This is the third edition of the serial on OWEI LAKEMFA’s latest work: “One hundred years of trade unionism in Nigeria”. The first part was published yesterday.
THE Renaissance of Labour’s Struggles
The man elected President of the new NLC in 1978 was a charismatic follower of Wahab Goodluck; Comrade Hassan Adebayo Sunmonu. Same period coincided with the last phase of the military’s self-imposed transition programme which was to end on October 1, 1979 with the handover of power to civilians.
In explaining the NLC’s role and policy in the unfolding political process, Sunmonu in his May 22, 1979 presidential address to the National Executive Council, NEC, of the Congress said that “it is the wish of the Congress to see as many of its members as possible in different parliaments (state and federal assemblies) after all, they will defend the interests of workers in whatever capacity they are”.
Unionists who got elected in that Second Republic included Yinusa Kaltungo who later chaired the House Labour Committee; Senator Joseph Ansa who became chairman of the Senate Labour Committee and Senator Raji Ayoola Adeleke of the old ULC who was the former executive secretary of the Nigeria Nurses Association, and assistant secretary-general of the NLC. One of Comrade Adeleke’s sons, Isiaka Adeleke, eleven years later was to be elected the governor of Osun State, and later into the Senate.
The NEC of Congress in that Second Republic, also set up a committee to study the manifestoes of the five registered political parties and drew up a Charter of Demands. This Charter was subsequently used by the NLC in its dealings with state and federal authorities.
Minimum wage and pensions
The NLC’s main battle in this era was over the issue of a minimum wage and pension with basic car allowances. For this, a general strike was called from May 11,1981 which paralysed the country. There were concerted efforts by various governments in the country and some Labour leaders to stifle the strike.
But so effective was it that President Shehu Shagari had to personally meet the Sunmonu leadership before it was called off. Negotiations on all the NLC demands began immediately the strike was called off.
The government team led by Vice-President Alex Ekwueme, included Senate President, Joseph Wayas; Speaker, Ume Ezeoke; Senate Majority Leader, Olusola Saraki and his House of Representatives counterpart, Yinusa Kaltungo. Both sides agreed that the necessary minimum wage and pension legislation will be sped through both chambers of the National Assembly within thirty days.
That 1985 strike showed the power of unified Labour and gave confidence to workers that they could always exert pressure on the political class. The government’s conclusion on the other hand was that the trade union movement’s powers must be watered down, if not destroyed. While various subterranean moves were made to check Labour’s growing power, the most open were carried out at the National Assembly.
In the House of Representatives, former Labour leader Yinusa Kaltungo was the arrow head. In the Senate, the two draft bills to clip Labour’s wings were moved by Senators Ibrahim Dimis and Mahmud Waziri. The motions were to:
i. Break up the NLC into smaller units by empowering dissident unionists especially the Committee for the Defence of Trade Unions, CDTU, led by immediate past NLC Vice President, Mr. David Ojeli, to form rival Labour centres.
ii. Stop the automatic check-off deductions from workers’ salaries to trade unions as specified under Decree 22 of 1978. This, they hoped would cripple the NLC finally, and
iii. Make it compulsory for workers to ballot in the presence of representatives of their employers, the press and government before a strike can be called.
Labour responded by exerting more pressure on government, winning public understanding and support and isolating the aggressively anti-NLC members in the National Assembly. The Assembly was forced to push the draft bills to some committee where they were killed.
The Sunmonu leadership called to question the colonial division of workers into junior and senior categories. It brought in two senior staff unions, the Shop and Distributive Senior Staff Association and the Academic Staff Union of Universities, ASUU, into the NLC as affiliates.
In expanding Labour’s base, Sunmonu’s leadership entered into cooperation agreements with the National Association of Nigeria Student, NANS, then led by Mr. Chris Mammah. It also espoused the theory of collective leadership under which decisions were democratically taken, and once taken; such decisions were binding on all affiliates.
The NLC on June 4, 1986 called for national rallies to protest the killing of four students at the Ahmadu Bello University, ABU, but the Babangida regime suppressed it by force. The following year, when Labour protested against the decision of the military to increase fuel price, Labour leaders including NLC president, Ali Chiroma were detained enmasse.
In 1988, mass protests broke out in Jos following another increase in the cost of petroleum products. They quickly spread across tertiary institutions in the country. When the military moved in to suppress the protests, a coalition of 14 unions (Babangida had banned the NLC) called a successful general strike. The regime agreed to a negotiated settlement under Professor Ukandi Damachi while top regime officials like Chief Olu Falae, its Secretary to Government led the government side. The Labour Movement over the years identified with, and in some cases, led democratic struggles. It remains a champion of peoples rights.
Iva Valley Massacre: Event that accelerated Independence
It was on November 18,1949 when armed British colonial policemen opened fire on defenceless coal miners in the Iva Valley mine in Enugu. In those moments of collective colonial insanity, the colonialists within minutes murdered 21 Nigerian workers and injured 51.
The workers crime was that they dared to go on a strike which the colonial authorities interpreted as a political strike designed to pressurise them to quit the country and let Nigeria join other nations free from colonial misrule and exploitation.
Colonialism, a one armed bandit
Contrary to the popular myth that Nigeria attained its independence on a platter of gold, events like those in Iva Valley showed that our forebears fought for independence with many losing their livelihood, liberty and lives. No exploiter concedes power by persuasion or repenting of his sins; pressure and power must be applied because as Franz Fanon explained, colonialism is a one-armed bandit. The coal miners who fell that day in Iva Valley had watered the tree of liberty with their blood.
Labour leader and nationalist, Nduka Eze, said of the chain reaction that followed this massacre: “The radicals and the moderates, the revolutionaries and the stooges, the bourgeoisie and the workers, sank their differences, remembered the word Nigeria and rose in revolt against evil and inhumanity.”
The political scientist, Richard L Sklar, wrote on the significance of the mine workers sacrifice “Historians may conclude that the slaying of the coal miners by police at Enugu first proved the subjective reality of a Nigerian nation. No previous event ever evoked a manifestation of national consciousness comparable to the indignation generated by this tragedy”.
The coal mine managers were British racists who had a sense of superiority over Nigerians. There were cases of physical abuse. In one case, a Briton, T. Yates on September 2, 1945 slapped a worker, Okwudili Ojiyi, who had the courage to bring up an assault case and Mr Yates was prosecuted and fined. On November 1, 1949 matters between the workers and management reached a head when the latter rejected demands for the payment of rostering, the upgrading of the mine hewers to artisans and the payment of housing and travelling allowances. The workers then began a go-slow strike action.
The management’s reaction was to sack over 50 of them. Fearing that the strike was part of the growing nationalist agitations for self-rule, the management also decided to move out explosives from the mines on November 18, 1949. Those of the Obwetti mines were easily removed, but that of Iva Valley was not because the workers refused to assist the management to do so.
The Fitzgerald Commission which the colonialists were forced to set up to investigate the massacre, found that the reason why the miners objected to the removal of the explosives was because they feared that once the explosives were removed, nothing stood in the way of the management from closing the mine and thus effecting a lock out.
Senior Superintendent of Police, F.S. Philip, came to the mine to assist in the removal. He had two other officers and 75 armed policemen.
At a point, there was a struggle between three of the policemen and the workers, and Philip without any hesitation ordered his men to shoot, resulting in the tragedy.
There were mass protests in places like Port Harcourt, Aba and Onitsha, and 18 prominent Nigerians in collaboration with the labour unions set up the National Emergency Committee, NEC, to coordinate a national response to this crime against humanity. It was chaired by Dr Akinola Maja with Mbonu Ojike as secretary.
The colonial government issued a statement that the workers were armed, had tried to disarm the policemen and had attempted to seize the explosives. The Commission found all these to be lies.
The Commission which partly blamed the union and said Superintendent Philip committed an error of judgement, found that “Not one policeman was injured, not one missile was thrown at them (and that) if the crowd was bent on using force against the police nothing could have saved these policemen from grave injury, whereas in fact they were not injured at all”.
Such are the bloody legacy of British colonial rule and repression and the peoples struggle for emancipation. The courage, patriotism and selflessness of the martyred Iva Valley miners inspired many and led to renewed agitation to rid Nigeria of colonial rule.
Giants of the Labour Movement
The Nigerian Labour Movement produced lots of outstanding leaders with common characteristics of uncommon courage, unparalled commitment to the working people, fierce patriotism and strong moral authority. In marking the centenary of trade unionism, we celebrate a handful of them.
Michael Imoudu: Labour Leader Number One: The world witnessed an awakening. After over five years of a nightmarish war, a new dawn broke on this Tuesday morning, May 8, 1945. The Second World War which began mainly over disagreements amongst Europeans over spoils of colonial conquests and territorial control, ended that day in Europe with the official surrender of the German forces. Sir Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill who became British Prime Minister eight months into that war, was ecstatic. That day he told the British people “God bless you all. This is our victory. It is the victory of the cause of freedom in every land.”
For the colonies under British dictatorship, the sun of freedom which rose in the European sky following the war, was also visible in theirs. In Nigeria, the immediate fall-out of this was that freedom bells tolled for an implacable enemy of colonialism; Michael Athokhamien Ominu Imoudu.
He had been detained by “freedom loving” Britain for twenty-nine months. The British feared him even in detention. When he was initially arrested, the colonial masters thought the best place for him was a prison, so he was taken to the Benin Prisons only for the trade unionist to organize the prisoners and lead them in a strike against poor feeding and the authorities’ failure to provide the prisoners with iron beds and mattresses.
The colonialists quickly took him out of prison and sent him on “internal exile” in Auchi. Despite being under a 24-hour watch, he tried to organize the farmers in the Etstako and Ora areas into a federation of peasant co-operatives.