The death of Ayodele Akele marks the loss of one of the fiercest and most consistent class fighters in Nigeria, over the last four decades. From June 1980, when, as a students’ leader at Yabatech he emerged as founding Secretary General of the National Association of Nigerian Students (NANS) he trod a path of self-sacrifice and unrepentant struggle as unionist and socialist activist. At the time of his death, he was National General Secretary of the National Conscience Party (NCP).
As a quantity surveyor, he worked at the Lagos State Property Development Corporation (LSPDC) from where he was elected Lagos State Chairman of the National Union Public Corporations Employees (NUPCE) in the late 1980s till 1996 when NUPCE along with CSTWUN and RSEU, merged to form the Amalgamated Union of Public Corporations Civil Service Technical and Recreation Services Employees (AUPCTRE).
Beloved by rank and file workers who had implicit trust in him, he was elected as the first Lagos State Chairman of AUPCTRE. While rank and file workers had unalloyed confidence in Iturity (the authority of “itu”), same could not be said for most sections of the trade union bureaucracy. He was in the view of these strata, too hot-headed for the “politics” of “bargaining”, “negotiation” & “social dialogue”.
Not surprisingly, when he ran for Chair of the Lagos State Council of NLC in ‘92/’93, he came third out of three contestants. The winner, Mr Wale Elesho from CSTWUN would in no time leave to serve as a state commissioner under Brig. General Buba Marwa! He later emerged as Chair of the Council of Industrial Unions operating in Lagos state (COIU).
Akele was sacked in 1998 by the military governor for his union activities. This was over struggle for implementation of the new national minimum wage declared by the military government. After what was a tokenist concession below the full implementation demanded by the COIU, Marwa ordered workers back to work. But Akele mobilised workers in public corporations to continue the week-long strike. The vindictive military administrator promptly sacked him and smashed the strike.
As soon as the new civilian government of Bola Tinubu was sworn-in on 29 May 1999, we (as leaders of public sector unions in the state) demanded the reinstatement of Akele. Playing the card of a NADECO “fighter for democracy” card, Tinubu promptly heeded our call. In his first speech on being reinstated, Akele immediately amplified our call for action to reinstate workers who had been sacked by Tinubu (yes, one of the first things the so-called pro-people AD did within two months of taking over power in Lagos was to sack thousands of public sector workers in the name of “rationalisation”).
The state government constituted a review panel headed by a permanent secretary (who would later become head of service) Mr Sunny Ajose. Akele led a team of unionists representing the Council of Industrial Unions Operating in Lagos State to the panel. Along with Akele and me, there were officials of NANM, NUCSSASW, NUPPPPROW and ASCSN. And we successfully got most of the workers reinstated, particularly those in the health and social sector.
Akele was sacked by Tinubu barely two years later. It was again for fighting for the full implementation of improved wages. NLC had negotiated a review of the national minimum wage to N7,500 for the federal public service (and richer states like those in oil producing states and Lagos) and N5,500 for (other) states. The Alhaja Olorunimbe-led NLC Lagos state council abandoned workers to their fate when the Lagos state government insisted it could not pay more than N5,500. Akele rallied the COIU leaders and rank and file union members. A partial victory was won, but Akele’s job was taken as government’s pound of flesh.
At the time, I could not but remember how Ajose and other permanent secretaries on the 1999 review panel kept saying “Mr Akele, you don’t even appreciate how kind we have been in returning you”. This was because he never stopped calling a spade a spade and in the most iconoclastic manner during the review. They had expected slavish loyalty because he was recalled by the Tinubu government. But this civilian dictator was even more vindictive than the military Buba Marwa was. No terminal emolument was ever paid to Itu.
A founding member of National Conscience when it was established as a party on 1 October 1994, Akele was always unshaken in rolling up his sleeves to work for the party till his death, despite a hiccup when he was passed by for a politically nondescript ologbeni to lift the NCP banner for the Lagos gubernatorial polls in 2003.
This led to his finally breaking all ties with the Democratic Socialist Movement (DSM). He was a founding member of Labour Militant (as the Trotskyite group that would later become DSM was called in its first decade), in 1986/7. He was the most renowned trade unionist to have ever come out of the group and helped support LM in terms of political infrastructure as best he could. The paid organising secretaries of Lagos State NUPCE under Akele’s watch were all LMists. And whilst Segun Sango’s chambers at Tabon Tabon in Agege served for meetings of the group’s Executive Committee and Editorial Board, larger meetings like the National Committee and National Congress sessions were held at the NUPCE Conference hall in Anthony Village.
Akele thus felt betrayed when the group (which provided leadership for the NCP Lagos branch at the time) felt more comfortable having the Tokunbo candidate from USA than him for the gubernatorial ticket.
Ever restless, and despite being denied of a livelihood, Itu then set up an NGO the Labour, Health and Human Rights Development Centre (LHAHRDEV). At the international level, LHAHRDEV was active in the “binding treaty” (for multinational corporations) negotiations process and the climate justice movement. He would later get back to being fully involved in efforts to rebuild the party, starting from Lagos where he eventually flew the flag of the party for governor in 2011 and again in 2015.
Iturity was in Geneva to attend a meeting of the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva in March 2017. Before leaving Nigeria, he had called me to say “Baba Aye, I will be coming to see you when in Geneva. There are two important issues we have to talk about”. And I told him it would be my pleasure to have him visit us.
After a steaming meal of amala and ewedu together, we talked extensively on radical politics back home. He then came to the two issues. He started with what he considered the more important one. He had discussed with other leaders of the National Conscience Party and they were keen on having me serve on the party’s National Executive Council as Director of International Mobilization & Coordination (DIMC). The second was that he was looking at expanding LHAHRDEV’s activities by having an office established in Geneva (that was characteristic of Iturity, his personal concerns came, always, only after the collective concerns).
There and then, I told him that, whilst I would definitely do my best regarding the second request, but there was no way I was going to take up the NCP position. I had my hands filled with work as it were, and besides, I hadn’t been active in NCP. He was like, “look Baba Aye, I am not the person you will be telling that you have not been active in the NCP. You were one of the mobilisers of National Conscience (NC) before it transformed into NCP. And I know you are no longer active in the Labour Party, we need you badly in NCP”.
I did not budge, and he also never stopped urging me to reconsider my position. A year later, the Take It Back movement was born, and NCP appeared to be a veritable partisan base for the TIB candidacy of Omoyele Sowore, considering the party’s rich history of struggle from the Gani Fawehinmi days. So, after discussion within SWL, we resolved that I take up the DIMC responsibility. Akele was elated. But the first meeting of the NEC and NCC that I attended on 3rd & 4th August 2018 respectively, were also the last I would attend before turning in my resignation letter.
There were two issues which had become points of friction in the weeks leading to those meetings. One was the charges for would-be NCP candidates to contest in party primaries. Those of us on the left felt that these were too high and expressed our disappointment that Akele had been involved in putting up such high primaries’ fees. His argument was that “look we don’t have money, if we cannot raise money with these, how will we raise such? Besides, can anyone who can’t pay these amounts raise money for campaign?”
While my view was starkly different from Akele’s, one could not but, in a sense, see beyond his position. It spoke more to how electoralism is rigged against poor working-class people, even before “on your marks”. But, as I stressed (as well as comrades who met with him earlier in Lagos), it was not for us to surrender to such bourgeois-reinforcing currents of electoralist politics.
The major battle was however over a more political issue. The party’s national leadership had compromised the very ideals on which the party was formed 24 years earlier, when it entered an unprincipled alliance with the Peoples Democratic Party as an accursed Coalition of United Political Parties (CUPP). The NEC and NCC meetings showed that the rot ran deep. At the NEC meeting, where I spoke repeatedly until I almost went hoarse, only Akele and Waheed Lawal (a deputy national chairman) echoed my position against the NCP joining that coalition of brigands. And at the NCC, more than two thirds of the state chapters voted in support of the shameless gulps from a CUPP of shame.
There were comrades in our midst (we worked together in the party as the NCP Socialist Forum) who called on Akele to lead us into declaring a faction. But, whilst I did not share Akele’s view of staying in the party, I could understand his stance against such factionalisation. In his own way, he was an organisational man to the last. We had hoped that, with Mr Tanko Yinusa leaving soon (after an over extended longue duree of tenures!), Akele would emerge as National Chairperson. While returning to NCP could not be on the table, for me at least, he would have been a major ally in seeking to build a broad front of left and left-leaning registered political parties. But alas, that will now never be.
Iturity took ill sometime last year, and as I would later gather, suffered a stroke. It was in November I had any inkling of his state of health. I had written to him to be part of the Global Eco-socialist Network (GEN) which we were putting together at the time, with John Molyneux and a number of other socialists involved in the climate justice movement across the world. He responded that he would have loved to be involved but had been quite. But even as comrade Akele now goes out, he goes unbowed.
Adieu iturity, there are few who fought so selflessly and as courageously as you did, for working-class people in Nigeria. You will forever live in our minds.
by Baba AYE
First published here on 23 June 2020