Mr. Adewale Adeyanju is the President General of Maritime Workers Union of Nigeria (MWUN). In this exclusive interview with MMS Plus newspaper, he speaks on a wide range of maritime issues ranging from maritime workers welfare to federal government economic priorities. Excerpts:
Having spent four years as President General of MWUN, how would you describe the experience? What were the challenges and highpoints?
It has been teamwork with my executives and I’m privileged to be the leader of this team. We wouldn’t have gotten this far without the union members who supported us immensely. I must also thank the media for the support throughout these years. It has been a good experience but my character never changed. What can change in my character would be to renew my efforts through the almighty God to make sure that what we’re asking for the workers, we get is right at the right time.
We must be proactive enough to face the challenges and it is very tough to deal with employers of labour. We had to go extra miles. It’s not easy for you to get one or two things from them, but with the understanding we have among ourselves, the sky is our limit.
For the average workers under MWUN, what we need to do is renew our commitment to serve them and to make sure that their rights are given to them at the right time.
Unions are always known to heat up the industry to drive home their demands but the port has not experienced a hostile environment under your leadership. How was that achieved?
Well, it is through prayers and prayers of all my national officers. When you’re working and you’re the leader, it is important for you to have it at the back of your mind that the support is coming from subordinates. If the support is not there then you cannot think of peace, you know you have to carry everybody along. That is the essence of peace.
The advantage I have is the good officers as my colleagues and I learnt from previous MWUN leaders who also prioritized peace. I learnt from our past leaders like Comrade Tony Nted, Comrade Irabor, among others. Irabor is my mentor and you really can’t write the history of the union without mentioning his name. The progress of every successful administration would be great if they’re willing to learn from your past leaders. It’s the good aspects of previous leadership that we picked and used them as pillars to build peace in the union and the industry at large.
Sometimes you issue ultimatums to shipping companies or terminals but later withdraw them with the matter unresolved and this leads to speculation that you collected bribes. What leads to the withdrawal of ultimatums?
Well, I think anyone saying that we collected bribes is being mischievous. They don’t understand why we called off the strike. Most times, the management of the company invites us for peace discussions or to deliberate on how to resolve the matter. At such a level, what the union needs to do is to go back to the house and tell your members. We have been invited for a particular meeting because of the ultimatum we issued and these are the undertakings that are coming from the angle of the management. So, the bottom line is for you to say it’s fine, let’s withdraw our strike so that we can go into proper negotiations.
We usually have a communiqué or letter to that effect and there is no way when you have a communiqué duly signed by an Executive Director or Managing Director of a particular company, you refuse to call-off the strike. What you need to do is honour that communiqué and give it a period of time. If the Chief Executive doesn’t honour the agreement you can renew your ultimatum.
So, we can’t continue making trouble when the authority concerned has invited us for a meeting and the CEO has given us his word. We will study his offer, then we’ll say let us go and manage this communique that is undertaken binding by two of us. No management has bribed us because the union is too big for them to bribe. Why should they bribe us on issues that have to do with the lives of our members? There’s no way we’re going to compromise on that and I think it is those that are not in the union that bring the conception that maybe the union leaders have collected money.
Who is going to give us money when some of the terminal operators we’re telling to do the right thing are still fighting us underground? We don’t look at their faces because the only faces we are concerned about are the faces of our members working for them. We don’t issue ultimatums to collect bribes. Ultimatum has a meaning and you can withdraw the ultimatum anytime when the government or private offender must have called you for a meeting. If that meeting doesn’t have any headway, you make that your stand on your next action as a leader.
Last week, a development in the aviation sector was recorded as airlines seized by the Assets Management Corporation of Nigeria (AMCON) initiated plans to get seized airplanes injected back into the system. However, in the shipping sector we have ships that go aground after the taking over by AMCON. What’s your take on this?
I’m concerned about this issue because the seafarers who work onboard those ships are under MWUN. This move to salvage airlines by AMCON simply shows that the government is more concerned about the airlines and the aviation sector than ships and the shipping industry. To me, this shows the level of government interest in the shipping industry.
While we aren’t saying that airlines should be abandoned, in order of priority I think shipping should come first. Any nation that doesn’t regard its shipping sector would struggle with economic stability. We can only advise the Federal Government and its agencies like AMCON to have regard for the shipping sector and they should show this by astutely managing maritime assets that have been seized.
The emphasis of this presidential administration has been on railways and that is good, but what about the maritime sector? When we talk about an efficient transport system, it’s definitely going to be incomplete without ships. What is the government doing to assist indigenous ship owners?
We know that there is the Cabotage Vessel Finance Fund (CVFF) that no one has accessed but that money should be disbursed in a properly structured manner. The government should assist ship owners, especially indigenous ones that are not corrupt so they can sustain their businesses. It is only when the ship owners are doing fine that we can begin to talk about welfare or the interest of their workers. I understand the fears of the government that some ship owners may misuse the fund or channel it to other purposes but there should be guidelines for the disbursement so that people don’t hijack the fund as we observed during the era of Ship Building and Ship Acquisition Fund.
On the role of AMCON in taking over indebted ships, they are carrying out their statutory functions but they should engage shipping experts on the best ways to salvage ships because they are assets to the nation and the maritime industry. The goal should be to get the asset back to a position where it can repay the debt and not to kill it completely. So, this time around, AMCON has to change its system to ensure that indigenous ship owners are being encouraged. We have very experienced ship owners like Chief Jolapomo and others, who could be consulted by AMCON to discuss the headway for seized vessels. AMCON shouldn’t allow its activities to lead to more job losses and failed investments in the country, when they can redeem such investments.
What are the major challenges you faced in your administration so far?
We have a lot of challenges but God assisted us in bringing it down and resolving them. One of the top issues were court cases. We inherited some of the cases from the past administration but we were able to settle most of them through dialogue.
From our experience, we know that there’s no need to be running to the courts all the time. Most of the cases have been won by us through dialogue with the person in question. I think it’s part of the challenges we’re facing here, what we met here was a challenge to an average leader that comes onboard. The goal was to divide the union into two or three parts where your mind is going to be on lots of challenges; but with God on our side we were able to overcome them.
There’s nobody that doesn’t encounter challenges but when going through them, I always had the support from all my subordinates, executives and workers. So, I don’t think anyone would have any insurmountable problem with such a good team. We faced a lot of challenges when we came in, but under one year we were able to overcome them.
2020 was characterized by numerous challenges mostly as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Looking at 2021, what are your expectations and what agenda would you set for the maritime industry?
As a union, our primary concern would be the completion of all the old projects while we begin to explore strategies on new ones that we will introduce.
However, if we are looking at the expectation for the industry from MWUN’s perspective, the first thing is to state that we don’t want a second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic which could drag the sector backwards. We need to be very careful, adhere strictly to safety precautions and manage this pandemic because we have been told that this new version is deadlier.
All terminal operators and the other management Cadre of companies that are operating at the ports should prepare for this second wave. There should be sufficient awareness programmes to sensitize the members of staff and those who transact with such companies. This is the best way to prevent this pandemic from spreading into the port. If it enters the port, you can be sure that millions of people that are operating in the ports would be at risk and that could be disastrous.
MWUN has started sensitizing workers on this new version of COVID-19 and the need to prioritize healthy and safe practices. Other stakeholders should also begin such sensitization moves and we are pleading with all relevant public and private organizations to support MWUN in this fight against the pandemic.