By Abdulrazaq Magaji
Growing up in his native Ilorin, capital of Kwara state in the late 60s and early 70s, Comrade (Alhaji) Issa Obalowu Aremu, mni, almost followed the mind of his friends who believed he was cut out for a career in the military. This was in deference to Aremu’s organizational and managerial skills which teachers and classmates from that era believed were necessary ingredients for anyone who desired a career in the military.
But young Issa (Yisa) had other plans: he had always wanted to touch lives! As a student at the pioneer community Ilorin Grammar School (IGS) from 1972 to 1977, Aremu realized that touching lives would remain a mirage if the unjust structure that bred inequality in society was not dismantled. Somehow, IGS became a training ground of sort. It was here that Comrade Aremu honed his writing skills as an active member of the Confidence Press Club. Aside being an enthusiastic sportsman, Aremu was an active member of the school’s literary and debating society. Noted for his diligence, and academic excellence, Issa was one of the six products of IGS class of ‘77 to be admitted for the rigorous one-year Interim Joint Matriculation Board (IJMB) course at the elite School of Basic Studies (SBS) of the Ahmadu Bello University (ABU) in Samaru, Zaria, preparatory to a three-year degree programme in Economics. It was at Zaria that I met Aremu.
It was also at Zaria that Comrade Aremu met and struck lifelong relationship with future prominent Nigerians such as Lamido Sanusi, former governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria and Amir (Emir) of Kano, Sanusi Barkindo, current secretary general of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), Ambassador Sola Enikanolaiye, former permanent secretary of the Federal Ministry of Foreign Affairs, current Minister of Finance Zainab Shamsuna Ahmed, Chief Udeme Ufot, chieftain of the Nigeria Economic Summit Group (NESG) Salamatu Hussaini Suleiman, a former cabinet minister and former Commissioner for Political Affairs of the Economic Community of west African States (ECOWAS), former federal permanent secretary, Nuratu Batagarawa, and Hassan Bello, Executive Secretary of the Shippers Council.
The ‘70s and ‘80s were years of ideas, underscored by a raging battle between international capitalism and incipient socialism. Understandably, they were years when undergraduates actively participated in the liberal educational environment that featured radical scholars like Yusufu Bala Usman, Mahmood Modibbo Tukur, (both of blessed memory) Canadian Bob Shenton, George and Michael Kwanashie, Shamsudeen Usman, Patrick Wilmot, Yusufu Bangura and several others. Given his disdain for inequality and opposition to military rule, Issa Aremu blossomed in Zaria’s progressive radical community.
In his first year, Comrade Aremu became an active member of the Movement for a Progressive Nigeria, (MPN), and the Youth Solidarity on Southern Africa, (YUSSAN) two left-leaning groups that campaigned for good governance at home and rallied global support to dismantle minority rule in Southern Africa. He was elected Secretary General two years later. Comrade Aremu played a pivotal role in the formation of the Patriotic Youth Movement of Nigeria, PYMN, an all-embracing student movement that offered leadership for Nigerian students through the National Association of Nigerian students, NANS. Not everyone was happy with the rising profile of Issa Aremu and his radical colleagues.
On January 31, 1981, a demonstration on the main campus of the Ahmadu Bello University offered the Professor Ango Abdullahi-led management a bold-faced excuse to expel Aremu without the semblance of a hearing. Expelled alongside Aremu were 10 others: Abdulrahman Black, Jibril Bala Muhammad (both of blessed memory), Chom Bagu, Lamis Shehu Dikko, Juliana Upah, some of who, like Aremu, were final year students. For Aremu, being expelled three weeks after his 20th birthday and barely four months away from graduation was a downside. But then, the act served a dual purpose: it exposed Aremu and his comrades to barefaced injustice and reinforced their resolve to take a stand against dictatorship and struggle for democracy and social justice. Paradoxically, the rot in ABU erupted into a national crisis. In 1986, a female student, Farida Mustapha, was shot dead by policemen on the order of the university. The General Emmanuel Abisoye panel which investigated the crisis recommended the removal of Professor Abdullahi.
In 1982, Aremu and others beat the notorious resolution of the Committee of Universities Vice Chancellors (CVC) not to accept expelled students and, with the support of progressive professors such as Claude Ake and Ikenna Nzimiro, Aremu got enrolled at the University of Port Harcourt. He eventually graduated in 1985 with Second Class Upper Degree in Economics. Plus ABU, he doubles also a member of Uniport Alumni where he shares enduring affinity with former President Dr Gooluck Jonathan, Hon Minister of Transport, Rotimi Amechi, Dr Alex Otti, Nyesom Wike, Governor of Rivers State, Honourable Minister of State, Petroleum Timipre Sylva and Ambassador Dr Godknows Boladei Igali, all Alumni of Uniport. 4 years later he was at The Hague, Netherlands, for a second Master degree in labour and Development studies. He had also worked with progressive radical Kano state Triumph newspapers set up by Abubakar Rimi and managed by ace journalist, Dr. Haroon Adamu.
Comrade Aremu was literally drafted into the Labour Movement by Alhaji Hassan Sunmonu, pioneer president of Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) at whose behest he was made Head of Economic and Research department of the Congress (NLC) from 1987 and 1989. Aremu counted among the intellectual power base of NLC that campaigned against fuel price increases, privatization and mass layoffs that characterized the Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP) of the 80’s. In 1990, Aremu joined the vibrant textile and garment union, an affiliate union of the NLC. He has not looked back since then. Today, he is the voice and luminary for millions of a multinational organized global workforce. As the sitting Vice President (Africa) of the octopoidal IndustriALL Global Union, made up of more than 600 industrial unions, and 50 million workforce he is in the vanguard of global campaign to defend workers’ rights and promote sustainable industrial policy in 140 countries in Africa, Europe, America and the Caribbean and Asia-Pacific. He was elected at the 2nd Congress of the Union in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in October, 2016.
It is not surprising that textile and garment excited Comrade Aremu. Up to the early 1980s, when he was in ABU Nigeria, with more than 180 operational textile mills, Nigeria was the home to Africa’s largest textile industry. The sector solely contributed over 25% to the workforce in the manufacturing sector and as much to Nigeria’s Gross Domestic Product, GDP, with remittances from textile mills contributing hugely to the internally generated revenue for defunct regional governments and their successor- states. Clearly, the unorganized workers in such an important sector of the economy deserve the best deal but, first, they must be organized. At the peak of its production in the 80s, the textile industry provided about 500,000 direct jobs, second highest after the Federal Government with more than 250 functional factories. Union membership was over 190,000 with great potentials for more membership. But, in 1997 Nigeria became signatory to the WTO and fully liberalized textile trade without adequate consultations with industry stakeholders. The decision resulted into the worst factory closures in the country. By the time Comrade became General Secretary, National Union of Textile, Garment and Tailoring Workers of Nigeria, NUTGTWN, in succession to Comrade Oshiomhole in 2008, membership of the union had shrunk to a miserly 12,000 from an all-time high of 190,000.
Undaunted, Comrade Aremu deployed his organizing skills to bear and, working in tandem with other comrades, set about reorganizing the formal and informal sectors of the union. In the process, Aremu crisscrossed the length and breadth of Nigeria to organize and unionize self-employed tailors and tie and die (Kampala) makers. At the end of his tenure in 2020, membership of the union has appreciated to potential paid up 60,000 mostly informal sector tailors. To Aremu’s credit is the subsisting basic monthly minimum wage of N38,000 for workers in the textile and garment sector. He was also loud on revival of textile industry such that he is nicknamed “Mr Textile”.
Best known as “Professor” of Textile in labour circles, Comrade Aremu is a passionate voice for sustainable industrialization. Last July, he led a union delegation that included Comrade John Adaji, president of Nigeria Textile Manufacturers Association (NTMA) to His Excellency Alhaji Muhammadu Buhari (GCFR) President and Commander-In-Chief of the Armed Forces of the Federal Republic of Nigeria where he made a strong case for the establishment of a federal ministry to be solely responsible for textile as is the case in India, China and Pakistan. President Buhari unveiled a cotton, textile and garment (CTG) policy during the courtesy call. Comrade Aremu had facilitated a similar courtesy call on His Excellency, Professor Yemi Osinbajo, CGON, Vice President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria in August 2015.
The hard-nosed activist knew early in the day that his mantra of “organizing the unorganized” would remain unfulfilled if education for workers was not prioritized. Today, textile and garment workers enjoy generous foreign scholarships in addition to regular local trainings made possible by Issa Aremu’s wide international connections with prestigious unions in Africa, Europe and the United States of America. One of them is the influential National Union Metal Workers of South Africa, NUMSA, which, since 2017, admits Nigerian textile and garment workers at its Political Education Course at the Kwame Nkrumah Pan African School in Johannesburg.
Nigeria’s return to participatory democracy in 1999 was an important milestone in the life of Comrade Aremu who, for years, been in the trenches with progressives to campaign for an end to military rule. But the politicians who inherited political power were either befuddled or overwhelmed by the challenges of governance. The situation was particularly abnormal in Aremu’s home state of Kwara which fell into the hands of an oligarchy of local businessmen. Soon, disharmony pervaded Kwara, the ‘State of Harmony’, and residents of the state became the butt of derisive and corrosive jokes among their neighbours. In July, 2018 Comrade Aremu declared his interest in contesting the governorship election and instantly changed the political narrative as he did so. For a man who had made his mark on the national and international scenes, many considered Comrade Aremu’s decision a harbinger of hope. He was soon dubbed “The game-changer’’ by analysts and several press reviews referred to him as the best among the pack.
Expectedly, he chose to pursue his ambition under the Labour Party of Nigeria, a party he served as deputy national secretary between 2010 and 2014. But the Labour Party enjoyed a near-zero presence in Kwara state. Within months of picking the party’s governorship ticket, Comrade Aremu got down to building and strategizing the Labour Party for the onerous task of de-capturing the state from wholesale personalization of the common wealth. By the end of 2018, he had whistle-stopped the length and breadth of the state to cement old alliances and seek new allies. Not a man given to be flippancy, Comrade Aremu’s pledge to transform Kwara state into a ‘haven of prosperity’ endeared him to many. Overnight, Comrade Aremu turned a little-known party into a mass movement. Before he opted out of the race, apparently to enhance the chances of the eventual winner of the election, Comrade Aremu lived up to his billing of a game-changer by breathing fresh life into the “O TO GE” (Enough is enough!) movement that terminated years of wastage in Kwara State.
Of multiple identities by parentage, Aremu’s formative years were at Ijagbo, some 50 kilometres south of Ilorin where he had his early education at the Ansar-ud-Deen Primary School. In 2005, he was inducted into the Senior Executive Course 27 of the National Institute for Policy and Strategic Studies (NIPSS), Kuru, Jos, Plateau State. He is a two-term Secretary-General of the Alumni Association of NIPSS. Aremu was labour delegate to the 2014 National Conference where he served as deputy chairman of the Conference’s committee on civil society, labour, youth and sports. For his service to humanity, Comrade Aremu is the worthy recipient of several national and international awards. Among them are the Abdulqadir Balarabe Musa Legacy Award for service to humanity in May 2018; National Productivity Order of Merit, NPOM, Award (August, 2014); the Mustapha Akanbi Foundation Leadership Award in July, 2010. He was inducted in New York as a Fellow of American Bloomberg African Leadership Initiative, A.L.I, Media Fellowship Programme in 2016.
As he bows out of Textile union ( but still active in global unionism) on his 60th birthday, Comrade Aremu has cause to celebrate and be celebrated. Here is one African passionate about the African project and continues to do his bit in its actualization even as many despair. His suggestions on taking his home country, Nigeria, and Africa to greater heights, just as his antidote to the high cost of governance, are as revolutionary as they are realistic. For instance, Comrade Aremu believes that divesting the centre of most of its powers, part-time legislative duties and remunerations and reserving legislative seats for professionals should be pushed to the front burner if Nigerians are sincere about deepening the nation’s democracy.
Aremu father, grandfather, teacher, activist and unionist par excellence has been married to Hajiya Nana Khadija after the death of his first wife, Hajiya Abiodun Hamdalat in December, 2015. Like other days in his normally-tight schedule, Friday, January 8 promises to be typically loaded for Comrade Aremu. A birthday cycling exercise to his alma mater in Ilorin, a birthday lecture, a Juma’at service, to be conducted in strict adherence to Covid-19 protocols kick off activities to mark Comrade Aremu’s 60th birthday.
On the card is a presentation of books at Yar’adua Centre, Abuja, on January 28, 2021. A get-together caps events to celebrate an uncommon activist and labour luminary as he opens another golden chapter in his well-crafted book of life.
Magaji < firstname.lastname@example.org> is based in Abuja