We Did Not Break Any Law, Detained Oil Workers Tell Wike

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*PENGASSAN demands unconditional release of members

By Emmanuel Addeh in Abuja & Ugo Aliogo

The Petroleum and Natural Gas Senior Staff Association of Nigeria (PENGASSAN) Friday expressed displeasure over what it said was the continuous harassment of its members on essential duty by security operatives.

Specifically, the union listed the the ill-treatment of its members in Tecon Oil Company, Caverton and Exxonmobil on essential duty as some of the cases where its workers were badly treated.

A statement made available to THISDAY and jointly signed by the President, PENGASSAN, Nduka Ohaeri and General Secretary, Lumumba Okungbawa, said about 21 of the union members from Exxon Mobil on essential duty, who were coming from Port Harcourt for ‘quarantine’ before going offshore were arrested by security personnel.

It said that the arrest was carried out by the Rivers state police command on the pretext of enforcing the state government directives on the executive orders proclaimed in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

The statement said the federal and state governments had listed categories of persons exempted from the total lockdown directives which it said included senior staff in the oil and gas industry which PENGASSAN represents.

PENGASSAN expressed sadness that operatives of security agencies who are vested with the responsibility to enforce laws had begun to intimidate and harass the union members on patriotic duty.

“Only statesmen with national interest will venture out of their comfort zones during this period of global pandemic and national emergency.

“Recall that before this latest incident, 10 of our members onboard Caverton helicopter were meted with similar act of brutal force in the guise of sustaining the war against the covid-19 pandemic.

“Our association condemns this new form of intimidation and therefore demands an unconditional release of all the 21 staff of ExxonMobil still under detention with apologies.

“We warn that should this high level of intimidation and harassment persist, PENGASSAN will in consultation with our sister union in the sector have no option than to order our members out of the various oil platforms, rigs and other facilities without further notices.

“We implore the federal government and stakeholders to prevail on the all security agencies in Rivers state and all other states to stop forthwith this unpleasant anti-workers and economic posture that also amounts to hostage taking.

“The association also demands the establishment of covid -19 testing centre in Port Harcourt to allow oil and gas workers going to rigs, offshore platforms and others to be tested before going to work locations as against quarantining them for two weeks.

“The testing will prevent attendant psychological and cost implications on workers and organisations respectively. Finally, we seek that every law and legislation should have a human face” it said.

Earlier, the 21 oil workers arrested in Port Harcourt, Rivers State, on Thursday afternoon for allegedly flouting the state’s order on restriction of movement, had insisted that they were not in breach of any law.

Speaking on behalf of the arrested Exxon Mobil staff, who Governor Nyesom Wike, vowed to prosecute during a live press conference Friday, PENGASSAN, ExxonMobil branch, accused the Rivers government of turning the global effort to tame the covid-19 pandemic to a tool of muscle-flexing.

Chairman of the ExxonMobil branch of the union, Razaq Obe and Secretary, Kings Udoidua, in a statement, said that the detention of the offshore workers was therefore illegal.

Describing the situation as appalling, PENGASSAN maintained that its staff had been verbally assaulted and starved since Thursday when the arrest took place.

It said that ExxonMobil Nigeria, like other responsible organisations, had adopted the 14-day isolation of all personnel as a prerequisite for offshore travels in order to mitigate COVID-19 risk, stressing that the company has facilities in Akwa Ibom state and one in Port Harcourt (Intels).

“Recall the federal government of Nigeria exempted oil and gas workers on essential service from COVID-19 restrictions in FCT, Lagos State and Ogun State.

“The same was mirrored in various communications from Rivers State government which have permitted unfettered movements of other IOCs’ essential service personnel and critical materials.

“At about 3:30pm on Thursday April 16, 2020, Rivers State commissioner of police with his team and a top army commander intercepted the convoy (protected by the police) conveying 21 ExxonMobil personnel who are PENGASSAN members on their way to Intels, Port Harcourt, at Bori (Akwa Ibom/Rivers boundary)”

The union said that despite all entreaties, the commissioner rebuffed all explanations and forced them to move to Elekaya Stadium, Port Harcourt, where they have been detained, verbally assaulted and starved since then.

“The original pretext for sending them to the stadium was to test for COVID-19 but there was no such possibility at the location; it is a construction site. They rather served them papers to write statements.

“It is appalling that Rivers State authorities have turned the global effort to tame COVID-19 to a tool of muscle-flexing and petty oppression of oilfield workers.

“We condemn the continued detention of the 21 members of our union who stake everything to produce the oil the country depends on for survival.

“We call on all stakeholders to prevail on the government of Rivers State to end this most unpleasant drama. Our members have broken no law” the union said.