Without doing thorough findings, some persons have had this erroneous impression that Baririster Udom Inoyo, former Executive Vice Chairman of ExxonMobil played a negative role in the sack and frustration of Akwa Ibom people in Exxon Mobil.
But three years after crisis erupted in ExxonMobil over the employment status of some security personnel known as SPY Police, the man in the middle of the crisis, Mr. Razaq Obe, former Mobil PENGASSAN Chairman, gave his experience on the matter in an interview with some journalists in Lagos last week. Excerpts :
Q: Were you involved in the Spy Police Crisis?
A: Well, the simple answer to that is yes and no. Yes, I was part of the resolution of the crisis that followed. No, I wasn’t part of the affected category of personnel.
First of all, I’m granting this interview in my capacity as Immediate Past Chairman of PENGASSAN. I was the Chairman of the Exxon Mobil branch of PENGASSAN between 2017 and 2020 when the SPY Police crisis erupted at ExxonMobil and so I was in the middle of it all. I saw, witnessed and intervened in the crisis. I know all the people that were involved in the crisis and the roles they played; and all those who were even helpful to the Spy police workers and the company to help resolve the crisis. I am grateful to God Almighty that he used PENGASSAN under my leadership to save both the Company and affected personnel from what could have been a major disaster.
Q: May we know a bit about you, especially your educational background?
A: I still work at Exxon Mobil as Contracts Manager (Operations Procurement). I graduated from University of Benin (Uniben) with a degree in Petroleum Engineering. I have M.Sc in Project Management from the University of Liverpool. I joined Mobil in 2008. Out of my 13 years in Mobil, I spent 10 years in Akwa Ibom State. I have come to love the State and its people.
Q: What led to the Spy police crisis?
A: It was sometime in the 1980s that the Company decided to hire some persons as security operatives to work at different offices and residential property. They were mostly primary school and secondary schools graduates. Later some more educated persons were hired. At the time of the mass redundancy in 2018, many of them have acquired BSc, MSc and even PhDs. The initial eight people hired were given appointment letters by the Company, but subsequent ones were not issued any appointment letters; instead they were all sent to be trained by the Nigerian Police as security personnel. They were given uniforms similar to the police uniforms, but they were not armed. Apart from not issuing them appointment letters, the second mistake the company made was that these people were not outsourced by a third party entity. So, it was a very unusual situation of engaging people without a formal contract of employment, either directly or through third party.
But I must say that although the first batch of Spy police personnel only had school certificates, and in some cases, primary school leaving certificates, they were all well paid and taken care of by ExxonMobil. They enjoyed medical allowances, had access to Company’s medical facilities and other benefits due to other categories of workers. The majority of them were Akwa Ibom State people.
The problem started some 20 years ago or so, when some of the personnel refused to be transferred to other locations and facilities of the the Company. Just about then, the Company decided to withdraw some of the benefits like medical allowances from these personnel because the company claimed that they were not direct employees of the company. By then their number had increased to about 800. In their response, the Spy police workers hired Mr Femi Falana, SAN, and challenged the decision of the Company in Court, and the case went all the way to the Supreme Court. The apex court delivered judgment in, I think, April 2018, asserting that these people were, indeed, employees of the Company, and so should be treated as such. By the time the judgment was given, the number of active personnel was about 500; some had died while others had retired.
The Supreme Court judgement came with some huge complications that lent itself to diverse interpretations. It declared that they were employees of ExxonMobil, but didn’t indicate that money should be paid to them, though their demands included some compensation figures.
What we did expect was an engagement with the personnel to activate their new status but the Company chose to disengage them en mass. This angered PENGASSAN greatly and triggered our solidarity agitation.
Q: Why did the HR Department headed then by Mr. Udom Inoyo choose to sack all the Spy Police personnel?
A: It should also be noted that the Company’s Department that was responsible for managing the whole court processes from the beginning to the Supreme Court was the Law Department, not the Human Resources Department, headed by Mr Udom Inoyo, as some people erroneously believed. The Law Dept was also responsible for implementing the judgment of the Supreme Court, not the HR Dept. Of course, the HR Dept could only provide administrative support where necessary and requested. The Law Department listens to advice from the Corporation, they don’t act arbitrarily.
Q: How then did Company handle the crisis?
A: As I said earlier, after the judgment, the next big challenge was how the Company would implement the Supreme Court decision. I think the Company could have managed the situation a lot better. Company decided to lay off all the personnel and pay them one month in lieu of notice per Nigerian labour law. However, PENGASSAN faulted that action on many fronts but two stuck out. First, we found the manner the separation was communicated and carried out very abrasive. Second, the mass separation was indeed a redundancy declaration which should be treated with redundancy terms and not as individual termination of service. The above was greeted with massive protests across company locations. The agitation has been called the worst in the history of the company in Nigeria.
The road to closure was rough because parties were apart. The security personnel didn’t have a proper Union and they had no employment contract upon which their compensation could be computed. PENGASSAN insisted that its redundancy package as provided in the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) be used. Company rejected the proposal, saying Spy police personnel weren’t members of PENGASSAN. This dragged for weeks.
Many stakeholders were involved which included Lagos State police commissioner, Mr. Imohimi Edgal; his Akwa Ibom State counterpart; Akwa Ibom State government; counsel to the SPY Police personnel, Mr. Femi Falana; Federal Ministry of Labour; PENGASSAN and the SPY personnel who were represented at discussions by about ten of their representatives.
After several engagements which culminated in direct involvement of the Minister of Labour, all parties agreed that the security personnel should be paid off. This final landing happened at the office of the Minister in Abuja. The overwhelming majority of the affected were pleased with the outcome but some didn’t find it good enough. The final pay out to each of the affected rose by huge amounts after the negotiations.
I must state here that the decision to pay off the spy police was that of the Company, which the Union (PENGASSAN) endorsed. It was not the decision of Mr Inoyo, or any one person in the Company. No one person, not even the managing director, could make such a decision alone. Such decisions must also be sanctioned by international headquarters in Houston. It is therefore wrong to assume that any individual was responsible for the layoff.
Q: Are you saying that PENGASSAN was okay with Mr. Inoyo’s role in the saga?
A: You seem to have a special attention on Mr. Inoyo. As I earlier said, the situation was precarious and intractable. It was a huge challenge to calculate the amount each worker was to go with. At this point I had realized that my tenure as PENGASSAN Chairman in Mobil would be greatly defined by the crisis and how it was settled. So beyond the street protests, we called on Nigerian leaders in the Company to intervene. Mr Udom Inoyo and other directors answered as patriotic Nigerians. They were very helpful in the settlement process. If they weren’t, I gain or lose nothing to say so.
The Law Department led the negotiations on behalf of the Company, while Falana, PENGASSAN and some of the leaders of workers represented the workers. One component of the payout that received the biggest pushback from the Corporation was ‘’Legacy Compensation’’ which helped to boost the total package of the workers. It was a sum paid for each year of service as compensation for their not being treated as employees those years. If not for Mr. Inoyo who agreed with us and strongly pushed for it, it probably would not have received approval. It was a tedious process that lasted eight weeks, and as I said, Labour Minister, Senator Chris Ngige, Akwa Ibom government and other parties were involved.
If Mr Inoyo were on the wrong side, I sure would be very critical of his actions. But he was very helpful in the resolution of the crisis.
Despite initial negative biases against the HR Department, I found as PENGASSAN leader, that we had some fair-minded persons in ExxonMobil HR today. I realized Mr. Inoyo was not the bad person some uninformed people talk carelessly about. He enabled good compensations to be paid to the workers which we never thought he could support us to achieve.
Q: Who would you say Mr. Inoyo is?
A: I noted that earlier that he is a good person who would go the extra mile to help solve a problem. He doesn’t believe in impossibility. He has a way of getting you to see reasons, and will stick to the facts to persuade you. But if you present superior arguments, Mr. Inoyo is not too arrogant to yield. From experience, I know that it is common in many companies for workers to blame the staff of the HR Dept for everything. But based on all my years of engagement with Mr. Udom Inoyo, I can say that he always wants to build up good people. He is a decisive leader with a great network of contacts within our industry and beyond. He has the humility to listen even to the lowest of all.
In conclusion, let me say that to rise in Mobil to the position of a director and then Executive Vice Chairman is not a joke. Everything about you – your technical competence, your leadership skills, your moral and ethical standing – is all used to assess you. That’s why many people don’t even go beyond the manager cadre. Nigerians should be very proud of Mr Inoyo, and none should attempt to tear him down based on a heap of lies.