THE House of Representatives Committee on Public Petitions yesterday at its sitting at the National Assembly Complex declined to hear the petition brought before it by aggrieved members of the National Union of Food, Beverages and Tobacco Employees (NUFBTE) on the ground that the matter is already before a court.

Chairman of the Committee, Hon Jerry Alagbaoso, stopped the hearing midway when it became apparent that some issues related to the petition were already being entertained by the National Industrial Court in Lagos. This was after the lead speaker of the aggrieved members of NUFBTE, Comrade Abiodun Philips, who is the Chairman of the Ogun State Council of the union, had concluded and it was the turn of Comrade Oyelekan, the union’s National President, to make his presentation.

At this point, Hon Alagbaoso, who presided over the hearing, asked: “Is this matter in court?” Counsel to Comrade Oyelekan, Mr Jelili Owonikoko (SAN), responded in the affirmative adding: “My name actually is mentioned in that petition and that is why I feel very, very strongly that I have to be here. There are five cases in the court, and two at the Court of Appeal, all by this same set of people. These cases were in court before or after but only they came here after those cases were in court. We have filed a response; even the issue of suspension, expulsion; they have gone to court and we filed all those processes before the committee. There are five cases in court all by them and the proofs are already there, we have submitted them now.”

Hon Alagbaoso therefore ruled that in according with the practice at the National Assembly, matters that are before the court are precluded from discussion.

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“Well, we wouldn’t like us to waste our time here talking about a matter that is in court. As a matter fact, by our practice here, if this matter is in court, we are not going to discuss something that is in court; we can’t continue.

“We will allow you to exhaust whatever you have before you come here. On the other hand, you can withdraw it from court and come here or you allow it to enter its full circle; when you finish, then you can come.

“We don’t actually entertain matters that are in court, we are into authentic alternative dispute resolution. So because this matter is in court, and this is a sign (raising a bundle of documents), whatever that is in court whether interpretation of the constitution, so long as it is related to this matter in any way, and therefore, we will wait for you to either resolve all you have in the court, appeal Court or Supreme Court, then you come or you withdraw all. In the absence of that, we rule you out of order since matter is in court.”

“Please, there is what they called a sin that cries to every…what they call human conscience. I would like you to go back; go back, examine the nitty-gritty of this matter and see how you can use the SAN to bring peace to the union. There is what they called bargaining zone in trade union relations, in industrial relations, there is what they called bargaining zone; when there is a quarrel, you can meet at a point.

Hon Alagbaoso counsels Oyelekan
Despite declining to hear the petition, Hon Alagbaoso, however dedicated some time counselling Comrade Oyelekan and his counsel, Owonikoko (SAN), who came to the hearing with a team of five lawyers, including Ambassador Shola Iji, by advising both to carefully examine the matter and see how to bring peace to the union.

Hon Alagbaoso, who spoke at length, implored: “President, while I ruled that we cannot entertain this [matter], that does not mean we cannot advise. I advise the SAN himself who is a father, and you President, I am even older than you President, so I can even advise you.

“Please, there is what they called a sin that cries to every…what they call human conscience. I would like you to go back; go back, examine the nitty-gritty of this matter and see how you can use the SAN to bring peace to the union. There is what they called bargaining zone in trade union relations, in industrial relations, there is what they called bargaining zone; when there is a quarrel, you can meet at a point.

“I know that tenure elongation causes problem everywhere – in the legislature, executive, and so on. I also know that there is what we called sitting-back; you don’t throw away the baby with the bath water. So go with the SAN, you appeal, you advise so that you can resolve this matter.

“Let us assume, without conceding that they have offended the SAN; SAN I am only pleading that as the Chairman of this committee to please use your position and bring amicable settlement to this quarrel. Do you know why I am telling you this? Death has been described as the most democratic of all processes in life. Everybody participates in it and everyone has someone affected by it! You never can tell what will happen tomorrow.

“That is why Donne John wrote a poem, “To Whom the Bell Tolls.” You never know for whom the bell tolls today. So what you do in this type of situation, don’t take a very drastic measure against the young boys; they are coming up; most of them are within twenty to thirty years. Assume they are your children or your sons. Don’t throw away the baby and the bath out of annoyance. What you do, SAN, we are giving you respect here today; go home and see how you can resolve his matter. It is not impossible.

“I know that tenure elongation causes problem everywhere – in the legislature, executive, and so on. I also know that there is what we called sitting-back; you don’t throw away the baby with the bath water. So go with the SAN, you appeal, you advise so that you can resolve this matter.

“Let those who went to court withdraw them, settle it amicably, take the lead and see how this can be resolved; there is no point going on with this matter. I just resolved that we cannot entertain this matter and everybody is standing up in jubilation. It could be a temporary jubilation; you don’t know what is happening tomorrow.

“Why I am saying this is that the #EndSARS protest is an eye opener for all of us! There is nowhere a tree can make a forest. About 1000 people pointing an accusing finger at somebody! My people in Igboland, they said when a child is crying and pointing a finger at you, if the mother is not there, the father is; there must be a reason. So we don’t need cheering and grandstanding. Go home; there is a way you can talk to this people. This man, you are just 65 years but don’t because of the fact that a tortoise has a small organ you take away his wife; it is not possible.

“So please, appeal to both the petitioners and respondents. Whether you like it or not, very soon you see people crossing from the petitioners to the respondents; others will cross to the other side; it is a balance of convenience. So please, when you go sir, sit down and see how you can withdraw the case and come here, we will look at it.”

A few words for the aggrieved members too
Hon Alagbaoso also had a few words for the aggrieved union members when he said: “My brothers on the other side; ten years is not much, two years is not much, five years is not even much. Go into negotiation with Lateef. The years are faster in arriving; next year is 2021; you are not dying today. Find a way and settle this matter so that all of you will come back together; those who were expelled and those where were made redundant; then you restructure the thing the way you want. I know why I am telling you this. I am talking from strength of experience.”

Speaking specifically to Owonikoko (SAN), Hon Alagbaoso admonished him to while anchoring the peace process look at both parties as either his children or younger brothers.

“So please sir, we are anchoring the whole thing on you as a SAN. Look at all of them as your children or younger brothers and settle this matter; at least this is not on pro bono basis; they are paying you.”

While again turning to Comrade Oyelekan for more advise, Hon Alagbaoso, who described Oyelekan as a rich man, metaphorically asked him to shed his weight.

“And Lateef, you are a rich man, whether you like it or not; so shed weight, shed part of your weight because of God and tomorrow. Go back to the employers and tell them you have settled, bring these people back! That is why it is said that when you beat a child with the right hand, you use left to cuddle him. So please, when you go back, ensure that this matter is settled so that when you are going on the main road and you have a flat tyre, your boys will gather around your side. So please, sir!

Owonikoko (SAN), in his response stated that he has been very “loyal to the union for more than thirty-something years” and that in terms of investment, Comrade Oyelekan has done so much for the union. He stressed that he had always towed the path of amicable settlement of issues in the union whenever they arose except in exceptional cases as the current situation when he had to come in.

The Chairman again quickly interjected and responded: “SAN, I read Industrial Relations and I know what it means to be the President of a union; a viable union for that matter. Lateef, if you don’t know, we have run checks across you, we have checked; we know your capacity. We know how rich you are. But don’t because of that and overstay; it is your luck which God has given you. But at the same time, use this opportunity and see how you can bring everybody home so that at the end of the day, the credit will go to you, the credit will go to God.

The counsel to the aggrieved union members, Tochukwu Udo (Esq.), in his brief submission, thanked Hon Alagbaoso for his fatherly advice. He however stated that while his clients are not averse to amicable settlement, he is afraid that some vested interest might not allow the peace process to materialise.

He therefore noted that whenever the peace process hits the rock, they will not hesitate to run back to the National Assembly.

“We would like to, at this point, thank you so much for your fatherly advice today, I can assure you, will go a very long way. This matter as has been presented, we already know how politics and other things played their respective roles.

“We as young lawyers as you permitted us, will make sure that the parties are reconciled; I will do that with my team that this union is reconciled. But Sir, we would like to beg you for one thing; we will run to you at the National Assembly when we hit the rock because I know that some persons may have taken some positions that will make things difficult, but I want to beg you that at that particular point, we will run to the Assembly,” Udo said.

Our case against Oyelekan
Before the Chairman of the Committee on Public Petitions had stopped the further hearing, the aggrieved union members had briefly made their case. In their submission presented by Comrade Abiodun Philip, the Ogun State Council Chairman of the union, the aggrieved members of the union were simply asking Comrade Oyelekan to comply with the provisions of the union’s constitution by calling for the quadrennial delegates conference which holds in November every four years. He said this can only be delayed in exceptional cases by a maximum of three months.

According to Comrade Philips, Comrade Oyelekan was elected as Deputy National President in 2004 at the union’s delegates conference held at the Hamdala Hotel, Kaduna and that in 2008, he presented himself to contest as the president through the support he gathered from most of the state councils after he led the union member to resist the tenure elongation of its former president, the late Comrade John Onyenemere who had wanted for go for a 4th term.

“In 2007, the immediate past president was showing signs of elongating his tenure because he had spent 16 years as national officer of the union. It was Comrade Oyelekan who mobilised us to ensure that we fight against the tenure extension and fortunately, Comrade Lateef Oyelekan, in 2008, emerged as the President of our great union.

“In 2012, he presented himself for another election which he also emerged victorious making second term. In 2016, he appealed to us that he would be 60 in the next four years. 2016 was his third term and he appealed to the union in that conference that we should do him this honour and as a result, nobody in the union picked form to contest against him out of the magnanimity that he had played some role in the union and that he needed to be supported.

“In the process of the four years that he is enjoying, we have this understanding in our union that the moment you are 60 years, you exit from the union; that is our retirement age. Even the employees of the union, the moment they are 60, they are exited, that is their retirement age; but he has a very robust relationship with his management which is NBC, makers of Coca-Cola.

“He went back to his management to appeal to them to shift the bar from 60 to 63. We were amazed that why will our President be shifting retirement age from 60 to 63?

“Before we knew it, we began to hear that our National President was calling some people to appeal to them, instead of presenting himself for fourth term, he now said he wanted a situation where his tenure will be elongated for another 2 years and we now said why?

“Our constitution stipulates that election must be conducted every four years and this is our election year. The framers of the constitution in their wisdom also understood that there might be delays and they stipulated that the maximum delay that can be accepted by the constitution is three months. He now called for a NEC meeting telling us that instead of presenting himself for 4th term, that we should elongate his tenure by additional two years.

“Some of us, as unionists, who disagree with our management on things that are not proper, felt that was not right. At a point, he began to call our employers to threaten our jobs, even some of us that have dissenting views, we have some of them here, they have been terminated, their jobs have been taken away and before we knew it, there were petitions, threats from touts at the national secretariat of our union and we can no longer have access to the national secretariat,” Comrade Philips stated.

He revealed that since the agitation started, Comrade Oyelekan has expelled from the union more than 150 members that are saying no to his tenure elongation.

In addition to these expulsions, he said, the President has also summarily dismissed the General Secreatary of the union, Comrade Bamidele Busari.

He said: “The General Secretary, he is here, he has been dismissed for saying that elongation of tenure is alien to our constitution. He has been summarily dismissed from the union. Since August he has not been paid a dime.

Comrade Busari, dismissed by Oyelekan

“Comrade Lateef Oyelekan started well as a leader, and he had led us and we said no to Comrade John Onyenemere when he wanted to go for 4th term. Why are you now presenting yourself through the back door to say you are going for 4th term? We had said you can contest and that if you contest and you emerge, because our constitution is silent about the number of tenures you can contest, if you know you are popular, present yourself for the election and if you emerge, we will congratulate you and wish you well and if you lose, you go!

“Our prayers are: We want our union, as a democratic organisation, that elections should be conducted as and when due. There is no way President Buhari would come to tell Nigerians in 2023 that because he is building a rail line from Kaduna to Asaba that his tenure should be elongated by another two years. So we felt he came through a process and that process should be respected.”

Stagnant Wage for union employees
He added that apart from the witch-hunting and intimidation of dissenting members of the union, the leadership of Comrade Oyelekan had refused to increase the salaries of employees of the union since 2008 till date.

“Aside from that, the employees of this union also approached us, this man became president in 2008, we have workers and since 2008 till date, no dime has been added to their salaries and looking at the current situation, their income has been eroded through inflation and other economic difficulties such that these people can no longer live a responsible life; why don’t we look for a way of enhancing their salaries and our salaries are being enhanced biannually,” Comrade Philips stated.

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