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Sunday, February 9, 2020

Independent Newspapers: HOW MOBIL SACKED 900 SPY POLICEMEN

By Nsikak Ekanem -February 9, 2020053

LAGOS – About two years after con­tending parties have let the dust settle over dis­engagement of spy po­licemen formerly under the work­force of Mobil Producing Nigeria Unlimited (MPN), a fresh dust is bubbling in the court of public opinion in Akwa Ibom State as to who did what and who did not do the expected. Whereas the disput­ed matter has been in the public domain, having been in law courts for 13 years, the free-for-all argu­ment is fraught with fractions of facts and fabulous fallacies.

For instance, though Udom In­oyo, currently the Executive Vice Chairman of MPN was not per­sonally a party while the conten­tion between MPN and its former security personnel lasted from the Federal High Court to the Su­preme Court, he is now in the dock in the fussy court of public opin­ion, where everyone combines the role of being a judge, prosecutor, counsels and witnesses at the same time. And the fact of the matter is fatally the major casualty.

The truth of the matter is that in 2018 hundreds of security per­sonnel were disengaged from MPN after over 13 years of labour dis­pute. In all, the affected workers were about 900. Of this number, a lot of them had either retired or moved on to other jobs or even died before the decision to lay off the security personnel, who were pop­ularly known as spy policemen.

Those who were still rendering service to the company as at the peak of the dispute were about 500. On the face of it, however, the figure paints a grim and humongous pic­ture of people sentenced to wallow in wants of non-existence job in the Nigerian labour market, with extended effects on multiple of dependents of each of the person affected.

As it is always the case with in­ternational oil companies (IOC), op­erating in Nigeria, the controversial circumstances culminating in the disengagement of the spy police­men enjoyed headlines, while the accompaniments of the job termi­nation were subsumed with obscu­rity within the big stories of the number of sacked security workers.

It was gathered that the former spy policemen were all paid their benefits with some getting as much as N20 million while the least among them got home with N15 million. It is against this backdrop that some informed and perceptive minds view the sacking of the security workers as a blessing in disguise in that the annual basic salary per per­son was in the range of N1.5 million, implying that the sacked workers smiled to their banks with about eight to 10 times of their yearly ba­sic salaries. Most of them have sec­ondary school certificates as their highest qualifications.

In addition to the take-home package, the disengaged staff would also receive pensions in line with the company’s pension policy. The 860 spy policemen to be paid these benefits comprised of the 508, who were in the MPN system till the time the pay-off was effected and 360 oth­ers, who had been disengaged from the services of MPN long before the Supreme Court judgment.

Deceased persons in the catego­ry of the sacked workers were also accommodated. It was also learnt that accrued entitlements of those who died before the exercise were paid to beneficiaries or estates of the deceased, as their cases applied.

In addition, the company also offered Human Resources consulting services to assist the sacked workers with employment opportunities through third-par­ty engagement. MPN, which is an affiliate of Exxon Mobil, is said to have a tradition of retaining security services through third parties who are best positioned to provide core competencies.

Prior to the Supreme Court decision in the matter between MPN and its former security per­sonnel, the spy policemen relation­ship with the oil company had the structure of third party engage­ment as their salaries were being paid through the Nigerian Police Force, with the company contrib­uting monthly to augment it.

Initially, most of the security personnel, who joined the service in the 1990s, were employed direct­ly by MPN. Advancing the need for competent training and enhance­ment of professionalism, as well as ensuring that the company stay consistence with the global practice of the company, the multinational company entered into a deal with the Nigerian Police Force and hand­ed over the spy policemen to the Force. The Nigerian Police Force, which even recruited more, trained and deployed them to MPN.

The spy policemen preference to be counted among the work­force of the oil company instead of belonging to the Nigeria Police Force ignited the collision course between them and MPN, which led to protest by the former and thereafter institution of legal ac­tion against the latter.

The litigation, which com­menced by way of originating summons filed on March 15, 2005 before the Federal High Court, Uyo division, was instituted by 15 of the security personnel. Among those, who filed the matter for themselves and on behalf of their colleagues, were Okon Johnson, Nkereuwm Akpe, Nsitighe Ikpam, Calistus Nwafor, Emmanuel Nwokezi and Eric Teenwi. Others were Affiong Etim, Amangi Ala, Joseph Bam­ishaye, Godwin Tombra, Charles Okon, Dada Rotimi, Raji Lateef, Taiwo Laidi and Opubo Sukubo.

The nitty-gritty of the matter for determination by the court was the employees’ status, as to which of the organizations – between the MPN and the Nigerian Police Force – they belong. The plaintiffs also claimed several declaratory and injunctive reliefs against MPN and the Nigerian Police Force. Fur­ther, they claimed special and gen­eral damages, including payment of N50, 635,850 to each of the 833 number of members of the plain­tiffs as Mobil employees.

The entire firework of the suit was premised on affidavits deposed to by the parties. Aside the 15 spy policemen and MPN, other parties in the matter were the Inspector General of Police, the Akwa Ibom Commissioner of Police and the Nigerian Police Council.

On January 24, 2006, Justice Gladys Olotu, who presided over the matter, granted some of the re­liefs but held that the spy policemen were not employees of the MPN but that of the Nigerian Police Force. Dissatisfied with the judgement of the trial court, the representatives of the security personnel appealed to the Court of Appeal.

On May 21, 2009, a three-man panel of judges at the Court of Ap­peal, Calabar Division, presided by Kamai Aka’ahs reversed the judge­ment of the Federal High Court and decided in favour of the spy police­men. The other two judges of the panel were Jean Omokri and The­resa Orji-Abadua.

The MPN was still not satisfied with the decision of the Court of Appeal, hence appealing to the Su­preme Court, which, on April 20, 2018 in a unanimous judgement read by Justice John Okoro dis­missed the appeal and upheld the judgement of the Court of Appeal. The five-judge panel that adjudicat­ed on the matter was presided over by Justice Olabode Rhodes-Vivour. Others judges that sat on the appeal were Justices Mary Peter-Odili, Amiru Sanusi and Sidi Bage.

In upholding the judgement of the lower court, the Supreme Court hinged its decision on the Court of Appeal’s position that the appoint­ments of the spy policemen were not done in conformity with the Police Act. Aligning to averment of Femi Falana (SAN), who was coun­sel to the security personnel, Justice Odili stated at page 376, paragraphs D to E of the judgement: “I agree with learned counsel for the 1st to 15th respondents (the spy police­men) that addressing them as spy police constable does not confer on them the status and privilege of po­licemen having not been appointed in compliance with the Police Act, section 18 precisely.

“It follows that the appellant (MPN) seeking to anchor on the presumption of regularity provid­ed for under Section 150(1) and (2) of the Evidence Act would not avail them since for that presumption to operate there must be some facts brought forward to show to the court that what has been done was done substantially as required by law and in this case that hurdle of compliance is absent.”

Thereafter, rationalising that the oil company needed to focus ade­quate attention on its sole business of crude oil and gas production, the MPN maintained that it did not have requisite capacity to accommo­date about 900 security personnel, which was said to be higher than the number of engineers in the company, hence effecting the ter­mination of the security personnel as its employees with their accrued benefits in line with the company’s policies.

Even after the decision of the apex court, the dispute was not im­mediately put to rest, as the securi­ty personnel, in what looked like a final onslaught, resorted to acts of picketing, blockade and defacing of the company facilities, among oth­er acts of protest, in the company’s offices in Lagos and Eket in Akwa Ibom to press home their demands.

In fact, a truce came after inter­vention by the Ministry of Labour and Employment. At the instance of the Labour and Employment Minister, Chris Ngige, a meeting was held with the relevant parties. That meeting culminated in a min­isterial directive setting up a team comprising of representatives of MPN’s management, representa­tives of the security personnel along with their lawyer, Falana, represen­tatives of PENGASSAN and some officials of the ministry.

 In fact, in addition to MPN’s pol­icy, the modus operandi that guided the disengagement of the security personnel and payment of their entitlements was arrived at from inputs from the stakeholders at the meeting convened by Ngige.

Amidst the subtle uproar trailing the sacked security personnel, there is growing notion in some quarters in Akwa Ibom that the Vice Chair­man of MPN, by virtue of being an indigene of Akwa Ibom, where the company has a chunk of its pro­duction from, ought to show biases in favour of the people of the state, particularly in terms of job oppor­tunities and welfare of workers.

In a chat with Sunday Indepen­dent, Eyibio Okon, a legal practi­tioner based in Uyo said that “In­oyo should have done something, by way of lobbying”. According to him, “what Mobil did cannot be said to be the company’s policy that he cannot intervene”, adding that “in some cases, even company policies can be tinkered with.”

But Efremfon Usenideh, a lawyer and development banker based in Lagos, argued that “The fact that one occupies an exalted position in a company through merit and diligence does not mean that such person sits in his busy office or the comfort of his home to take deci­sions.”

Usenideh, who has worked in various financial organisations for over 20 years, continued: “A compa­ny upon incorporation is answer­able for its actions and inactions subject to certain exceptions, which may make the corporate veil of the company to be lifted.

“The tradition is that inter­national oil companies and even local corporates, partnerships or sole proprietorships have laid out policies for engagement and disen­gagement of employees. This are also subject to existence laws of the country where such business concerns operate.

“From my over two decades experience drawn from local and multinational banking companies, corporate organisations are not run like a monogamous Christian marriage, where the husband hears from God and dispenses same to the wife, who out of obedience, must re­spect the husband and comply. In fact, modern day marriages abhor one-man decision taking. Mr. Inoyo as the Vice Chairman does not sack staff. He does not determine or pay compensation. Corporations are run through corporate rules hav­ing regards to the laws of the place, where such corporations operate.

“What some people have failed to see is the wisdom of Exxon Mo­bil Legal and Human Resources departments. They took the staff as their employees and thereafter disengaged them. Contracts of em­ployment are governed by terms and conditions of such contracts.”

Making reference to Olaniyan versus University of Lagos, which he described as one of the landmark cases on labour matters, Usenideh concluded that “one cannot impose a servant on a master who is unwill­ing.”

Udeme Uyoata, an acerbic com­mentator on matters of public inter­est in Akwa Ibom aligned himself with Usenideh, opining that “Every organization has its internal role guiding employment and employ­ability, hence Inoyo couldn’t have been expected to act in an otherwise provincial manner”.

In his opinion, Clair George, a public affairs analyst, said: “The people of Akwa Ibom refuse to understand that Mobil, as an or­ganization, has its standard and modus operandi that governs the organization. Our people think that because Inoyo is the Vice Chairman of Mobil he should dance to the tune of Akwa Ibom people and not his employer.”

 Clair, who is also an indigene of Akwa Ibom added that “The ideal thing is that every management in any organization is more inter­ested in organizational growth, with the that translates to growth of employees and other stakehold­ers of the establishment while the other staff perception concerning management decision is viewed as victimization.”

Though Udofa Assam, an estate surveyor and valuer, is pressing for more presence of MPN in Eket and the need for the company to do more for the people of the oil producing communities, he condemned those who attach Inoyo’s name to decision taken by the oil company. He said: “It is unfortunate that most of the people discussing the issue of the sacked spy policemen from Mobil don’t have the fact of the matter.”

“Inoyo is an appointee of Mobil. He is not Mobil. He does not have personal or unilateral power to hire and fire. His name should be detached from decision taken by his company”, Assam, who is an indi­gene of Eket, added.

Offering explanation on why the oil company took the decision to lay off that number of workers at a go, a source at Exxon Mobil headquar­ters in Lagos said: “When the spy policemen were initially issued letters of employment they were informed that the company would not be able to carry them in the company’s books as employees. They were told that those who were strong enough to continue working would be absorbed through a third party security provider to the com­pany.”

A senior staff of the company, who bared his mind with Sunday Independent on the condition of anonymity said “Inoyo is an em­ployee of the company and not the owner of the company. Mobil is not his father’s property, either. Even though he is currently the boss of the company in Nigeria there is a boundary to what he can do and cannot do. He does not have power to take unilateral decision and ac­tion, neither does any other staff has, as it relates to one worker, let alone that number of workers in question.”

A retired director of the com­pany, in an informal discussion narrated on impeccability of mul­tinational oil companies across the globe, including the ones operating in Nigeria: “Exxon Mobil, like any other international oil company is so structured for any individual in the company to be personally held responsible for any decision of the organization. The company pays serious attention to every detail concerning the organization. Ev­ery decision of the company passes through impeccable processes.”

The former director of MPN added that “if Nigeria, at any level of government, can imbibe at least 30 percent structure inherent in any of the international oil compa­nies, there would be no difference between our country or state, as the case may be, and the advanced countries of the world, in terms of good governance”.

In what appeared to be a veil response to the discussion making round that the impact of the oil company has not added bearing to development in Akwa Ibom, Inoyo, at event packaged recently by jour­nalists in Uyo, disclosed that Akwa Ibom constitute 35 percent of the employees in the MPN.

He said: “Akwa Ibom is blessed to be an oil producing state, with NNPC/MPN operating here. Be­cause of this production Akwa Ibom State’s revenue ranks amongst the highest (if not number one), and I can tell you for free that it is a lot more than MPN.

“Akwa Ibom State indigenes alone constitute about 35 percent of all employees of the Exxon Mobil affiliates in Nigeria. The company has contributed over N160 billion to NNDC (Niger Delta Development Commission), and remits about N7 billion annually in PAYEE tax to the Akwa Ibom State government.

“When you drive on a newly con­structed road, watch a match in ‘the Nest of Champion’ or fly Ibom Air, all these are been largely enabled by the contribution of the joint ven­ture operator.”

He lauded the workers of the MPN, saying, “While thanking the managers of resources in the state for utilizing these funds for the good of the state, we should never fail to give kudos to the thousands of personnel, who toil every second, to bring this crude oil to surface”, adding, “Neither should we fail to hold government (national and sub-national) accountable for how the funds accruing to them are uti­lized.”

However, he registered his regret that what is often heard “is that the company is not doing enough for the state. And it is worst for some us employees, who happen to come from the state, and as Nigerians, who are working very hard to help attract funding to the country de­spite competing locations even within the African continent.”

When approached on phone to respond directly to his role in the disengagement of spy policemen, he declined by simply saying, “Your newspaper, as its name implies, can do an independent investigation on it, but without my input”.

Sunday Independent investiga­tion shows that the company has about 2000 employees, constituting about 160 expatriates, which represents 8 percent of the staff strength, while the remaining 92 percent or 1840 persons are Nigeri­ans. The 35 percent Akwa Ibom per­sons in the company is made up of over 600, leaving about 57 percent, which is 1196 for the remaining 35 states, translating to an average of 34 persons per state.

It is assumed by many analysts that the laying off exercise must have led up the affected persons in socio-economic stratification – likely private entrepreneurship – with possibility of springing up millions of naira in returns, which could have extended advantages on many other individuals. That might have informed Usenideh’s rhetor­ical remarked:“Is it not a blessing for a man whose annual salary per annum was N1.5 million to have wo­ken up to receive a bulk payment of N15 million or N20 million, as his or her case may apply?

In view of the fact that Akwa Ibom indigenes occupy appreciable number of positions at the senior cadre, including executives and managerial level, some perceptive minds, who hold the view that the spy policemen palaver has gener­ated much ado, situate that jux­taposing the case of the security personnel with those of the senior staff of the company from Akwa Ibom fits into proverbial narrative of a hunter that carries elephant on head while at the same time using his legs in search of snails.

Deducing from the foregoing, some mentioned that it brings to mind a diminutive psyche that the first civilian governor of Akwa Ibom, Akpan Isemin, called “etok syndrome – the people’s mentality of pinpointing and paying premi­um to peanuts. Among the spy po­licemen personnel, those of Akwa Ibom extraction constituted about 40 percent while the rest of the 60 percent were from other states in Nigeria.

Why are the sacked spy police­men not complaining after getting their entitlement? Is it a case of a sympathizer crying more than the bereaved? Why is the grumbling only in Akwa Ibom?

It is the foregoing questions that brought to minds Prof Emmanuel Ayandele’s description of the for­mer Cross River State, which Akwa Ibom was part of until 1987. The professor of History and former Vice Chancellor of the University of Calabar has been quoted to have said that Cross River State was “an atomistic society perpetually at war with itself.”

Efforts to get the response of the Public Affairs Manager of MPN, Mr. Oge Udeagha, to comment on the issue was abortive as he failed to respond to questions sent him for about two months before this report was filed.

While many opined that the cur­rent hue and cry in Akwa Ibom over the disengaged security workers at MPN got brewed by uninformed minds and spread by the gullible and mischief makers, so many as­serted that it might have to do with speculative future prospect of Inoyo – prompting a kind of anticipatory fence-off from his detractors –than his dos and don’ts at the company.

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