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Sunmonu revolutionised Labour with ‘workers charter of demands’

This is the sixth edition of the serial on OWEI LAKEMFA’s latest work: “One hundred years of trade unionism in Nigeria”. The fifth part was published yesterday.

EZE was at the peak of his activism at this time. The then two labour centres; the Trade Union congress of Nigeria, TUCN, and the Nigeria National Federation of Labour, NNFL, set up a joint National Labour Committee, NLC, to prosecute the Iva Valley case.

HASSAN SUNMONU

On May 26, 1956, the two labour centres formally merged to found the Nigeria Labour Congress, NLC, adopting the acronym of the Iva Valley Committee.

Michael Imoudu was elected the NLC president, F.O Coker, a.k.a. Secret Document, became the Deputy President, and Eze the General Secretary. The NLC leaders went into partisan politics and ran on the platform of the Nigerian National Democratic Party, NNDP, for the  November 1950 Lagos Municipal elections in which  four of them including Eze won seats.

At this time, Nduka Eze was perhaps the most powerful labour leader in the country; he was a leading nationalist,  President General  of the  powerful Zikist Movement, executive member of  the leading nationalist party in the country; the NCNC, member of the Lagos Municipal  Council, General Secretary of the country’s only labour centre, the NLC and General Secretary of the Mercantile Workers Union which included the over 18,000 strong UAC African Workers. So powerful was Eze that when he fell, the NLC fell with him and became history.

Violent national strike

What happened was that in September 1950, the UAC workers under him went on a violent national strike which shook the foundations of UNILEVER, the transnational holding company. The workers won their demands and the employers were left brused and sucking. Three months later, Eze called another strike, this time involving all mercantile workers including the UAC.

The strike failed despite spirited attempts by the NLC to come to the rescue of its scribe and affiliate union. In the process, some affiliates left and the NLC collapsed. For the next three years there was no central labour organisation in the country.

Eze left, later read law and became one of the leading lawyers in the Nigeria of the 1970s. When the Second Republic dawned, he became the pioneer General Secretary  of the Great Nigeria Peoples Party, GNPP.

SAMUEL UDO BASSEY

Samuel Udo Bassey was another labour leader in the mould of  Imoudu and Goodluck. He was General Secretary of trade unions like the Municipal Workers Union (now the National Union of Local Government Employees, NULGE); Nigeria Produce Marketing Company and the Amalgamated Associated Company. From 1963, he was scribe of the 247, 490-strong Nigeria Trade Union Congress, NTUC, and was part of the organisers who through mass protests torpedoed the neo-colonial Anglo-Nigeria Defence Pact.

The General Gowon regime seized him on February 19, 1971 and detained him along with Goodluck for fifteen months. A left-wing trade unionist who named his children after Karl Marx and Vladimir Illyich Lenin, Bassey was elected into the House of Assembly representing Eket South-West on the platform of the United Peoples Grand Alliance, UPGA.

One of the leaders of the Joint Action Committee, JAC, of Trade Unions in the country, he had, with other  radicals, tried to transform  the 1964 general strike from an economic into a political struggle against the government. He believed in the inevitability of strikes, saying that employers are too greedy to channel some of their profits to workers’ welfare while government was no less myopic.

HAROON POPOOLA ADEBOLA 

Haroon Popoola Adebola whom workers affectionately called “Horse Power”a porn on his initials, was the president of the largest labour centre in the 1960s, the United Labour  Congress, ULC, which had over half a million members. He became a full-time unionist in 1941 and was the General Secretary of the powerful Railway, Port Transport and Clerical Staff Union for three decades.

Adebola was Treasurer of the Trade Union Congress of Nigeria, TUCN, which on May 3, 1962 transformed into ULC. He was chairman of the  Joint Action Committee, JAC, which organised the 1964 general strike. Adebola was a member of the Western House of Assembly, and later the House of Chiefs having contested elections on the platform of the National Convention of Nigerian Citizens, NCNC.

In comparison with  Imoudu, Goodluck and Bassey, Adebola was not a radical and espoused what was characterized as the “policy of co-operation” explaining further that”.. .any trade union must co­operate with the government of each country.” He was also anti-communist and used to characterize the rival labour centre, the Nigeria Trade Union Congress and its affiliate unions as “…Communist trade unions” stressing that “Nigeria was not prepared for communism and we don’t believe in communist trade union movement”.

Adebola who became the General Secretary of the Nigeria Ports Authority Workers Union in 1977, was one of the trade unionists who desired the unity of Nigerian workers. He  worked for the merger of all labour centres which was achieved with the establishment of the Nigeria Labour Congress, NLC, in 1978.

For many in my generation, Labour was synonymous with Hassan Adebayo Sunmonu who became the founding president of the Nigeria Labour Congress, NLC, on February 28, 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 old Sunmonu, an engineer in the Federal Ministry of Works. His antecedents were unknown and unlike veteran labour leaders like Haroon 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.

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.

Victory parade

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.

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.

Breakaway faction

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. His leadership in the NLC  rebuilt the culture of collective leadership in the Labour Movement.

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.

The Sunmonu leadership built a new secretariat for OATUU in Accra and in December 2010, completed and established the continental Kwame Nkrumah Africa Labour College, Accra with full hostel and hotel facilities. Steeped in working class tradition, African culture, history and proverbs and an unparallel commitment, this symbol of the African worker, continues to inspire confidence in millions of people in Africa and the international labour community.


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