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Sunmonu in the embrace of history

By Owei Lakemfa
FOR many in my generation, Labour was synonymous with Hassan Adebayo Sunmonu who  became the founding president of the Nigeria Labour Congress(NLC) in February 1978.

The four Labour centres in the country had been crushed by the military regime two years earlier and legendary labour leaders like Michael Imoudu and Wahab Omorilewa Goodluck had been banned from trade unionism.

As far as the military  and many in society were concerned, the Labour Movement was finished. So virtually nobody paid attention to the election of the 37-year Sunmonu an engineer in the Federal Ministry of Works.

His antecedents were unknown and unlike veteran labour leaders like Haron Popoola Adebola, Samuel Udoh Bassey, Imoudu and Goodluck, rugged leaders of the working class who rose from the ranks, Sunmonu was from the senior cadre of the Civil Service. What better way to bury the unions than to hand them over to a government employee from the traditionally conservative civil service.

Not many therefore took notice when the two-year old NLC under Sunmonu  launched “The Workers’ Charter Of Demands” in February 1980 and amongst other things, demanded the  institutionalisation of a National Minimum Wage like is done in developed countries.

Then  the NLC gave an ultimatum for  a Minimum Wage of N300, and that Minimum Pension must not be lower than the Minimum Wage. When the strike date of May 11, 1981 arrived, not many people took the Sunmonu people serious.

That morning, the world awoke to the death of revolutionary reggae super star, Bob Marley. However, Nigerians in addition woke up to  their country having been shut down by a crippling general strike! After years of military rule, and the ascendancy of the ruling National Party of Nigeria (NPN) Nigerians came to realise that another power had risen; Labour Power!

A panicky government set the security services on the labour leaders and in an intimidating manner, they followed Sunmonu round the streets of Lagos. When Sunmonu emerged from a trade union office in Yaba and sped away, the security services gave chase, desperate not to lose him. But unknown to them, Sunmonu remained in the office; the person the security was chasing was his identical twin brother, Hussein!

With the country completely paralysed, President Shehu Aliyu Shagari personally stepped in to negotiate with Labour. He invited the NLC leadership for direct talks at the Presidency in Dodan Barracks.

When the Labour delegation accompanied by then Secretary to Government Alhaji Shehu Musa arrived, President Shagari stepped out to receive them, he welcomed Sunmonu only to realise that there was another Sunmonu.

He blinked his eyes, not knowing who between the identical twins was the NLC president; Hassan stepped forward to identify himself.

That was not the first time people mistook the Sunmonu twins for one another. In fact, when Hassan won the NLC presidency in 1978, the person hoisted shoulder high by his supporters in a victory parade which was splashed across the newspapers was Hussein!

The twins had done virtually the same things; attended the same schools, obtained HND, Civil Engineering from the Yaba College of Technology and were both staff at the Works Ministry; Hassan worked in the Engineering Department , and Hussein in Planning.

When either needed to travel urgently,  the other worked in both offices without their bosses being the wiser. Once, their pranks leaked, and an enraged  Chief Training Engineer, Mr. M. F Kanyi in 1962 flung Hassan  from Lagos to the Zaria-Kano  highway, and Hussein to the Shagamu-Ore-Benin one. That was the first time the twins were separated for more than two weeks in their lives. Ironically, that same year, Mr. Kanyi had identical twins, and quickly made up with the Sunmonu twins.

As a young reporter newly posted to the Labour beat, I approached the NLC president, then one of the most powerful  men in the country, for an interview and he readily consented. On the appointed day, I excitedly flew up the stairs of the NLC office in Yaba only to meet Sunmonu skipping the stairs as he made his way down.

I tried desperately to stop him “Mr. President, I have an appointment with you!” He waved me on, and said “The president is upstairs” Then I froze; this is Hussein, not Hassan! He was wearing jeans trousers, which I never saw Hassan wear. For years, as I interacted with both men, I tried to study what features will enable me distinguish one from the other.

The Sunmonu leadership within three years built the NLC into such a strong force that a bill was sponsored by Senators Ibrahim Dimis and Mahmud Waziri to split the Congress. Sunmonu led rallies against them, and even the NPN which had egged the senators on, distanced itself, and the bill died.

When Sunmonu was re-elected at the NLC Kano conference, the government openly sponsored a breakaway faction of Congress called the Committee  For Democratic Trade Unions (CDTU) led by his erstwhile Deputy, David Ojeli; the effort was defeated.

Sunmonu  who speaks French, Italian, English, Yoruba and Fante went on in 1986 to lead African workers as the General Secretary of the Organisation of African Trade Union Unity (OATUU). Apart from building a new secretariat for OATUU in Accra years ago, this December, the Sunmonu leadership completed and established the continental Kwame Nkrumah Africa Labour College, Accra with full hostel and hotel facilities.

When this May, I called him in his Accra base to inform that I just had a set of twins, he was so excited that he flew into Abuja to see the children and made a traditional payment for their naming ceremony. To honour him, one of the names of the boy is Adebayo.

Steeped in working class tradition, African culture, history and proverbs and an unparallel commitment, this symbol of the African worker, will be seventy years on Friday January 7, 2011.

On that day, the Labour Movement will hold a national symposium in his honour from 9.30 am at the Lagos Airport Hotel, Ikeja. God willing, I will be there, so should you; we need to celebrate our authentic heroes.

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