The Federal Government’s port reform of 2006, laudable as it was, did not come without its own share of pains. Workers of the Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA) who lost their jobs in the course of that exercise were scarred the most.
For the avoidance of doubt, I support the port reform programme because I believe in its objectives which included the reduction of turnaround time for vessels; reduction of cargo dwell time and enhancement of security of ships at berth and cargoes at terminals. The administration of President Obasanjo was also keen on attracting private funds and freeing public resources for social services; create efficient and user-friendly ports; with the basic tenet being the public ownership of port infrastructure and the transfer of cargo operational responsibilities to the private sector as a means of improving efficiency.
With these objectives in mind, NPA under the leadership of Chief Adebayo Sarumi at the time would pull down any barrier that stood in the way of port reform including the displacement of workers without batting an eye.
The NPA workforce had to be trimmed under the guise of making way for a slim and proficient organisation. Over half of the 15,000 workers were retired prematurely. Sarumi, via a letter dated 1st March, 2005 requested for, and obtained approval from then Minister of Transport, Dr. Abiye Sekibo, to downsize in three phases. The exercise commenced in April 2005 and lasted till the first quarter of 2007.
The workers who lost their jobs were given two compensation options tagged Option A and Option B. The first option entitled affected workers to a lump sum payment of five years salary arrears without pension. This was also called the severance option while those who chose the second were to be paid gratuity and enrolled into the pension scheme. Many of the workers expectedly kicked against their premature retirement which they claimed was not in tandem with their conditions of service. The NPA in-house unions namely the Maritime Workers Union of Nigeria (MWUN) and the NPA Senior Staff Association also kicked at the initial stage but suddenly, to the chagrin of the workers, made a volte-face.
As if losing their jobs untimely was not bad enough, those retrenched were not paid their entitlements until well over a year after. And to make matters worse, the NPA management disrespected the workers’ chosen options and lumped everyone under severance benefit. It was a most disrespectful and unfair act by the Sarumi-led NPA management. Why ask them to choose when you did not intend to respect the choices made?
Immediately the severed workers took their entitlements, they commenced a fresh round of struggle. They left no one in doubt that they would fight to be enrolled into the NPA pension scheme till the end. The money the sacked workers received as severance benefits was soon exhausted making them more vocal and aggressive in their demand.
Many of the sacked workers found solace in our office at Surulere. They would come around with their leaders to make series of complaints and I am happy that we always listened. We heard them out and relayed their grievances to the world. We assisted them mostly without asking for a kobo. The workers met regularly at NPA Sports Ground on Bode Thomas Street, a few minutes’ drive from our office in Surulere.
Their plight touched me personally. I knew some of them while they served in enviable positions at NPA. I knew some of them as Principal Managers, Assistant General Managers, Traffic Managers, Chief Port Engineers, Chief Port Accountants, Chief Port Marketing Officers and such like positions. In their days in NPA, you had to sit in their waiting rooms for a while to see them. They were very important persons; some were chauffeur-driven but then they lost all. At the height of their struggle, feeding and meeting basic family responsibilities became a challenge. Those who are alive among them are the lucky ones as many have died during the struggle. Some who are alive have lost their health within the six year period. Such is life. I was touched anytime they visited.
Well, it seems there is light at the end of their dark tunnel after all as the Federal Government through the Director General of the Budget Office, Dr. Bright Okogu, has directed their enrolment into the NPA pension scheme. The directive was unambiguous.
In his letter to the Ministry of Transport, Okogu stated that “the mode of exit from Service for those who were severed did not make any difference in respect to their terminal benefits. Therefore, they should be enrolled for monthly pension when due just like their counterparts who exited service normally.”
What a sweet victory. I don’t know how Chief Sarumi will be feeling now over this directive but I hope other leaders learn from it. It should always be the people first.
And it is baffles one that rather take advantage of the directive to alleviate the sufferings of the former workers, the current NPA management seems bent on prolonging their misery. Indeed, on 3rd October last year, the angry retirees had to occupy the front gate of the Lagos Port Complex Apapa to protest NPA’s non-compliance with the directive. Why should these citizens be made to suffer unnecessarily after serving their country?
After careful consideration of all that transpired in the maritime industry last year and the role played by the various actors, I have decided therefore that my Maritime Man of the Year 2013 is not a man. My award goes to this group of dogged fighters; the 2006/2007 retirees of NPA.