity to fight and you will also recognise that the Federal Government, at the time, got so angry that they withheld local government allocations to Lagos and the political consequences of that, amongst other things, is that local government employees will not be paid and local government administration will come to a halt.
Even with a Supreme Court pronouncement, the government of the day refused to release those allocations and Tinubu was able to run Lagos and pay local government workers as if the allocations were still coming. I always tell people that you don’t shy away from what works, admit it and see even how you can improve on it.
I was in the union when Ashiwaju was fighting to reorder the Lagos tax regime. I remember him, when we insisted that he must implement the minimum wage of 7,500 naira in Lagos as if it was a derivation state or Federal Government due to the cost of living in Lagos, showing me the allocation to Lagos was about 2 billion or so, and local revenue was between N400 and N600 million a month and he fought hard, everyone took him to court, he persisted, he re-engineered the locally generated revenue and by the time he was done, revenue had climbed to about 17 billion and today Lagos doesn’t really need allocation from the federation account to survive. Those are things that can inspire you not in terms of ‘come and see that purse, there is money there’. If money is the basis for electoral victory or defeat, PDP would never have lost federal power. So, it is about skill, vision, courage of conviction and I like to read, I like to watch, I like to observe and when I see someone doing something unusual and it is working, I would like to quietly find out what is the secret. To that extent, we were inspired by the Lagos experience and that was why we allied with AC as it then was to fight the Edo battle. Not in terms of Naira and kobo. No.
During the 2015 elections, you were seen to be everywhere. You canvassed for now President Buhari as against someone I may call your brother coming from the South-South. Meanwhile, barely two years in office as President, many Nigerians are quick to say that it was ‘one chance’ they entered, that APC has disappointed them. Do you really buy that idea?
To people from my kind of background and orientation, we can’t reduce politics to brother and sister. It should be about competence. In 2011 when I thought, looking at the candidates, that here was a young man, well educated, he had seen it all, he worked at OMPADEC and he had worked as deputy governor, governor, vice president and acting president, he seemed to have, on the face of it, sufficient experience and, as a young man, he would be hungry to make a statement and Nigeria needed a hungry person who would be anxious to say ‘no, we must change our material condition’. In Edo, we voted for him. We didn’t hide it.
In 2011, if you asked President Goodluck Jonathan, he will tell you that he got more votes in Edo but few years down the road, I also could see that the country was degenerating. I believe that if PDP hadn’t been voted out from the centre, Nigeria would have collapsed. Look at all the revelations, even security money was kept in a private residence in Ikoyi. Defence money in the face of Boko Haram was put by generals in soak away pits.
These are no longer in the realm of speculations. These are judiciary findings and there are confessions all over the place. Boko Haram was controlling about 18 local governments and they got to Kogi and close to Edo. They bombed some banks in Auchi because they were looking for money. Look at the economy, the unprecedented level of crude oil theft that was being reported everyday and I was a member of a committee because we were agitating that about one hundred thousand barrels of crude oil were being stolen everyday.
So, coming from my background, I couldn’t pretend that the country could go on and I was convinced that it wasn’t difficult to know what would have happened. I was convinced that if PDP hadn’t been voted out, if this scale of abuse of the system had continued, it is arguable whether there would have been Nigeria in its present form or not.
So, on that basis of my conviction and having joined forces with the ACN, CPC, part of PDP and part of APGA to form APC, we had to aggressively fight and put the message across and, if I were to do it all over again, I will still do the same thing because I have arrived at the conclusion that, based on my definition of the socio-economic environment and the level of abuses that I was seeing, Buhari, given his track record, his personal life style, living by example and all of that, when you compare him with other generals, I was convinced, at this time, that we needed him to reorder the environment which is why “change” was our slogan.
I can tell you that in discussing the slogan, we said it had to be the catch phrase ‘change’ and I believe many things have changed; certainly not everything but many things have changed and many things are changing. For those who say these are not what we promised, it is just that they have short memory. Everybody agrees that you don’t have to be a public sector manager or a player in policy and economy to recognise that security is a precondition for sustainable economic growth and development. Without security, you can’t attract investors. Even existing investors will run away. People don’t remember now what party was in government when Nestle relocated to Ghana? When Michelin relocated, when Dunlop relocated, many textile companies, when the Chinese rather than producing in Kaduna, Ikorodu, Aba, Port Harcourt and elsewhere went back to China to produce goods to be smuggled into Nigeria, who was in power? It was the PDP.
Everywhere, everybody was counting how industries were closing rather than Nigeria’s huge population being an advantage such that if you want to access the market, you relocate here. People now realised that under the free trade, you don’t need to relocate to Nigeria because the environment was hostile. Government level of corruption was intolerable. I was at the meeting presided over by the former president where we were told that because Boko Haram was controlling about 48 local governments, we couldn’t go for national election. Today all 774 local governments are effectively under Federal Government control.
This is not an achievement? I emphasise security because nothing else could have followed without security. The dollar as you see is a strong currency but it is also a coward. It doesn’t go to war zones. Once you detonate bomb, the first thing you see that starts to run is the dollar. So, I believe that President Buhari’s accomplishment in the area of security, you can’t downplay it, you can’t trivialise it. How many jail breaks in Kogi? Some of us that understood the technical definition of forest used to wonder where is this Sambisa Forest.
I was in a meeting where they showed us the video footage of some people in this forest, so I said ‘if you can see these people, this forest isn’t as huge as the current sense of the word’ and today that forest is under the control of the Federal Government. You can’t devalue that. Secondly, the President, the APC said he was going to fight corruption and, in a memorable quote, he said that if you don’t kill corruption, corruption will kill us. I don’t think anybody has disputed that. Today there is no question of whether corruption is being fought. The worst criticism I have seen is that there are arguments as to whether this is the way it should be fought or it should be that way.
We are having a feeling of deja vu in the country right now. In 2010 Nigerians were exposed to that and we are having it again. The President is sick and there are calls for him to resign. Where do you stand?
Sometimes people want to eat their cake and have it. The truth, is I believe and I say it, not as a political statement, that President Muhammadu Buhari has shown uncommon level of commitment to transparency and disclosure by admitting that he is sick and if you say you want to compare what happened under PDP in 2010 to what is happening now, you would see there is a huge world of difference. At that time, there were stories as to who signed the budget. Was budget signed in Saudi Arabia or was it signed in Abuja, Nigeria? What type of conversation is that? I think, this time, there is greater transparency.
Secondly, the President said he was going for treatment and, unlike PDP, this President recognises the spirit and the letter of the Constitution. In drafting the Constitution, the people understood that a President can fall ill or find himself in a situation that he is completely incapacitated and he can’t work.
During this period, he should appoint his Vice to act. Now, this President, without being compelled, without anybody organising protest, without anybody writing an editorial, wrote to the National Assembly; I am unwell and going for medical check up but, while I am away, the Vice President should act in line with the provision of the Constitution. That is a huge world of difference. Remember the whole debate as to whether or not Jonathan should act, whether they could pronounce him as acting president. Now Buhari came back after some weeks and said he was back but, even then, the VP should still act because he still needed 2 or 3 days to rest. How much more transparency can we expect?
And as envisaged by the Constitution, the Vice President is playing his part and the Constitution also said very clearly that the President can delegate the Vice President to do anything he wishes him to do and that he is doing. I haven’t seen any commentator who says that the VP isn’t being empowered to do certain things.
In fact, I hear people say the VP is being directed and he’s doing well. How much more can the President disclose? Is there anything happening now that isn’t constitutional? No! And when the President came back, he said at a later date he will still go back and he said all his life he had never been this sick, that he went through x ,y ,z.
How much more can a leader disclose to his people? And then I see people say ‘ publish your health status, publish this, publish that’; you as a reporter, do you publish your medical result and report? Which of the governors has published what he spends when he goes for medical check up? Like I told someone, as governor of Edo, I appropriated public funds to support indigent persons and, in fact, two or three persons who on the strength of doctors recommendations, I sponsored their trip to India and UK to attend to surgeries at public expense. Even the ordinary Nigerian, anybody can fall ill. The call for resignation is unfair. It is not just unfair, it is mischievous; a political mischief. Who is casting the first stone?
The President, at the twilight of your administration, said you were needed at the national level. Where do you go from here having served out successfully? What other future ambitions do you have? There are speculations that your name is being penciled downed for a ministerial position. Is it true?
As you said, the President said something on his own and that is it. It is not an issue to be discussed. I am not one of those that would say I was pressurized to go and seek; that is pure hypocrisy. When I was asked to contest for President, some specific names tried to convince me and I said no. I remember Gani saying here was a lion who chose to work like a Lilliputian and went on to say it would be easier for me to win the President of Nigeria than the governor of Edo given the powers of godfathers in Edo. This was in black and white and he meant well but I said ‘no, at any level you want to serve you can make an impact’ .
So, if the President said that, you leave it to him. Now as for speculations, I read them like you do in the media. I don’t know where it is coming from but my gratitude to God is that I asked Him to bless my decision to go to Edo to vie for the office of governor and to use the instrument to impact positively on the lives of the people and I sought re-election after four years and there was a referendum on my mandate and, in an unprecedented manner, I won in all the 18 local government areas. It has has never happened before and my party was in opposition and the godfathers could do nothing. I defeated each and every one of them in their wards and local governments. And in the retreat we had before the end of my tenure, our communiqué which I also filed before God, my prayer was to finish well and finish strong. I believe God granted both reliefs.
I believe I finished well as evident in the President’s remark and the remark of very many Edo people including the Oba of Benin who spoke at his installation. Finishing strong and well, I was replaced by a candidate from my own party. What more could I ask for? So, now, I am having a well desired rest after eight years of political battles in Edo and eight years of activism on the streets as President of the NLC. God has been extremely merciful. And if I can tell you, when I am fighting battles, my source of courage is simply this. Growing up I never imagined I would be a councillor.
It was never in my wildest dream and, if you ask my colleagues in the NLC, my former President who I was a deputy to, Paschal, he has passed on now but if you ask other activists who are still alive like Sylvester Ejofor, they would tell you I was the one that was leading the active partisan group.
I believe labour cannot be apolitical. I mean you don’t operate in a political vacuum but that we shouldn’t be partisan. So I was the least political but as I became more aware and practically got engaged when I saw the limitations, I moved on and God blessed it. From being a worker at the lowest level in a textile factory to becoming the head of all the working people in Nigeria called the NLC and then made a complete cycle because, to be honest with you, when we used to fight those battles with the Federal Government, if I thought of contesting election, maybe, I would have been tempted to try to defend Obasanjo so that he could help me.
In fact, there was a day he said to me, ‘You need to support me so that one day me too can support you’ but I didn’t understand what he was talking about. People talk about their lives’ ambitions; mine is a story of miracle. How God can order your life and help you deliver on it in a manner that you yourself can’t understand. When I see the fighting now being outside, I appreciate more the miracles of God. How could I have left NLC on February 18, 2007 and contested election two months later on April 14, 2007; winning that election through the judiciary intervention which was also unprecedented and proceeding from there to superintend over the liquidation of the godfathers? I mean this is God’s miracle. So, I am completely fulfilled.
That is why all I can do now is to live on my conscience because there is nothing more to prove. I told the President when he came for the last rally ahead of the election of my successor, with joy and that joy was from my heart, ‘Sir, today, I am so pleased that whereas I started this journey as an orphan in the sense that I was a political orphan, fighting against the political establishment called godfathers and associates, not one councillor was in my party, not one local government, not state or federal and I won the election and I was being oppressed by the godfathers throughout this period and, by the time I was leaving, in the last election, I now had a sitting President at our rally to speak as President of Nigeria on the same political platform’.
So, I came as an orphan and ended up with a father at the Villa. I can’t possibly ask for more. So, only God and God alone can make such miracles possible in the life of someone from my kind of background.