Tuesday, January 5, 2021 6:40 am
By Owei Lakemfa
In their beloved city of Oshogbo, Osun State, two indomitable African lions: Hassan Adebayo and Hussein Oyekanmi Sunmonu, are turning 80 this Thursday, January 7, 2021. Theirs is the story of restless pan African fighters whose stalking like tigers does not potray cowardice. The lives of the Sunmonu twins which began in Ghana, tell the collective story of resilience, vision, piety and an abiding faith in the ability of humans to turn their collective fortunes around for a better world built on social justice.
The twins who grew up in Ghana, returned to Nigeria on the hunch that the rhetoric of the post-Nkrumah leadership has an anti-African virus, and a mutating Nigerian strain. This turned out to be a correct assessment, as the revisionists in Ghana threw out all African liberation movements and fighters, and then expelled all Nigerians. Both went to the same schools, graduated as engineers from the Yaba College of Technology, worked in the same Federal Ministry of Works in Lagos and joined the Labour Movement as social engineers for social justice.
Although Hassan held various posts in the trade unions including as founding president of the Nigeria Labour Congress, NLC, and longest serving and most effective secretary general of the continental Labour Centre, the Organisation of African Trade Union Unity, OATUU, Hussein was always there to give him cover. This at times included putting his life at risk. In May, 1981 when Hassan led Nigerian workers in a crippling general strike and the desperate state menacingly pursued him through the streets of Lagos with vehicle loads of armed men, Hussein took the dangerous decision to distract the hunters. Given the fact that they are like-twins, he switched positions with Hassan by wearing the same type of dress and appearing to be the NLC President. So the security forces ended up chasing Hussein around while Hassan in safety, coordinated the strike which gave the country its first National Minimum Wage.
There were of course hilarious moments such as happened at the NLC inaugural conference on February 28, 1978. When Hassan emerged from a pack of six contestants as founding NLC president; the person carried shoulder high by jubilant workers and whose photographs were splashed in newspapers was Hussein! In 2010, I watched a television programme as Hassan was being honoured by the Michael Imoudu Institute of Labour Studies, MILS, in Ilorin, Nigeria. I called him in his Accra, Ghana base and said I was watching him delivering his address at the occasion. He laughed; we both knew that the person on television was not him, but Hussein who was covering up for his brother.
While Hussein remained in the public sector where he retired and later became the Nigerian leader of a major religious movement, Hassan remained in the trade unions where he eventually led African workers as the Secretary General of the Organisation of African Trade Union Unity, OATUU. The twins made monumental achievements both in their public and private lives, but on this occasion, I will address their leadership principles which Comrade Hassan Sunmonu espoused and bequeathed to African workers. They are based on their shared conviction that the salvation of any people must have substantial workers inputs and that trade union organisations must be independent of employers and governments. In this wise, that all trade union leaders must be loyal to their members and dedicated to their interests. In other words, just as man cannot serve God and Mammon at the same time, so trade union leaders cannot serve workers and government or employers at the same time.
Secondly, that the basis of trade unionism is unity and solidarity which must be upheld and practiced at all times. Thirdly, that given the fact that trade unions are mass-based organisations and are inherently democratic, decisions cannot be based on individualism, but on the collective. Therefore, trade unions at all levels should be run on collective leadership. Fourthly, that members must always be informed, constantly given political and workers education and consulted. Their fifth principle is that every trade union must be programmatic, resourceful and innovative. To achieve this, they propagate that every union must have a dynamic programme with fundamental inputs from its members which must be implemented based on shared views and principles.
Hassan Sunmonu put all these into practice. For instance, by his second year in office as NLC president, his leadership produced “The Workers’ Charter of Demands” which was launched in February, 1980. It was a 38-page handbook which included demands for the domestication and implementation of the International Labour Organisation, ILO Conventions and pro-people programmes like tackling urban slums and carrying out rural development. One demand which was met within two years read: “As a recognition of workers struggle to our national freedom and independence, and their continued contribution to the country’s economic progress, the Congress calls on government to declare the May Day which is May 1 of every year as a Labour Day and a public holiday.”
As NLC President, the Sunmonu Principles put him in good stead especially when he was confronted by the betrayal of the Congress Deputy President who in 1981 teamed up with the National Assembly and the Shagari government to attempt breaking up the Congress. They were also the reasons why he overcame the attempt by his mother labour centre, the NLC to stop his re-election at the OATUU Conference in Sudan. Also, he and OATUU survived follow up-attempts over the years by the NLC, the Ghana Trade Union Congress, GTUC, and the Congress of South African Trade Unions, COSATU which established a trilateral body to remove him and make OATUU a subsidiary of the Eurocentric International Trade Union Confederation, ITUC. In later years, COSATU backed away from these unprincipled anti-African objectives.
When despite manifest opposition by the NLC, I was elected Sunmonu’s successor at the 2012 OATUU Conference in Algiers, he stood solidly by me as a matter of principle. He spent the next three years trying to mollify the Congress which boycotted all OATUU activities and refused to pay the annual dues as long as I remained the scribe of the continental organisation.
An exemplary leader, Hassan Sunmonu in the long years of military rule, rejected all entreaties to join the government. He continues to be consulted on labour matters whether at state, national or international levels. The veteran labour leader also serves as a Trustee of the Academic Staff Union of Universities, ASUU.
As they turn 80, the twins maintain their piety and fidelity to progressive principles and politics that can transform Nigeria from its failing state to a country that can lead Africa out of the woods. Happy Birthday to the Sunmonu Twins.
-Owei Lakemfa, journalist and trade unionist, is a public affairs analyst