Did they know It Was Christmas? I

On a certain Monday last year, a few days to Christmas, precisely Monday, December 19, 2011, the NPA House, the Corporate Headquarters of the Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA), along the Marina, Lagos, played host to a scenario that was at best a curiosity. Lasting several hours from about 8.00am to mid-afternoon, that day, there was a “peaceful demonstration” by the NPA 1991 Retrenched Staff Association “against the management of NPA for denying us our legitimate rights/entitlements for 21 years.”
In a one-page press statement, the Chairman of the NPA 1991 Retrenched Staff Association, Mr. Anthony Okon, had stated inter alia: “We the members of the NPA 1991 Retrenched Staff Association have gathered here today, Monday 19th December 2011 at NPA headquarters and other ports in Federation to draw your attention and that of general public to the injustice and inhuman treatment meted out to us by the Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA) Management for the past 21 years.
“On the 10th – 12th June, 1991, 3000 NPA workers were removed from the Service without being paid their due entitlements”

“The Association made several abortive efforts to get the management pay us our rights. “The matter was eventually referred to the Lagos State High Court which judgement was in our favour with a provision that include payment of gratuities to those below 10 years and pension and redundancy to those above 10 years.
“The case was appealed against by the management at Appeal Court which set aside the judgement of the High Court.
“But the Supreme Court affirmed the judgement of the High Court in our favour on May 7th, 2007.
“The Attorney-General and Minister of Justice acting on the Supreme Court judgement intervened with the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Reminder letters to the management to pay us all our rights/entitlements.
“But up to this day, the management has continued to keep adamant.
“The hardship and the plight have led to the untimely death of some of our members.
“Hence, we are here to say no more to the management for their hardened hearts to deny us our legitimate rights/entitlements.”

Their over two decades of alleged deprivations by the NPA, notwithstanding, the protesters stoutly made their stand known with their numerous colourfully-worded placards and solidarity songs. The presence of the protesters compelled closure of the NPA House gatehouse, home to a cosy reception and an automated teller machine (ATM) outlet. Therefore, visitors and staff were restricted to using the lone entrance left open, as the protesters clustered outside the low walls of the complex along the Marina and under the watchful eyes of personnel of the Ports Authority Police Command (PAPC) and the NPA Security Department.
Any form of demonstration against the management of any institution is a public relations nightmare for that organisation. The protest that fateful day last December by the NPA 1991 Retrenched Staff Association was no different. The nightmare was prolonged as the NPA officials held long-drawn negotiations with the leadership of the protesters. The negotiations were attended by certain officers of the PAPC, while the NPA General Manager, Public Affairs, Chief Michael Ajayi, scrupulously shut out the press from the particular office that hosted the particular meeting in the series of dialogue sessions. A typical example was when the protesters’ leaders met in the office of the General Manager, Human Resources and Administration, on the fifth floor, a meeting hosted by the occupant of that office, Mrs. A . M Sonaike; Ajayi, a number of other NPA officials and the Police.

The charged atmosphere heightened when Ajayi and the retirees’ Vice Chairman, Mrs. Ngozi Iheanacho, came out of that particular meeting to the eagerly-waiting newshounds at the NPA House fifth floor visitors’ waiting room, where the NPA’s image maker had banished them to. Inured to such slight that is a routine for the bulk of persons that the journalists encounter on-the-job, if these set of journalists had in any way taken offence, this did not in any manner reflect in their countenances. They were hungry for news. They were hungry for words, for sound bites, for great quotes from both the NPA officials and the protesting former staff. Speaking first, Ajayi said that the meeting had resolved that an expanded meeting be scheduled soon between the leadership of the protesters and that of the NPA. The NPA image maker, who was clad in a sober grey and stylish old-school buba and sokoto ensemble, in a few well-modulated words, conveyed the impression in the mind of most listening to him (I confess that the double-chief sucker-punched me) that the talks had been most fruitful in progressing efforts at resolving the protesters’ angst. Iheanacho, however, promptly punctured this notion as soon as the journalists focused on her to get her take on how the meeting had gone. The cheery colours of Iheanacho’s outfit was totally lost on her sad looks, as the soft-spoken, bespectacled Assistant Pastor told her interviewers that the expectations of the members of the NPA 1991 Retrenched Staff.
Association was far above whatever were, in the thinking of the NPA officials, the resolutions of the meeting. She affirmed that the NPA Management must promptly meet the protesters’ demands, noting that the retirees had been suffering deprivation and want after serving the country well. The Management, she warned, should quit testing the patience of the retirees and settle their claims promptly. Okon spoke in a similar vein.

After the snap press briefing, all headed downstairs for the protesters’ leaders to report back to their expectant constituency, which membership had kept its flow of protest songs steady all along, flaunting the various placards that voiced their angst in print. The fears of the protesters’ leadership on the way from the meeting with the NPA officials to the effect that the rest of their members awaiting their return may not be thrilled by the meeting’s outcome were certainly justified when their powerfully-built, but gentle-looking and soft- spoken Chairman stood before his constituents to address them and was persistently shouted down by voices demanding that it is either the NPA Managing Director, Engr. Omar Suleiman, or no other person speaks to them at that very moment. Poor Okon and the burden of leadership! And, how uneasy the head that wears the crown lies? What is to be done in the face of brewing mutiny aboard the MV NPA 1991 Retrenched Staff Association?
Chairman Okon is tall and big, a veritable giant, but, at that moment, the fact was that the keen eye looking in on the scene would be seeing a puny figure, as he stood, looking up to the low fence, to his constituents where they stood on the elevated kerb looking down at their leader. Something of a gentle giant, Okon’s calm visage and firm exhortations soon won more converts to the earlier scanty ranks of those who supported his addressing them there and then, making the side a majority. In measured tones, Okon began to update his comrades on the meeting and developments thereof. Even the few recalcitrant voices that still opposed his speaking, infrequently interrupting him, soon fizzled out and all listened with rapt attention. Obviously, the members of the NPA 1991 Retrenched Staff Association had chosen their leader(s) well, for Okon’s dignified presence surpassed his simple attire of blue jeans trousers and multi-hued tee-shirt. Not even the greying day-old stubble he bore removed from his appearance as a sober and matured leader, not merely a rabble-rouser blowing hot air. The Nigerian maritime industry sure has members of this particular specie in abundance.
(Cont’d Next Week)

Obiajulu Agu
[email protected]

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