Done with his time as the helm of the Petroleum and Natural Gas Senior Staff Association of Nigeria (PENGASSAN) – Petroleum Products Pricing Regulatory Agency (PPPRA) branch, Comrade Victor Ononokpono, now has his eyes set on a post at the national leadership of the union. He shared with Chineme Okafor, his yearning for the position, his stewardship at the PPPRA and his thoughts on the oil industry. Excerpts.
Would you give a general overview of your thoughts about Nigeria’s oil industry in the last one year, and how the PENGASSAN has contributed to its operations?
The oil and gas industry can be described as a metaphor per excellence. The sector that sustains the economy is the most comatose and troubled. The industry is merely surviving and not really existing functionally no thanks to the absence of functional legal or regulatory structure having had to depend on obsolete laws and statutes.
This very critical industry is deprived and in dire need of reform. There have not been too many significant development in the industry over the years. The last refinery built by this country was in 1989. After ‘debottlenecking’ of Port-Harcourt refinery in 1989 from 110,000 barrel per day (bpd) to 220,000bpd, there hasn’t been any further expansion on the nation’s refineries.
The only identifiable development is the few ones seen in the downstream sector. The petroleum products pipeline networks are ailing and in need of attention. These problems are the reasons the infrastructure cannot support any kind of reform initiative. It is unfortunate that during this period a lot of companies in the services sector failed to break even and there were job losses which affected our members.
The continued delay in the passage of the PIB has further affected or inhibited development in the industry. Hopefully, the Green chamber will concur with the Senate version of the bill.
However, in the last one year, the industry has witnessed a quantum leap in terms of policy drive in spite of the adverse activities in the international oil trade. The ever changing times in global energy market in the last one year has affected the nation like many others negatively.
Within these periods, PENGASSAN played significant roles in stabilising the polity. It was during this period, the association showed uncommon patriotism and stood by the government to remove subsidy on the price of petrol in order to free the treasury from the debilitating effect of subsidy payments to petroleum importers. The association severally denied itself its rights preferring to sacrifice for the general good of the nation.
It also partnered with government in restructuring NNPC for greater efficiency. PENGASSAN restrained itself from embarking on any industrial action in spite of adverse labour practices by some employers.
You’ve led PENGASSAN PPPRA branch for a period now, what did you meet on ground when you took over, what did you do differently, and what are you leaving behind?
Thank you so much for that question on stewardship. The branch is a very vocal and vibrant one because of the cerebral nature of the work force. 98 per cent of employees in the Agency are first degree holders. This means the level of discourse is usually robust and therefore engaging. When I assumed office as branch chairman in February 2014, the terrain was completely different from the functions of the branch secretary; an office I previously held.
There were still a lot of industrial relations issues centering on condition of service; collective bargaining agreements; enforcement of best practices; policy issues; and a wide range of staff welfare matters. My predecessor, Dr. Stephen Lazi, did a yeoman’s job at navigating through these myriads of labour-related issues by attending to them frontally and most time aggressively. He was very forceful and effective. So, you can understand the shoes he left behind.
Well, in any conventional work place not only are industrial relations issues prevalent but they can also be endless. Our approach was slightly different though. We reckon that since the place of the union has been established, we needed to ensure the sustenance of that force in the consciousness of the employer.
Our approach was simply to engage issues intellectually and use research based methods at conflict management resolution. It didn’t mean we didn’t deploy braun when necessary but it was usually the last option during crisis period. No employer ever controverts documented evidences when presented in the most cerebral manner.
Graciously, within these period, we were able to enshrine the adoption of the Corporate Policy Procedure Guide (CPPG) as the condition of service; developed a systematic pattern for welfare package; integrated the branch into mainstream of the association’s top most hierarchy; integrated the branch into the industry Collective Bargaining Agreement of NNPC; co-founded a formidable sub-group called Regulators Forum; installed processes of mutual engagement with management; established chapters across the zones; introduced a systematic approach to operational issues; ensured improvement in staff promotion and appraisal system; revamped the branch secretariat; and several other countless achievements.
But like I said, there is no end to industrial relations issues, having achieved internal stability, there is still a lot of ground to cover particularly with regards to government policies and organisational restructuring.
In your periods of heading the union here, what were your most challenging tasks, and how did you get through?
The most challenging tasks in this struggle were policy absorption. Most policies of government did not factor the peculiarity of the industry we are in, so often times there was that shock and expectant resistance from labour.
Tied to this is the delay in the passage of the Petroleum Industry Bill (PIB) which has slowed down efficiency in the oil and gas industry. Policies that affected critical industrial issues like pension; salaries; health and career progression were often the most tasking because negotiating them with the employer was difficult as management cannot be seen flouting government policies and directives.
Now that you’re looking to a national post, what really are your targets, what skillset are you taking to this new aspiration?
As a communicator, my objective is to rebuild confidence, improve PENGASSAN’s external communication and change the association’s publicity style from one-way asymmetric communication to a two-way symmetrical approach.
In achieving my targets, I shall introduce a monthly and quarterly magazine; institute functional personnel to handle both conventional and new media; re-conceptualise the official website; bridge the gap between the association and its publics; cultivate the media and build relationships.
My Four-way approach is to revolutionise information technology for industrial engagement; energise a new way of public communication and information dissemination; project the yearnings and programmes of the association; as well as re-enact the role and force PENGASSAN plays in Nigeria’s socio-economic space.
Lastly, what I am bringing into this office is my ability to communicate policy and operational issues effectively as a trained writer and communicator. There aren’t enough information about PENGASSAN out there and that has to change fundamentally.
So, what really stands you out from your competitors?
My quest for the coveted position is borne out of genuine concern to transform the publicity matrix of our association. The office of the national public relations officer is easily the face of the union and unfortunately that office hasn’t quite sustained the tempo it was known with in the past.
PENGASSAN has not really sold itself in the consciousness of the Nigerian people as a responsible pressure group. There is so much misgivings about the operations of the association because very little information is available. I want to change that trend and change the narrative.
I have the requisite qualification and experience to re-engineer the thought process of publicity. Managing public relations is not an all comers affair. It is a professional task that requires the highest level of skill deployment in achieving results. It is interesting to note that I am the only public relations field person in the race. The only candidate whose daily routine revolves round public relations practice, the only contestant who is a member of the prestigious Nigerian Institute of Public Relations (NIPR) and the only candidate with a communication background. I am eminently qualified and want to deploy my training and expertise for the good of the association.
I also observed that a lot of my competitors do not necessarily know the enormous publicity challenges that exists presently. For instance, the need to unleash effective communication to address the dwindling prominence of workers union in recent time which is getting shrouded and disillusioning. They hardly know the unions are shrinking and drifting in their pivotal role. We now prefer to depict more of elitist cum bourgeoisie posture and instinct. They can’t see it. Fortunately I can.