The Nigerian economy may slide into recession. It’s expected with the global pandemic – Coronavirus and the drop in oil price globally.
Minister of Finance, Budget and National Planning, Zainab Ahmed disclosed during a press briefing after the first virtual meeting of the National Economic Council (NEC), which was chaired by Vice President, Yemi Osinbajo.
The minister said that the ravaging coronavirus pandemic is not only affecting the country economically, but also affecting the health sector, as the resources to fight this appear inadequate.
She admitted that the crash in crude oil prices would negatively affect the country’s revenue and foreign exchange earnings.
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Last November, thousands of Lagosians including hundreds of UBA Bank employees attended what was billed as the ‘party of the year’ at the Lekki Special Events Centre on Admiralty Way.
The UBA RedTV Rave had everyone from Wizkid to Olamide to Jidenna to Burna Boy thrilling the festive crowd as UBA chairman Tony Elumelu and CEO Kennedy Uzoka mingled with the artists and guests.
On the surface, this was the best of times, as a bank that was clearly in rude health celebrated a successful year with thousands of employees, friends and family. The bank had also recently concluded a recruitment exercise that would add nearly 4,000 new employees to its staff strength, so the year ahead looked to be a promising one for most employees present.
Unknown to them, while senior executives danced with Wizkid in the VIP area, one of the most brutal staff layoffs in Nigerian banking history was just around the corner. They partied well into the night and then showed up for work the following week as usual. A week went by. Two weeks. Four weeks. Then right at the start of the new year – a shocker.
Closed at 5.30PM, Terminated at 10.30PM
Ifunanya (name has been changed) was asked to wait behind at work on Friday January 3. As a 12-year UBA veteran including a long stint in her role as a Branch Operations Manager at a branch in Ojodu, Lagos, this was not an unusual request to receive. She was even used to working weekends so that the ATMs could remain functional and she could troubleshoot other onsite customer-facing issues. This time however, was different.
Along with other staff members at the branch, she was asked to wait for a board meeting. By 10.30PM, the assembled staff were informed that their services were no longer required. They were then told verbally to write out their resignation letters on the spot and leave voluntarily or be forced out. At this point, her security pass was taken, and along with the other affected staff, her profile was unceremoniously deactivated from the bank’s internal system. She was reminded to drop her work ID on the way out, and thus ended a 12-year association with the bank.
When a relative of hers reached out to tell the story, he was keen to make the point that she was not an agency employee, but a full UBA employee on a monthly salary of N153,000. He could not understand why the bank would treat her that way. I heard similar stories from two other sources who insisted that they were coerced into resigning after being told that their services were no longer required right at the start of the new year.
Shocking and callous as these stories may have sounded, one of the first things you are taught in any professional journalism program is to always balance the story. So I sought an alternate account of what transpired, with the goal of putting the picture together to tell a complete story. There were conflicting accounts of the events of January 3 flying around, with some accounts describing a recruitment and promotion exercise without mentioning any firings, while others reported a purported “restructuring” at UBA, which is a well-known euphemism for “mass sack.”
I managed to establish contact with a current senior employee at UBA who asked to remain anonymous because he is not authorised to speak about such matters. This was his account of what happened at UBA bank at the start of this year:
“Usually when anyone joins UBA with a Bachelor’s degree, they are put on a GT1 level (N80,000). After one year, they are promoted to GT2 (N100,000), then after another year ET1 (N140,000) which is where a lot of people get stuck on. If you are lucky, you get to ET2 (N165,000). So what UBA did was to meld those 4 levels into one (ET) so any one who was on GT1 and GT2 gets automatically promoted to ET2. Those that were on ET1 and ET2 got promoted to SET (Senior Executive Trainee).
So it was a promotion of sorts, but honestly it was long overdue because compared to other banks, N80,000 for entry level staff is quite low. About the layoffs: I only know 4 people personally who got affected. The people affected were on manager grades and worked at the head office, they all reportedly got 6 months arrears.”
According to this source, he was not personally aware of the fate of any branch staff or what he termed ‘OND staff.’ He did however say that in his opinion, the bank handled the situation poorly and that Nigeria does need stronger labour laws to protect young graduates fresh out of school from exploitation for cheap labor at the hands of corporates like UBA. He also mentioned that he knows current UBA staff have not had a salary increase in ten years – a remarkable situation for workers in a country whose currency has declined 195 percent over the same period.
As it later emerged, more than 2,000 staff were affected by the shocking late-night cull at UBA. It also became increasingly clear that the firings had nothing to do with a harsh operating environment or decreased profitability. The bank which had brought together Nigeria’s most expensive music stars to perform at its end of year shindig was anything but struggling – it actually hired more people than if fired. What the sackings did though, was clear out a number of people in roles that the bank considered obsolete, particularly within branch operations.
It can definitely be argued that such restructuring is inevitable in the face of rapidly changing technology, which is hardly a terrible thing. What is also true however, is that the bank that paid huge sums of money to bring Burna Boy and Jidenna to an annual vanity event that adds nothing to its bottom line could also afford to retrain its redundant staff to fit into new roles – instead of just sacking them and instantly bringing in thousands of readymade replacements.
Yet again, the actions of a Nigerian corporate made the point that Nigerian labour law, in addition to be being poorly enforced is also woefully inadequate and unfit for purpose. If after 12 years of useful service to a bank, Ifunanya could be dumped out onto the street without even a few hours of notice – and no regulatory action was forthcoming – then clearly, Nigerian employees working for Nigerian companies have a problem on their hands.
As much as the UBA situation made that point, nothing could have prepared me for what I was about to unearth about another Nigerian corporate behemoth.
Diarrhea in India, Death in Ibeju-Lekki: The Unbelievable Story of Dangote Refinery
While senior executives at UBA House were going over the finer points of their plan to log 2,000 employees out of their work systems and force them to resign on the spot, a different level of labour exploitation was entering its fourth year about 73KM east of the Marina. There, at the site of the Dangote Refinery at the Free Trade Zone in Ibeju-Lekki, Lagos, the refinery was taking delivery of the world’s largest crude oil refining tower.
While this was predictably being celebrated across local and foreign media as the start of a glorious new chapter in Nigeria’s industrial history, I was speaking to a whistleblower with close and detailed knowledge of the project. What he had to say about the refinery project, the Indian project managers, the company’s internal culture and its much-publicised trainee program left me absolutely floored. Naturally I reached out to Dangote Group for a comment, but at press time I have received no response or acknowledgment.
My source, whom I shall call “Mukhtar” worked in and around the refinery project between 2016 and 2018, and what I found most distressing amidst everything he said was the revelation that deaths due to onsite accidents are not just known to happen at the refinery site, but are effectively covered up by Dangote. This he said, is because the people who die are mostly site labourers who are hired through staffing agencies instead of directly. When they die, it becomes the staffing company’s problem and the Dangote brand distances itself from it – even though the site owner is legally responsible for all safety-related incidents onsite.
Something else that struck me was that he implied that – contrary to all its public posturing – the company actually has no intention of using Nigerian engineers to run the refinery anytime soon. The trainee program that sent dozens of Engineering graduates for a one-year training program in India? “Strictly PR,” he said.
For full effect, I have decided to reproduce the full and unredacted transcript of our conversation instead of using quotes and reported speech. Here is the conversation below:
ME: When we started this conversation, you mentioned that Dangote Refinery is exempt from Nigerian labour laws. What were you referencing?
Mukhtar: Because the refinery is in the FTZ, it is not subject to certain laws like local content laws. As such, even mundane jobs are given to non-Nigerian companies. Even the refinery’s fence wall was handled by a Chinese company. This didn’t stop long stretches of the fence from collapsing sometime in 2017. The FTZ affects Labour laws too. The company is not really under any obligation to employ Nigerians. They do so mostly for PR. All key decision makers are Indians (say 98%).
ME:There have been several horror stories about Indian-run businesses in Nigeria. Was this one of them?
Mukhtar: Yes, the Indians are quite racist. Some even demand to be referred to as “master”. To be fair, when this is reported, the HR unit makes a show of cautioning them. But I dont think anyone has ever been dismissed for it or seriously punished. Most of workers who meet their death on site are labourers. So their names might be known to many staff. I’ll see what I can get. It happens. It’s kept under wraps but it happens.
ME:Now you mentioned onsite deaths earlier. I want to know all about this. Why haven’t we heard anything about this?
Mukhtar: The refinery site is not really the best place to work. Mortality rate on site is quite high. People falling from heights or getting crushed by heavy vehicles/machines is quite common. These numbers are not reported because most staff are contract staff (or outsourced) so the company gets to wash its hands off such cases. But safety on site is the ultimate responsibility of the owner of the project. The construction site has a board that is supposed to display the safety statistics but it is never displays the truth. According to that board, there has never been a fatality on site. But in reality, I think 2018 had about 5 fatalities between January and March. If I were to guess, I’d say there have been over 25 fatalities since construction started in 2016/17.
ME:Now you said earlier that the trainee program was a washout and a disappointment. Fill me in on that.
Mukhtar: I was one of the first batch of engineers sent to India for training in 2016. In my opinion, the whole scheme was either poorly thought out or the company was somehow compelled to do it, and did so for PR. Our salaries were being paid into our accounts in Nigeria, so we were using our debit cards to access our Nigerian accounts for expenses over there) Around July 2016 when the naira went from around 160 per dollar to nearly double that number, our spending power was effectively halved.
ME:I also remember that there was a forex shortage crisis in 2016 and Nigerian bank cards stopped working outside the country.
Mukhtar: So when the banks eventually stopped all cards from functioning abroad, we were stranded. The company resorted to selling us dollars or rupees at the black market rate.They deducted the money from our salaries. We had accommodation (two adults per room) and feeding (Indian food which many of us did not like). Some of had to buy intercontinental dishes regularly, because Indian food is really not nice if you’re not into many smelly spices. It was crazy. Meanwhile we were told categorically that we would have Nigerian food and Nigerian cooks. It was a blatant lie by the Indian HR director.
Also, no arrangement was made for our medical care. Those who fell ill had to treat themselves from their pockets. During the currency crisis, those who fell ill had to rely on the rest of us to put together our spare change to pay for their treatment. The company promised to refund medical expenses, but this shouldn’t have been the situation in the first place.
ME:Tell me about the training program. What was the course content and the experience like? Was it what you were expecting?
Mukhtar: The training itself was a mess too. We were supposed to be trained to operate the refinery (at the time, it was said that it will be completed by mid 2017), but we were sent to a design company. These (designing a refinery and operating it) are two very, very different things. The trainers did not want us there in the first place. It was not a part of their initial contract with Dangote. Plus, they didn’t know what to teach us because designers are not operators. They were confused, several times, they asked us what we wanted to learn. But we could not know what we wanted to learn cos we knew nothing about the entire business. In the end, they reluctantly settled for teaching us design (skills we were/are unlikely to use cos the refinery was already 90% designed).
ME:If you say that the refinery was “already 90% designed,” and you were learning design in India, that sounds like your presence was superfluous. Was the company really serious about sending you to learn skills to run a refinery?
Mukhtar: Indians will run the refinery. It will take many many many years before that refinery will be populated by just Nigerians. It was strictly PR. Anyways, the training with that design company was suddenly terminated on December 31st. Apparently, Dangote had not paid them a dime for all the months were were being taught design. They didn’t want to send us back to Nigeria so they moved us to the Dangote office in India. The office housed the Indian engineers (around 150 – 200 in number) who were supervising the design work being done by the design company. Now, it is interesting that these guys were working and earning as expatriates within their own country.
But realising that the “training” was a blunder, the company sent back some engineers to train in an actual refinery. So what was supposed to be a 1 year training became 2 years.
ME:Since returning to Nigeria, is there anything else you have noticed about the project that worries or disturbs you?
Mukhtar: Yes. So we have only the refinery at the FTZ, but the company gets to import things meant for other branches of the company duty-free. As a matter of fact, with the Dangote jetty in place and a customs office right there, the company no longer needs to clear stuff at Apapa. Dangote empire effectively has its own customs and port, because we cannot assume that the custom officers stationed at Dangote’s jetty/FTZ are extremely meticulous in checking what comes in and goes out. Personally, I find this disturbing. No non-military entity should be able to import stuff that easily into any country. This is bigger than just skipping custom duty payment.
Between bank staff being fired at 10.30PM and refinery site labourers being killed by workplace accidents without accountability, the sheer grimness of the picture facing Nigerian workers comes into stark relief. It is afterall, an employer’s market, with several thousand qualified people jostling for every job opening, which creates the possibility and incentive to treat staff like battery animals.
Whether the Labour Ministry is willing or able to do anything about such blatant labour exploitation is anybody’s guess. Nigeria’s government is increasingly weak and unable to impose its will on the country even territorially. In the event that the government did take interest, there is a valid fear that it would go to the other extreme and adopt a lazy anti-business Hugo Chavez approach, as it so often does. The real solution if there is to be one, must come from Nigerian labour having a stronger bargaining position through an improved economy. Anything else as it stands, is little more than a sticking plaster.
As Mukhtar mentioned, even inside the ridiculous situation of being financially stranded in a foreign country at the behest of an irresponsible and insincere Nigerian corporate, the vast majority of the group chose to suffer in silence. They did so because spending a year abroad learning useless information, suffering deprivation and experiencing diarrhea after being forced to eat unfamiliar food was still preferable to whatever alternative was at home.
Ultimately, that is the biggest problem facing Nigerian labour.
…N-Deltans set new standard for prosecuting resource control
By Egufe Yafugborhi
For two years, resolute host communities to Oil Mining Lease (OML) 25 in Akuku Toru Local Government Area (LGA) of Rivers State sacked on duty personnel, shut down operations and occupied key assets.
Mele Kyari, Group Managing Director (GMD), Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC), lead stakeholder in the OML 25 Joint Venture (JV) with Shell Petroleum Development Company as Operator, lamented that the shutdown resulted in consequential “loss of 25, 000 to 35, 000 barrels of oil per day (bpd); in monetary terms, that is about $1.7billion.”
The fulcrum of the assets occupation by Belema, Offoin-Ama and Ngeje host communities was that, for four decades, such humongous accrued income as Kyari declared lost to the JV partners in two-year of shutdown failed to provide schools, hospitals, potable water, capacity building or meaningful employment for the host communities.
Mrs. Ogbumate Opumabo, among the womenfolk who occupied the flow station, narrated: “Since good things don’t come easy, as living conditions in our community got more pathetic, we subjected ourselves to suffering, even set up church where we fasted and prayed to God everyday at the occupied facility. Some of us gave birth to babies here where we also had our pots, plates, mats, everything needed to aid our occupation. Our experience there is unexplainable, but God answered us in the end”
October 10, as the teeming community protesters eventually pulled out of OML 25 for its formal reopening, following, the win-win resolution of the conflict among stakeholders, the original demand to evict Shell was not met as set, but the protesters won even a bigger prize, an awakening of a new narrative for prosecuting the struggle for gainful resource control in the Niger Delta.
Checkered history of long suffering
According to the communities, their hardship was rather aggravated by avoidable oil pollutions that degraded their land and aquatic environment, jeopardising their livelihood which depends on fishing on the rivers and cropping on the soils. Their clear demand was, “Shell must go”, relinquish OML 25 to preferred competitor, Belemaoil Producing Limited (BPL), to farm the assets.
Publicity Secretary, Pan-Niger Delta Forum (PANDEF), Anabs Sara-Igbe, who hails from the OML 25 host communities, said, “We have been agitating for long. The flow station was shut down as far back as 2004. Government intervened and we let them re-open it. 2008, it was again shut, a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) was signed, and we let them resume. In 2014, same thing happened, so in 2017, the communities said we have had enough.
“There was no time Shell provided us water. Infrastructure in our communities were poor. Government under military regime gave us water, but it was laden of iron, not healthy for consumption. Fetch it today, the following day the whole water will be coloured. So, we have not been using the water. In recent times, state government has not done anything for us.”
At the latest reopening of the assets, Sen Ita Enang, Presidential Adviser, Niger Delta, representing President Muhammadu Buhari, attested to the health dangers at ‘Opusuya”, the age-long pond water that sustains Belema people in the absence of functional modern taps from government and Shell, which was laden with crude oil when Enang scooped it with bare hands.
At the co-host communities of Offoin-Ama and Ngeye, the story of squalor, deprivations and neglect was pretty much same. At Offoin-Ama, the only educational institution present, a piteous makeshift basic school, made of wooden structure was said to be from communal effort. The European Union and Rivers State Government had erected in the village square, a water project five years back, but Amayanabo of Offoin-Ama, HRH King Sibia Sukubo Aaron, Kilima Diaba Offo XIII said, “It was never completed.”
King Sibia, in unison with his Belema counterpart, King Boudilion Ekine, Oko XXVIII, Amayanabo of Kula, alleged that SPDC had always reneged on its agreements with the community.
However, the reality of pervasive emptiness and squalor in the community supported the perception of his Highness, Ibinabo Daniel Kiliya, Regent of Ngeje Community when he said, “Shell in 40 years never thought of tangible projects in the community.”
Belemaoil, Jack-Rick Jr as game changers
Before now, oil communities in the Niger Delta, even in the days of the late Ken Saro-Wiwa, have hardly been taken serious by government and industry regulators in agitations for control of their oil and gas endowment chiefly because they prosecuted such struggles in the absence of adequate home capacity (technical or financial) to farm those oil fields on their own. The common approach was to call for eviction of one operating IOC whenever relationship are strained in the hope of patronizing another to take over.
The coming, into the oil and gas space, of Belemaoil changed that narrative. Founded by Jack-Rick Tein Jr, a son of the soil, who has felt the hardship among his Belema folks, Belemaoil wasted no time in building confidence among the host communities the moment it acquired 40% participating interest in neighboring OML-55 from Chevron Nigeria Limited in the Joint Venture (JV) with the NNPC.
Within a year of taking over OML 55 five years ago, the host communities in Kula claimed Belemaoil surpassed 40 years of both International Oil Companies (IOCs) Chevron and Shell interventions in their respective assets host communities through infrastructural transformation and human capital development among the people.
In its core business, Belemaoil also grew production from 7000bpd under Chevron to as much as 12000bpd, and added to more than 70 MMscfd recoverable volume of gas, generating more revenue and sacrificing more funds to develop and carry the communities along in the process. The company through gainful engagement of community youths in facility surveillance has also eliminated rampant oil theft and vandalism on OML 55.
Today the company is reputed as the first upstream major to have began construction of its head office in its operating field while also constructing its own oil terminal, hitherto the exclusive preserve of the IOCs. So, beyond fraternal attachments, these attributes informed OML 25 host communities insistence on “Shell must go” for Belemaoil replicate the achievement in OML 55 in their communities.
A leader among the protesting youths, Iselema Ekini, said,
“We see how Belemaoil employed youths, built markets, clinics, in the places they operate, proving that an indigenous oil company would look after its host communities better. We therefore urged Shell not to seek renewal of OML-25 license, but allow Belemaoil to take over. All the IOCs have been doing is how to repatriate as much revenue to their home offices abroad while we suffer.
Win-win resolution of conflict
In the win win resolution of the OML 25 crisis, Shell, having renewed its ownership of the lease, wasn’t displaced, but Belemaoil with 7.7% stakes on that lease got the privilege of maintaining operations and earning the communities confidence to be the oil firm with right of first refusal to acquire Shell stakes at any point SPDC decides to divest her stakes.
Already Belemaoil has hit the ground running with the sustained commitment to make the difference, facilitating the groundbreaking for 1.5million liters potable water and 12Km treated water reticulation project for Oko-Ama and Belema by the Group Managing Director, Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation, NNPC, Mele Kyari. Kyari, represented by Group General Manager, National Petroleum Investments Management Services (NAPIMS), Musa Lawan who also hoisted the Nigerian Flag and those of key stakeholders at the OML 25 platform to signal its reopening.
HRM King Boudilion Ekiye Okor, Amayanabo of Belema, said in the occasion, “Today, I am the happiest man. Belemail, owned by our son is now in charge of maintaining operations. Now we know who to hold if we are disappointed. If he (Jack-Rich) fails us, we go to his mother and father’s house to complain, but he has given us so much confidence that we know he can’t fail.
Chief E K Clark, Leader of PANDEF which prominently provided motivation for shutdown of the OML25 thanked key stakeholders for the peaceful resolution. Clark represented by PANDEF’s Vice Chairman, Godknows Igali, particularly recognised the role of federal government, host communities, BelemaOil, NNPC and the Petroleum Ministry under Timipre Sylva.
“When the GMD NNPC, Kyari came 28 of last month, he promised to grant all your wishes. I am happy you are already attesting to some being meant already. PANDEF is grateful we are all winners. We have, by this struggle of the past two years, redefined the struggle for resource control”, Clark told the communities.
I am sorry, Buhari empathises with host communities
President Mohammadu Buhari, represented by Sen Ita Enang, Special Adviser to the President on Niger Delta, tendered apology on behalf of the nation to the host communities over their long suffering in the midst of plenty all these years.
Buhari said at the formal reopening of OML 25 that, “We’ve been to the communities. I felt touched that they are asking for for a school, hospitals in 2019 after 40 years of oil and gas being taken from their soils. I scooped the water from pond which you people drink. It is smeared with oil.
“On behalf of the nation, I apologise to you. We will change for the better for you, for us all as a nation. We will not only build schools, hospitals for you, we will provide complete communities for you. Working with state government, Niger Delta Development Commission, Amnesty, Ministry of Niger Delta Affair, we will ask to know what they are doing.
“We are coming here at a very good time. Just two days ago, the President presented the draft 2020 budget to National Assembly (NASS). Now that I have seen what you go through, we are going to take this message to the NASS, to redirect the budget to know what they are providing for you.”
At the OML25 Platform and Flow station where hundreds of community protesters, mainly women formally vacated the flow station and other key assets they have occupied and shutdown since August 2017, Sen Enang expressed Buhari’s gratitude for their peaceful disposition while it lasted.
He also cautioned, “The whole struggle has come to conclusion. We thank you for your peaceful disposition through the struggle. We can now vacate peacefully and allow work to continue, as the issues are being addressed. You are aware that some immediate demands have already been met.”
Lifting up the hand of Jackrich Jr, Enang also told the host communities, “Every community who has sons as Jackrick who care this much for his people should take care of him and pray for him to remain safe, healthy and blessed to continue to move your communities forwards.”
Founder of Belemaoil, Mr Jack-Rich Tein Jr, hardly involved in comments and speeches over the unfolded drama has maintained that, “If you engage the community and make the people an important element of your business, the communities and you will have mutual values and mutual gains.
“If the communities are happy, your business can thrive, but if the communities are not happy, you have lots of operational bottlenecks, sabotage and all that. The most important thing for us today is to see that the resolution, reconciliation has taken place.”
Already, stakeholders in Ogoni, Rivers are canvassing the Belemaoil CSR model to agitate for who takeovers OML 11 that had abandoned for years over the conflict conflict which claimed the lives and Ken Saro-Wiwa and co agitators under Movement For Survival of Ogoni People. Governor Wike, though, had already announced Rivers Government acquisition of Shell’s stakes on that lease.