By Owei Lakemfa
We know President Muhammadu Buhari, the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces to whom the National Assembly and judiciary are loyal, is perhaps the most powerful person in the country.
But when his Minister of State for Power, Goddy Jedy Agba, announced on Monday, December 7, 2021 that his boss had removed with immediate effect, the management and board of a private entity, the Abuja Electricity Distribution Company, AEDC, some were still surprised. Not many were aware, that the President has dominion over all things in Nigeria, including the management of private companies.
Secondly, the reason given for his wielding the big stick was baffling: that the National Union of Electricity Employees, NUEE, went on a 14-hour strike over unpaid pension. If this were the true reason for the sack, then it is a curious one as it runs contrary to the labour laws of the country. The Trade Disputes Act states in Section 5 that in the event of a trade dispute, the Labour Minister may “in writing inform the parties or their representatives of his apprehension and the steps he proposes to take for the purpose of resolving the dispute”. The law also specifies the steps the Minister could take which include the appointment of a conciliator and, reference of the dispute to either the Industrial Arbitration Panel or a board of inquiry.
The industrial relations laws and practices are well-established in the country; it does not include the sack of either the employer or employee. An industrial dispute, all over the world, is between two parties; it is therefore strange that a conciliator or arbitrator- which can also be a court- can sit with one party and sack the other.
In other words, the meeting between the union and government where the sack of the employer was announced, is quite strange. This is raw politics not industrial relations or law. Like Nigerians would say, although unseen, the snake has hands. For the government and the union to meet to the exclusion of the AEDC management, amounts to shaving a man’s head in his absence.
If the electricity employees think the Presidency’s actions show its love for them, they need to reflect why the same Presidency, after six years in power, is denying them the statutory 10 per-cent shares allocated to them under the electricity privatisation law.
My conclusion is that this is monkey business; that the union is being used as an excuse to perpetuate illegality and for inelegant ends. The NUEE will be myopic to celebrate a seeming victory over an employer because if the Presidency would in violation of local and international laws, dissolve an employer in a dispute, then it would be a precedence it can repeat next time by dissolving the union. It would be unwise for the goat to rejoice that the lurking tiger had devoured its rival.
Yes, government has 40 per cent shares in the AEDC, but, even by our convoluted arithmetic in counting electoral votes, this does not amount to majority shares. The current 60 per cent shares in private hands is still a majority. It is the board that has the powers to sack the management not the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces; the control of bayonets does not amount to shareholding.
Most Nigerians know that the privatisation of the electricity sector in 2013 under the Jonathan administration was fraudulent. I know this to be a fact because I represented the Nigeria Labour Congress, NLC, at the 2012 meeting of the National Council of Privatisation, NCP, chaired by then Vice President Mohammed Namadi Sambo which decided on the bids. I reported faithfully to the NLC that what was done was allocation and working to given answers.
To worsen matters, neither the successor six generation companies, GENCOs, nor the 11 distribution companies, DISCOs, have in the last eight years contributed to the improvement of electricity generation or distribution in the country. If anything, they are like sick babies suckling on appropriated public wealth; parasites, feeding on the populace. Additionally, despite being private entities, the Buhari government has spent at least N1.3 trillion of public funds on these companies with little or nothing to show for it, except ever-increasing tariff.
President Buhari himself agrees with this. Addressing the closing plenary of the Nigerian Economic Summit, NES, in Abuja on Thursday, October 12, 2017, he said the electricity privatisation was faulty and that some of the purchasers were false buyers who were owing more than they can pay. He announced his government is negotiating with the DISCOs and GENCOs “… to determine the right level of holding to give up for another round of sales.”
Senate President, Dr. Ahmad Lawan, had been more forthright. On December 9, 2019, during a Senate Committee on Power Round-Table, he told the country: “We know that everything (electricity privatisation) is a fraud. If we play the ostrich in the next 10 years, we will be talking about the same things.”
Despite being in power for six years now, the provision of the 2013 Performance Agreement which empowers it to review the electricity privatisation after five years, and the backing of the National Assembly and the Nigerian people, the Buhari administration has failed to take any concrete step in this direction.
Its sack of the AEDC management last week had nothing to do with the review of the fraudulent privatisation process. Rather, it has to do with some monkey business as evidenced by the denial of the Presidency titled: ‘President Buhari did not order the sack of AEDC management, says Presidency’
So did a ghost sack the AEDC management and board? Not really. The Bureau of Public Enterprises, BPE, says it did it. Also, the reason changed from an industrial dispute to “an on-going dispute amongst competing factions of AEDC’s majority shareholder/core investor KANN Utility Company Limited, KANN”. This is what Fela would have called “Government Magic” when it changes white into blue.
So what is the BPE? It is a government agency under the NCP headed by the Vice President. In all honesty, constitutionally and structurally, can the Presidency differentiate between the President and the Vice President? It is like pap claiming to be different from the pap water, or the beans from the bean cake. When I was a child, we used to recite an 18th Century British rhyme: “Pease porridge hot, Pease porridge cold, Pease porridge in the pot, nine days old”. Does its being hot or cold change the fact that it remains Pease porridge? Is it logical to try to differentiate amongst the President, Vice President or a presidential agency when a common DNA runs through them? I am sure the BPE is not an illegitimate child.