By Austin Ndidi Iroegbu
IN THE past few days, various social media platforms have been awash with stories about the Inner Galaxy Steel Company Group with their associated companies located in Obehie, Ukwa West LGA, Abia State. The stories which originated from a social media account called 99% OPPRESSED (Wikileaks) and @Truthfully83, which were obviously opened for the purpose, quickly went viral and have led to massive public outcry. To that extent, the purpose has been achieved within a couple of days.
Despite that there has been no formal complaint or petition against the company to any authority in Nigeria, the weight of the allegations making the rounds was such that governments in the land could not just ignore them.
For instance, the Abia State government felt compelled by the public outcry and agitation, to send a fact-finding team to the company premises on Thursday, August 13. The same day, the Federal Government also sent another inter-agency investigation team led by the FCCPC to the company premises to find out what is going on there. Everyone is looking forward to their reports.
When I first read the allegations, I had to rub my eyes several times because this is a company I know very well and have visited many times for a number of diverse reasons. This company is arguably the biggest in the entire South East and their premises is in fact a mini-city of its own.
I went back there on Thursday, August 13, to make enquiries having read these fantastic stories on the internet and I happen to have been on the premises when the Federal and State investigation teams arrived separately.
One thing that has become evident by these events is that some human beings love to believe the very worst of every other person, individual or corporate, especially if they already believe that the entity in question is a villain. Another one is the power of social media for good and for evil.
And that is why we must take a deep breath and actually examine some those allegations. Only then would the truthfulness or otherwise of some of the claims dawn on us.
Now to some of the notable ones among the allegations:
That Inner Galaxy held Nigerian workers in slavery on their premises, AGAINST THEIR WILL and in inhuman conditions. Could this be true? Well, what I gathered from my investigation is that when Covid-19 started early this year, and factories in some other parts of the world were shut down because they became “super-spreaders” of the virus, Inner Galaxy took proactive steps to curtail spread of the virus in its premises. The first issue was that of the closure of interstate borders.
This company is located on the border between Rivers and Abia States and many of the workers come to work from Rivers State, mainly living in Obigbo. Those workers, numbering in hundreds were at risk of not being able to come to work because the Rivers State borders were about to be closed. Also, the company imposed very rigorous COVID-19 safety protocols within the premises of the company, issuing one mask every day to each worker and ensuring they are worn properly, providing over 55 hand-washing/sanitizer stations in the premises, etc, but the challenge was that when staff leave and go home where those protocols are not in place, they could contract the virus, bring it to the complex and spread it.
Of course, in one factory in Ogun State, 104 staff tested positive to Covid-19 in one day. So, the concern was not baseless.
Again, the company was at this time working at less than half-capacity as the closure of inter-state borders meant that many suppliers and other customers vital to the operations of the company could not have access. The company called a meeting of the staff and asked for those willing to stay in the company premises until the Covid-19 crises is over or reduced. Those who opted to do so would be housed in temporary accommodation to be hastily set up while a much better accommodation would be built for future purposes. Two buildings for temporary accommodations are being constructed; one has reached 90 percent completion while the second is at 65 percent completion.
Those workers who said they could not stay away from their families for an indeterminate period were furloughed in accordance with best practices to be reabsorbed as soon as the COVID-19 crisis is over and operations return to normal BUT ALL OF THEM are being paid N15K (fifteen thousand naira) a month each while at home and not working. Those who opted to remain in the premises are being paid substantial bonuses in addition to their full salaries and many have already left the temporary, hastily arranged accommodation back to their homes, as things have started normalizing but with strict instructions to strictly abide by Covid-19 safety protocols so as not to bring the virus to the complex from home.
Another allegation that caught my attention was that Nigerians are being held on the company premises against their will. I also found out that not just untrue but impossible, as a visit to the Inner Galaxy City would show to anyone. This company was established in Abia over five years ago. The complex is massive and a mini-City. While there are over 2000 workers in the employment of the company, the Chinese there are just about 20. The Nigerians there are mainly young men and women. One begins to wonder how can these few Chinese people would hold hundreds of Nigerian workers against their will? Which number of security men can intimidate these number of workers to the extent alleged? Yes, you may say that economic circumstances may make a man to bend his neck, but when it gets to breaking point, men would be men.
The Complex does not even have gate. It is free access and people can go in and out at will. It is only the office blocks that have gates.
And now to the allegation of physical abuse of Nigerians by Nigerian security men attached to the company. Of course, as Nigerians we do have our opinions of our security men ( policemen and soldiers) but there are many people of conscience in the security outfits. Without saying much, my enquiries indicate that there is no such collusion between the Chinese firm and the Nigerian security arms to maltreat and brutalize fellow citizens.
Furthermore, at any given time, over 150 trailers are parked in the premises to transport the steel, iron and other products produced there or to supply raw materials. The transportation sector alone has scores of independent drivers, conductors, mechanics, vulcanizers, etc,. from all over the country.
There are hundreds of suppliers, customers, and other independent or semi-independent businesses on the premises such as restaurants, shops, etc to cater for people who come from all over the country for one thing or the other. There are Igbos, Hausas, Yoruba,
and all other ethnicities there. Is it possible that these hundreds of other Nigerians who are not staff of the company and are independent will also compromise and keep quiet over the last five years and not say a word when they see their compatriots being turned into slaves?
As indicated earlier, the way this story has gone has shown the power of the social media for good and otherwise. As someone who has an opportunity to verify some of the allegations making the rounds in this matter, what has done for me is to be more circumspect when I read posts on the social media, especially from newly registered accounts or pseudo names. Now, the strong suspicion is that ex staff who were sacked or “mere tools” are behind this. This suspicion is stronger when one realizes that the clamor by those behind it is not for investigation, but that company should be shut down.
But the comforting angle is that the staff there don’t seem perturbed by the high decibel sounds of the social media. Nor the host community where the company’s Corporate Social Responsibility, CSR, initiatives seem to have impressed the people.
In any case, we expect that the nine-man committee set up by Abia State Government and the federal agencies doing the investigation will come out with the truth later. Time and truth will heal all wounds.
**Austin Ndidi Iroegbu, is a public commentator
– Aug. 15, 2020 @ 3:50 GMT |