In this exclusive interaction with the Chairman Trade Union Congress (TUC) Delta State, and Chairman of Association of Senior Civil Servants of Nigeria (ASCSN), Comrade Bolum Nwachukwu on the burning issues of civil servants playing partisan politics as well as the unification of salaries for all workers in Nigeria. Excerpts:
Recently, the Supreme Court ruled that civil servants can participate in politics, but the Head of Service of the Federation, came up recently to caution civil servants against participating in partisan politics. As a trade union leader, what is your take?
We’re looking at the participation of workers, not narrowing it down to civil servants, in politics. It is a new dawn actually. We have the Supreme Court Ruling which is going viral now and everybody saying that we have a right. But, also we have our Public Service Rules as public servants. As civil workers we have our own rules just like the House of Assembly; they have their own rules and they have the Constitution. Sometimes the Constitution takes pre-eminence/precedence over everything but the house rules are important because every organization has its own rules. The public service rule did not just come because they want to make laws. Remember we have our own political party from time which is the popular AGIP – (Any Government In Power). As public workers we are bound by law to serve any government in power. It’s at this background that the Head of Service has come up with the invocation of the public service rule which says ‘we have right as Nigerians, as stated by the Supreme Court ruling to participate in partisan politics at any level. But if you want to be in partisan politics you must draw a line. This is what the Head of Service is saying. He didn’t say that Civil Servants supposedly should not participate in politics, but our rule says you must draw the line. The new Electoral Act for Public Political Appointees is borrowing from the Public Service rules; because you cannot be a Political Appointee and become partisan. That’s why you have to resign first to go and participate. If you say that the civil servants who are the bureaucrats, who serve any government in power, must bring out their chests and participate, if the government you support fails, of course, you know you are going to have a tough time with the next government. And who suffers? The people! So that is the spirit of the public service rules. We must marry both of them. Here we’re saying that the time is up for workers, for civil servants, public servants to take their destiny in their hands and determine who goes there. That does not mean that we would forget our rules. But we must become more interested, first, registering and showing that your vote counts. How do you determine who goes? By showing that you have the population, you have the people, show interest from the grooming and determine who goes there. Bargain, look for those who have friendly policies, who have manifestos that are workers-friendly and support them. Not that we’re taking over the field of the politicians, of course, if we have a civil servant who believes that he can make it and we know that he can make it, he can resign and join politics. We would support him to the end. It’s another career. So many civil servants in the past have resigned and gone to the House of Assembly. Some Governors were civil servants, some House of Assembly members and Senators were civil servants, some councilors were civil servants, some Ministers Commissioners were civil servants but you cannot be a civil servant and a Governor, Commissioner or a House of Assembly member. So you must choose one. But before you take that leap know where you are going to. Some of these politicians were civil servants. If you remember in Delta State here the former Speaker of the House of Assembly, Hon Peter Onwusanya, was a civil servant, an Accountant. He had to resign and joined politics and rose to the Speaker of the House, two-time Speaker of the House. Many of them are like that. So, civil servants can participate in politics but you must draw the line. You cannot be a referee and a player at the same time. The rule of the game does not allow that. You cannot be coach and at the same time a player. You cannot be coaching and playing. Everybody has his role to play. In governance we have the bureaucrats who form the policies and implement the policies. You cannot be a public servant, forming policies and implementing policies and at the same time a politician who administers these policies. You cannot be the boss and follower. They’re two different roles. So, the Head of Service is very correct. Yes! We have a right to participate. Look at what is going on with the CBN Governor now. People are calling for his head. He should resign if he wants to be President. You cannot be the CBN Governor and campaigning to be President. That’s exactly what the Head of Service is saying.
The Public Service rules that says that as a Public Servant, even in giving contract, you cannot be a party to it. Your interest must not be taken care of, because you cannot be giving contracts to yourself, if we can get to that level what of politics? So, our powers as civil servants are in our votes. That is why we say we must take it up now. We show them that we have the vote. Every civil servant, every worker as I say have dependents, at least five to six persons that you say vote here and they would vote there. That is where our power is, that is what I advocate. If we have one million workers in this country, times it by six, that is six million. That is our power.
But a political party, Labour Party is claiming to have alliance and sponsorship with Nigeria labour unions….
We’ve no alliance or sponsored any party as at today. Mind you, not all workers are civil servants, not all are public servants. Some of these workers too are of the private sector and they can be politicians without public service rules holding them. So, when we say workers coming out, so many of them are not public servants. The Labour Party had been taken over by pure politicians. I don’t see any Labour man there and we know that. And the Labour (TUC and NLC) have not supported any political party yet. We’re still watching. We’re doing background work to see those who have our interest. We’re still negotiating with them. We would use our power which is the card when the time comes. I as a civil servant I have dependents. I have more than ten persons that I would tell where to vote and that’s where they will vote because they depend on me. My family, my children, my uncles, my cousins, my nephews that come to me for one thing or the other that listen to me, those are my political power.
Breaking it down, you are a Labour leader and now we have entered into the political season. What is the relationship of you as a Union leader and Delta politicians?
Delta politicians, I’ve not agreed to be wooed by any of them yet. Not even the Governor has told us what to do. It’s too early. Some of them that are vying for positions have tried to approach us we shut our doors. It’s not time. Let the politicians do their own beat. We’re watching all of them and looking at them. What will determine our individual choice of candidate(s) is their antecedents, credibility, and workers’ friendly programmes. I must tell you, before Governor Okowa came, he met with us. But it was after the party has selected him to bear their flag that he met with us and we told him what we wanted, that he must listen to us as we go, not money. He has done that to this day. This is how to bargain. If we go into bargaining now and pitch tent with somebody and the person didn’t go through the primaries we start again? So up till now in Delta state we have not pitched tent with anybody.
The Governor is completing his 8-year of two tenures, what pedigree is your Union looking at as his successor?
We’re looking for somebody who will have the kind of Governor we just had. Somebody who would listen to us and pay us our salaries; make welfare of workers number one priority because the worker controls a lot of Deltans. One worker is equal to about ten persons on the street because they have dependants who are non-workers. So when you are talking of Deltans you are talking of the worker and the people; who will realize that the workers are those who work for the economy of the state and take care of them; somebody who would continue from where Governor Okowa will stop. As we speak today he’s one of the best we’ve ever had and we want somebody who will build on that. So we’re watching. If anybody is coming up, no matter the party, and person is against the workers, sorry, the person might lose. We’re going to vote individuals and not parties. Except the party presents somebody who is good enough to bear their flag. If they want to win election they should present good characters; they should present people we know we can work with. That is where we stand.
Many Nigerians assumed and perceived the economy as chaotic. It has daily tolls on the minimum wage earners.
Did you say its chaotic? I’m not seeing the economy as being chaotic. I see the economy as dead. We need somebody, a miracle worker to wake it up. The civil servants (workers) are the worse hit. I’ve just told you, everything revolves around the workers. When the man in the village cannot feed, he remembers that he has a brother who is working and you cannot say no. the same brother who is working has to face the evil of fuel price, the evil of no electricity, the evil of cost of diesel/fuel, the high cost of food in the market and medical bills of his home and that of his dependants. So, we are the worst hit. We must go to work every day and nobody ask how we manage to go to work. You have to enter taxis paying high costs, you get home there’s no light and you buy fuel for generator to listen to news. You have to pay school fees, pay house rent that is sky-rocking every day. The schools are increasing fees, everywhere is constantly increasing and the income of the worker is going down. It has no value anymore. So, the Nigerian worker is the worst hit from the dead economy. Nigeria is a near failed state economically and we need a miracle.
Could that be why we have sharp practices and kickbacks in the civil service?
Well the issue of sharp practices and kickbacks may not necessarily be related to that because what is bad is bad. You called it sharp practices it’s not supposed to be. It’s not an excuse. Hunger is not an excuse for criminality. We’ve always known that. Hunger is not an excuse for armed robbery or 419. Hunger has never been a good excuse for stealing. The same applies to workers. There are so many things you can do as a worker. In Nigeria, the language hustling can be negative or positive. Outside Nigeria it’s negative but in Nigeria it can be positive. We’re a struggling people. So many workers struggle to live. Some of them do consultancy, organize workshops and seminars, some are into one small businesses or the other that does not even affect their work. Today you work online, some of them are into online businesses trying to make ends meet. Use your brain. You don’t have to open a shop to do business. Many workers are doing business online and it has nothing to do with their work. And the public service rule is that you can do business as long as it doesn’t affect your work. That is why they recommended farming. We can farm online today without being a criminal. Not all online businesses that is criminal. So there are so many avenues to make extra cash. The principle is making extra money and lives above board because the demand is very high on you. No worker lives only on his salary. There is one thing or the other you’re doing. You don’t need to do kickback or steal or sharp practices. There are so many avenues that are opening. You can sell recharge cards right from your office with your phone and make money we even study online and improve ourselves. We have no money to go to school. There are so many online courses that we undertake free and we get the same results.
The police the army and the security agencies seem to be deprived of membership of TUC and NLC. How correct is that information?
The security agencies are not allowed by their own laws and principles to be unionized. They can’t go on strike. You can imagine what would happen if the police is on strike. If the Military goes on strike for one hour, by the time they come from strike we’re all dead. The criminals would overrun the country. Those are essential services.
But you see them complaining about their salaries not being paid and pensions not being paid.
Irresponsible government that’s all. I’m not going to say any other thing about that. Irresponsible government. No responsible government plays with the security agencies. Security is number one. Our constitutions give us right survive to exist. If you can’t exist if you can’t live freely and there’s no security the government has failed. That is number one. The number one principles of life are access to food shelter and good health. In all security is the utmost. If you don’t have security you cannot find food. If you don’t have security you cannot find shelter and you cannot find good health. So security is number one for me. So we don’t joke with the security services. Any government who is tolling with the security services is actually a failed government.
Finally, we have entered the second quarter of the year and your union is pushing for salary unification. How far thus far?
It is slow but it must come because it’s in line with the I.L.O Convention Laws. Equal work for equal pay. The man that is working in NNPC is not doing more work than I’m doing in the Ministry. We have the same qualification; sometimes I’m even more intelligent, I even contribute more. Yet he earns more because of where he’s working. The man in the airport may be earning more than me but he’s doing more work than I’m doing. We went to the same school paid the same school fees go to the same market and do the same work, the same intelligence applied; in short, I form the policies with which he works, but I’m paid less. Equal work for equal pay. It must come to be. The Head of Service of the Federation is working on it but it’s relatively very slow. But we’re pressuring that they should make it faster. May be it’s beginning to come out gradually; teachers TSS structure is an offshoot of that. The lecturers have gotten their own, Judiciary is getting and they’re doing it in piecemeal. The problem is that they call us civil servants and everybody treats us like servants. May be when the term civil service was coined, instead of calling the people out of that service to say civil servants they would have called us civil workers because that word servant we know what the meaning of servant is. So everybody treats you like a servant. Even some times in the past they call us EVIL SERVANTS. So, we are at the bedrock of development, policy formulation and implementation and yet we’re the poorest paid. It’s unfortunate. It’s a course we would continue to fight for and there must be unification of pay; equal work for equal pay. We must get to it.