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Whose Interest Does Ajaero Serve? – By Ijeoma Nwogwugwu

By Ijeoma Nwogwugwu, Email: ijeoma.nwogwugwu@thisdaylive.com

Joseph Ajaero, the general secretary of the National Union of Electricity Employees and one of three deputy presidents of the Nigeria Labour Congress, has been on at war with this administration for well over a year. On the face of it, much his angst with the federal government stems from his ideological opposition to the privatisation of its power assets. On principle, he and the union he heads, claim they are not against reform of the electricity sector, but want the ownership of the assets to be retained by the federal government.

To press home his case, he has used every excuse under the sun to rally the workers under his union to embark on wildcat strikes, in defiance of a Supreme Court ruling that has declared strikes by electricity workers illegal owing to the essential service they render. His opposition to the privatisation of government’s electricity plants and distribution infrastructure also conflicts with the Electric Power Sector Reform Act which ended NEPA’s reign to operate as a monopoly and provided for the unbundling of its assets and liabilities for onward transfer to private sector operators through outright sales or concessions.

To get the buy-in of electricity workers on its reform measures for the power sector, the federal government has bent over backwards to meet their demands. No other sector has reaped from the kind of concessions made to electricity workers in this country. Yet, Mr. Ajaero continues to hold this nation to ransom.

For instance, in 2010, the government acceded to the workers’ demands that they be paid N57 billion in incremental salary arrears they had been owed for seven years. Despite the concession made by the government that they will be paid their monetised benefits and the commencement of the exercise, Ajaero still got electricity workers to embark on a strike on the eve of President Goodluck Jonathan’s launch of the power reform roadmap in Lagos. That singular action threw the nation into darkness for more than 48 hours, and in some towns and cities, for much longer before electricity was restored.

Two months later, Ajaero ordered electricity workers to embark on strike on October 1, the very day Nigeria was slated to celebrate its 50th independence anniversary, in solidarity with the NLC whose workers were pressing for an increase in the national minimum wage. Carried away by the sense that he is now above the law, Ajaero, again, ordered a few weeks ago a prolonged blackout in government offices in Enugu, including the government house, the governor’s lodge and the secretariat, to show solidarity with state government workers who were on strike. This action in possibly his home state was, of course, unprecedented.

As though these incidents were not sufficient to incur the wrath of the authorities, Ajaero, for the umpteenth time, last week, ordered electricity workers to shut down power installations nationwide indefinitely. This time, his grouse was the directive by the Minister of Power, Professor Bart Nnaji, that all PHCN workers – full time and casual employees – undergo a biometric staff audit to wean out ghost workers from the system before they get paid yet another salary increment of 50 percent.

Ajaero also had issues with the government’s preemptive move to deploy military personnel to electricity installations nationwide to safeguard them against vandalisation and terror attacks. Isn’t it curious that workers unions in other segments of the economy such as aviation, hotels and hospitality, and the oil and gas sectors see nothing wrong with the deployment of military personnel to safeguard their own facilities

Fortunately, Ajaero’s latest attempt to throw the country into darkness was thwarted by the foresight of the power ministry, senior staff of PHCN, some junior and middle management workers, and the military, which ensured that power installations were not shut down. In the north-east where the management of the Yola Distribution Company was unable to safeguard its facilities before the workers shut down the electricity switches and sub-stations, the military had to force its way into the installations before senior staff were able to restore electricity to that section of the country within 24 hours.

But for how much longer will the nation tolerate Mr. Ajaero’s antics. At 4,000MW, of which 2,500MW is currently produced by PHCN power plants (1,500MW is produced by independent power producers), PHCN with its 47,000-strong work force has the highest worker per output of electricity generated in the world. In other words, it takes approximately 19 PHCN workers to produce one megawatt of electricity in Nigeria today. In contrast, in Brazil with an output of 120,000MW, its worker per megawatt output is 2 to 1 while in South Africa it takes fewer workers to produce one megawatt of electricity in that country.

Despite these damning statistics, the Ministry of Power has conceded to retain the over-bloated workforce in PHCN and even accepted to convert its 11,000 casual workers into full time employees of the company, insofar as they can be verified biometrically. The ministry has also negotiated a certain percentage in the power assets that must be sold to electricity workers under an employee ownership scheme when the privatisation process for power utilities commences. Still, Mr. Ajaero continues to wreck havoc on the nation for reasons that are more self-serving than altruistic.

For too long, Nigeria has been stymied by darkness. More than any other sector, whenever the international and local communities derisively dismiss the country’s lack of infrastructure, it is the power sector they are referring to. Besides, these wildcat strikes called by Ajaero inflict untold hardship on the citizens and amounts to economic sabotage.  

The irony is that Ajaero represents the interests of workers in a sector he has never worked for. Ajaero, once a journalist, does not possess the qualifications to work as a technical or engineering staff in any PHCN facility. Nor has he ever worked in a non-technical capacity with NEPA or PHCN. Perhaps, if he did, he would understand what it costs to shut down power installations whimsically.

Each time power facilities are shut down, engineering and technical staff must take remedial measures to switch them back on in a phased manner to prevent an overload of the transmission infrastructure and complete system collapse. Usually, such measures could take 24 to 48 hours to complete, which is why it takes a while for electricity to be completely restored whenever there is any form of interference in the system.

What is more worrisome is that other unions such as the medical and health workers union, food, beverages and tobacco workers union, air transport union, banks, insurance and financial workers union, textile workers union, post and telecommunication union, the Nigerian Union of Journalists, oil and gas unions, and steel and engineering workers union, among dozens of other affiliates of the NLC, see nothing wrong with Ajaero’s modus operandi.

There is no sector that is not impacted by epileptic power supply, not to add the impact a strike by electricity workers could have on businesses in other sectors of the economy. Today, scores of manufacturing concerns – big and small – have been shut down and laid off thousands of workers due to lack of electricity. Those that manage to keep going on costly fuel generators inevitably transfer the cost to consumers. Does Ajaero ever stop to wonder how many more will reopen for business if the electricity sector is completely deregulated and empowered to supply electricity to consumers at cost-reflective tariffs that are (no matter how high) still going to be significantly lower than diesel powered generators? 

So the question is: In whose interest is Ajaero acting? Certainly not mine or the Nigerian people who want 24 hours of uninterrupted electricity in their homes and businesses. He certainly cannot be serving the interest of PHCN workers either, because electricity workers who are smart should know that whole-scale reform in the power sector will translate to more jobs and better conditions of service.

It is always easy for unions to argue that privatisation inevitably leads to job losses. Yes, in the immediate term they do. But the staff rationalisation that takes place is often short-lived, because as the sector opens up to new entrants, skilled staff are always the first to snap up the job openings on offer. This does not include other jobs that are created by services providers offering associated services to operators. A perfect example is the telecommunications sector that employs more than twenty-fold the workers it did when NITEL was the sole telecommunications provider in the country. The same applies in the aviation sector.

If truth be told, Mr. Ajaero’s fight against the reform and privatisation of the electricity sector has been anything but noble. As the secretary general of the National Union of Electricity Employees, one of the biggest affiliates of the NLC, the privatisation programme constitutes a threat to his influence as a unionist. Anyone with an understanding of the politics of the NLC would attest that the unions that wield the most influence are those that are able to contribute the largest check off dues, as this guarantees the election of their leadership into the National Administrative Council of the umbrella NLC.

Also, as its deputy president, Ajaero has a fighting chance of one day emerging as the all powerful president of the NLC. So anything, privatisation inclusive, likely to stand in the way of that ambition will have to be demonised and destroyed at tremendous cost to the country.

But on this particular front, Mr. Ajaero is fighting a very unpopular battle. This is one rallying cry for a luta continua that he has no hope in hell of winning. The reform of the Nigerian Electricity Supply Industry is non-negotiable. It is sacrosanct and vital to our economic survival and development, and can no longer be put off because of one misguided man.

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Posted by on Nov 24 2011. Filed under Articles, Columnists, Ijeoma Nwogwugwu, NNP Columnists, Power Sector. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

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