” ]Chief Frank Kokori, former General Secretary of the Nigeria Union of Petroleum and Natural Gas Workers, who played a significant role to actualise the June 12, 1993 election, expresses his disappointment with the present state of the nation in this interview with SUNDAY ABORISADE
Nigeria will be 58 years old as an independent nation on Monday. Do you think the occasion is worth celebrating?
I was already in secondary school during the nation’s independence. We thought that immediately after independence, Nigeria will move and soar in terms of social, political and economic development within 20 years. When I was growing up in Warri, (Delta State), there was pipe borne water everywhere and electricity was constant. They were provided by the Public Works Department. When I moved to Lagos in the early 60s to complete my secondary school education, all social infrastructure was working perfectly. Unfortunately, the situation is deteriorating by the day. I had the opportunity of travelling to Europe, America and other parts of the world as a young worker, a unionist in the 1970s. I saw the standard of living of residents of those countries. They were far below that of Nigeria. When I went to China and I saw their people riding bicycles as means of transportation, I was shocked because we already had municipal buses and taxis conveying passengers to their various destinations in Lagos. I particularly saw the Indians to be very low people in terms of development. I also remembered that it was difficult for me to see a colour-television when I travelled to the UK in 1978 whereas, I already owned one in my apartment in Lagos as a young worker with NUPENG.
How did we get it wrong?
Nigeria’s problem is that of leadership failure. We don’t have men of character, or patriotic individuals in positions of authority. That is why our leaders, over the years, failed to drive this nation to where we ought to be. I always weep each time I see pictures and videos of young Nigerians passing through the worst inhuman treatment while trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea in search of greener pasture. The problem actually affects the entire African continent and I wonder why it is so. I will say it is peculiar to the black people. Apart from one or two countries in Africa where leaders have shown courage, capacity and high level of sincerity, I am not aware of other countries that had had an opportunity to be led by visionary leaders. In my early days, when Nigerians go to Europe, he goes to study, not to do menial jobs. When you see young Nigerians abroad in those days, you will be proud of them because they were either studying in the university or polytechnic.
But our leaders who governed the country at independence actually did well. Is it that the institutions they put in place were not sustainable?
I remembered a protest that happened while I was at the Eko Boys High School in the Mushin-Oloosa area of Lagos. It was a violent situation with people burning houses because there was an election malpractice somewhere. People were politically conscious and they were interested in those who would manage their affairs. That was why social amenities were working. I could remember vividly then that there were functioning general hospitals all over the places, including LUTH, that people could just walk into and get free treatment. The situation is deteriorating now and the nation is retrogressing instead of progressing. Many Asian countries that we saw in terrible backward state in the 1970s, are well ahead of us now, in terms of scientific and technological development. While those Asian countries that were using bicycles while Nigerians rode in brand new municipal buses and taxes, are now using the latest means of transportation. In fact, we now use the vehicles, tricycles, motorcycles and bicycles made by them.
What do you think of the roles played by the military who claimed they seized power to restore sanity into the system by clearing the mess created by politicians then?
In fact, the military contributed immensely to the rot which we have in the system now. The soldiers took over the system and became lords with no one to challenge them. They constituted themselves into the Supreme Military Council where about 20 young military officers would sit down and determine the fate of a great country like Nigeria. They did what they liked and destroyed all the institution, the economy and of course, our political structures that could drive development. They contributed greatly to the downgrading of the standard of living of Nigerians. Today, poverty level in Nigeria is one of the highest in the world, no thanks to the military. Rather than developing human capital and creating jobs, the military rulers made some people multi-billionaires. We have very wealthy people in Nigeria flaunting their wealth in the faces of poverty-stricken, helpless citizens in their millions.
Do you agree that the discovery of oil in the early 70s made us lazy as a people and our leaders who were supposed to manage other natural resources and agriculture, neglected them because of the free oil money?
That is absolutely correct and it is the wickedness of the leaders that made them to neglect critical revenue-yielding sectors simply because a lot of oil revenue was coming in. They are just talking about diversification when they had destroyed the entire system, 58 years after our independence. It is a shame. The situation we have now is what I call failure of leadership, the type of leadership is without foresight. For instance the discovery of oil was supposed to be a blessing rather than being a curse. Oil is a commodity that has an expiry time. After some time, we won’t get it any longer and by the time we have wasted the wealth, we would have nothing to fall back on. Look at a country like Norway which has some quantity of oil but investing heavily with the proceeds they are getting from it. The Norwegian government established its own oil company and used the proceeds to invest heavily in properties all over the world. Their thinking is that the oil would dry up one day and their people must have something to fall back on. Norway can never recede into recession in the next 100 years because they have investment all over the world. The money they get from oil is too much that a worker, apart from having a good car, also has a yacht which he or she uses to enjoy with his or her family. I am always ashamed when our country is ranked among the poorest nations in the world despite our abundant oil and gas deposit that was discovered in commercial quantities several decades ago. The middle class in Nigeria today cannot buy a good car not to talk of people in the junior working class category. Norway is a classic example of a country that has made life so easy for its people.
Nigerians had so much hope in the ability of President muhammadu Buhari to right the wrongs by voting for him in 2015 but many people believe that nothing has really changed after three years. What is your reaction?
We elected President Buhari because we wanted him to fight corruption but he keeps on saying that corruption is fighting back. A country where the judiciary and the police are corrupt is in a very serious problem. The police and the judiciary, as a result of corruption, are finding it difficult to successfully investigate and prosecute corrupt leaders within six months and jail them. These days, police and military officers extort money from people especially motorists in broad daylight with nobody doing anything about it. The civil society and labour unions that are supposed to act as monitors of government officials and their activities have also been compromised. I don’t think we have good labour leaders any longer in this country. Even if there are, they may not be up to five per cent. A country without a strict judiciary, without strong law enforcement agencies will just sink.
Do you agree with President Buhari that he is unable to do much as regards fixing the economy because the Peoples Democratic Party’s government destroyed the system for 16 years?
People might say I am biased because I am an All Progressives Congress leader but the PDP actually contributed to the mess in the land. However, the APC is also too slow with the implementation of its change agenda. Personally, I never accepted the type of slow system that the APC government is running in the last three years. From the Federal Government down to the local levels, the system has been considerably slowed down.
Is that why some APC leaders are now defecting to the PDP?
Definitely, the PDP is not the alternative to the APC because we can’t go back to Egypt. That is my opinion; it’s not because I am an APC person. Nigerians should not be blaming the Federal Government; people should ask their governors and local government chairmen for accountability. For instance, flood is taking over the whole place and the state could not do anything about it. Buhari is still the only alternative that we have. He is the only person who would not steal the nation’s money.
But many Nigerians are accusing him of not being in charge and that a powerful cabal has hijacked his government.
Yes, President Buhari should shine his eyes and watch the people he puts in various positions. He should devise a means of monitoring them through an effective and feedback mechanism. I know he has some limitations and challenges but I think President Buhari is too slow in taking critical actions and many people, including those working with him that he appointed into offices, have abused democracy under his watch. So, we need some toughness from Mr. President.
What is actually happening on the NSITF board, where you are named the chairman? It has yet to be inaugurated more than a year after President Buhari appointed you and others?
I was appointed the Chairman, Nigeria Social Insurance Trust Fund, for over a year now and I have not been inaugurated because one minister and some people in government said the fear of Kokori is the beginning of wisdom. Is it now a sin to have people of integrity in positions of authority? What type of situation is that? So many countries would celebrate me at least they would have that assurance that I will take care of the health of the workers, pay their emoluments and even pay pension benefit to people who have health problems. For now, they have decided to keep me off bay, giving me one reason or another to delay the inauguration.
Are you saying that the reason being offered to delay your inauguration was not tenable?
What are they probing again? The EFCC had concluded the probe of the former board. Why should I not be inaugurated? President Buhari has passed instruction for my inauguration about four or five times, yet the minister refused to heed the president’s directive. The party (APC) through the Chairman, Adams Oshiomhole, gave instruction, yet they ignored it too. Rather, they resorted to blackmail against Oshiomhole. If appointees of the President could ignore his directive and oppress me like this, what is the hope of the common man in this country? They know that I have integrity and that I won’t compromise; that is why they are treating me like this. The whole place has been destroyed yet you don’t want to bring in somebody who will restore sanity. Rather, they are setting up fake enquiries to probe an already concluded investigation. The minister of Labour and Productivity (Chris Ngige) is just going forth and back on the issue and I wonder why Nigerians, especially labour unions, who would benefit more from the services of NSITF, has not staged any protest against the minister’s action.
Have you complained to the President personally?
I have complained to the President. I have also complained to leaders of the APC but they keep on assuring me that they will soon inaugurate me; however, nothing is being done in that regard. All other federal boards, approved by the President, had been inaugurated except that of the NSITF. Many people hailed my appointment, describing it as a round peg in a round hole to safeguard and protect a world-class pension emolument which people just steal and walk away. We have people around the President who have become lords unto themselves that is why I say he should shine his eyes more on people around him – the so-called advisers and other appointees because they are making his jobs more difficult for him. He has a little asset but people around the President are dropping his name and making so much money. Here I am, an elder statesman, being punished unnecessarily and humiliated. I cried to him, I cried to the party but nothing has happened. We have a Board of Trustees that had been appointed since 2015; up till now, it has not been inaugurated. If the board is in place, all these rubbish won’t happen. At least, the board will caution them.