Saturday, 13 April 2013

Oshiomhole @ 61: STORY OF MY LIFE

Our Reporter April 6, 2013 2 Comments » By ERIC OSAGIE On Thursday, April 4, 2013, Edo State Governor, Comrade Adams Oshiomhole, marked his 61st birthday. For him, it was a time to look back at his life, as he took time off to tell his story. In this interview, the governor talked about his growing up, his life as a unionist, his wife and close to five years in government. Excerpts. Congratulations on your 61st birthday, comrade governor. Looking back, how has the journey been for you? Do you feel anything different? Of course, the body can’t be the same. However, talking seriously, I think my life has been one of a miracle. It is in the sense that, looking back at my little village, Iyamho, where I was born, the very humble condition of my parents, all I had then, my dream in life, I mean everything has been miraculous. First, leaving the village for Kaduna, not knowing anybody there but just believing that if I get there I have a job, naivety, the innocence and of course, getting there to find out that life was not as exactly as I had assumed. In that condition, I had to sleep in a police station for three nights! When you got to Kaduna? Yes. There was nowhere to stay. Only God can explain all that happened. That is why I said it is a life of miracle. But it has always been exciting. Nothing has come easy; everything has been the result of struggles. The struggles were not by my strength. I believe God just used me to do those things. God has shown comforting power that is awesome. Only God can shield you from the poisonous teeth of those forces that I had to confront. And even to be alive can only be ascribed to the infinite powers of God to protect those He chose. Being here today, after our struggles at the factory level, the NLC etc is amazing. It has been a very exciting life and I have every reason to appreciate God, thank Him for His infinite powers to favour those He chose to. I think am one of the very few of such people. What was your childhood like for you? It was tough, extremely tough. You come from a village, your parents are peasant farmers, you had to go school as well as go to the farm, get support here and there to be able to meet your obligation even at secondary school level; it was quite tough. But I also believe that that tough beginning prepares you for the rigours of life. Like my late father used to say to me, when he felt that he had made us to work too hard and we were beginning to feel that he was hard on us, ‘Adams, hard work does not kill but laziness kills.’ And that hard work is physical; it is on the farm. You don’t say because it is raining, we are not going to farm today, no. Because it is raining, you must quickly prepare and go to farm and plant so that seedling will be ok. So you actually farmed? Yes, as a little boy we had to follow our parents to the farm. It was normal. What was abnormal was to stay at home when your father was at the farm. Even when you go to school, as you close by 2pm, you still had to go to the farm to do few things. Were you the eldest? Yes , I was the first born. Who were you particularly close to, your mother or father? My father was a very gentle guy; he worked so hard, he didn’t like to hurt his children; he would advise you, counsel you but he never beat anyone; he would never raise his voice. But my mum is a typical headmistress, very strict. She would abuse you as well as physically deal with you if you do not do what she asks you to do. So, in my innocence, I thought my father was a much more friendly parent than my mum. I thought my mum was too hard. In fact, I had once complained that if my mum were like my dad, I would be such a happy person. My mum is a bit on the very hard side. When she heard of it, she called me and said something to the effect that I did not like her. I said no, that I was just saying that my father was a good man. What were those childhood pranks you did while growing up in the village. What were they? The truth is as my mum would tell you, there were many things that my age mates used to do which I never indulged myself in. I was very serious-minded. We went to climb palm trees when my mates were playing around. I climbed palm trees to get palm kernels, palm fronts to weave baskets etc, but my friends and mates were going about looking for little thing. So, mine was hard work. I can’t remember any of those things like pranks. At what point did you make up your mind to go to Kaduna and what was the motivation? In the village, we were told that in the North, there were a lot of opportunities; that once you finished secondary school and have your certificate you can pick any job there. Based on this road side, under the trees conversation, I got convinced that I could get a job in Kaduna. We just arranged, did some work, raised some money to pay our fares and we went on the big truck, Man Diesel. I don’t know what it is called now. Oh yeah, we sat at this section called ‘second class.’ It took us about three days, going through Ilorin. Obviously, I am a Kaduna made. I left my village at about the age of 16. What was your first shock in Kaduna? We got there in the night. We discovered that life was not as we were told. The first shocker was that we thought that once we met our people there, those from our village, they would just welcome us with open hand, but that was not to be. We thought like that because the practice in the village was that when a stranger comes and he wants where to stay, families that have a space will volunteer a space; the strangers will live there without paying any rent. We thought it was like that everywhere. We went to Kaduna and found out that everywhere we went; they said there was no space. Then I thought they were wicked, but now I understand the reason for their action. These are also poor people who were living in one room with wives and children. They just divide the room with curtain. So, where will they put you if they accept that you stay with them? It is contrary to what obtained in the village, where you may be poor but you will have a large compound; you will build a large house; there may be no windows, but the space will be big for everybody. So, we just found out that there was no place to stay; we ended up in the police station for three nights. After the third night, the police ejected us and told us that the place was not a hotel. But then it shows that in those days police were very friendly. All we needed to tell them was that we were stranded. How many of you were in the journey? We were three. Are they still alive? Yeah. We were stranded, when it was getting to 9 pm we didn’t know where to go. We later resolved to go to the nearest police station, report ourselves and they accepted that we should sleep there. In the morning, we went about looking for where to stay; we didn’t find. We returned to the station. We did that for three days. What was your first job? My first job was as a boy who worked for surveyors. I did that for about a year before I went to Arewa Textile, where I was employed. Again, it is interesting; in those days you would register with the Ministry of Labour. When the employers wanted who to recruit, they contacted the Ministry of Labour; they will ask the number they wanted. They conducted the interviews and sent to them the number of employees they wanted. You rose through the ranks, becoming the General Secretary and later NLC President. At what point in your career did it become obvious to you that you had to fight for the downtrodden? After being employed, usually before you were offered full employment, you had to go through what they call medical examination and all that. When they were certified that you were fine, they would then give you uniforms, usually two pairs; they will take you to various departments. In my own case, we were about 16 that were recruited. We were handed over to the supervisor. He just looked at me and said stay there. I was looking the smallest. I wasn’t the youngest, but the smallest. He assigned the others to their various sections and units. He came to me and said he didn’t think I could work, saying I was too small and looked too fragile and therefore wouldn’t cope. He said they did 24-hour operations, 7am to 7pm, 7am to 7pm, two shifts, 12 hours each and therefore I wouldn’t cope. I said he should try me. He took me back to the personnel department and handed me over to the personnel man and said they were not accepting me. I pleaded with him but he refused. He had not tested me; it was not that I couldn’t do the job I was employed for. He just looked at me and dismissed me. The man is called Mr. Joshua. I pleaded with him, but he would not accept. When he took me back to the personnel manager, Mr. Shaba, from Niger State. He said, ‘Sir, we cannot accept this boy because he doesn’t look fit to work.’ The man asked if he gave me a job to do. He said that I wouldn’t do anything. I had to talk. I told the man I could do the job. The manager told him to go give me any job available. That was how he dismissed both of us. As we were going back, the supervisor said: ‘well, if I refuse, it will look as if I have anything against you. I don’t have. It is just that I do not think you can do this job.’ I said: ‘No sir. I will be able to do the job, Sir.’ How do you just look at a man who you didn’t ask any question and you just conclude that he is not fit? How could I have looked fit when I was not employed and I was hungry? I had nowhere to stay. I had no money. I needed the job to look fit. For me, I saw abuse of power by the supervisor. I saw that he didn’t like me, not for what I said or did or what I failed to do but just on the basis of my look. My look disqualified me in his eyes. I saw that people who have power and have no wisdom can do anything. The guy would have just terminated my life because without a job, how would I have looked fit? I needed the job because I knew I was gradually going. That day I said to myself that if ever I had an opportunity, people like this needed to be humbled. I joined the union immediately I got employed. I needed the union for protection. Having seen that I could be dispensed with like that, I joined the union. I felt the union was not doing enough because I saw people being dismissed every day over minor cases. You just come in the morning, if the Japanese didn’t like your face, any little mistake would cost you your job. They may just give you pay cut. Workers were being suppressed and we had nobody to complain to. The union, in my view, wasn’t doing enough. At a point, I stopped paying union dues. Was it voluntary? Yes, it was voluntary. They were collecting it by hand. I felt they were collecting money from us but not protecting anybody. People said they wanted me to be the union man. That was the beginning of my unionism. I took the job. Even that supervisor who wanted me out, I had occasion to interrogate him on his decision on disciplinary issues. Eventually we got him out. He was a very reckless fellow. Another painful one was that when I became the secretary of the branch union, that manager who saved me had problem with the union. We agitated for his removal. Those politics he used in my favour which was firmness, was good, but when it comes to the issues of welfare, it’s different matter. When someone’s job has been wrongly terminated, the union took it seriously. The purpose of union is to question the authority of management. The man would say that it was management’s decision or prerogative, but we would say it should be subject to democratic scrutiny by workers, who were affected by the exercise of that prerogative. So when it was increasingly impossible to get him to negotiate and make some concession we agitated that the man be removed, it was popular among the workers that he should go because everybody had one story to tell. I provided leadership; we got rid of him. That is part of the union challenge, that when the majority of the people have made a decision your responsibility as a leader is to carry it out; it does not matter if you do not personally believe in that resolution or decision. For me, when it comes to personal friendship and my responsibility, it is clear you must sacrifice friendship. Workers said the man must go. Who was I to say he wouldn’t go? If I do that, I would have betrayed the workers, especially when they had a good reason, which included that he did not like to bend once he had made a decision, right or wrong. The purpose of forming union is to question managerial prerogative and to subject management to negotiate and make concession. All my involvement in union is as a result of my own experience. When I got more exposed, I saw how those who wield political power abused it. How many years have you been in this struggle? The time I have worked for employer was about three years to four years. The rest of my life was working for workers. Can you recall some of the memories of those years? Memorable events… You know the way the union thing operates, each time we organised; we were able to humble the employer, particularly when we fought SAP through the use of strike weapon. In the case of an employer or the big man up there, what he said he won’t do in the morning, two, three days, he is ready to do it; we feel a lot of joy that this guy who was so powerful is now ready to come to your level and negotiate and get him to reverse some of his decisions. One particular one I remember was the agreement we had with the management of Arewa Textile. We said every year, on the first day of March, which is taken to be the end of financial year, every worker shall be entitled to increment and those who were adjudged to be hard working shall be entitled to additional merit increment, like a bonus. At the end of the year, they did their assessment and about 25 per cent of the workers didn’t even get increment. They said it was because workers were not found to be worthy of any increment. The language of the agreement was clear: once you are in employment you will automatically have increment. But if you are very good management, in its discretion, can give you additional steps. But it has no discretion on whether to give you the annual increment; once you are still in employment, you are entitled to it. So, it was like the issue of interpretation. When the management consulted its lawyer, the legal adviser said the union’s interpretation was correct, no condition was attached except that you were in employment. But the Japanese managing director asked the general manager (administration), who was a lawyer to explain how a union could defeat him in an argument. We were happy that we, who were lay men, could write an agreement that could not be defeated by a lawyer. We always had problems. There were struggles; sometime you win, sometime you lose. We paid dearly, because that was under military rule. By 1969, government came up with the first prohibition of strike; they criminalised the right to strike under the emergency decree. It was on account of the civil war; they said the country could not afford incessant strikes, when it was still fighting war. Those laws, which were made to stabilise the polity had a negative impact on the power of the unions to interrogate their employers. The employers knew that if workers didn’t agree they could not go on strike. If you went on strike, you were confronting the state. In my own innocence as a young man, not so exposed, I was always wondering why government took side with foreigners against Nigerians. Why would the Nigerian police be harassing me for organising strike against Japanese, who refused to pay workers their entitlements? But now I understand better. The good thing is that because of our level of militancy, the union then allowed you to have as many unions as possible. I became full time union organiser. Even though initially I was employed in textile industry, I got appointed as the General Secretary of Peugeot workers’ union to help them organise their union. Anytime we organised a successful strike, workers in other industries would approach me to help them organise their union. I had more than 10 unions, even as far as Kano. I was in automobile, in furniture, chemical, Kaduna, Zaria, Kano etc. It is like a lawyer; if you win a case, people will say go for that lawyer anytime they have a case. The law then allowed you to work for more than one union. At the end of all of these, I was a little bit very comfortable, because at the end of each month, I earned more than a senior manager when I put together my earnings from different unions. What has been the most traumatic period for you in the last 61 years? I used to reflect on that, because I have had a lot of challenges every time. I think as far as our struggles are concerned, the most difficult one was the strike we organised in 2002 when the police killed more than 20 people in Abuja and Lagos. They killed one right in front of the NLC. It was heart-rending; it was tough. We called the National Assembly to investigate; that was extremely traumatic. You watched your followers being shot dead. The state wanted to demonstrate that it had the capacity to kill if that became necessary, to intimidate us to submission. At the personal level, I met my wife in the course of struggles because she was helping to type some of my petitions. She was always worried about my life. If I was detained, she was always there moving from one police station to the other. Some days I didn’t go home; the police would just come and pick and take me to where I do not know. She would be going from one station to another, depending on where I caused the trouble. I remember this particular time that she was very heavy and was in the hospital; she left there and came to where I was detained. The police told her not to worry, that her husband would soon be released, but she virtually slept at the Kaduna police station. Of course, just as we were coming into government. she had this cancer and died. For me, it s like her lot was to pass through the phase of trouble. We had reached a point when she ought to sit back as the wife of a governor and enjoy some privileges. There is no more fear that I would be detained, arrested or oppressed. This was the time she would have had rest of mind. Unfortunately, it was the time fate chose to snatch her away from me. When you lose a wife, you married at the time of your struggle, you cannot find another woman like her; it is not possible. Sometimes I used to say that she married me, probably, out of pity. I said this because when she drafted for me letters demanding the removal of a manager, writing petitions and press statements against the police, she would ask me if I was sure the people won’t come after me. On the one hand she liked my rascality; on the other hand, she saw me as one to pity. It is impossible to even recover from her death. On occasion when you have challenges, you realise that your number one adviser is your wife, because she understands where you are coming from, why you feel the way you do. She would counsel you much more than anyone who doesn’t understand a few things about you. What prepared you for governance? To be honest, what I found out is that even when I was in the NLC, I didn’t know what people thought, but I don’t think I was a typical union man. I didn’t follow the normal tradition. Now, when I travelled I discussed with our colleagues around the world. I saw the way they looked at things, but I always thought a bit differently. For example, I supported privatisation of NEPA. I accepted to be a member of the National Council on Privatization. This was not well received by many of my colleagues, including my deputy at the time, who felt that, traditionally, unions should oppose privatisation. I was familiar with those tradition, but as I got more and more exposed, I recognised responsibility of the union, with regard to job security. The union must have an economic-wide view of job opportunities rather than sectoral view. I got this in the course of my trip to Japan. I visited a textile factory and saw that the job we did here manually was being done by computer. I asked my colleagues there why they were supporting high-tech computerised textile operation because my traditional British union literature was scared of technology and that was the background I was coming from, which has guided my action. I told them we must oppose change, we must defend systems. If use of machine would lead to job losses, it must be refused, we just needed to create jobs. But the Japanese guy said in his country they didn’t have natural resources. He said that what they had in abundance was human capital. He said they must be competitive to maintain export-led growth. He said that if they were not competitive, they would lose their share of the world market and jobs at home will die. I reminded him that what they were doing would lead to job losses in this industry. He agreed, but added that if they lost jobs in the textile industry because of computerization, they would gain some job in the chemical sector, automobile sector etc. He said they took economic-wide view of job opportunities because if you didn’t, some sectors will no longer be competitive. I took my lessons from there. If we have to lose 200, 000 jobs in NEPA and gain 10 million jobs overall in the Nigerian economy, I will go for that. My responsibility was not just to NEPA workers but also to textile workers, leather industries, chemical sector, furniture industries, automobiles etc. These sectors were stagnating due to lack of power supply. As regards governance, my best year as President of NLC was the year we had N132 million annual gross. The money was for the payment of salaries at the head office, pay rents in the state councils, pay all the travelling and meeting expenses etc. Perhaps, the highest cheque I ever signed was probably a million or two. You come from that background to government, and somebody is bringing a file and said that he needs N2 million to make a trip to a place. This is wasteful, judging from my background. That was why we saved about N5billion in my first year as governor. All those frivolous trips, excessive wastage, recurrent expenditure, useless running cost etc, we cut them off. I think my union background affected my attitude to spending. Also, having travelled round the world, I have interacted with governments and private sector people; it was clear to me that the life of a country or state is not quite different from that of a family. If you are clear on what you want to do and you have the courage to do it, things will begin to happen. But if you are overwhelmed and you perfect lamentation, nothing is going to change. I had always mocked governors that commission public toilets or if they rehabilitate a tractor, they will go and commission it. Some vehicles that have been unserviceable, they got a mechanic to repair them and they would commission them. This is crazy. Because I have travelled round the world, I have met government officials particularly at the level of NLC. And all the things I see here I do not see them there. When I want to go out, I tell my ADC not to wear uniform. I have problem with the police on that. As a civilian government, I should look civil when I go out, not being followed by gun-toting, fierce looking mobile police. In any case, can I be better protected than President Barack Obama? Do you see uniform men around him? But he is well secured. You see him shaking hands. Those things maybe well-arranged but the leader must be seen. For me, these are lessons I learnt in the course of going out. I see the humility that other world leaders display. They just sit around the table, not people carrying coffee for the president. It makes you feel that he is just like you, even though that is not the reality. They have powers. When they say roundtable, they make it truly round table. But we know the man who has the power. My worry is that when we travel we see good things but the only thing we bring back is the shopping bag. We drop the ideas at the airport. When I got here, I said the roads I see abroad have walkways. You build a road in the city and assume that everybody is driving a vehicle. In fact, majority of the people are on the sidewalks. So, I said that any road that we are building must have walk ways. Outside that walk way there is a deep drainage that is well covered, so that when it rains the water flows out. If you walk on the streets of London, Germany or anywhere, you find under those walk ways drainage. Those ideas are what we must put into practice here. When we are designing roads, they must have those features. That is why I wanted to be governor, to try to move away from passing resolutions, recommendations, complaining etc. We have showed an example in Edo and I am sure that nobody is going to come to Benin after my tenure and build road without walk way or build road without drainage. People will revolt if that is done. I will say that union exposure gave me the opportunity to interact with senior executives of multinationals. I talk with them and they analyse the way the world works and why they are doing what they are doing, their forecasting etc. Even as you argue to defend your constituency you don’t fail to know that these guys have brains and they are not just doing trial and error. They have their long term projection, nothing happens by accident. I went to Japan. I tried to understand their compensation structure as a union man. In Japan, the teacher is seen like a baker. You must cater for your bakers very well because people like to eat bread. Every family has bread to eat every morning. If the bakers are angry and they put poison on the bread the entire race is gone. Why are the teachers referred to as bakers? Teachers are responsible for baking future leaders. If you don’t have the right human capital, well-skilled with the right orientation, there is no future for Japan. So, the country will do everything to attract the best brains to teach. Just to say that what people don’t understand about unionism is that it gives you the opportunity to meet with the management and engage them. There are two kinds of dialogue. There are people you are discussing with, even if you don’t agree with them, you don’t fail to ignore the point they are making. When you meet Japanese, Chinese, Americans you see different management styles; you can see the one that works and the one that doesn’t. You have the opportunity to choose the one to adopt. I will say clearly that my union exposure has influenced my management style. I am more of a private sector person. What I tell my commissioners and permanent secretaries is that they should not give me excuses. I don’t want to hear we wanted to go there but we couldn’t because it was raining; I came late because I had a flat tyre. No, you ought to know that tyre can go flat when budgeting for time. Japanese will say don’t tell me why you failed, tell me the extra steps you had to take in the light of unforeseen challenges in order to deliver on your obligations. No stories. You must perform, no story. In Nigeria, somebody will say, ‘excuse me, Sir, so and so happened.’ No, no story. They don’t take story. I learnt it from them. For me, don’t tell me stories. When I arrived Edo, people said all manner of things. It was at the peak of economic crisis; our revenues dropped such that what we earned was less than what we needed to pay salaries. What that meant was that I would have continued with the regime of non-payment of salaries, which Edo workers had been used to. In the past, the workers would stay two, three months without being paid. In fact, when I asked teachers recently what has happened that majority of our teachers are women, in primary and secondary school levels especially, they told me that before I came, when they were not being paid regularly the male decided to leave. You are the bread winners, you are not being paid, how do you cope? Those who found something else to do left. The women managed to stay back. They also devised means of selling T- shirts, going to Onitsha market to buy things to sell. That is part of the problem that we are still dealing with till date. They have got used to working out a roster among themselves on how to cope. Their agreement is that some will work for two days and others will work for two days, but everybody will get full pay at the end of the month. They say that because the pay will not come at the end of the month, they needed ways to survive until they are paid. Unfortunately, now that we are paying, as at when due, that arrangement has not been totally stopped. Back to the management of our lean resources; I said we could just publish at the end of every month our total receipt of Abuja, which dropped to N1.6billion; our local revenue was about N300 million to N280 million. All together everything was about N1.8billion or N1.9billion but our wage bill was N2billion. In one of my party’s meetings, I told them that you cannot transparently explain failure as a leader. How do you transparently tell your people that you have failed and showed them the reason you failed? The challenge of a leader is not to accept failures. We talk of transparency; it is in context. It is not to transparently explain failure. No. Failure is failure. My objective is not to come here to fail. After governorship what is the next phase of your life? I will go back to my community and be doing petition (laughs). The real joy in public office is that at the end of your service you are able to walk the street. Even at old age people can say, oh yes, nice guy, he did this, he did that. You will have internal joy when you hear this. What bothers me any day I wake up is what we do to sustain the enormous public support that we have. My hope is that at the end of my tenure in 2016, we would have succeeded in first, repositioning Edo State on the part of sustainable development such that a future government can’t come and buffet our people with excuses and lamentations. Politically, Edo people can never be enslaved again. There will never be in history when any one man again will impose his will across the three senatorial districts. No. They would have leaders who might command respect or fail to command respect but no one will impose his will without question. Like one of the members of the royal family said, nobody will come in future to say Edo case is a hopeless case. Edo is a beautiful place. Everything is possible here. A land of possibilities? Infinite possibilities because all those things you require for greatness are present. First is the industry of our people. Our people are sharp; they are intelligent; they are industrious; they are hardworking; they are enterprising and they are bold. And they are rugged! What more do we need? We have good land, geographically located; we are central; we have everything going for us. What was missing was a focused and clear leadership and I feel over the next two, three, four years, my prayer is that we sustain this and we will be leaving behind crop of democrats who will defend the democratic space. I hope one day when I am in my village, if God gives us all the gifts of good health and longevity, I will say ‘oh yes, I remember that guy, he was my so and so, oh yes, I am happy he is doing well but tell him I greet him oooooo.’ You know, because really, there is nothing else in life. And I want my children to be able to go to anywhere and say, ‘I am the son of Oshiomhole, I am the daughter of Oshiomhole.’ They should never be ashamed of their father’s name. For me, that is the final pay-off. If my children can go anywhere and say, ‘I am the son of Oshiomhole’ and they are not ashamed, then my life is fulfilled. The fear my children had, because I didn’t have the support of my late wife and my children for politics, they argued and I believe, to some extent rightly, that usually, when you are in politics, all you get is insults, abuse and you end up being ashamed. Bad headlines, damaging stories et cetera. But I told them that even before I went into the Nigerian Labour Congress, NLC was down and out. If you review the media coverage of NLC, NLC was dismissed as a military apologist. Gani Fawehinmi was particularly hard on the NLC. The human rights community had dismissed the NLC as part of the government establishment et cetera. And even Professor Jega, I remember one day, he gave a lecture and said he didn’t se

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