By Salisu Nuhu Muhammad
UNTIL his voluntary retirement from active trade unionism a few years ago, the pioneer president of the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC),  who is also the longest serving Secretary General of the Accra-based Organisation of African Trade Union Unity (OATUU), the workers’ apex continental body, Comrade Hassan Adebayo Sunmonu, bestrode the world of labour like a colossus.

Comrade Sunmonu

A truly iconic personality whose exceptional leadership qualities continue to inspire and radiate hope in the ranks of the hard-toiling classes the world over, just as they fertilise and nourish the inexhaustible reservoir of wisdom that incandescently illuminates the difficult paths along which workers and the oppressed poor carry out their collective actions, selfless sacrifices, epic battles and heroic struggles.

The impact and unquantifiable influence of Comrade Hassan Sunmonu on the Nigerian workers in particular and the African labour movement in general, has been so huge to the extent that today, it is widely believed in all labour circles that anywhere renowned labour leaders and notable labour activists are remotely gathered, nothing meaningful was ever concluded without benefiting from the wise counsel and the highly respected perceptive perspectives of this intrepid protagonist of the working class.

So, last week, on Thursday, January 7th, to be precise, when labour top brass from far and near, old associates, close friends and family members hurriedly organised a virtual reception to celebrate the eightieth birthday anniversary of the famous Nigerian twin brothers from Osogbo, the atmosphere was electrifyingly evocative. The unique occasion was a sublime moment full of very essential labour reminiscences.

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Under Sunmonu’s dynamic and able branch leadership, the Federal Ministry of Works, to the manifest annoyance of all its highest management officials, became a beehive of radical labour activism and an open social laboratory for experimenting with the much needed efficacy and viability of different trade union models and their own suitability to our local environment, circumstances and national characteristics.

Participants at the memorable Zoom labour gathering, as if in an open contest for prize competition, could be seen frantically taxing their sharp brains to quickly remember and instantly share some interesting, cherished experiences and comradely encounters they had at one time or the other, with the duo of the celebrants, and equally voicing how such highly valued episodes cumulatively but positively impacted their vision and mission in life; while equally refocusing their rather simple understanding and also recharging their ideological presumptions on some of the most daunting problems and visible difficult challenges confronting humanity at large.

The oft-repeated affirmations concerning the trustworthiness of Comrade Sunmonu as a labour leader of impeccable repute was yet traced to another illustrious doyen of the labour movement, in the person of the late Comrade Wahab Goodluck, by all reckoning, an indefatigable Nigerian trade unionist of giant stature, under whose able and enviable mentorship our celebrant cut his steely and biting labour teeth.

With such emblematic testimonials, it was not surprising how even much earlier in his halcyon schooling days, it was accurately observed, that within a short period of time, students in their various campuses started pinpointing and reposing implicit confidence in the discerned credibility and leadership abilities of Comrade Sunmonu.

His election into the leadership position at the prestigious Yaba College of Technology signalled his unrivalled rise to prominence in the then students’ body politics. This upward mobility assumed a terrestrial trajectory with his popular endorsement as a high-ranking leader in the youthful and much coveted cabinet of the national students’ body – the National Union of Nigerian Students (NUNS).

Sunmonu’s avuncular patriotism came to national limelight in 1962 shortly after the much celebrated independence when he, along with a handful of other campus colleagues, spontaneously but spiritedly, mobilised the entire membership of the national students body to denounce and compel the immediate cancellation of the secretly planned and the unceremonious discrete signing of the ill-advised and highly detested Anglo-Nigeria Defence Pact, by the then just elected conservative government of Prime Minister Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa.

The appreciable benefits that accrued to workers in the Ministry of Works became the barometer for measuring the indispensable place of labour unionism in promoting and protecting workers’ rights both at home and in their respective working places. The contagion effects of the good leadership ushered in by Comrade Sunmonu’s radical brand of labour unionism, very soon enough, spread to other ministries where workers enthusiastically moved in droves to join and fortify the fledgling trade union structures.

The shining glory of this epochal triumph would eventually catapult this young social engineer and a brilliant organiser with a very bright future before him unto the highest rung of the nation’s trade unions upcoming ladder of labour leadership.

In the Federal Ministry of Works where he meritoriously secured a comfortable and decent employment as an Engineering Field Works Senior Supervisor, he confided in his twin brother his firm resolve to make the defence and promotion of the interests and rights of the rank and file workers in the ministry his top organisational priority.

Thus predictably, within such a short time, the uncompromising pursuit of this rare resolution and the exhibition of this good leadership attribute, sadly brought him into early but very open confrontation with some powerful groups occupying managerial cadre inside the ministry, who were busy perverting the cause of justice by immersing themselves in dirty financial deals and some unpleasant, unsavoury and clearly anti-labour practices.

Under Sunmonu’s dynamic and able branch leadership, the Federal Ministry of Works, to the manifest annoyance of all its highest management officials, became a beehive of radical labour activism and an open social laboratory for experimenting with the much needed efficacy and viability of different trade union models and their own suitability to our local environment, circumstances and national characteristics.

The unquestioned superiority of Comrade Sunmonu’s preferred socialist model of trade union organising was eloquently demonstrated when a multitude of workers who graduated from this informal training started exhibiting higher levels of collective consciousness by trooping to join the in-house unions in total defiance to a standing directive from the ministry’s top hierarchy prohibiting all workers from taking such a radical step.

The appreciable benefits that accrued to workers in the Ministry of Works became the barometer for measuring the indispensable place of labour unionism in promoting and protecting workers’ rights both at home and in their respective working places. The contagion effects of the good leadership ushered in by Comrade Sunmonu’s radical brand of labour unionism, very soon enough, spread to other ministries where workers enthusiastically moved in droves to join and fortify the fledgling trade union structures.

With his union job done, Comrade Hassan Sunmonu was thinking of settling down in the Works Ministry when the late Comrade Wahab Goodluck, of blessed memory, head-hunted him for a more challenging labour task.

The Murtala/Obasanjo military regime that came to power by ousting the government of General Yakubu Gowon in 1975 was, barely two years after, caught in the big eyes of a powerful raging labour storm.

The unhealthy rivalry between the leaders of the then four registered central labour organisations, i.e. the Nigeria Trade Unions Congress (NTUC), United Labour Congress (ULC), Labour United Front (LUF), and Nigerian Workers Council (WC), was also confounding the ongoing crisis of national instability to which the ruling military junta seemed to lack any workable solution.

Similarly, all efforts on the side of the rival centres to fuse into one united and stronger national labour umbrella, as epitomised by the highly cherished example of the Apena Cemetery Declaration fell short of coming to fruition.

But to the credit of all the labour leaders during those turbulent periods, they had worked strenuously to achieve that very cherished unity and were more or less at the verge of sealing it, when the federal government being fearful of the consequences of these independent moves of the workers, decided to intervene unilaterally in the affairs of the nation’s trade unions by setting up the then highly draconian Adebiyi Tribunal of Inquiry.

It was at the instance of some of the various recommendations made by this notorious tribunal that rare opportunities arose for the workers to strive to actualise their dream of establishing a durable and viable labour centre to which all the newly re-organised trade unions in the country would eventually be affiliated.

Comrade Muhammad, a veteran of the Nigerian labour movement, was Acting General Secretary of the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) between 1999 and 2000. He could be reached via email @ salisu_50@yahoo.com

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