That a labourer is worthy of his wage is a truism that retirees of the Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA) have not felt. Hence after meritorious services to the nation, hope for their terminal benefits seems dashed. There is a need for the Federal Government to address the prolonged delay in payment of  their benefits, writes John Iwori 

The Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA) has come a long way. It is one of the key parasatals of the Federal Ministry of Transportation which presently has Mr. Rotimi Chibuike Amaechi as the Minister. It is regarded as the gateway to the nation’s economy. The reasons for this are not farfetched. Besides the new ones it is developing under the auspices of its Greenfield Development Programme such as Ibom Deep Seaport, Akwa Ibom State; Lekki Deep Seaport, Lagos State; and Agge Deep Seaport, Bayelsa State; it presently superintends no fewer than seven seaports as the landlord. These include Lagos, Onne, Calabar, Warri, Port Harcourt, Sapele, and Koko. The landlord port model was sequel to the economic reforms of the Federal Government during Chief Olusegun Obasanjo’s administration. The exercise which led to the concession of the nation’s seaports was midwife by the Bureau for Public Enterprises (BPE).  The concession idea which was initiated in 2003 by the Federal Government was an attempt to improve efficiency at the port through the landlord port model. By this model, certain aspects of ports operations were handed over to private operators. By the conclusion of the exercise in 2006, a total of 26 terminals were concessioned to 20 terminal operators.

Since then, the day-to-day running of the nation’s seaports is no longer in the hands of NPA which presently has Mallam Habib Abdullahi as its Managing Director. To an extent, the port reform which divested NPA from cargo handling has succeeded in bringing sanity to the nation’s seaports. Pilfering of cargo and other oddities perpetrated in the terminals popularly called ‘wharf rats’ is now a thing of the past. This is not unconnected with the facelift most of the concessionaires had given to the terminals, procurement of modern cargo handling equipment, huge investments running into several millions of United States of America (USA) dollars, human capacity development, among other things. For instance, Port and Cargo Handling Services Limited, one of the subsidiaries of Sifax said it had added value to the fortunes of its terminal since it took over the operations of Terminal C, Tin Can Island Port, Apapa, Lagos. Managing Director of the firm, Alhaji Mohammed Bulangu said since they took over the terminal on May 11, 2006, it had taken what it called “giant steps” to improve on the company operations by investing heavily on infrastructure and equipment.

His words: “We have met all the obligations in our terminal development/five years’ development plan regarding infrastructural development and equipment acquisition. Given the fact that the terminal development plan was prepared in 2005, it should not be a surprise that we have not only met but have surpassed the projection stated therein”.

Bulangu’s assertion is also true of some other terminal operators such as Integrated Logistics Services Nigeria Limited (INTELS), APM Terminals Apapa Limited, and ENL |Consortium Limited.

Workers Neglect

The success of the port reforms was not without some drawbacks. This is more noticeable in the plight of the workers who were disengaged from service following the implementation of the exercise.  The port reforms seemed not to reflected in the plight of the workers who were the driving force in the implementation of the concession exercise. In fact, the gains of the concession programme did not in any way rub off on the welfare of the workers. Not a few analysts have opined that the welfare of the workers was not given a priority in the implementation of the concession programme. Several aspects of the programme which would have improved the fortunes of the workers were not given the desired attention. Many of the workers were made to hold the short end of the stick. For instance, the payment of the terminal benefits was not handled with dispatch to the extent that till date some of the workers are yet to collect their full entitlements. THISDAY checks revealed that provisions were made for the payment of the disengaged workers but the money was inadequate to cover all the workers involved. Besides the inadequacy of the money meant for the payment of the workers benefits, bureaucratic bottlenecks also hindered many of them from getting their entitlements till it was too late to do so. They died while waiting for the payment of their money.

More Woes

The woes of the workers seem to be endless as more barriers are now standing between them and the collection of their terminal benefits. Since the conclusion of the port concession programme a decade ago, more workers of the authority have been shown the exit gate. They were asked to go because their services were no longer needed. This is either due to age or completion of the mandatory number of years of service as stipulated in the public service rules of engagement. However, some were disengaged from service in order in line with the downsizing and right sizing programmes of the authority over the years. Though no one was willing to make public the number of persons involved in this regard, it was gathered that the number runs into several hundreds.

An impeccable source in NPA House, the corporate headquarters of NPA at Marina, Lagos told THISDAY that these persons were asked to go because the authority was no longer carrying out the function it used to perform in the pre-concession era. “Many of these functions such as goods clearance and cargo handling are now being carried by the concessionaires. So how can you then retain the same number of workforce? That was why they were asked to leave,”  the source who preferred not to be named because he was not authorised to speak on the matter, said.

However, many stakeholders in the maritime industry who spoke to THISDAY did not question the rationale for the dismissal of the workers but questioned a situation where workers will wait endlessly for the payment of their terminal benefits months and some cases, years after they have left the service. They argued that the authority ought to put in place measures will ensure that on the day the worker is disengaged, he is also given his entitlements. A Lagos based freight forwarder, Mr. Michael Otele said “It is not right and proper for you to disengage a staff and keep the payment of his or her entitlements for months. The proper thing to do is to give the person his or her dues on the day of his or her disengagement from service. We should not take delight in making people to suffer unnecessarily. We should learn to do things in the right ways as it is obtainable in other climes. We should not only copy their way of dressing or eating without paying attention to the proper way they do their things. That is the right way to go if we actually have empathy for one another”.

Endless Wait

Though there are several categories of workers that have been disengaged from services of NPA, the ones that seem to have waited much longer than anyone else are those that were retrenched in June 1991. Though their case precede the concession era, they have added to the growing list of workers who were dismissed from service by the authority and are endlessly waiting for the payment of their full benefits. Apparently at their dead end, the former workers tagged “NPA Retrenched Employees June 1991” have called for the intervention of President Mohammadu Buhari for the payment of their terminal benefits since they were disengaged from service 26 years ago.

In a bid to press for their demands, the retirees said they have gone through hell in their attempts to get their pension, gratuity and redundancy benefits from NPA in spite of a subsisting court that they should be paid.

In a letter addressed to Buhari and signed by Chairman, Media, NPA 1991 Retirees, Engr. Sylvas Okoro, the retirees wondered why the management of the authority has continued to prevaricate on the payment of their terminal benefits.

The former NPA employees said they were constrained by what they called “the heartless refusal” of the management of NPA to respect the three superior courts of Nigeria.

Titled “Refusal of Nigerian Ports Authority Management to Pay Pension, Gratuity and Redundancy Benefits of Its Staff Whose Appointment were Determined on June 1991 Despite Supreme Court Judgment on that Effect”, the aggrieved former employees said they decided to write to the President because of Buhari’s avowed commitment to equity, fairness socio-political and economic justice of the masses as well as the rule of law.

“Your Excellency Sir, you have been in vanguard of democracy and good governance from time immoral, you fight for the victims of right abuses and injustice. On June 10, 1991, about 3000 employees from all the ports in Nigeria were served with letter of termination of appointment by Nigerian Ports Authority without payment of our pensions, gratuity and redundancy benefits as stipulated in the Federal Government circular NoB321/SI/X/618 dated January 1, 1991on Pension and Gratuity and Pension Amendment Act of 1990.

“We instituted suit Number LD/1827/92 to secure the payment of our entitlement from NPA. The conclusion of the trial court by the Honourable Justice A.R.A. Sahid of Lagos High Court was on the 12th July 1996 in favour of the retrenched employees. The NPA refused to honour the judgment of the High Court and went for Appeal Court against the suit Number CA/L/425/97, this appeal failed on February 16, 1998 for want of diligent prosecution. Nigerian Ports Authority went again to institute suit Number LD/1021/99. This time, it was meant to set aside the judgment of the Lagos High Court in the bid to deprive the former employees their statutory rights. This new suit was dismissed. We went to Supreme Court with suit Number SC/190/2003. The judgment of this suit was on the May 11, 2007 entered in favour of ex-employees”, they said.

According to the retirees, “the Supreme Court affirmed the judgment of Lagos State High Court by Justice A.R.A Sahid, yet NPA management and its board refused to obey. We sought the intervention of the Senate President through the Chairman Committee on Establishment and Public Service. The committee deliberated on the matter and resolved that the Managing Director of NPA should comply with the Supreme Court judgment of May 11, 2007 and pay all the retrenched staff and no staff should intimidated based on the Supreme Court judgment yet the NPA did not honour the letter.”

According to the retirees, they also sought the intervention of the Minister of Justice and the Attorney General of the Federation, Honourable Mohammed B. Adoke, SAN on October 12, 2012 who ordered the Managing Director to comply with the decision of the Supreme Court of Nigeria. The order is yet to be complied with till date.

They expressed dismay that the management of NPA has continued to frustrate every effort to ensure that they get their terminal benefits in line with the judgment of the highest court in the land and the directive of the Federal Government.

“These were employees who have served meritoriously and put their best during their youthful age when NPA was nothing. The management of NPA has portrayed itself as being insensitive to the plight to its former employees of 1991. No responsible organisation will be inclined to frustrate the effort of employees who had assisted in building not only the goodwill but also given the organisation its pride of place in the maritime industry. If they were not corrupt and disobedient to the rule of law, it would have abided by the orders given to it by the Supreme Court.

“NPA did not honour the memorandum of understanding on the final settlement of our benefit dated April 23, 2013 co-ordinated by the Federal Ministry of Justice between NPA and former representatives of the 1991 retrenched employees who were on the run since that illegal agreement was done. The former executive sold us out. The said memorandum of understanding (MoU) is not part of the Supreme Court judgment which was decided on May 11, 2007 in our favour and is null and void”, the letter added.

Death While Waiting

It is on record that some of the retirees have died while waiting to collect their full terminal benefits just as some are afflicted with various ailments due to the fact they do not have the resources to take care of themselves. According to Okoro,

apart from those that have died, many are lying down critically ill at their various homes because they could not afford the cost of medical treatment in the hospitals.

He enjoined Buhari to use his good offices to ensure that NPA is compelled to obey the Supreme Court judgment by paying the 1991 retirees their pension and gratuity. According to him, just last week, “precisely on May 12, 2016, one of our members, Miss Regina Udom passed on. She was our National Treasurer. Are they waiting for all of us to die before they will pay us our entitlements?”

Not a few have called for a remarkable departure from the past in addressing the plight of the former employees in NPA. They decried a situation where the needs of workers and retirees are treated with levity. Otele argued that the poor way retirees are treated has a direct and indirect impact on those who are still in service. His words: “It is natural that when you see your former colleagues not well treated after their disengagement from service, you will not be motivated to put in your best. This is due to the fact that you will want to cut corners in order to help yourselves ahead of your exit from service. This should not be the case. The change mantra of the Buhari administration should be allowed to permeate into the maritime industry, particularly in the way and manner workers are treated in and out of service.