IN this interview with National Record, Comrade Abadom Lawrence Amechi, trade union activist and member of the Redemption Group, a faction of unionists agitating for democracy and constitutionalism in the National Union of Food, Beverages and Tobacco Employees (NUFBTE), spoke on how the union’s president, Comrade Lateef Idowu Oyelekan, who has spent 16 years in office, is again strategizing to remain in office. Comrade Amechi asserts that Oyelekan is being aided and abetted by officials in the Ministry of Labour and the leadership of the Secretariat of the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC). Excerpts…
National Record (NR): May we meet you comrade?
Comrade Amechi: My name is Abadom Lawrence Amechi. I am a staff of Promasidor Nigeria Limited. I am a member of the National Union of Food, Beverages and Tobacco Employees. Between November 2014 and October 2017, I was NUFBTE branch chairman of my company.
NR: Your union, NUFBTE seems to be a familiar turf for leadership crisis. We learnt that your immediate past president, Comrade John Onyenemere, who is now late, after serving out two terms wanted to elongate his tenure but it was resisted. Now, Comrade Lateef Idowu Oyelekan who succeeded him after a protracted struggle has refused to go and is holding on to power. Could this peculiar problem be located in the framing of the union’s constitution or in the characters of the leaders?
Comrade Amechi: NUFBTE is a familiar turf for leadership crisis, no doubt. The late Comrade John Onyenemere, as you rightly mentioned, had a running battle with a faction led by Comrade Idowu Oyelekan over third term tenure. That crisis got to a level where Comrade Oyelekan and his supporters had to form a parallel government.
The crisis was resolved with the assistance of Comrade Abdulwahed Umar, former NLC President and Dr (Mrs) Timiebi Koripamo-Agary, the then Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Labour. The resolution led to the conference at Lafia, Nasarawa State capital, in January 2007 that produced Comrade Oyelekan. Today, he is on his fourth term! Oye has beaten the record he was up against.
I think the problem is located first and foremost in our constitution, which does not have tenure limit for elective offices. It is open ended, so if a president decides to die in office, it is possible, provided he is able to dribble NAC and NEC members, by playing them against each other.
It will interest you to know that apart from Comrade Peter Onoja, no NAC member has summed up the courage to challenge Oyelekan’s illegal tenure extension. Also, Comrade Abiodun Phillips is the only state chairman that is courageous enough to challenge Oyelekan’s illegal tenure extension.
NR: Why do you call it ‘illegal tenure’ since he is constitutionally enabled to contest as many times as possible?
Comrade Amechi: It is illegal because he did not get the fourth term mandate through election. There was also an injunction from the National Industrial Court on August 19th, 2020 against that conference. He got the mandate through a kangaroo midnight conference of August 21st, 2020. Nobody contested any position, even though that was a conference year and people were ready to contest various positions. I was preparing myself to contest. I have never heard that a quadrennial conference is organised for just one person even in such unholy hours.
NR: We have followed the current leadership crisis, at least since 2020, when Comrade Oyelekan defied a court order to hold an emergency delegates conference in the midnight of 21st August, 2020. First, what has come out of that litigation; and secondly, how has the Redemption Group sustained the struggle in the past two years, apart from the court struggle?
Comrade Amechi: Comrade Oyelekan and his cohorts flagrantly refused to obey the National Industrial Court ruling of 19th August, 2020. That ruling gave an injunction against the emergency conference of August 21st, 2020.
The union was due for conference in 2020, so why fix an emergency conference in a conference year. We were all better disposed to a quadrennial delegates conference. They cannot claim ignorance of that ruling. The then General Secretary, Comrade Bamidele Busari, was in court. Oyelekan’s team of lawyers led by Owonikoko Jelili (SAN) was in court, although the SAN left the court before judgment was delivered, but lawyers in his team stayed till the end of the court session.
We made sure that every NAC member received the soft copy of that judgment. It is on record that the sheriff who went to deliver the hard copy of that judgment was beaten up and driven out of the national headquarters of the union.
Despite having knowledge of the judgment, Comrade Oyelekan ably aided by Comrade Ayuba Wabba convened a conference in the midnight of 21st August, 2020. Ministry of Labour did not attend because they were already aware of the judgment. Despite Oyelekan’s refusal to respect the decision of a competent court of records, he went ahead to appeal the judgment. We are still waiting for the outcome of the appeal, before returning to NIC for the substantive suit.
It has not been easy for the Redemption Group, but we have decided to do what is within our capacity to sustain the struggle. This country will become a jungle if we all decide to allow illegalities go on unchallenged.
NR: Since the midnight conference, has the Redemption Group made any effort to consult with Comrade Wabba and other members of NAC, CWC and NEC of Congress on the happenings in NUFBTE? If so, what were the outcomes?
Comrade Amechi: After the conference, we wrote to NLC and, we have also had opportunity of meeting Comrade Wabba, but we noticed that he and the NLC secretariat as a whole were not being sincere. While they were busy dribbling us, Oyelekan was moving from company to company sacking our members, which we unfortunately discovered was a strategy hatched in consultation with the those at the helm at the secretariat.
NR: The two years that Oyelekan got from the midnight conference in 2020, from our record, will be up this December. That means that preparations should be on now for the constitutional quadrennial delegates conference. Is that not so?
Comrade Amechi: The illegal two years he got in the midnight conference of August 21st, 2020, will end in December 2022, but he is not yet ready to go. He is planning a kangaroo conference scheduled for December 9th 2022 with lots of hidden agenda.
A conference that is less than one month, nobody has been allowed to pick nomination form. He has plotted so many gimmicks. One, he is trying to tinker with the constitution to find a way to smuggle in a law that will put him in charge of all the union’s assets and businesses.
Two, he is banking on the Registrar of Trade Unions, who we know is his very good friend, to get through with his evil and undemocratic plans. It will be difficult for Oyelekan to leave NUFBTE.
Three, he wants to hold on to the union’s assets and businesses which are already under the tight control and management of members of his family – his wife, children, siblings, cousins and retinue of women friends. He therefore desperately intends to hold on because he knows that if he steps aside from the office of the president without protecting himself constitutionally, another president will certainly not allow him to continue to exert control. So, he is seeking a constitutional arrangement that will still empower him to be in control of the union’s assets and business ventures after retirement.
Oyelekan however has a Plan B, which is to make the deputy president, Comrade Garba Dankama, president in his forthcoming kangaroo conference. The deputy president has been out of job for close to five years now but he is feeding and benefiting from the union whereas he is not contributing a dime as check off. This means that he is not a member of the union.
Oyelekan’s game plan is to replace Comrade Dankama immediately after his election by one of his errand boys from coca cola who has been positioned to become deputy president in the kangaroo conference. Oyelekan is fully set to coca-colanise NUFBTE.
It will interest you to know that the foundation of the hall to be used in Ibadan for the kangaroo conference has not been laid.
NR: What do you mean by coca-colanise, and what do you mean by saying that the foundation of the hall for the kangaroo conference has not been laid?
Comrade Amechi: By Oyelekan’s scheming, Coca-Cola has eleven state council chairmen, out of the thirteen councils in the country. Most officers in the councils are also from Coca-Cola.
The implication of this is that each time there is NEC, Oyelekan will have his way because Coca-Cola has more presence in NEC than any company, and no Coca-Cola staff dare vote against Oyelekan.
One of his plans, which we have just unravelled, is to hand over to a Coca-Cola staff; a stooge of his whom he has been positioning for that. How can a Coca-Cola staff serve for sixteen years as president, and hand over to another Coca-Cola staff?
We were told that the coming conference will be held in Ibadan in the Food Union Hotel allegedly under construction, but our findings reveal that the foundation for the hall to be used has not been laid. That is part of Oyelekan’s dubious strategy. The most recent plot is that because of the unfinished hall, the conference will be either be postponed or scheduled suddenly in an obscure venue where those agitating for him to leave will not know to prevent them from staging a protest. This is how one man is deceiving the entire Food Union.
NR: What is the strategy of the Redemption Group to which you are a frontline leader in terms of redeeming the union?
Comrade Amechi: Our strategy is to sensitise our members in all plants. The level of ignorance in the union is very high, even among union executives. A lot of people in the union have not seen or read the constitution before.
It is one of the strategies of Comrade Oyelekan to perpetually put members in darkness. Since he came to power, he has not printed or distributed the union’s constitution. He has not organised a single training session for branch executives.
We also intend to carry out a sensitisation campaign to all relevant agencies and persons within the labour circle about the situation in our union. NLC, TUC Ministry of Labour, employers’ federation and leadership of sister trade union organisations and NGOs within the labour space.
Oyelekan’s illegality and wickedness is unprecedented in the history of the Nigerian labour movement. For the cases in court, we have to allow the court to run its own course without making any comment other than to say that we are not happy with the unnecessary delays and adjournments.
NR: As the national labour centre to which your union is affiliated, what is the official position of the NLC to the situation in NUFBTE?
Comrade Amechi: The leadership of NLC is a complete disappointment. Since the crisis started, NLC has not seen the need to seriously wade into the matter and settle it. As I indicated earlier, the leadership of NLC took sides with Oyelekan.
The only attempt Comrade Wabba made was a trick to slow down members of Redemption Group which enabled Oyelekan to perfect his diabolical plans against our group. In our meeting with NLC president some time in 2021, Comrade Wabba advised that we sheath our sword, and status quo be maintained. It was agreed that if we untie all knotted ends, an agreement will be drawn for all of us to abide by, while we proceed with full process of reconciliation.
While we were heeding the advice of Wabba and waiting for full resolution, Oyelekan went ahead to instigate redundancy in our workplaces targeted mainly at members of the Redemption Group. NLC had pretended, as they are, not to be aware of the damages even when we raise the matter before Wabba.
NR: As the regulator of trade unions, what action(s) or step(s) has the Ministry of Labour and Employment taken on the matter?
Comrade Amechi: The ministry has been silent over our matter. Its officials have carried on as if we do not exist and that all is well in NUFBTE.
We are not actually surprised, because Comrade Oyelekan boasted to us at the commencement of our disagreement that the ministry will never entertain any petition against him. We have written twice to the minister, Dr Chris Ngige, we have also written to the Permanent Secretary in the ministry, with copies to the Director of Trade Union Services and the Registrar of Trade Unions.
The ministry cannot claim ignorance of the crisis in NUFBTE. We are waiting and watching to see if the ministry will be part of the forthcoming kangaroo conference. Our country has become a place where law abiding citizens suffer, while crooked and aberrant people have their way.
NR: What we are trying to say is whether your group or any individual from your group formerly write to the relevant departments in the Ministry complaining of the alleged infractions by Comrade Oyelekan and there was still no response?
Comrade Amechi: We’ve written severally to the ministry. The ministry of Labour is fully aware of the crisis in Food Union, but for reasons known to them, they have decided not to do anything about it.