By Denja Yaqub
We met sometime in 1993 just before the annulment of the June 12 1993 Presidential election by the General Ibrahim Babangida military junta. And since then, until November 4, 2016, Henry Odugala was a close friend; a brother like no other; a comrade of inestimable value, trusted, highly committed and selfless.
Writing a tribute on Henry has not been quite easy for someone as close as I was to him. He was a confidant and a true friend. We shared a lot of moments and issues the last time we met, with a promise to continue our discussions after his union’s National Delegates Conference already scheduled to hold from 16th to 19th November this year in Kano. And less than a month to the conference, he died. None of us knew it would be the last time we will have a discussion or see each other.
That Wednesday, 2nd November 2016, he was at LABOUR HOUSE headquarters of the Nigeria Labour Congress to follow up on invitations to his union’s conference and as usual of him, he won’t leave without seeing his friend.
He looked different that Wednesday afternoon. A bit fatter and with his “traditional” smiles; not perturbed by any obvious circumstance. No signs he will be leaving us in 48 hours to eternity and that explains my utter shock when the immediate past General Secretary of NLC, Comrade John Odah called at about 6.30 am on Friday, 4th November informing me of the passing of a very dear friend; a humanist; a courageous comrade of unequalled essence and purpose; a great companion you cannot do without in discussions and mass actions.
Henry, born sometimes in June 1962, graduated from the University of Benin where he read History, was a great organiser; flawless, captivating speaker with good memories and damning sense of humour.
Henry was Chairman of the Edo State branch of the Radio, Television and Theatre Workers Union of Nigeria. He was Chairman of the Campaign for Democracy, Edo State Branch at inception when the bloody struggles against military dictatorship got hotter with the reckless annulment of a Presidential election globally declared free, fair and credible. I was Secretary at the period he chaired the organisation and together we mobilised day and night for mass protests on the streets of Benin, along with other Comrades such as Dr. Festus Iyayi, also now late, Dr. OsagieObayuwana (the leader of the “mechanized brigade” of that struggle), NnimmoBassey, an architect, environmental activist and a Pastor, late Oronto Douglas, Duncan and Grace Osakwe, EhiEboigbe, Paul Ohuabamu,EsosaEdosanwan, late rev. Fr. John UbaOfei, NowintaIgbotako and a host of other comrades, too numerous to mention here.
We walked the night, posting bills and writing graffiti; mobilising with hand bills; holding meetings in unusual places and time. At a point, as our “Brigade Commander”, Dr. Obayuwana, recently reminded me, we were confronted by armed soldiers who aimed at shooting us along Mission Road, Benin City at night as we were busy putting up graffiti. Just three of us – Dr. Obayuwana, Henry and I. Indeed, we could have been shot dead at once, but our “Brigade Commander” gave us direction and we followed to safety. What followed was an announcement by the State Government that the mass protests that had engulfed the state wereorganised by “non-indigenes” and consequently, some of us were declared wanted.
Interestingly, the immediate past Governor of Edo State, Comrade Adams Oshiomhole, then a Deputy President of NLC and General Secretary of the National Union of Textiles, Tailoring and Garment Workers of Nigeria, was included in the list of wanted activists, even when he was nowhere near Edo State at the period except for lambasting the military during an event months earlier when he came to Benin to open the Benin Depot of defunct Labour Transport Service at Dumez road, while Col. Mohammed Onuka, the state’s Military Administrator was seated right by his right hand as Guest of Honour. Adams was Chairman of the transport firm then.
Indeed, we almost made the entire state ungovernable, true to our declarations against state impunity under military dictatorship. We were hunted by secret agents without cease, but we were everywhere with the people even at that. We always had alternatives for every event, such that when we were to hold a symposium at the TEACHERS HOUSE, along Siluko Road with Dr. BekoRansome-Kuit of blessed memory, Femi Falana, late ChimaUbanietc as speakers, armed officers of the State Security Service waited at the entrance of the venue. A very memorable incident happened on this occasion and since then, Henry’s courage became unforgettably glaring.
He slept in my apartment the night before. We exchanged houses occasionally. Sometimes, we sleep in his house together at Oguola, quite some distance but we stayed more in mine at Igun Street, which is located in the heart of the city. Overnight, we had some discussions about the symposium and mutually agreed that he should not be at the venue early. He mandated me to be there before him and I did. As soon as the car conveying me approached the venue, a “comrade” and official (names withheld for now) of the Nigeria Union of Teachers, owners of the venue, pointed at me to three men in suit and told them “that’s one of them”. And one of the men came to me and requested I identify myself. I flagged my identity card before him and he said “oh, you are NUCANMP, you can go, the event you came for has been cancelled.” I took the driver’s seat and sped off to a private school where Henry and I agreed he should stay until I reported back. I was working as Area Council Secretary of the defunct National Union of Chemical and Non Metallic Products Employees, NUCANMPE, covering Edo and Delta States during this period. The secret service guys didn’t see my name. Their “eagle” eyes only saw NUCANMPE. And that saved me the dark room or possible assassination or “disappearance”.
After reporting to Henry, we went to our “Brigade Commander”, Dr. Obayuwana, a brave man; quiet but serious minded and calculative. We debated about possible cancellation or shift in date. We all agreed to continue the programme, this time it would be a street protest, not a symposium anymore. On arrival of Beko and co, the street protest commenced in front of my union’s office at 2nd East Circular road. As we moved towards Ramat Square on Ikpoba Hill, policemen fired tear gas at us and as that continued, Henry didn’t blink as he ran towards the policemen in daring open confrontation, which eventually helped to heighten the tempo of the protest that ended at the Ugbowo campus of University of Benin.
Henry was a staff of the Nigeria Television Authority, Benin and he presented a Saturday morning live programme, “Weekend Delight”, which he did under heavy decoy every Saturday morning without the security people getting hold of him. We had a friend, Adisa, a committed patriot and staff of NTA who assisted our decoy.
On one occasion, he left my house in my flowing gown as part of the decoy. Got to the station to make his presentation in French suit and returned through one of our routes in the same flowing gown. That was one of the many ways we distanced him from arrest.
Henry’s commitment to the labour movement was quite deep and useful. As members of the State Executive Council of the NLC, we were both considered “rebels” by the Rev. OluAderibigbe leadership of the state council of NLC. Our presence at SEC meetings elicited worries mainly because resolutions we considered not fully in the interest of our cause would be shot down by our contributions.
Much later, when Comrade Oshiomhole became president of the NLC, there was a problem at the Edo State Council of the NLC. A delegation was sent to intervene. This delegation included the present Deputy General Secretary of NLC, Comrade Chris Uyot and I. On arrival in Benin, we discovered a bigger problem without an option but to dissolve the leadership. Henry was unanimously picked to chair the caretaker committee. Soon after, our safety was threatened and Henry and I remembered one of our tactics for avoiding dangers. We went along with Chris to sleep over at a very unusual place where no one will ever suspect we would be. Henry was a man of effective tactics and workable strategies. A dependable comrade.
Henry later left NTA, Benin to become Director of Programmes at DBN television in Lagos but still carried on his zeal to remain in the movement. When the position of General Secretary of RATTAWU became vacant to his knowledge. He invited me to a discussion at the Victoria Island office of DBN television and we both agreed he should apply for it. I contacted the General Secretary of NLC at the time, Comrade Odah who immediately made contacts and Henry got the job.
Since becoming the General Secretary, his union became strengthened with a secretariat housed in its own building and a progressive leadership. His presence at NLC meetings and activities were strong as he didn’t hide his anger against state exploitation and love for accountability and internal democracy. He was vocal. He was respected as he held strong views on critical issues that cannot be ignored or faulted.
Henry’s presence was colossal. His absence would be a monumental loss. May his soul rest in peace.
Yaqub, a close friend of late Henry Odugala, is an Assistant Secretary at the headquarters of Nigeria Labour Congress, LABOUR HOUSE, Abuja.