Comrade Peter Akpatason relinquished power last December as president of National Union of Petroleum and Natural Gas Workers, NUPENG, after eight years of exemplary leadership.
He is currently in politics, aspiring to clinch the Edo North Senatorial District seat come 2011.
Currently, Comrade Akpatason is a national Trustee of the Nigerian Labour Congress and an achiever and a consummate leader who has a penchant for people’s welfare and interest.
In this interview with James Ezema, he spoke on his senatorial ambition, praised the developmental efforts of Comrade Governor of Edo State, Comrade Adams Oshiomohle, electoral reform and other national issues.
How would you assess the role of the civil society groups and the organised labour right from the day ailing President Umaru Yar’Adua was flown abroad for medical attention, his dramatic return and the politics of the emergence of Dr. Goodluck Jonathan as Acting President?
In summary, I’ll say the civil society has done well in sensitising Nigerians and bringing to the fore issues that border on constitutional violation and those can also course a threat unity of this county. I’m particularly impressed by Nigerian citizens who took part in the Save Nigeria Campaign.
The Acting President has been in the saddle of leadership for some weeks now and looking at steps he has taken so far, how would you assess his performance so far?
I think it is too early to assess him but my happiness is that inspite of the controversies and challenges, the Nigerian nation is still united. I think that is a credit to all the leaders of this country, including the civil society that you talked about.
How do you see the dissolution of the Executive Council of the Federation, EXCOF, by the Acting President?
It is expedient from time to time to change the team that work with a leader. But for me, it is nothing different from what has been happening in the past. It is important for someone to understand some people that he works with and have coherency and have a team that think alike, and have people that can make contributions towards actualising the dreams and objectives of the group.
The Federal Government has insisted on total deregulation of the down stream sector of the oil industry and subsidy removal and this has generated a lot of debate. As someone who has been a major player in the industry, what is your view on this?
Well, I would like to talk about transformation in the oil and gas industry because deregulation for me is a subset the total transformation that we are talking about. It is a long over due transformation. Historically, Nigeria has been disadvantaged by the relationships it had with multinationals that have dominated the industry because of the obnoxious agreement that were put in place so many years ago.
Some of them have not been able to deliver to the country maximally and it is important that at some point in time that tends to change and that is what is happening right now. Coming to that minute aspect of it that you called deregulation, we need to actually look at the implication that such policy can have on Nigerian people, and therefore, the need to consider the entire circumstances and the policy. Deregulation has worked well in some parts of the world. Therefore, if you want to look at deregulation, you have to look at the circumstances of such countries whether we have them here or not. And if we don’t have them here, what do we do to create that enabling environment.
Sincerely speaking, if the right environment is created, deregulation can work. But the issue now is that we don’t have those enabling factors. They are not sufficiently available in this country but they can be made available if the right steps are taken.
For instance, the entire policy seems to be premised on import parity, which is an aberration for a smooth operation of a market economy. It is aberration in the sense that if the total local consumption is dependent on importation, then the country will end up importing inflation and other vices from the countries where they are getting these products from. But if it is premised on local production of whatever commodities, then you can be sure that the purpose of the economy will be able to determine the levels of supply, availability and the frequency of bringing products into the market and the rest of it. But if it is import driven, if there is a problem in the countries where products are imported, they would like to solve their own domestic problem before exporting products to the importing nations. It leaves us in a very precarious situation.
So, efforts should be made to ensure that the local refining capacity is improved upon to the extent that we can get about 75 percent of our local requirement for a start, with a view to have a 100 percent and even having enough to export. That is one very important aspect. But, again, even if we were to import in the short run, how about the receptive capacity, the level of our coastal water, the jetties and the rest of them? How about the distributive aspect? The network of pipeline in this country still remains in comatose. And so, majority of our consumption, I’m sure, up to 95 percent is still being done through road haulage. And then, how about the state of our roads? The roads are in very terrible shape. So, however you look at it, importation has serious disadvantages and so, efforts can be made to reduce importation and increase local production.
Cartel in the oil and gas industry
Again, there is this issue of the existence of a cartel in the sector. A cartel in the industry has been manipulating the industry for a very long time. If you deregulate into the hands of such manipulators, then we’ll be worse of because if you manipulate supply in such a way that demand will be perpetually in the excess of supply and people will scramble for products and naturally they would on their own even want to pay more to get the product like in the time of scarcity. They are going to make petroleum products scarce commodity and that will be a disaster for us. The summary of it is that the environment does not appear to be conducive enough and if we must still deregulate, efforts must be made to create enabling environment so that there will be sufficient products in the local market, sufficient refining capacity and distributive network as well as receptive capacity will be upgraded to the level that we can ensure that there is no scarcity of prices and products will go out of the reach of common people.
You spoke about the existence a cartel in the oil and gas industry and one would wonder if they are so entrenched that even with the might of government, they can not be dislodged to ensure smooth running of the industry?
The problem you’ll have in providing an answer to this is trying to distinguish between who is government and who is cartel. The cartel we are talking about are not just people playing in the oil and gas industry. They are also very influential politically. So, there is a relationship between the two sides. When you have people with enormous political power also dominating an industry as essential as the industry we’re talking about, and a lot of them are manipulating the industry, first of all, you have to look at how to address the aspect of their political influence because without addressing that, it will be difficult to address the economic aspect of it. They also influence policies and the people that are in position to fight this cartel, most of them are benefiting from the crisis you are talking about. And so, it is difficult for ordinary person to say these are the guys in this cartel, take them out this way or that way. It is a very difficult thing. But the good thing is that they know themselves and many Nigerians know them.
Some time ago, the Federal Government alluded to the existence of a cartel in the power industry and with this existence of cartel here and a cabal there, just like we experiencing in the political terrain in this country where a cabal loyal to President Yar’Adua will not let things go the way it should, are we so helpless that there is nothing we can do about these individuals?
The issue of cabal has become seriously entrenched in our political culture in this country. I don’t think it is not limited to Yar’Adua because the other time we talked of a cabal that took Abacha hostage and planted the culture of fear in him that anybody that does not do whatever is an enemy to him and must be taken out of the way and all of that. The same thing we’re talking about Yar’Adua and some people said the same thing about Obasanjo and I believe too, even of state governors have been taken hostage by cabals. And this thing has become so deeply rooted in our political culture that something must be done urgently to address that. I’ll not say nothing can be done, but it depends on the individual. If a leader is focussed and a leader knows what he is doing, it will be difficult for any cabal to hijack leadership from such person.
Jos Killing: crisis not well managed
Through the media, we all are witnesses to the recent killings in Jos and there has been different perspectives on the crisis but do you thing the situation was well managed?
Definitely, it obvious from commentaries across the country that the situation was not well managed. There was a first attack, subsequent attacks followed and one thought that in a country with our kind of intelligent network, those saddled with responsibility of protecting lives and property should have been in position to detect subsequent plans to attack people. But that was not done. I think that was a major failure of the intelligence community in this country. I also want to believe that there are some people in this country that want to use Jos as a flash point to try to create anarchy in this country and the government must do something very urgently, particularly at this point in time that there are so much uncertainties around Aso Rock because of the issues you earlier alluded to.
I think my advise to the leadership and governments of this country is that Jos issue must be taken very seriously. And they must do everything possible to nip subsequent plans in the bud, otherwise, it is capable of sending very terrible signals around the country. We’re happy that we have not recorded backlashes from other parts of the country. But when it happens in one place, it is going to spread like the ones we’ve had in the past and I don’t think it will be good for the stability of this country.
According to media reports, the Plateau State government has directed various communities in the state to set up vigilantee groups as a reaction to the continued killings in the state. Does not that indicate a failure of the normal security aparatus in the country?
No, no, no. It doesn’t mean that but it could be interpreted to mean that by anybody. It depends on the angle from which you look at it. Community policing is done anywhere in the world. Vigilantee groups exist in virtually every part of Nigeria. But if the security agencies are actually doing their work very very well, that may not be necessary. But people consider it necessary because Nigeria is a country that many things don’t really work well. Most thing don’t work well and if we continue to wait for government, we waist some lives and waist property. So, it was a right decision on the part of those who thought it necessary in terms of providing vigilantee services. But I think vigilantee groups also need to work hand-in-hand with the security agencies because vigilantees as I know them are not well equipped to wade off a well planned external aggression.
You’ve gone from civil society to politics and recently many people in the civil society are going into politics after many of you shied away from the political terrain, why the new resolve to be in the mainstream politics in the country?
If I may ask, you know that for a long time, we have been putting pressure on governments; we have organised rallies, we have even gone to the extent of organising strike actions to drive home the need for good governance. But we are yet to get a level of good governance that is necessary to transform the country. If you go out of this country, if you notice the impression that people have about this county outside the shores of Nigeria, it is very terrible. Now, to change that, we have done a lot from civil society angle trying to get those who are leading us to get things right. Thought it has produced some results, we have not achieved the desirable extent and to get there, we believe that having fought at that level, it is time we got involved practically to get the things done.
It is time to go and put what we’ve been talking about into politics. Few persons are there already but you know that those few hands are not enough to effect the change that is necessary. So, we have done our bits in the organised labour and civil society and having groomed those who can continue the struggle and take it to a higher level, we thought it was necessary at this point in time for us to retire from that level and provide a link between that constituency and governance proper, so that we can bring about good governance by practically getting involved.
From our over ten years of democracy, would you say that we’ll ever get to the point that we will have that level of good governance people like you yearn for?
I believe so. We the kind of mental, attitudinal and democratic revolution that is taking place right now, as reflected in what is happening in Lagos State, in Edo State, in Ondo State and few other states, I believe that gradually we are going to get there. It is not going to be immediate because we’ve got a culture of lack of transparency in the past and it is so endemic that changing it will take some time and sacrifices. That is why some of us believe that there is the need to get involved. More people need to get involved for that to be actualised. I’m optimistic that we can get there. I’m also encouraged that by what happened recently.
Military has remained out of politics
The fact that despite the uncertainties around our political environment till now, the barracks are still very quiet and I’m sure that it will continue that way. That is an indication that Nigerians have come to the realisation that democracy is the one and only way and everyone would have to do what should be done to sustain our democratic processes that are on going. I don’t think it is too slow because of the kind of complex society that we are in. But I believe that it could be faster because there the things we need to do to get it faster.
Can you give tell us some of those thing that we must do to hasten the deepening of democracy in this country and ensure delivery of dividends of democracy for the Nigerian people?
Like we’ve been talking about electoral reform, it is absolutely necessary that there is electoral reform and also we need to look into the constitution and find the gray areas that needed to be changed. With proper electoral reform and having square pegs in square holes in our electoral institutions, I believe that we’ll have credible electoral processes because that is the beginning of it all. You see, the campaign the Comrade Governor Adams Oshiomohle in Edo State is spearheading today: One-man-one-vote; one-woman-one-vote; one-boy-one-vote; one-girl-one-vote and the rest of it; by the time every person’s vote counts in this country, the right people will be elected into political offices. That is the beginning of the revolution. We should have the right guys in place and we should be sure that right policies will be in place, right projects and everything right will be done. And then those people who will occupy political offices will feel a sense of accountability; they will be accountable to the people. They will now want to deliver.
Edo is working
Yesterday, in a vehicle in Benin, we passed through from Auchi to Ring Road and to Airport Road and somebody in the vehicle said, ‘this man has already started campaigning for himself’. I thought he was referring to someone somewhere and I looked around and I didn’t see anybody. And asked, ‘what are you talking about?’ He said, ‘everywhere you go in Benin, there is an ongoing project, just like the man in Lagos.’ I said, ‘well, that is a wonderful impression because someone don’t have to go in a do-or-die campaign few weeks to election because when you are doing the right thing and you are delivering to the people, you are campaigning already. That was how I understood from that conversation we had. But over and above that, I think it shows a man who is responsible to the people. Some people in time past delivered to the godfathers— those who made them because the electoral processes were not right. We have to have electoral processes that make the people the centre of all political activities them we can now have credible elections, credible candidate, accountability and so on.
As an individual, what is it that is driving your political interest?
Just what I told you earlier, that we have done what we needed to do to influence from afar and we have achieved some results but I think that this nation needs more than that and to get there we need to be practically involved. I believe we need credible representations, vibrant representations, we need better laws, better policies for this nation and we need to have more responsible and credible governance. That is why we feel that we have to get involved and practice what we have been preaching and pressuring the government to do. Good governance is a must for this country.
With you in the Senate, what will you want change?
Basically, there is a lot to change to be made. But the essential thing at this point is to make sure that the legislative arm of government is very sensitive to the challenges of the country and, therefore, make laws to address such challenges. And that has to be done promptly and rightly. I’m not going to go into specific laws because I’m not reading a manifesto now but there are so many archaic laws that needed to be changed. But at the appropriate time we roll out that.
What would you say you have done in the constituency you want to represent that will make them entrust you with their mandate to represent them at the Senate?
I’ll look at what I’ve done in two ways. As an individual, I’ve tried to do my best to support individuals, to support community projects as much as I can. I’ve supported youths movements, religious organisations in my little way. As you know, I’ve always been a worker. I’ve never presided over any political government project or budget where one can roll out bridges, roads, estates and the rest of them. But I’ve been able to affect the lives of individuals and ensured they actualised their educational dreams, for instance, and also find jobs for people where the opportunities are available and so on. Then, as an office holder, what I did was not specifically for my constituency because I’ve always been a national person.
We know the record of NUPENG in the past eight years in trying to protect the lives of the less privileged against economic vagaries and political manipulations as petroleum products would have been out of the reach of the common man, including people in my people from Edo North, by now. From time to time, we also made sure that products are available to this people for consumption. You know the battle we fought to ensure that kerosine was not priced out of reach of common people. We were doing this for the people in and out of our constituencies because we believe that these people are not economically empowered enough to such high prices. And as earlier said, in my own little way within the economic resources I had, I also provide some form of empowerment for the people in my constituency.
What should be the expectations of the people in Edo North if they decide to vote you to represent them in the Senate?
They should expect better representation. Today, we’re experiencing a situation where we’re not heard, and it appears to be a disconnect between the government and the people. We need to bridge the gap. My presence in the Senate will foster a kind of synergy between the state and the federal government and being a grassroots person myself, I know I’m going to provide that connection between governance and the people. We’re going to build the bridge now between the government and the people to make sure that the dividends of democracy gets down to the people providing easy access between the government and the people.
I’ll make sure that they are very effectively represented. I know their concern because I belong to that category. I’m not a bourgeois, I’m not disconnected from their challenges because their challenges are my challenges. In summary, my ambition is to ensure that there is good governance in this country and that my people benefit from that good governance.
INEC has rolled out what could be regarded as a plan ‘A’ and plan ‘B’ 2011 electoral time table and people have been reacting to it. Do you think with INEC as presently constituted that we are going to have a credible election in 2011?
We hope there is going to be one. Good enough, there is enough time to review the situation and make appropriate changes where necessary. If we were to go by recent elections that took place in recent times, one would agree that there appear to be a change in the positive direction to some extent. I hear there are challenges in Anambra election but before then there was this election in Akoko-Edo and another at Etsako. And if you look at those elections you would agree with me that it seems that things are getting for the better. What it takes is for us to ensure that we play our individual role and put pressure on the various agencies to do what is right. Nigerians should prepared their minds to defend their votes. When they know that we’re all prepared like we did in Edo state, I think they will take us seriously.
Despite your view, some other people have been calling for the removal of Prof. Maurice Iwu as INEC chairman because they don’t believe he can conduct a credible 2011 election. Is Prof. Iwu the problem or the institution he presides over?
At the appropriate time you will meet the President of the Nigerian Labour Congress to tell you the position of the congress on that. But on whether the problem is Iwu’s or the institution, if you preside over a project and the project fails, it could well be that you did not directly do anything that led to the failure of that project. Probably, you have made appropriate arrangement and in the end, your subordinate didn’t do what is right and as a result the project failed. If you try to completely extricate yourself from that failure, I think some people would want to draw your attention to the fact that you had the responsibility to supervise the implementation, which you did not. So, both the team and their leader will therefore be blamed for the failure. When INEC did well in Edo State many people praised him even though he was not there.
Looking at PDP in Edo State, it seems their political hold on the state is getting weaker and weaker. How much of a challenge does the party and other opposition parties pose in Edo?
You see, I’m not in a position to celebrate the demise of any group in this country. But parties lead in different states. The leadership of AC in Edo State is not different from what is happening in Lagos state, for instance. It is not different from what is happening in Rivers, PDP is in Rivers. Our expectation is that whoever is there should get there based on credible election. The party that wins should be the popular party. The candidate that wins should be the candidate with the right frame of mind, candidate with the right pedigree, the candidate with the right focus and projects, who can influence project, who can affect the lives of Nigerians positively.
Dividends of democracy in Edo
The people of Edo has been yearning for good governance and suddenly God has made provisions for them to experience it for the first time after such a long while and you don’t expect that such people will not appreciate this development. And their own appreciation is what you are seeing in that state today. Everybody, including those who used to be power strong brokers in PDP are supporting good governance in Edo State. The poor are supporting good governance in Edo, the rich are supporting good governance and Edo indigenes are supporting good governance in Edo, just as non-Edo living in the state are also supporting good governance because their cars can ply good roads now in Edo State. It’s a kind of revolution, it’s a kind of movement that enjoys popular support, which has been brought about by the Comrade Governor in Edo. This people are not coerced to believe this things and so they are deeply committed and it will be difficult for anybody to change this scenario as it stands now.
People would have expected that as one the leaders in the organised labour, you would have pitched your tent in a labour-related political party like the Labour Party instead of the Action Congress, the platform you are now a Senatorial aspirant, why Action Congress?
I just talked about the leadership of Action Congress in Edo. If you do the right for the people on any platform, they will appreciate it. I remain committed to labour ideals in this country and I’ll forever associate myself with that. In Edo, you know that there is a strong alliance between Labour Party and Action Congress and that is the reason you find core labour people like us associating with Action Congress and that has not failed us in the past two years. So, one would not be in a hurry to begin to think that there is much difference between the two parties in Edo State. There may be differences in other states but there are principles ans actual alliances between the two parties in Edo.
If you go now into the city of Benin, you see some billboards by Labour Party commending the efforts of the Comrade Governor and also assuring Edo people that they have confidence in the governance and government and they believe in the continuity of good governance in the state. So, I don’t want anybody to visualise what is not existing because I think we are working together and that alliance is working.
You’ve talked about all the good things the Comrade Governor is doing in Edo, what do you think is not being done right that you would want the government to look into to deepen good governance in the state?
I would rather want to pass a message across to Edo people and whatever advise I have for the government, I’ll go to the Government House, which very accessible, and talk to them. My message to the people is that they should continue to appreciate the good work of the Comrade Governor that is on-going. They should be vigilant because there are always tendencies to want to cause disaffection among good people and they should not allow anybody to do that. They should also be focussed on the need to sustain this development and they need to be united in doing this. To achieve this, they should also bear in mind that they should give mandates only to those who could actually deliver.
What would you tell the people of Edo North you are seeking to represent in 2011?
The same message I have for Edo State is what I have for my people in Edo North. They should also be assured that I remain the ambassador of my people and I’d continue to do so and I’ll need their understanding and mandate to continue to do so and even do more.