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By Victor Ahiuma-Young
UMBRELLA body for employers in the country, Nigeria Employers' Consultative Association, NECA, has been a leading advocate for friendly environment for businesses to thrive in Nigeria. In an interview with Financial Vanguard, Director-General of NECA, Mr. Segun Osinowo, among others, said until Nigeria addresses the basic issue of her political reform that focuses on devolution of power, resource control and fiscal federalism, we will not be able to realise the full potentials of whatever economic policies we are thinking of.

Nigeria recently celebrated 51 years of nationhood, what message does NECA have for the nation's political leaders?

Cost of doing business in Nigeria, you will agree with me, is a big challenge to employers but if there is anything we desire for this country at 51, it is the need for us to realise the imperative for a political reform.

We are not talking about economic reform now; until we address the basic issue of our political reform that focuses on devolution of powers, resource control and fiscal federalism, we will not be able to realise the full potentials of whatever economic policies we are thinking of,  because quite a number of our laws are anti-development and have reduced our capacity for effective administration.

For example, recently, the Federal Government came up with the pronouncement on the issue of number plates. The question now is: What has the Federal Government really got to do with the issue of number plates? But  the constitution has allowed it.

We have to do away with that policy. If you go to the United States, each state handles the issue of number plates and they are more effective in terms of delivery. Our position is that each state should be allowed to issue number plates and that is just one of those policies that need to be reviewed.

There are so many policies that government need to do away with. We need to tinker with that policy that gives so much power to the Federal Government. In the case of number plates, the Federal Government can develop the national framework but not for them to handle the administrative aspect of it.

Why are we running away from states developing the structure for ensuring security like state police? People have cited political consideration that such thing may not work but we have to start from somewhere.

*Mr. Segun Osinowo, Director-General of NECA
Our message to Nigeria at 51 is that the Federal Government should realise that  political reform is as important as economic reform and that we cannot place emphasis on economic reform while ignoring the basic issue of political reform. So let us put the issue of political reform on the front burner and tackle it as quickly as possible.

What will NECA tell those agitating for state creation?

We need to address the issue of constitutional review which will focus on the devolution of power to the other arms of government, which will also focus on the need to change the current culture of sharing and embrace a culture of contribution and production.

We should be bold enough if it comes to that, to embrace the concept of resource control. Take for instance in the First Republic, there was healthy competition among those leaders who were contributing to a better cause.

So, if we are able to move along that line, each state will be forced to wake up and take advantage of opportunities within its boundaries and in the course of doing that, economic activities will be ignited and jobs will be created.

So for us, the time is ripe for a review of our constitution in terms of the real fundamental issues that will make sure that, to a large extent, each state is given the power or allowed to control its resources to grow the state. By the time we do that, you will be amazed that all the agitation for state creation will reduce because the burden of state creation will be on all those agitating for it to make sure that the states generate revenue to survive.

Why are we having so many agitations for state creation now? It is because of the ethnic aspect of it or what I will call the tendency for some minority groups to be sidelined. But the key issue is that everybody wants to have direct access to the national cake.

People are not thinking of how they are going to contribute to the baking of the cake, rather, it is all about how to have a slice of the national cake, we need to really re-address that. The only way to do this is for us to say that within  a period of say five years, whatever anybody is able to generate in his state will be used to build infrastructure within his state.

Then will states begin to generate revenue out of which they will contribute to the national purse. So, even though we are apolitical and not supporting any political party, that does not mean that we do not have the right to have a say or prefer a political structure for moving this country forward.

What is NECA's take on the agitation for a downward review of salaries and allowances of political office holders especially the National Assembly?

We still subscribe to the issue of the review of our constitution. If you look at the political structure of a country like Switzerland, the governor of a state is far more important and more popular than the President of Switzerland.

This is so because that is where the resource is. So people would rather vie to become the governor of a state or a member of the legislative arm of a state rather than going for the position of the President of Switzerland. The point I am trying to make out of this is that we need a political reform that will reduce the resources concentrated at the centre.

The moment you do that, you create an economy where if you don't work, you will not eat. Then it will be very difficult for lawmakers to appropriate to themselves a larger share of the cake that must have been baked either at the national level or state level.

Take Lagos State as an example, over 75 per cent of the state revenue comes from Internally Generated Revenue (IGR). If the private sector in Lagos State should grind to a halt today, that will be the end of governance in the state.

The amount that the state governor will get from the federation account will be inadequate for him to continue to be a performing governor, in this case, the survival of the state government is tied to the survival of businesses in Lagos State.

For the state government to continue to have access to the taxation of these people, they must invest in their environment to keep those businesses running. But currently, we do not have that model, whether Cadbury pays its taxes or not, or Guinness pays its taxes or not, the legislators will earn their fat pay.

Why? For as long as Niger- Delta is at peace and government can export crude oil, there will be enough money. But if that money is not there, very few people would want to go to the National Assembly. So they have the knife and the yam now.

The only way to address this is to take the yam away and let them hold on to just the knife. So it  is not something we should just be advocating for a reduction in the salaries and allowances of political leaders because nobody will want to reduce the level of income he is already used to.

All they will do now is to exercise control and caution in increasing what they are already earning which as you observed, is among the best in the world. So, there is need for the review of our constitution that would give more power and resources to the federating states.

The moment you do that, they will not be able to sustain that level of pay again. This is because what the federating states will be contributing will not even be enough to run the National Assembly.

NECA has been partnering some organisations on technical and vocational training programmes to empower Nigerians among others. What has been the response of the Federal Government in terms of partnering with your association to boost this initiative?

The response from the Federal Government regarding the issue of technological and vocational training for Nigerians has been lukewarm, aloof and not encouraging. I can state here that government has been insensitive but perhaps, we should rephrase the question by asking what efforts have we really made to bring this issue to their attention.

Last year, we met with the Minister of Education and made a presentation to the minister who acknowledged that it was a very good initiative and indicated the ministry's intention to work with us but we never heard from the ministry since then.

We also met with President Goodluck Jonathan during his campaign and told him exactly the same story on the need to focus attention on the issue of vocational training for the youths in the country. The President was all ears as he saw the enormous benefits in this initiative.

This is his sixth month in office but we have not heard anything from him. We quite appreciate the fact that there are bigger issues of the state that have attracted their attention. In fact, we are not saying that the President should be the one to drive the programme but he should initiate the process by directing his cabinet to implement this initiative just as the Kwara State Government has done.

We did not even have the opportunity to make our presentation to the Governor of Kwara State.  He just saw our advertisement on vocational training programme in the papers and immediately sent for us. So, I must say that we are really disappointed about the low response from the Federal Government because their attitude has not been encouraging.

The irony of this is that the government has the Vision 20:20:20 document and had not looked into this important issue of manpower development needed to drive the vision, or do they think angels are going to come from heaven to do the work?

What is government's manpower development scheme for actualising the Vision 20:20:20? How many technicians are we going to need or how many plumbers are we going to require to do the job?

Does government know all these things?
There is need for the Federal Government to identify those organisations that have started wonderful proggrammes that are yielding results and get them into national initiative that can be able to triple the outcome so that we can drive this vision.

Why is there increasing cases of strikes and agitations by workers in the country and how can this be addressed?

The agitation for increment in salaries and the high incidence of strikes have been more in the public sector than in the private sector but the structure and policy for managing industrial relations and collective bargaining from the national perspective is the same whether you are operating in the private sector or the public sector.

So, the question we should ask ourselves is, why has it worked in the private sector and it has not worked very well in the public sector? The answer to that is first, the government has not demonstrated its responsibility well enough to respect the agreement which it signed with the unions.

This is because quite a number of past strikes had to do with the failure of government to honour agreements which it signed. The second issue as to why there is a higher incidence of strike in the public sector is the failure of the parties involved to respect the structure which they have agreed upon for engagement.

I give an example, the current structure of collective bargaining in Nigeria is anchored on industry-wide collective bargaining, and just as we have industrial unions in the private sector, we have sectorial unions in the public sector.

In the private sector, it is the industrial unions that negotiate with the employers but in the public sector, the employer is the government. The third question is, why are those unions in the public sector not engaging their employers in collective bargaining on regular basis?

One reason for that is that quite unlike in the private sector where you have procedural rules of engagement that is very clear as to when you are going to negotiate, in most public sector organisations, you do not have rules of engagement which explains why the workers will just wake up one day and demand say 40 per cent increment in salary from government.

If the rules are well structured, they will know that there is a time when they can do that and when that time comes, there will not be any reason to engage government. Thirdly, and this cuts across and not restricted t

o only the public sector, the structure is not supposed to stand perpetually.

The structure comes out of the dynamics in your environment and your strategic objectives. The current structure we are operating has been in existence since 1970s and there have been a lot of changes in our economy. Whether you are talking about the public sector or the private sector, that is where the reform issue comes in.

I think the time has come for us to really ask this question: Is the current structure we are operating in really the best? Is it in line with current clime? Now, I give you an example using the Academic Staff Union of Universities, ASUU.

The national secretariat will want to meet with the Federal Government and negotiate terms and conditions of employment for all universities in Nigeria wherever they are located. I think there is something wrong with that structure.

The Governor of Anambra State in the person of Peter Obi said recently that a professor in Harvard University does not earn the same salary with a professor in one other university in another part of the United States. So, we need to tinker with the structure of bargaining that will make ASUU to negotiate on common terms and conditions of employment for all university lecturers with Federal Government.

This is because the ability of one state to pay is different from the ability of another state to pay. The nature and working environment and values differ from state to state. So we need to give more power to the federating components to determine how this should be done.

In the same vein, the power to determine what should be applied in the universities should be in the hands of the unions within the universities while discussing with their real employers which is probably the governing council of say the University of Lagos.

Until we go back to tinker with that structure, we will be enmeshed in this kind of crisis. Because now ASUU is talking with the Federal Government and whatever they agree upon, ASUU will want state governments that had not been part of that negotiation with  the Federal Government to implement.

Therefore, we expect a tinkering of that structure which will allow the state governments that are going to pay those lecturers to meet with the unions within their state and agree on what will be appropriate.

There are growing reports about employers especially your members preventing their employees from joining unions. How are you addressing this issue?

Oftentimes we create excuses for the union to be lazy. The right of employees as per unionisation is well enshrined in the law of this country.

It is the responsibility of the unions to organise its members. In the event that any employer is preventing the unions from organising its members, it is the right of the unions to insist because it is well enshrined in the law and what to do.

So even if your employer in a particular company is saying no, it is against the law of the land, so the question is what are the unions doing about it? It is a question for the unions not for us. As far as we are concerned, we always preach to our members the fact that the law of the land recognises the right of any employee to belong to the union of his choice.

So, if any employer is resisting that - whether deliberately or otherwise - it is the responsibility of the union and not the employer. It is left for the union to do the appropriate thing in terms of getting that employer to respect the rights of the employees.