This is the seventh edition of the serial on OWEI LAKEMFA’s latest work: “One hundred years of trade unionism in Nigeria”. The sixth part was published yesterday.
ALHAJI Ali Chiroma was the President of the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) at the worst possible period in our history.
He was NLC President from March 1984 to February 1988; he came into office when the Buhari-Idiagbon dictatorship was on rampage; indiscriminately seizing politicians and carting them into prison, sacking workers en mass without recourse to rules and trying to destroy institutions like the press.
In fact, that regime had a Decree 4 of 1984 which made the reportage of falsehood or truth punishable offences. Perhaps the most revolting of its acts was issuing a retroactive decree on drugs and publicly executing youths for what was not a capital offence when the act was committed.
Chiroma was Congress President when the country transformed from that Stone Age dictatorship to the more subtle Babangida version which ultimately was worse than its predecessor. While Buhari-Idiagbon appeared rigid, Babangida presented an image of the ultimate compromiser; while the duo frowned, he smiled. But ultimately, the Babangida iron-fist was more devastating for Labour than that of his predecessors.
In trying to suck Labour into his system, Babangida appointed prominent labour leaders into his transition committees but without consulting Labour. So, then Nigeria Union of Railwaymen, NUR, Scribe, Paschal Bafyau and Bank Workers President, Halilu Ibrahim, were put in the Political Bureau. Frank Ovie Kokori, the NUPENG Chief scribe was appointed into the Constitution Drafting Committee while both Kokori and Bafyau were appointed into the Constitution Review Committee.
Chiroma was not apolitical. He described the philosophy of the NLC under him as far as the political process goes as “Unions in Politics and Politics in Unions.” When students were massacred in 1986, he led the NLC into the fight for justice. His leadership also organized anti-apartheid protests when Britain’s Margaret Thatcher visited Lagos and Kano. The Chiroma leadership is best remembered for its consistent battle against fuel price increases. For this, the Congress leadership including Chiroma were detained without trial.
Chiroma consolidated on the hugely successful Hassan Sunmonu legacy including collective leadership, and developed the relationship between the NLC, intellectuals, students and the civil society which served the Congress well in its anti-fuel subsidy strikes and protests in later years. The Chiroma Leadership exposed the Babangida regime as a brute that was interested in self preservation and perpetuation.
Despite the corrupting influence of the military regime, Chiroma stood stoutly for probity, good governance and the independence of the Labour Movement. Chiroma who talked little but achieved a lot, was detained at least twice including in 1986 when he organized a national rally to protest the killing of Ahmadu Bello University, ABU, students, and the following year when he led Congress against the attempt by Babangida to remove fuel subsidy.
Chiroma was not in the mould of a radical Labour Leader like Imodu, Goodluck or Sunmonu and is not endowed with the power of oratory, but he made huge strides that made his administration a success. The reasons for this included the fact that he had a pro-poor philosophy, a stubborn streak and high moral principles. When the military dictatorship thought they were breaking him by detaining him without trial, Chiroma took this as a challenge.
By the time the season was ripe for new NLC elections in February 1988, the Babangida Leadership had shown in various ways that it would not want to see Chiroma having a second term in office. The Labour leaders, known as “Democrats” in the NLC picked the regime’s cue. When it became clear to them that their candidate, Takai Shamang was no match for Chiroma, they contrived a crisis, declared Shamang the President, “sacked” the appointed NLC officers, and asked Babangida to ban the NLC as the military did in 1975. The Babangida regime wasted no time in grabbing this opportunity. Within forty-eight hours, (February 29, 1988) it rolled out the National Economic Recovery Emergency Powers (Nigeria Labour Congress) order, 1988 under which it banned the NLC and imposed an employer, Michael Ogunkoya as Sole Administrator.
Although Chiroma made major positive contributions to the Labour Movement he, however, had a stain which tainted his beautiful records. Six years after his exit from the NLC, the Abacha dictatorship seized and detained leaders of the oil workers unions; NUPENG and PENGASSAN and banned the unions.
That military regime then appointed Chiroma and former NLC scribe, Dr Lasisi Osunde as sole administrators of the unions. While Osunde wept that Abacha insulted him by such an appointment, Chiroma accepted.
OSUNDE: THE PATH OF OUR FATHERS
Many who argue that we got our independence on “a platter of gold” ignore the fact that there were genuine struggles in which people died, many were imprisoned, tortured or even went into exile. Back on July 28, 1928, after graduating from the Edo College, Benin, Lasisi Adams Osunde was a 17-year old youth who was sucked into the Nationalism vortex. While the British Colonialists partially tolerated the conformist nationalists, they hounded radicals who were fighting for not just freedom from colonialism but independence outside capitalism.
To ensure its hold on post-colonial Nigeria, the British banned all socialist books and literature and made it a criminal offence either to possess them or travel to a socialist country. This was where the young Osunde came in. In 1948, at 18, he secured a job as First Class Postal Officer and Telegrapher. In this position, he sorted out socialist literature in the mail before they could get to the sorting room where British intelligence seized and destroyed them. He then channelled the literature to the Socialist Movement, which distributed them in the country.
Discharge and acquittal
Eventually, the British intelligence zeroed in and arrested Osunde in 1958. He was indicted and charged to court for treason but was discharged and acquitted. The Socialist Movement decided that since Osunde’s cover had been blown, he had to leave the country. When in 1960, the country’s face was turned towards independence, Osunde faced the Soviet Union where for five years, he studied Economics at the Friendship University, Moscow .
On his return in 1965 with a Masters, he was employed to lecture by the University of Lagos, UNILAG. After three years, he returned to his alma mater where he got a Ph.D in Economics in 1971. His thesis was on “Foreign Capital in the Nigerian Economy.” Osunde returned to UNILAG to teach Economics from 1971 to 1975 before moving full time in 1976 into the Labour Movement as General Secretary of the Municipal and Local Authority Workers Union of Nigeria. The Union after the 1977 re-organisation of unions became the National Union of Local Government Employees, NULGE. Osunde remained its General Secretary until July 1, 1978 when he moved to the Nigeria Labour Congress, NLC, as Deputy General Secretary. From that date, he was de facto General Secretary of the NLC until his confirmation in that post on December 18, 1985. He had graduated from the National Institute of Policy and Strategic Studies, NIPSS, two months earlier.
Beyond being a key figure in the development of Congress, he was instrumental to many of its struggles such as those against arbitrary fuel price increases and military dictatorship, focusing workers through a Charter of Demands and the May 1981 General Strike which secure for workers a Minimum Wage and Minimum Pension. Osunde had learnt trade unionism at the feet of the legendary Wahab Omorilewa Goodluck and imbibed the latter’s radical politics and socialist beliefs.
With Hassan Adebayo Sunmonu, another Goodluck protégée as founding NLC President, they had a team that could firmly root the NLC in national consciousness. But they realized that the NLC’s success was reversible especially when at the top of the NLC Secretariat, the strong consciously political elements were mainly Osunde and his Deputy Bernard Obua. So they brought in three new officers; Yahaya Hashim, Salisu Nuhu Mohammed and Lawson Osagie. In 1987 Osunde’s leadership brought in another line of officers; Chom Bagu, Chris Uyot, John Odah and Isa Aremu.
So at the NLC under Osunde, there were three layers of leadership that could guarantee the radical traditions of the Labour Movement and withstand nuclear bombardments from enemy forces. Thus, when the Babangida Military regime seized the NLC on February 28, 1988 occupying it for ten months; and when the Abacha Military Regime seized the NLC in 1994 for four years, the NLC’s radical foundations could not be destroyed. After Babangida removed Osunde as NLC General Secretary by Decree, Osunde refused to recognize this, saying only the Congress NEC which appointed him could remove him. While the then NLC President Ali Chiroma complied, Osunde refused to handover. He went on, with other like minds, to get unions and workers to resist; these included court cases up to the Court of Appeal.
After the occupation, he returned as General Secretary. A veteran of detention spells, when he returned from one on December 30, 1978, I interviewed Osunde. He told me: “My attitude to detention is that it means noting to me. Personally, I am not ruffled, the issue is objective; personal inconvenience is not the issue.”
For him workers cannot be divorced from politics because “Politics is essentially a concentrated expression of economics both in form and content.” His primary focus he said was to mobilize the populace “…against a regime which has gone beserk”.
After many more battles including resisting attempts to enlist NLC’s support for General Babangida’s endless Transition Programme, Osunde on February 28, 1993 retired. From retirement he continued to make his services and experience available to the Working Class. Once, the very quiet and soft spoken Osunde was very angry. It was in August 1994 when the Federal Government announced his appointment as Sole Administrator of the Petroleum and Natural Gas Senior Staff Association (PENGASSAN). He felt insulted that a military regime could appoint him to administer a union it had seized. He did not even honour the Government with a formal decline of the offer.
Osunde is one of the greatest labour leaders and patriots our country ever produced.