Pa Lawrence Leo Borha (LLB), pioneer national trade unionist, technocrat and politician passed away on January 3, 2017 in Benin City the Edo State capital at the ripe old age of 94 years, after a bravely fought protracted illness.
And so, with his passage the curtain has effectively been drawn on the nation’s first generation labour leaders, master strategists and political tacticians. Along with late Michael Imoudu, LLB, as he was fondly called, played a pivotal and major organisational role in the establishment of the National Trade Union Movement in the Federal Republic of Nigeria. Indeed his managerial dexterity ensured its growth and survival.
A seasoned technocrat, he, along with others, remain the pillars of the then newly created Midwest Region, later Bendel and now Edo State.
He was born in Ubiaja on August 10, 1923 to the famous Alumhen Borha family of Idumhenbor Quarters in what is today Esan South East Local Government Area of Edo State. His mother was Avere Borha.
LLB had his elementary school at St. Benedict’s Catholic School, Ubiaja and proceeded to African College, Onitsha for his secondary education. He was a brilliant and exceptional student and even though from a comparatively poor background, support for his education came readily and steadily. His immediate family and kind hearted individuals had spotted his great potentials and pulled resources together to see him through his secondary education.
After graduation he was offered a teaching job and before he could settle down fully to his new job, events around the globe began to unfold very fast. Then, the dark clouds of World War II was looming. Being a British Colony at the time, the impact on Nigeria was immediate and resonated around the entire country.
Imports dried up and proceeds from local exports – largely rubber, timber, groundnuts, cotton, palm oil/kernels etc were directed to the war efforts. This was the scenario when the second campaign towards the war efforts began. Conscription of able bodied adults to join the Army became the vogue while the educated joined the army with adventure in mind regardless of the risks involved.
Young Lawrence belonged to this group. He enlisted and was moved to Egypt before being posted to the medical Corps. His regiment later moved to Burma until the end of the war before his subsequent demobilisation.
He exhibited an incredible independent spirit on his return as he first tried his hands on local trading and business. He then joined the Civil Service, the Ministry of Information and resigned after a few years to take up a full time job as a Trade Union Secretary. In this capacity, he frequently attended International Labour Organisation Congresses in Geneva, Switzerland, where he made international friends like Tom Mboya of Kenya, Helmut Schmidt, later Chancellor of West Germany and many others. Indeed, he was so close to Helmut Schmidt that the German made it possible for his two nephews to travel to Germany on scholarship.
The narrative of LLB’s labour activism would be incomplete without particular reference to the Nigerian General Strike of 1964 that crippled the entire country.
According to the history books, as regional and ethnic competition intensified during the census crisis, tensions of a wholly different order was gathering explosive force. Wage labourers were beginning to focus their indignation over declining real income and gross economic inequality into military demands for Government attention and higher pay.
For a brief but crucial year in Nigerian politics, the severely fractured trade union movement united in a concerted challenge to the political class and what began as a protest over wages quickly widened into an attack on the very basis of the regimes authority. Spanning the later stages of the Federal election the census crisis and the preliminary maneuvering of the Federal Election, the conflict peaked in a thirteen day General Strike that brought the economic life of the nation to a virtual standstill.
In the confrontation, Nigerian workers scored a significant victory while the regime was discredited across a wide and crucial segment of public opinion.
There is no gainsaying that the forces that led that General Strike were among others, Michael Imoudu as labour leader and Lawrence Leo Borha as secretary general of the Nigerian Labour Congress.
In the 50’s, Trade Unionism and Union leaders were closely aligned to political parties as indeed they still are till date. LLB was one of the stormy petrels of these arrow heads in the labour movement with the likes of Michael Imoudu, Duke Idise Dafe, Gogo Chu Nzeribe, Tunji Otegbeye and others.
He served as Commissioner for Agriculture and Natural Resources and later Information in the Col. Samuel Ogbemudia administration in the Midwest region of Nigeria for nine years. Much later he and others like late Chief Tony Enahoro and late Oba of Benin, Oba Erediauwa initiated the formation of Edo Movement that later resulted in the creation of Edo State.
Little wonder that when told that LLB was very alive and in Benin two years ago. General Ogbemudia (Rtd) retorted: the great one, where is he?
He was appointed Labour Adviser to President Shehu Shagari before the Second Republic was overthrown in a military coup in 1983. He was indeed a notable NPN leader in the then Bendel State.
A man of humour devoid of bitterness he was very compassionate and caring. He was always involved in peaceful resolution of conflicts in his rural area, state and the nation at large.
He is survived by a wife, Madam Lola Borha and four children Edmund, Charles, David and Mrs. Rachael Ugboadaga as well as grand children and great grand children. He is also survived by daughters-in-law, a son-in-law, Cousins, Nephews and Nieces.
A great one has indeed departed. When comes another?
May his gentle soul rest in peace.