By Lanre Arogundade.
WITH Ayodele Akele’s remains committed to mother earth today in his hometown of Akungba, Ondo State, it is worth reiterating that he has earned his place in the hall of fame of genuine working class fighters.
Comrades who worked with him at different periods of his leadership of the National Union of Public Corporation Employees in Lagos State, including Muyiwa Adebanjo, Ayodele Arogundade and Kola Odetola, amongst others, have already attested to his sterling qualities as a labour leader who fought principled and courageous battles on behalf of workers and played active and leadership role in the anti-military struggles of the 1990s that paved the way for the return of ‘demicracy’ in 1999.
The likes of Comrade Akele are rarely mentioned by the bourgeois press during democracy celebrations, particularly June 12, but aside being a working class hero, he was also a hero of anti-military struggles, a hero of pro-democracy struggles and a hero of the struggle for independent students’ unionism being the first secretary of the interim leadership of the National Association of Nigerian Students in its formative stages in 1980 before the first full Exco was elected in the 1980/81 session under the presidency of Tanimu Yakubu of Bayero University, Kano.
I could attest further to these qualities of Comrade Akele, being both members, just like some of the comrades who worked with him as state or organising secretary of his union, of the Labour Militant, the precursor of the Democratic Socialist Movement, although he later left the organisation. We were also together in Gani Fawehinmi’s National Conscience Party on which platform he ran for a seat in the Lagos State Assembly in the 2003 elections to represent the Agege consituency while I vied for the Lagos West Senatorial seat.
The Akele I knew in these capacities and others was one for whom periods of workers’ struggles, especially workers’ strikes led by him, were festivals. He simply enjoyed them and they were his happiest moments. I saw these in him during the strike actions to back the demand for payment of the same minimum wage for federal workers for Lagos State employees – first under the military administration of Buba Marwa and second, under the civilian administration of Senator Bola Tinubu – as we regularly met to discuss strategies for sustaining the strike and ensuring victory.
For him, a festival of strike could last for as long as possible until the demands were met, and each successful rally he addressed would elicit excitement in him. ‘Baba lanruse, ee wa woran leni, rally eni tun ga ju‘, he would shout as we knock off a few green and black bottles before or after strategy meetings in Agbotikuyo area of Agege. You would be wasting your time if you did not allow Itu to give a full account of the day even if you witnessed it yourself. Segun Sango, General Secretary of DSM used to say that Itu was a tendency on his own and an instinctive fighter!
“It was to Akele’s credit however that when in typical military fashion the Marwa government issued an ultimatum for the strike to be called off, he led the workers in defiance and got sacked. But the sack would not have also been possible if the national leadership of Akele’s union and indeed the Nigeria Labour Congress as a whole had rallied behind him and took the struggle as their own in line with classical labour tradition that an injury to one is an injury to all. But they were probably happier than the government that he got the boot because one of the battles he also waged was against their rotten compromises with exploiters of workers and lack of willingness to fight when they should.”
Invariably, this led to a problematic or a challenge and unfortunately a disagreement in the end. For example, when the Marwa administration offered to pay above the then state minimum wage, but lower than what the federal government offered, we felt the strike over the issue should be called off, since a concession, though below expectation, had been won, and we would always live to fight another day.
There was and still also the broader ideological perspective of we socialists that while every bit of workers’ struggle is important and should be waged, permanent or enduring concessions can only be won through an overthrown of the anti-working class exploitative capitalist system and its replacement with a working class government armed with such socialist programmes as the nationalisation of the commanding sectors of the economy (under elected and democratic management of workers, professionals, etc) so that collectively produced wealth can be used to provide for the needs of the poor majority, including workers; instead of a situation where under the guise of privatisation, commercialisation or public private partnership, the common wealth is being appropriated by few elite.
Additionally, there was also the tactical question of beating a tactical retreat when a concession had been won to prevent a strike action from collapsing, which could have demoralising effect. That was our fear, but Akele had his own fear, borne out of commitment. He feared that having told the workers that the action would be called off only if the federal minimum wage was paid to Lagos workers, he would be seen to have sold out. What a clash of fears!
It was to Akele’s credit however that when in typical military fashion the Marwa government issued an ultimatum for the strike to be called off, he led the workers in defiance and got sacked. But the sack would not have also been possible if the national leadership of Akele’s union and indeed the Nigeria Labour Congress as a whole had rallied behind him and took the struggle as their own in line with classical labour tradition that an injury to one is an injury to all. But they were probably happier than the government that he got the boot because one of the battles he also waged was against their rotten compromises with exploiters of workers and lack of willingness to fight when they should.
To differentiate himself from bureaucratic labour leaders, Akele would not even touch the honorarium normally paid to union leaders for meetings, even when we argued that he could donate such to the collective struggle, which would still mean he didn’t earn it for personal benefit. He objected, insisting that such meetings were part of the obligations for which they were elected and was indeed appalled that labour leaders who earned honorarium were not ready to fight for workers.
We along with the workers mounted pressure on the labour leaders and the Marwa government until the struggle for his reinstatement was successfully waged upon the return to civil rule. It turned out however that it would be a temporary reprieve for when Akele led a similar battle under the Bola Tinubu civilian administration; he got sacked again and was never reinstated by that government and successive ones. It would always be a cited reference that what a military government could do, a civilian one could do worse at times! A historical irony too for someone who fought for democracy.
And it was a truncation of the hope that some of us harboured that Akele would proceed from his local union to lead the state and the national labour movement.
Be that as it may, what would stand as permanent monument for Comrade Ayodele Akele are the indelible footprints he left behind as a people-oriented working class fighter. If he was called ‘Atawewe’ (small pepper), it was because he earned it as a class fighter who peppered them, his diminutive stature notwithstanding.
It must be added that Akele was not only atawewe in the field of struggle; he was also atawewe at work as his devotion to duty was unquestionable. In this regard and as also already testified, he was as a Quantity Surveyor, a workaholic round peg in a round hole at the Lagos State Property Development Corporation (LSDOC). He successfully supervised the building of low and middle-cost housing units thus demonstrating the practicality of the stance of we socialists that the system of direct labour as against the resource guzzling contractual system can work in providing low-cost houses for the masses as it indeed can work in building rural and layers of urban roads.
In saying a painful bye-bye to Akele therefore, the best way to immortalise him is to continue the struggle for workers’ and peoples’ rights until victory is won.