By Owei Lakemfa
NIGERIA, a country of 183 million people hardly has heroes accepted by all. A culture of opportunism, lack of principles, parochial politics, ethnic jingoism and an uncultured elite, has made the national acceptance of our heroes, virtually impossible.
The nearest, is a military candidate who was consumed by the barracks in-fighting for political dominance. But heroes like Herbert Macaulay, Mokwugo Okoye, Raji Abdallah and Bello Ijumu who fought colonialism, are hardly recognised or accepted. Also neglected are people like Tai Solarin, Ayodele Awojobi and Alao Aka-Bashorun who spent their entire lives fighting to emancipate the poor and build a country based on social justice.
Men like Issac Adaka Boro and Ken Saro-Wiwa who sacrificed their lives for freedom, are tagged ‘Minority Rights Activists’ not national heroes. People like Beko Ransome-Kuti, Chima Ubani and Anthony Enahoro who fought to free us from the shackles of military dictatorship and the enthronement of democracy, are virtually forgotten. So it was quite novel when academics under the Academic Staff Union of Universities, ASUU, categorised some of their late leaders as national heroes and went on to celebrate them and their families in what promises to be an annual “National Heroes Day.”
I was part of the guests at the November 12, ceremony in the University of Abuja where the families of former ASUU Presidents Dr. Mahmud Tukur, who passed away 29 years ago, and Professor Festus Iyayi, who was killed while on an ASUU assignment, were honoured along with those of late ASUU Treasurer, Dr. Regina Odeh and Zonal Coordinator, Dr. Usman Abubakar. Also on the honours list were former leaders, Dr. Frank Dimowo, who was once detained for ASUU activism, Professor Eskor Toyo, considered the union’s conscience, Dr. David Jangkam, former Legal Adviser, and the pair of outstanding intellectuals; Professors Funmi Adewumi and Abubakar Momoh who had served in past ASUU Executives.
Perhaps why ASUU is so historically conscious is the fact that it is not just a union of academics who sell their mental labour, but because it has transformed into an intellectual resource. Almost all institutions in the country have suffered neglect, or collapsed, but the universities remain standing not because they had not been subjected to neglect and starvation of funds, but because ASUU has stood resolute and fought doggedly. A fact attested to by Professor Edmund Joseph Nwana, the Deputy Vice- Chancellor, Academics of the host, University of Abuja. He said: “One shudders to imagine what would have happened (to the universities) if nobody had stood up for what is proper; we cannot thank ASUU enough for the good it has done the universities.”
Invariably, ASUU has produced outstanding presidents like Professor Attahiru Jega who was sent to prison without trial by the military and went on, as Chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission, INEC, to conduct some of the least contentious elections in the country’s history including the 2015 general elections. One of his successors, Professor Humphrey Assisi Asobie, also a graduate of detention without trial, went on to oversee the Nigeria Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, NEITI, a federal agency designed to ensure increased transparency in the workings of the Nigerian Government and its service industries.
The struggles of ASUU came at a high price as a number of its leaders like Dr. Dipo Fashina and Professor Gordini Darah were detained without trial. When there was an attempted coup in the country in April, 1990, the military regime used it as a pretext to attack ASUU by seizing three of its leading lights, Professors Idowu Awopetu, Omotoye Olorode and Obaro Ikime, the famous historian; accusing them of treason.
ASUU President, Professor Biodun Ogunleye said the Heroes Day was to “Honour families rooted in the struggles of ASUU.” Veteran labour leader, Comrade Jonathan Ihonde said ASUU was conceived as a vanguard of the Trade Union Movement, a role he said it is fulfilling creditably. He said the union has become so successful that various unions now call themselves academic staff unions. Ihonde, a veteran of the Movement from the 1960s, asked the ASUU leaders to be ready to give leadership to the Trade Union and Labour Movements. He also paid tribute to one of the heroes: “ ASUU was like water to Toyo, if you took him out, he might not have been able to survive.”
Nigeria Labour Congress, NLC, President, Ayuba Wabba said ASUU’s initiatives in honouring heroes was worthy of emulation and that the union’s intellectual contribution to the trade unions have enriched them. The Vice-Chancellor, Modibbo Adama University of Technology, Professsor Kyari Mohammed said the work of a vice-chancellor is to serve, adding that he is a committed member of ASUU: “My vice-chancellorship is a temporary job; taking leave from ASUU to come and serve, after that, I will return to my union.”
An adaptation of Festus Iyayi’s novel, VIOLENCE, was staged under the title Idemudia. It was written and directed by Diran Ademiju-Bepo (Mask). After this, a lecture: ASUU in the Throes of Nigeria’s Liberation: Connecting the Past and the Future, was delivered by NLC General Secretary, Dr. Peter Ozo-Eson. He argued that the role of the intellectual in society is to seek and produce the truth in order to guide the development of the nation. He said the economic colonial structures remain, leading to a more dependent country implementing anti-people policies like privatisation. He argued that the success of an organisation is not measured merely by its successes, but by the struggles it wages even if some of them were not successful.
The economist argued that there are academics who have no business in the universities as they are there because they have no better jobs. Dr. Ozo-Eson said the World Bank’s template for Africa is that the continent does not need universities: “That the production of knowledge is not important for Africa; that Europe will produce knowledge and we will consume.” He said the Nigerian ruling class which backed that idea has now changed and is now setting up private universities, but not for the production of knowledge, but “as commercial enterprises” that do not care whether there are lecturers or not; provided huge fees are paid, certificates are issued.”
Representatives of the families expressed gratitude to ASUU for its continued support especially in educating the children of its past leaders.
The actions of ASUU in honouring its past leaders, reinforce the belief that those who seek directions, may not miss the way. That people who know their origins and are conscious of the present, will navigate better towards the future. An African proverb says a river that does not forget its source, will not dry up; ASUU chose to link up with its past; its future within historical realities, seem assured.