Issa Aremu and the burden of intrigues-By John Ejoha Odah

There would have been no need for a rejoinder to whatever damage to history the henchmen of Nigeria’s ‘New Labour’ are visiting on the movement given the embarrassing implosion within NLC but for matters of honour and integrity; and most profoundly, to correct the unacceptable distortion of institutional records by my friend, Comrade Issa Aremu in a recent interview published in several newspapers. His flippant reference to former General Secretaries of the NLC in that interview is neither reasonable nor justifiable and his construction of history was a fascinating window into his mind.

Logically, crisis brings out the very best in people just as it could also bring out the worst in them. Very unfortunately, the crisis in the NLC; no thanks to a strange tradition of labour politics, is bringing out only the worst in some of our comrades. Was it necessary for Comrade Aremu to disparage former General Secretaries of Congress for no provable infractions, especially those who are dead? Is it possible that all those who came before Aremu were not good, in spite of the incredible sacrifices and contributions they all made to the growth of Congress?

In the interview which sounded more as a monologue than an interrogative process, Aremu went on a patronizing rendition of substantive issues of labour administration from too self-interested a position.

The first point to clear is how Aremu came by a sentence such as “This is historical too because the workers from day one wanted to elect their general secretary in 1978 when we did restructuring”. Comrade Aremu was expelled from ABU, Zaria in 1981. That means that in 1978, he was nowhere near any form of labour politics in Nigeria as to have participated in the re-structuring that took place then. So, who are the ‘we’ in the above sentence?

It might have been pardonable if the distortion stopped here! Unfortunately, Aremu went on to circulate a grave, mean lie that the appointment of the first General Secretary of the NLC was influenced by the late General Shehu Musa Yar’Adua who was Chief of Staff, Supreme Headquarters. This is a most callous assertion which can only be understood in terms of a hidden grouse against Comrade Aliyu Dangiwa.

Everyone in the labour movement knows that four persons were interviewed for the first General Secretary of the NLC. These were Aliyu Dangiwa who was a lecturer in Public Administration at Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria; the late Dr Lasisi Osunde who was equally a lecturer at the University of Lagos; Comrade Benard Obua, a trade unionist and then the late Professor Ahmadu Jalingo, the NEPU Political Scientist from Bayero University, Kano who withdrew once it was clear that Dangiwa was a nominee of the equally late Dr Bala Usman, then an elected trustee of the NLC.

It was Comrade Hassan Summonu and Co who interviewed this team. Once Dangiwa got the job, Dr. Osunde and Bernard Obua were subsequently made Deputy General Secretaries. Dr Osunde eventually succeeded Dangiwa as General Secretary. He too retired upon attaining the stipulated age of retirement. It is a most uncharitable comment for Aremu to say that Dr. Osunde was tired and fatigued as General Secretary. If a 65-year-old man is not to be tired by then, who should?

To categorize Morgan Anigbo as lacking in articulation vis-à-vis the Acting General Secretaryship of NLC is, to say the least, ill-behaved. This is because he couldn’t, in Aremu’s rating, be fantastic and vibrant in one breath and in another, be inarticulate. Anigbo probably wasn’t among those who rallied with their tongue unstoppably but somebody who went to NIPSS couldn’t fit into the image of a dumb bureaucrat suggested by Aremu’s rating.

Comrade Aremu arrived at myself, whom it appears was his main reason for his longish, reductionist historiography or, if you like, revisionist piece. According to Aremu, “now the real box, how do you put the General Secretary? That is how John Odah, for a long time was more or less acting before some people put pressure and Comrade Adams said we must confirm him, with all sorts of resistance, to become General Secretary.”

There are two issues here! One, how does the General Secretary of NLC get appointed? The NLC Constitution is quite clear on this. It says the National Executive Council of NLC appoints the General Secretary who shall be the Chief Executive Officer of the organisation. The second issue in Aremu’s imagination is about my acting for a long time before some people put pressure on Comrade Oshiomhole to confirm me.

The facts are that when the Oshiomhole leadership of the NLC was elected in February 1999, Comrade Salihu Mohammed and myself were made Acting General Secretary and Acting Deputy General Secretary respectively. In September of that year, Mohammed resigned citing personal reasons and the search for his replacement began. Interviews were conducted and two candidates shortlisted; Sola Iji, the General Secretary of Association of Senior Staff of Food and Beverages and Abdullahi Shehu, General Secretary of National Union of Banks and Financial Institutions Employees.

For reasons which I cannot go into here, both were not appointed. At the NEC meeting of the NLC in March 2001, I was confirmed substantive Deputy General Secretary and the NEC said I should act for six months and if I did well, I would be confirmed substantive General Secretary. In December 2001, NEC confirmed me as General Secretary.

If one adds the period spent looking for a suitable General Secretary – from September 1999-March 2001, to the period NEC decided that I should act as General Secretary till my confirmation, this adds up to two years, three months. Compare this to Aremu, who acted as General Secretary of Textile Union from 2000-2008, and one can then ‘understand’ Aremu’s arithmetic of who, between him and myself, spent longer time in acting capacity.

Aremu’s central theme in his monologue is that “full time has now become sit-tightism” for General Secretaries. This is a meaningless phrase unless if one allows him or herself a false trail of Aremu’s pseudo intellectualism. The intention being incompetently purveyed is his equally poorly articulated notion of “democratising” the office of General Secretary of NLC, which he believes “would have removed the fiasco we have around the John Odah saga.” Notwithstanding whatever message Aremu may wish to peddle here, it is the most glaring admission by any of the current leaders of the NLC that they fumbled in the project of emasculating John Odah.

For a unionist who barely escaped sanction by his own union for attempting to smuggle a motion on ‘democratizing’ the office during the last delegates conference, Aremu must, indeed, be so desperate about this ‘democratisation’ of the office of General Secretary. But the NLC Conditions of Service says every full time staff of NLC will retire when he attains 65 years of age. When I was being confirmed as General Secretary in 2001 at the age of 41, everyone knew I would be around for quite some time. Ten years down the line, some people became desperate to shove me off. Comrade Oshiomhole became General Secretary of Aremu’s textile union in 1982 and spent 26 years on that position before bowing out in 2008. S.O.Z. Ejiofoh, the veteran’s veteran, was appointed the first General Secretary of what is now Amalgamated Union in 1977 and retired around 2009, thus spending 32 years in the service of the workers. Anyone familiar with our labour movement will know the tremendous services these people offered to their unions.

Aremu talked glibly about how they in the textile union elect their General Secretaries. Everyone in the labour movement knows how this peculiar situation came about as part of the strategy to beat Uba Ahmed, Abacha’s Labour Minister and the late General Sani Abacha who were trying to stop Comrade Oshiomhole, then General Secretary of the textile union, from contesting for the NLC Presidency. When our forebears were fashioning the constitution of the NLC and industrial unions in 1977/78, they consciously chose the British model of union organisation, where General Secretaries are appointed and oversee the secretariats of unions being the engine rooms of these unions. The fact that up to now, only the textile union nominally “elects” its General Secretary out of the nearly 60 industrial unions in Nigeria points to the fact that this model has served our movement well.

Invariably, it is absolutely difficult to find any other explanation for Aremu’s agenda of ‘democratisation’ of the General Secretaryship of the NLC at this point in time beyond providing him the opportunity to “contest” and “win” and fulfill his openly secret desire to occupy this office. While there is nothing condemnable in this ambition, the tactics observable with my comrade are not in tandem with the spirit of the struggle in our movement. I can count a number of people off the cuff who believe that I am having problems in the NLC because I collected bribe from the government and their source of this malicious misinformation is as good as anybody’s guess. Has it come to where the end justifies the means in labour politics?

I didn’t expect Aremu to be charitable to me but to give the impression that I was picked from nowhere is contradicted by the evidence. It is contradicted by what his superiors said about me when I celebrated my 50th birthday less than two years ago. These testimonies are documented for anyone to assess.

At times like this, it is very easy for those with personal agenda to go about posing to be repository of wisdom of the crisis. But even at that, we should conduct ourselves in a way that resolves the crisis rather than Aremu’s self-centered interventions.

Odah, erstwhile General Secretary of the NLC, is currently in court challenging his removal.


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