Otunba Salmon Akaani Oladiti, the national chairman of Petroleum Tanker Drivers (PTD) unit of NUPENG, is a study in the unbelievable becoming a reality. Excerpts from Sunday Tribune.
How challenging was the beginning?
My childhood was very tough. It was hell. There are things one remembers about the past. I enrolled in Primary School in 1959. My belief then was that I was going to be one of the best Nigerian professors in the academia. But in 1964, I lost my dad while in primary four and I could not go further. As a result, I had to engage myself in child labour. I tried to become a motor boy. I followed a lorry and within six months, I could drive. Between 1968 and 1969, I became a professional driver. But in 1971, I joined a Lebanese company in Ibadan. The company was into loading of petroleum products. I had an accident in 1980 and was in hospital for one year and six months. After I was discharged, I went back to the company, but they told me I could not continue unless I re-applied. I did so and started all over again. In 1983, I decided to try something else. I bought a 6-wheeler petrol truck.
But before then; after the accident, the doctor advised me not to drive for long distance, and also that if I didn’t start work that time; I would not be able to walk again. I forced myself back to work again, but began to plan for my future. I started saving. When there was a change of ownership at the Lebanese company, they said they didn’t need many drivers. One of dealers I used to deliver to, asked for me from the company and they told him that the company had laid us off. He sent for me and asked me the cost of a tanker, because he would like to buy one. That time, they were selling both tanker and tractor for N60-80,000. I told him to buy fairly-used one. He agreed, so I went back to my former company because they wanted to sell all their trucks. The man gave me N20,000 to buy a truck for him and I bought it. One day, someone told me that they wanted to sell a 6-wheeler truck. He told me that both tank and tractor were not up to N6,000 at that time. So, I had to approach the man I helped to buy one. He said he would borrow me money, but with interest. I promised to pay him from my salary and from the truck. When he gave me the money, I bought tyres for the old truck.
I had a boy then whom I gave this truck to him to drive. After a while, I bought another truck, and then another one, making three. Then I was thinking of how I could become the owner of a big tanker, which I have become.
Which part of Ibadan did you grow up?
How was village life then?
When I was telling you my story, I told you that I turned to a child slave. What I meant by that was that at the age of 9, I was already going to farm. Today, I am a very good farmer.
But the family lived well before your dad’s death?
My father loved his children. We are five from my mother, while the second wife has one child.
Are you missing anything about village life?
I don’t miss anything. It’s just that you don’t have option for that kind of village life. But when you come out of it gradually, you have to thank God. Most of the people you were together then are still in the village. Yes. That’s true.
Between primary four when your father died and primary six, how did you manage to pay your fees?
It was free education, but it was hell. When you don’t have slippers to wear to school and even the khaki you wear was torn everywhere.
For how long did you have your mother after your father’s death?
She is still alive. She was living in the house I bought for her, but since she’s above 90 years, I had to bring her to my house so that I can take care of her.
What kind of story does she tells you these days about the past?
Since she clocked 90 years, I have been celebrating her birthdays. She asked me to invite Sunny Ade for her birthday anniversary and she dances to his music. I do invite who is who in Ibadan and the oil industry. She doesn’t tell stories but rather pray, pray and pray, thanking God for what God has been doing.
Any pranks when you were young?
There was a time I wanted to make broom and basket to sell at our local markets then. I climbed palm tree with my bare hand. When Buhari said that some Nigerian youths were lazy, I agreed with him because there was no free this, free that in our time, unlike now.
No television then?
In our village? Even when I finally came to Ibadan to learn how to drive, it was only one man that had television at Aremo Idi Ose then. He was the former minister of education – Ayo Ajibola. This was between 1960 and 1964. How can you even manage to peep through the window to see what was showing on the TV when they won’t even allow you to enter the house.
Let’s look at how you built your empire, particularly your breakthrough in the oil and gas sector.
When God puts you in a position, it is not to look for material gains but for opportunities. When I had three tankers that time, there were no trucks for oil majors to load to their various stations. I had a friend working with Total who said these trucks that you are using to carry kerosene can be used to make more money. He took me to his branch manager the next day. The man asked if I could increase my trucks and I said that if he could give me work, I would. And he said okay you would get registered. That was how I started. Thereafter, I bought the first big one that we were using for local. One day, they transferred one man from their office in Lagos to Ibadan. He said they were losing allocation on daily basis to Suleja and other environs and advised that we transporters should get more trucks. I had a club at NNPC where we contributed money every Monday. They believed I had trucks and I would pay back. There was one motor dealer in Ibadan from whom I bought a truck for 1.2million Naira. When I got the truck, I repaired it and changed the two tyres and presented it to Total. The truck traveled to Abuja not less than six times each month. That was how I started and from there, I entered into filling station business.
How do you manage to cripple the nation whenever your union is on strike?
You know that the military impunity made NUPENG what it is today. You know most of our leaders in NUPENG from Frank Ovie Kokori down to Joseph Akinlaja were trained in former Soviet Union as unionists. They trained together at the same time with Nelson Mandela and Sam Njoma of Namibia. And you know activists are always against the government of the day. Something happened before 1993. During Babangida regime, a driver was shot at Sagamu NNPC depot between Ikorodu and Mushin. The driver was from the north – Jelilu Mogaji from Zamfara State. In protest, all tanker drivers across the country took their trucks to cross the road. Babangida wanted to settle the matter, so he sent Aikhomu to go on air to say that from henceforth, no tanker driver should be stopped along Nigerian highways by any security personnel and the tanker drivers said that it was a battle that they won. Since then, all the tanker drivers, regardless of your regional affiliation, have been living in harmony. When the issue of MKO Abiola happened in 1993, Kokori gave the directive that all the tanker drivers must kick against the impunity of the military. When tanker drivers heard this, we shut Nigeria down. When these people were looking for ways to bring things back to normal, we discovered that these people don’t really have any power and that they were using our power to do all what they were doing. That’s why we are very careful nowadays. You know, we expose ourselves to training and re-training especially when I became the National Chairman. We have travelled to Las Vegas in USA for training; in Rome, in Dubai for training. When you get trained somewhere and you come back to Nigeria, you will become a peer-educator to train others. We were in South Africa about twice.
How close were you to death during those days of struggle?
There was a day they wanted to sack some Chevron workers at Lekki. Akinlaja led us. That was the day the policemen fired at the high tension wire and it came down. They teargassed. But at the end, the management agreed to re-absorb over 500 workers that were sacked. During the June 12 struggle, there was one Colonel Gana that we were working together at NNPC. When we struck, they were looking for everybody, especially the leaders.
The colonel worked against the union?
The man, who used to be our friend, turned against us. My colleagues and I came to Lagos to meet. I never knew that DSS had gone to look for me at Ibadan. They also went to my partner’s house. But we were never arrested.
Did you meet Madam when you got to this level?
No. That’s my private life (laughs).
Do you do flowers?
I don’t know the meaning of February 14 (Laughs). I just thank God for everything.
What is that thing that gives you joy maybe not money?
It is God. I thank God that I am always happy. When you’ve passed through some very difficult periods, there’s nothing for you to do other than to be thanking God. I survived an accident and spent one year, seven months in the hospital and I am still alive today. What more again.
Among your children, is there anyone who is looking like you?
I thank God. I have children and I am happy with them. They don’t have interest in activism though.
What is your indulgence?
When I was very young, I drank a lot. But at 45 years, I stopped taking alcohol.
How do you spoil yourself?
I can’t spoil myself (Laughs). The reason why I don’t do that is because one needs to be very careful in life. People are looking up to you for help. Showing yourself will mean you are using yourself to make others unhappy.
Who is your favourite musician?
My best musician has passed on. he is Baba Ara because of the inspiration I get from his songs.
How do you think others see you?
I don’t know how people are looking at me. I don’t know what they think about me.
Who were your role models when you started unionism?
Why the preference?
He’s the only one I know that is a man of integrity. He doesn’t compromise.
Is it likely you will ever be in politics?
Me? I can’t be a politician because I know what I suffered to get my little achievement in life. So, I can’t play with my life savings.
But your mentor is in politics…
Yes. We joined hands together to say ‘baba you just have to be there’. You know he is the chairman of downstream in the House of Representatives.
What if your colleagues join hands after your second term and say you are the next to represent them?
I am getting old already (Laughs).
What’s happening to unionism today?
Unionism is a collective work. It’s like a chain or belt. If you look at the old wristwatch, you know that there’s something like bond, and that’s how unionism works