For Paschal Bafyau
Although the body of labour leader Paschal Myeleri Bafyau will be buried this weekend in his hometown, Lamorde, Adamawa State, his legacy in the movement that produced him will be a matter for deeper reflection for a long time. Even before the funeral rites begin there have been well-deserved tributes to the essential character of the fallen comrade since he died on May 15 at 65. The thread that runs through most of the testimonies to his career is that he was committed to the labour movement till he had his last breath.
Bafyau’s tenure as the president of the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) was truncated in 1994 when the military government of General Sani Abacha dissolved the congress along with the National Union of Petroleum and Natural Gas Workers (NUPENG) which spearheaded the struggle for the validation of the results of the June 12, 1993 presidential elections won by Bashorun M.K.O. Abiola. However, Comrade Bafyau was never distant from the labour movement. It was a fitting testament to his life-long commitment to labour that 14 days before his demise, Bafyau was at the May Day rally in Abuja. He reportedly raised issues about the shape and direction of the movement with other labour veterans including his predecessors Comrades Hassan Sunmonu and Ali Chiroma on that occasion.
For now, it is safe to predict that history will even be kinder to his memory than the contemporary verdict would concede. This projection is premised on taking a long view of history. In may respects, Bafyau was a veritable study in what the Russian revolutionary, Leon Trotsky, categorised as the “role of the individual in history”. When Bafyau’s critics (especially from the left of the movement) stress the point that as NLC’s president he compromised labour interests in dealing with the regime of General Ibrahim Babangida, they often ignore a dialectical issue. As a matter of fact, Bafyau emerged in November 1988 as congress’s president as a compromise candidate because the two factions that went to conference to elect him saw in him virtues of compromise.
That was why he was able to forge a solidly united congress from the wrangling of the “Democrats” and “Marxists” who went their different ways from the ill-fated Benin delegates’ conference held earlier that year. The root of the contradictions between the expectations of his comrades on the left and his leadership style could be traced to events which constituted a prelude to his emergence. For clarity, Bafyau was certainly not your archetypal labour militant; but the man was undeniably a rugged and calm trade unionist. He worked closely with Comrade Sylvester Ejiofoh of the then civil service technical workers’ union on the left and got on well with Godwin Uluocha of the telecommunication workers’ union on the right.
From his days as the general-secretary of the Nigeria Union of Railwaymen till he led the labour centre, NLC, Bafyau defended the fundamental interests of the working class. So, any judicious assessment of his remarkable career must acknowledge that his leadership engendered unity of the NLC in the congress which in turn nourished the organisational integrity of the congress. It is, therefore, an ironical twist that at the time of Bafyau’s death cracks are noticeable in the organisational wall of the congress. That goes to show that unity should not be taken for granted. Leaders should work for it.
Bafyau led the NLC in a deliberate style. He worked assiduously to widen the material base of the organisation. The organising principle was that for NLC to carry out its activities the organisation should be on a financial terra firma. It should be in position to pay the highly qualified cadres employed as career trade unionists in the service of workers. The labour centre should be able to generate the means to fund its programmes independently.
The resources to execute this policy were bye-products of the problematic relationship of NLC with the Babangida regime. Unfortunately, the policy met a public relations debacle. Although, the policy was hardly contested within the formal structure of NLC, there were fierce criticisms from the larger labour and progressive movement. For instance, one famous criticism of the funds from the military government into the coffers of NLC was made by the nationalist, Chief Anthony Enahoro, who described the arrangement as “subversive generosity”.
However, the results of the Bafyau doctrine as attested to by the NLC in its tribute are the 12-Storey Labour House in Abuja and Labour City Transport. A fund was instituted for regular labour education for cadres and the defunct Labour Bank (LACON) was also founded. Most of these remain monumental assets of NLC and not Bafyau’s private estate. Indeed, as the NLC pointed out in its statement, at his death Bafyau lived in a rented bungalow in Abuja.
Now, it is expected that left-wing cadres in trade unions should be conscious of the limitation of economistic struggles without political action. But Bafyau was more interested liberal democratic politics. Perhaps more than any other cadre of his generation Bafyau was enamoured to heeding the admonition of Comrade Eskor Toyo that “ you should get involved in the politics of your country”. Bafyau was never content with being on the margin of politics. He embraced the Babangida tortuous transition programme with a lot of enthusiasm. He and Alhaji Ibrahim Halilu of the bank workers’ union were labour nominees into the 17-man Political Bureau that conducted the political debate preceding the programme.
Bafyau and Chief Frank Kokori of NUPENG fame also represented labour in the Constituent Assembly that debated the 1989 Constitution. Under his watch, the NLC came with a Labour Party rated as Number 6 out of the dozens of organisations struggling for registration in 1989. There was a vigorous debate within NLC on how labour should get involved in politics with many of Bafyau’s comrades insisting that NLC should be organisationally intact as a labour centre and that it could not be converted into a party
. Among those on that side of the debate was one of Bafyau’s deputies, Comrade Adams Oshiomhole, now Edo State governor. When the military government decreed into existence the Social Democratic Party (SDP) and the National Republican Convention (NRC), it was natural for Bafyau to be part of SDP which was said to be a “ little to the left”. Bafyau was actually the favourite as the running mate to Abiola in the 19933 until the SDP governors insisted that their former party National Chairman, Ambassador Babagana Kingibe, would be the party’s vice-presidential candidate. It was consistent with this political orientation of always playing in a larger field that at his death Bafyau was a strong member of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). He was always politically active.
Beyond trade unionism and politics, Bafyau was a good man. He had no bile. A man of modest taste, he was demonstrably selfless. He was a Nigerian patriot.
Our condolences go his very accommodating wife, Jessica, and their three daughters – Tariko, Taniel and Dadieno.