When we broke the pathetic story of the nine employees of ENL Terminal who have been languishing at the Kirikiri prison for close to two months, we did not realise that there was a lot to it than met the eyes. Some say the arrest was political; others argue that it was purely a legal matter. But in this explosive interaction with the President General of the maritime Workers Union of Nigeria, Comrade Onikolease Irabor, I discovered that the unfortunate detention is a consequence of an admixture of reasons. You can draw your conclusion after reading this.
Some of your members are languishing at Kirikiri prison, what actually happened?
Well, it’s a pathetic story in the sense that some of the members and some of the officers of this union believe in disobedience to constituted authority. On that Saturday, I was coming from Abuja and I got a call from my national treasurer telling me that there is a problem again at ENL Terminal. I requested to know what the problem was about and I was told that the workers were protesting and as a result of the protest they blocked the entrance to the terminal with trucks from the workshop. Those protesting are from a unit, so they used their trucks to block the whole entrance, there was no movement of vehicles into and out of the terminal. I called the president of the branch, Comrade Edwin Ogbonna immediately and I asked him if he was aware of what was happening at ENL. I did this because of the recent incident which happened at that terminal which is still fresh in our minds. We cant afford a repeat of that.
I did not stop there, I called my deputy (Bakare) to go down there and assist Ogbonna to make sure that the issue at hand was resolved. When they got there, they discovered that the president of the branch had not even got there; he did not go there immediately. My deputy and the treasurer tried all they could, but the protesters did not listen to them. The branch president (Ogbonna) only came later in the afternoon. I now called him and said to him “I told you to go there in the morning to resolve the matter, why didn’t you go into this matter and resolve it?”
So what did he say?
He told me that when they came in the morning, the protesting workers sighted mobile policemen and I said to him “If you sight mobile policemen, did they disturb you?” If they did not disturb you, then why did you not go about your business, what is the issue, anyway the instruction is for you to tell them to move the trucks from the entrance and free the way, then on Monday, we shall have a meeting with the management of ENL” I told him also that any issue or problem that they have, they should consider it resolved. I want them to remove the trucks from the entrance and outlets of ENL to pave way for discussions
That should not be a problem
Do you know that this people disobeyed my order and they remained there until very late in the night and left the trucks there, they did not remove the trucks and there was no operation through out the whole day and in the night at ENL terminal. The company had to hire the services of APM Terminal to assist to remove the trucks, because when the protesting workers left, they went with the keys, not only that, they removed the batteries of all the trucks, the brain box of the vehicles were also removed. When APM Terminal’s plant drivers came, they could not remove them until they went and hired batteries and fixed them before they could be able to remove the trucks.
So what happened on Monday, did they come?
On that Monday that I gave instruction that all of them should report to me in my office by 10 o’clock, I was already in the office before 9:30 am waiting for them. Could you believe me, this group of boys; instead of coming to the national secretariat of the union for me to hear them, what they did was to carry placards to the corporate head office of ENL. And because of the experience of the recent event involving the same company, the management of ENL called in the Police when they saw the protesters coming and chanting songs. The Police came in and that was how they were arrested.
Does it mean that instead of coming to the secretariat for the meeting, they chose to go to ENL?
Yes. Unknown to me, those of them who were able to escape arrest now came to me by 3:30 pm. Imagine, I asked them to come by 10 am, they didn’t come, that is why I told you it’s a sort of disobedience. They went to protest; against the union’s advice and now the Police arrested them and they want me to intervene. The few of them that came told us that some of their colleagues have been arrested and I asked them: “where were you when they arrested you? Did they arrest you in your house? Why did you go to ENL office? Is that your area of operation? Some of them said they wanted to go and board a vehicle and I asked them: “vehicle to where?” “When you have had a disagreement with your management, you are supposed to come here and let us see how we can resolve the issue.
Were you able to meet the management of ENL about the matter?
We scheduled a meeting with ENL for 2pm, but because I didn’t see them we had to wait, by the time they came, they told me that some of them had been arrested I said okay. I said, well, “I don’t want anybody to be arrested in my office, what is the offence that you committed? If it is only protest, nobody will arrest a protester, if you are going there to protest for something without blocking the way and removing the batteries of the vehicles and removing brain box from the motor, no one will arrest you. Why should the workers take laws into their own hands? They took the laws into their hands and that is why they are being punished.
But is protest not a part of unionism?
This is outside unionism; I can’t agree that this is a union matter. Supposing, I support them and anything happened to that company again the union will be blamed. So, I told them that it is wrong, that was how they were arrested. And to be frank with you, I don’t know if they are still there or they have been bailed, because I don’t think most of those who protested are officers of the union. If you are a worker and you take the law into your hands, the law will take its cause.
Some people are insinuating that you refused to assist them because of the recent face-off between you and the president of the shipping branch to which they belong?
Let me tell you, it’s not like that; the president of the branch is subject to the office of the president general of the union. We can only have one president general at a time and we can only have one president of the branch at a time. The hierarchy is clear; it is not an issue of saying it has something to do with what happened. If you committed an offence you have to be queried, that has nothing to do with this matter. Anyone who is reading any political meaning to it is only reading stupid meanings, very stupid, they are very idiotic. How can what happened in the past be linked to people coming to block entrance into a terminal and the same people disobeying instructions for them to leave the terminal giving an instruction for them to leave and instead of coming to my office in the morning, they went to the office of the terminal, why did they disobey union orders and who is their leader, who asked them to go there was I the one?
So who asked them?
If I was the one that asked them, I would have led the protest. What even led to the arrest, police was invited, yes, why not. If you have a terminal and you envisaged a problem, wouldn’t you invite the law enforcement agents to be there? I tell you, the issue of ENL is an issue that everybody, including the union is being very careful about and we are not handling it with levity. Anything that we see; including the ones that favour us or not, but which we discover to be against the law, we will never accept it. I will not support any criminality, anybody that take law into his or her hand or anyone who behaves as if he has no leader and does whatever pleases him. I will not support that. Those people who protested are not representing the union.
So how will this matter be resolved?
Which matter? They have not given me any matter to handle because there is no issue to be discussed; no one has brought any issue to me for discussion. If they had brought the issue to me, then I will take up the matter with the management. They are not the only people working in the terminal, mind you, we have other workers in that terminal and in other sections, are we not taking up their matters, are we not handling issues that has to do with welfare of the workers? That is our priority, we must do it, so if they had brought the issue before the union, it would have been handled, we would have handled it, but since they decided to go and take laws into their hands, the law will take its cause.