Labour Ministry, NLC Behind the Tyranny Destroying Food Union – Comrade Abiodun

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Abiodun

FOR over a year now, since the crisis in the National Union of Food, Beverages and Tobacco Employees (NUFBTE), popularly known as Food Union, ruptured into public space, National Record has been on the trail of activists to speak on their agitation for constitutionalism in the union, and resistance against the tenacious grip by union’s strongman, Comrade Lateef Idowu Oyelekan, and his stubborn determination to elongate his tenure in office.

They had always turned down our requests for interview on the excuse that an interview would amount to subjudice with the matter being in court. But as the litigation lingered in court and seems to have been apprehended with little or no progress in the court, and with our assurances that the interview being asked for will not amount to subjudice as it will not discuss the issues in contention at the court, Comrade Abe Abiodun Philips, one of the leaders of the agitation, conceded to our request.

Comrade Abiodun

In this two-part interview conducted on phone over a week’s period with our Editor-in-Chief, Iduh L. Onah, Comrade Abiodun not only provided details of the issues behind the crisis, he also pointed out that the enablers of Comrade Oyelekan’s alleged tyranny are the Ministry of Labour and Employment and the Nigeria Labour Congress; specifically, Comrade Ayuba Wabba, NLC President.

According to Comrade Abiodun, members of the union have somehow come to the conclusion that strongman Oyelekan, who is popularly addressed by union members as ‘Asiwaju of Food Union’, has overtime successfully reduced the NLC to look like an affiliate of the Food Union because of the manner in which he has served Oyelekan’s interest against the overall wellbeing interest of the union.

Abiodun asserted, with graphic narratives backed by video and documentary evidence; that Oyelekan, aided by Comrade Wabba, the Labour Ministry and employers in the food sector, has transformed into a maximum leader with the capacity to crush anyone standing on his way to making himself the Life President of the Food Union. Excerpts:

National Record (NR): It has been quite a chase to get your group to sit for this interview, comrade, and we’ll like to thank you for giving us the audience.

Comrade Abiodun: Well, I think that appreciation rather should go to National Record, and particularly to you, for being very persistent in telling our story to the world. Many people may not have heard of the sordid, and indeed criminal violations going on in our union if not for the platform that National Record provided for us. So for that, we say thank you, comrade.

NR: We are glad to hear that, comrade. Anyway, may we meet you, comrade?

Comrade Abiodun: My name is Comrade Abe Abiodun Philip; I am from West Senatorial District of Kogi State. I am a graduate of Industrial Relations and Personnel Management and a member of Chartered Institute of Strategic Management.

At the moment, I’m the Ogun State Council Chairman of National Union of Food, Beverages and Tobacco Employees, and also the Vice Chairman of NLC Ogun State Council.

NR: What is your employment history in the food sector and when did you join active unionism?

Comrade Abiodun: I joined Nestle Nigeria PLC in 1995. I was a passive member of the union for four years until 1999, when I decided to get actively involved in the affairs of the union. That year, I contested for the position of chairman, Nestle Branch but I lost. In 2002, I contested again for branch chairmanship and again, I lost. In 2005, I persisted but this time, I contested for the position of branch secretary and I got elected.

In 2008, I contested for the position of State Council Treasurer and I emerged victorious. After serving as treasurer, I contested for the Ogun State Council Chairmanship of the Union and I emerged. I was later elected as the Vice-Chairman of the Ogun State Council of the NLC, under the leadership of Comrade Akeem Ambali, who is now the National President of the Nigeria Union of Local Government Employees (NULGE).

NR: Well, you’ve told us when you joined trade union politics, but what you did not say is what inspired you to became an active trade unionist by contesting for leadership positions, such that after losing consecutively twice, your spirit was not dampened. You certainly must have been inspired by something, what could that be?

Comrade Abiodun: As I have said earlier, I joined union politics in 1999. I was particularly inspired by what I read about the struggles of the founding fathers of the Nigerian labour movement.

Comrade Abiodun

In addition to the inspiration drawn from the founding fathers, I was also heavily influenced by activism of labour leaders during the military era, from the SAP through June 12 struggles. Of course, there was also inspiration from the dynamism and eloquence of Comrade Adams Oshiomhole during the presidency of Chief Obasanjo.  Comrade Oshiomhole did not only fight for Nigerian workers, he also led a sustained struggle for the masses and national interest. So, I can say that the rich history of selfless and committed struggle coupled with the articulate activism of Comrade Oshiomhole at the level of his union and upon his emergence as NLC President in 1999, were sufficient enough to inspire any conscious young worker who would not want to be just a spectator…

NR: (…cuts in) Were there no leaders of your union that you admired, whose character might have also inspired you to vie for leadership position in your union?

Comrade Abiodun: I was actually coming to that, comrade. Before I became active in the union’s activities, I was elected by my department to represent them at the Joint Consultative Committee (JCC). The Management organised a joint leadership training for the union, JCC and the management team. One of the facilitators of the training was Comrade (Otunba) Adebayo Kazeem, the then General Secretary of the Food Union. His presentations were superb and he was very eloquent. A combination of all these exemplary characters left me no option than to jump into unionism and since then, there has been no looking back.

The Ministry of Labour and the NLC monitored everything, and they ensured that no one lost their jobs. Comrade Omar personally graced the election in Lafia, to ensure that there wasn’t any form of manipulation. Comrade Issa Aremu, the current Director General of the Michael Imoudu National Institute for Labour Studies (MINILS), was the returning officer of the election that brought Oye in. We were all full of jubilation then, not knowing that we were jumping from frying pan to fire. Nobody envisaged that the then meek Oye who was an advocate of maximum of two terms will want to be life president or transform into the monster that we today have. We all gave him massive support.

But one thing with trade union politics or leadership is that, to be an effective leader at whatever level, you must be able to command the respect and trust of your members, your colleagues, in whose interest you are in the position to serve.

Unfortunately today, it is sad that a number of trade union leaders have betrayed this basic tenet. Take for instance in our union where Lateef Oyelekan, our sit-tight and despotic president, has desecrated the essence of trade unionism and the sacred roles attached to trade union leadership. He has and is still destroying the careers of members of the union as well as staff of the union. He…

NR: (…cuts in) How do you mean comrade? We know that a number of workers in some companies in the sector were sacked through redundancies said to have been inspired by Oyelekan’s leadership in connivance with the management of the companies; but beyond the recent sacking of Comrade Bamidele Busari, the union’s General Secretary, we’ve not heard of any allegation that he is destroying the careers of the staff of the union. Can you please explain what you meant?

Comrade Abiodun: Oye has not only destroyed members through redundancies, demotions, suspensions and expulsions; he went even further to destroy the careers of staff of the union. Oye had humiliated four general secretaries of the union by cooking up different lies against them. In addition, Oye had embarrassed the union’s accountant, Comrade Eunice Olaniran, by demoting her from Deputy General Secretary in charge of Account’s Department to a bar attendant before she angrily abandoned the job without resigning. Another Deputy General Secretary of the union, Comrade Makinde Olalekan Rasheed, was demoted and transferred to Jos and from Jos to Ilorin within a short period of nine months just to frustrate him to resign.

All the Ibos and the Hausas in the union are treated as second class citizens. The national secretariat of the union has been Yorubanised, so to say, with most of the experienced employees at the national secretariat haven been transferred out of the secretariat and replaced by his kinsmen from Abeokuta. Even mainly made up of his kinsmen, most employees of the union are still treated like slaves. It is so bad that if the union’s workers hear today that Oye has finally been removed as president; they will be full of celebration and relief. This is just to mention few of the evils visited on the workers of the union by Oye.

NR: The Food Union seems to be prone to leadership crisis. We gathered that the leadership of the late Comrade John Onyenemere as President stoked a crisis that virtually scattered the union before the emergence of Oyelekan. Do you know what led to that crisis and how it was resolved?

Comrade Abiodun: That’s true, Comrade John Onyenemere, of blessed memory, served as president for three terms (12 years) and he also planned and actually attempted to elongate his tenure at the end of his third term, but members of the union supported Oyelekan to vehemently and successfully resist the Onyenemere’s plot. Oyelekan was then the deputy president, and he was supported to form a parallel government against Onyenemere by declaring that he (Onyenemere) had been impeached. This started a battle of who would take control and operate the national secretariat of the union.

In the battle for control, while Oyelekan hired OPC, Onyenemere, on his part, hired Bakkasi Boys. One day, Oye mobilised his hired OPC militia to the national secretariat of the union not knowing that Onyenemere was also prepared with Bakkasi Boys. It was an open battle as both sides were armed and there was an exchange of gunfire from both parties; vehicles were damaged, people were beaten with many injured. It was a terrifying experience for the residents of the Estate where the secretariat is domiciled on the said day.

There were petitions and counter-petitions against each as well as lots of litigation and police arrests on both sides. The then Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Labour and Productivity, as it was then called; Dr (Mrs) Timiebi Koripamo-Agary, waded into the matter and doused the tension by inviting both factions to her office in Abuja. She directed that both factions should sheath their swords and she insisted that status quo be maintained. She threatened arrest of anyone that would cause further trouble, and directed that the secretariat should be accessible to all.

Comrade Abiodun

The then NLC President, Comrade Abdulwahed Omar, also invited Oye and Onyenemere to Abuja, and despite the fact that Comrade Onyenemere was one of the vice presidents under his leadership of NLC, he insisted that an election must be conducted. Omar told Onyenemere to thank God for allowing him to serve the union as president for 12 years. He also emphasised that the constitution of the union is supreme on matters relating to the union.

The Ministry of Labour and the NLC monitored everything, and they ensured that no one lost their jobs. Comrade Omar personally graced the election in Lafia, to ensure that there wasn’t any form of manipulation. Comrade Issa Aremu, the current Director General of the Michael Imoudu National Institute for Labour Studies (MINILS), was the returning officer of the election that brought Oye in. We were all full of jubilation then, not knowing that we were jumping from frying pan to fire. Nobody envisaged that the then meek Oye who was an advocate of maximum of two terms will want to be life president or transform into the monster that we today have. We all gave him massive support.

Oye has been in the national leadership since 2004 when he was elected as deputy president and by 2008 when Onyenemere was guided out of the union; he naturally succeeded him as president. When his first tenure ended in 2012, he was again massively supported for his second and what was meant to be a final tenure as president which lapsed in 2016. To everyone’s surprise, when 2016 came, he became reluctant as he lobbied and bought his way into a third term on the excuse that he had a number of ongoing projects and should be allowed another term. There were then grumblings here and there but caution prevailed as members felt there was no need to start another crisis so short a time after the one caused by Onyenemere.

Someone confided in me that Oye has been able to reduce the NLC to become his and Food Union’s affiliate rather than the other way round. Technically, the NLC leadership is a great fan of Oyelekan. Because of this, the question in everybody’s lips is: how could our global President/NLC President stoop so low to be literally worshiping Oye? That is what it means, comrade. Wabba attended the illegal emergency delegates conference of our union held after midnight on August 21, 2020 and he did this knowing full well that the court had stopped the so-called emergency conference. This is a conference that the Ministry of Labour abstained from by not mobilising the Registrar of Trade Unions to attend because of the court order stopping it from holding.

To everyone’s surprise, when the third tenure was drawing nearer, it became clear that Oye was hatching another elongation; this time, he was lobbying for a two-year elongation to, according to those who marketed him, complete an ongoing Food Union Hotel project in Ibadan. Haba, Oye must have taken members of the union as fools, we are not, so…

NR: (…cuts in). But the union is facing exactly what you said some members wanted to avoid in 2016 as the union is in deep crisis right now, which, as you know, we have been following. There are multiple cases at the NIC [National Industrial]); Oyelekan’s leadership got a two-year extension at an emergency delegates conference that was ordered not to hold by the NIC but his leadership went ahead anyway, and the conference was held by midnight on August 20, 2020 or thereabout; many aggrieved members of the union who were agitating against Oyelekan’s continued stay in office are alleged to have been declared redundant and have lost their jobs and thrown out of the union; branch officials not sacked have been removed or transferred; and so on and so forth. Apart from tenure elongation, are there other issues behind the raging crisis, Comrade?

Comrade Abiodun: Let me answer your question this way, comrade. It is on record that when Oye formed a parallel line up against the late Onyenemere, he (the late Onyenemere) never used his position as the incumbent to witch-hunt anyone or take anyone’s job. But as at today that we are talking, over 2000 members of the union have been sacked, and many others displaced via transfer from their normal work stations. A peculiar thing to note is that over 98% of those affected by these dubious sacks in the name of redundancies by companies which are all doing well are members that are opposed to Oye’s 4th term.

Note that Oye’s fascist strategy does not spare the union’s secretariat staff. Employees of the union whose body language seemed to be opposed to Oye’s illegal stay in office were either demoted, transferred, suspended or have their appointments out-rightly terminated or dismissed for frivolous or sometimes no reason. These punitive measures though took place across units, chapters and councils of the union particularly in Lagos and other states, but they were much more pronounced in Ogun State Council of the union where the resistance against the 4th term was and is still loudest. At the moment, the council has been decimated by Oye’s acts vendetta.

Out of the five elected state officers of NUFBTE, four have been unconstitutionally removed by Oye. He purportedly claimed to have expelled me, the State Chairman; and my vice chairman, Comrade Osaqu Vincent. The state treasurer, Comrade Kabiru Raheem, was affected by redundancy that happened in Pharmadeko while the state signing trustee, Comrade Aruleba Ojo, was forcibly transferred to Edo State where he had an industrial accident that has damaged his hands a few days ago because he was assigned to operate a machine that he had never operated.

The only Ogun State Council officer not affected up to now is Comrade Ishola, the state auditor, who works with Nigerian Breweries, Ijebu-Ode Plant. The Unit secretary and Unit treasurer of Flowergate Factory of Nestle, Comrades Quadri Adewoye, and Comrade Mikail, respectively, were demoted to assistant secretary and financial secretary respectively. Similarly, the Unit chairman of Agbara Factory of Nestle, Comrade Nwaoda Benson was demoted to vice chairman while the Unit treasurer, Comrade Titus Elegbede, was demoted to ex-officio. There are of course many others. In fact, officers and members of the union from other units who attended my birthday in 2020 in solidarity celebration were all removed, while some were demoted.

When he ordered my removal as Ogun State Council chairman of the union, Oye also ordered that the person that will replace me must be from his home town, Abeokuta. He went ahead and installed an Abeokuta man who knows nothing about unionism, a former unit officer who lost election nine years ago to be the chairman of Ogun State Council of the union. It is clear that Oye has no interest of the union at heart; he is just there for selfish motives. He is ready to crush anyone that stands his way of becoming life president of the union. He also strongly believes in power of money to buy his way and remain in office forever.

Abiodun

NR: What has the NLC as the centre to which the union is affiliated done towards resolving this crisis?

Comrade Abiodun: Someone confided in me that Oye has been able to reduce the NLC to become his and Food Union’s affiliate rather than the other way round. Technically, the NLC leadership is a great fan of Oyelekan. Because of this, the question in everybody’s lips is: how could our global President/NLC President stoop so low to be literally worshiping Oye? That is what it means, comrade. Wabba attended the illegal emergency delegates conference of our union held after midnight on August 21, 2020 and he did this knowing full well that the court had stopped the so-called emergency conference. This is a conference that the Ministry of Labour abstained from by not mobilising the Registrar of Trade Unions to attend because of the court order stopping it from holding. We have video clips of Wabba’s attendance at the conference, singing solidarity song. If you’ve not seen it before now, we’ll send it to you.

I am personally still pondering till today if Wabba was hypnotised or compelled by an unknown force. For what convincing reason could Oye have given Wabba for him to have defied all logic to attend a union conference whose opening ceremony held after midnight? Has unionism become cultism to be conducting its affairs nocturnally?

Wabba did not stop at just attending the nocturnal conference, he even used NLC’s letterhead to write an official petition against a legitimate member of the union, Comrade Peter Onoja, the National Signing Trustee of the union, to the Assistant Inspector General of Police (AIG) in charge of Zone 2 headquarters, Mr Illiyasu Ahmed, bandying unprovable allegations against him (Comrade Onoja). Up till today, Onoja was not invited or even asked by the police, certainly because they (police) are not foolish and must have seen through the real motive behind Wabba’s letter. We also have a copy of the letter.

Anyway, when we met with Comrade Omar to brief him on the matter and seek for his intervention as a veteran and former president of NLC who had successfully intervened in the Onyenemere crisis, he was shocked to hear that Oye is insisting on elongating his stay in office. He said if he had supported the late Onyenemere, Oye would not have been president. At the end of our meeting with Omar, he gave us a note to Wabba pleading with him to intervene.

Wabba thereafter invited both parties to Labour House in Abuja, precisely on the 16th April 2021. At the end of the meeting, we arrived at four main resolutions to be composed into a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) namely; one, that Oye should be allowed to enjoy the two year elongation; two, that all petitions and counter-petitions should be withdrawn; three, that all officials removed or suspended by Oye should be restored, and four, that there should be no witch-hunting of anyone thereafter.

Wabba then promised that the MoU would be sent to both parties to agree on the content before it will be signed and the meeting was adjourned for two weeks. Unfortunately, when the MoU was ready, we were not even told let alone availed a copy, and worst of all, when a comrade who is sympathetic with our cause got a copy and showed us, we were shocked that the MoU did not capture even a single resolution of our understandings.

When we saw a copy of the said MoU, we then realised why Wabba never got back to us. It was immediately after we came back from that so-called truce meeting that anarchy was let loose in the union with things literally falling apart – terminations, expulsions, demotions, transfers, and removal from office. When these letters were being issued, we called and personally submitted many of them to the NLC President, but till date, he did nothing!

NR: (…Cuts in.) Just a moment comrade, did you follow up with Wabba with calls when he didn’t get back to you on the MoU and the truce?

Comrade Abiodun: We followed up quite alright with him through phone calls. Apart from that, we also travelled all the way from Lagos to Abuja to personally see him.

NR: Did you see him, and what did he tell you?

(To be continued…)

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