Chiroma, Ihonde and Memories of Struggles

Kayode Komolafe

In the last few weeks, the  labour movement has lost two of its cherished leaders – Comrades Ali Chiroma and Jonathan Ihonde.

Chiroma, a former president of the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC), died in  Maiduguri at 91 last Tuesday while Ihonde, a former vice president of the same congress, died about a month ago in Benin at 82.

The deaths of these labour veterans expectedly  have awakened great memories of past struggles of the working people for social justice, freedom and genuine democracy.

In their respective ways, Chiroma and Ihonde made enormous sacrifices in the course of the struggles and showed commitment when it mattered. 

A remarkably humble comrade, Chiroma emerged the NLC president in 1984 to succeed the first president of then six-old congress, Comrade Hassan Sunmonu. His union of  medical and health workers is one of the affiliates  of NLC. With his  calm and cautious mien, Chiroma would rather be assumed by a stranger to be a diplomat instead of a rugged trade unionist. He often wore his trademark smile no matter how tense the situation. Rather than bang the table or raise his voice, Chiroma would draw from his repertoire of Kanuri proverbs to lighten an otherwise anxious mood.

Under Chiroma’s  leadership the NLC struggled for socio-economic justice for workers. The congress fought for  freedom and common good in the larger society. Snippets of these struggles have been evident in the well-deserved  tributes paid to the memory of Chiroma since his demise.

Chiroma wasn’t your archetypal  militant trade unionist; but he was highly receptive to progressive ideas about how the struggles of labour should be prosecuted.

The publications of the NLC at the period he was president  embodied the ideas behind labour’s approach to the socio-economic and political  issues of the moment. These included “Nigeria: Not for Sale;”  “Towards National Recovery: Nigeria Labour Congress Alternative and Towards a Viable and  Genuinely Democratic Political Future: Nigerian Working Class Position.” The first document was a polemic against the privatisation agenda  and other components of the Washington Consensus presented by the military  government as solutions to Nigeria’s economic problems. The second publication was put together by the  congress  with the inputs of radical economists as an alternative strategy of development. Labour didn’t only make an informed critique of the Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP); it also offered a more socially responsible alternative to solve the economic crisis. The third position  was submitted by labour to the 17-man political bureau appointed by   the military government of President Ibrahim Babangida to  prepare a political transition programme for the country.  

Beyond the regular collective bargaining for wages and working conditions taking placing in the public and private sectors of the economy, the NLC had a broader view of things in its engagement with government.

Notably, Chiroma’s  NLC was the pillar of  what the military government mistakenly regarded as “the triumvirate  of revolution” – workers, students and progressive intellectuals – in the land at a time when political parties were banned and not many civil society organisations existed. The tripartite alliance was put to practical tests  on a number of occasions beyond making statements.  And the military government was determined not to “tolerate undue radicalism.”

For instance, in May 1986, some students were killed at the Ahamadu Bello University, Zaria, following a clash with security men. In reaction to the tragedy, a day of protest against extra-judicial killings was fixed for June 4.

The protest was to be led by NLC. Mobilisation was afoot by students, workers and the progressive intellectuals.

The national mood was clearly  expectant of a show-down between the military government and  popular-democratic forces.

Now, in the Africa of the 1980s, the date June 4 was a highly sensitive one. It was on that day in 1979 that Flight Lieutenant Jerry John Rawlings  emerged the leader of a “revolution” in Ghana. So the spectre of the June 4 Revolution haunted West Africa. The military government swiftly  moved on the eve of the June 4 date to pre-empt the protest by arresting and detaining labour leaders and students across the country. For instance, the late Comrade Chima Ubani led students at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, to join the protest to the chagrin of the authorities. The student leaders were to later to face an ordeal. The story of that ordeal would be suitable  for another tribute to the memory of Comrade Ubani another day.

Chiroma and a host of other labour leaders were detained  for some days by the military regime. On such occasions, Chiroma demonstrated courage and leadership.

Unfortunately, the polarisation within the congress in the build-up to the ill-fated  1988 delegates conference denied Chiroma of a second term. The leadership of the congress was dissolved  and the military government appointed a sole administrator to manage the affairs of the congress pending the election of new officers.

Not a few labour activists  were disappointed at Chiroma when six years later he accepted to serve as the sole  administrator of  the Petroleum and Natural Gas Senior Staff Association of Nigeria (PENGASSAN) when the military regime of General Sanni Abacha dissolved  the union’s  executive for its role in the struggle to revalidate the results June 12, 1993 presidential election won by Bashorun Moshood Abiola.

Ihonde was a  deep leftist ideologue. As Comrade Owei Lakemfa aptly described him in a most  fitting tribute, Comrade Ihonde was “influential” and “invisible” at once in the labour movement. He was modest and unobtrusive in his approach to issues. He was an exemplar of  leaders  working from the background to make things work. 

Ihonde served the radio, television and theatre workers’ union with his full energy.  Widely remembered as the creator of the television series, “Hotel De Jordan,” a satirical rendition of class contradictions in the Nigerian society, Ihonde was an accomplished broadcast journalist.

A resolute partisan of the cause  of human progress, Ihonde also devoted his time and energy to the building of viable organisations of the left and nurturing cadres for the movement. Ihonde’s conviction remained unshakable to the end  about the possibility a humane social order. And he was far being naïve as to imagine that this could be achieved  without  the appropriate strategy of struggle.

It is important to reflect on the lives and times of the Chiromas and Ihondes of the labour movement because of the huge lessons to be learnt from their great efforts and  few errors.

May their tribe increase.

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