Reminiscences with Comrade Ali Chiroma
Comrade Ali Chiroma led the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) at a very trying period in Nigeria’s history when the military was in power. He recalls his earlier confrontations with those in government at the time, the personal inconveniences he suffered as a
The history of labour union in Nigeria will not be complete without your name, how did you get into unionism?
I will say partly by accident; when I left school and applied to go for training in the medical field, the school was in Makurdi, Benue State. So when I went there I met three of my mates in the Middle School.
We used to be together and one evening, they said they were going for a meeting and I asked for the nature of the meeting and they said something like a union. In my former school we didn’t know much about union but I insisted to know what union is and they told me that it was our seniors who were in the field that formed it for the workers. That it was the branch of that union that was in the school. Later I heard them complaining about the meeting so I asked them why were they complaining about something they joined voluntarily.
So, I asked if they will take me with them and they said, ‘no problem’. I went with them to the meeting and saw how they were conducting themselves. I immediately developed interest in belonging to the organization and I was enlisted in 1950.
How then did you get to become the NLC president?
That is a long story because though I started unionism in 1950, I became the NLC president only in 1984, about 34 years after. So, it’s been long.
In 1977 or so, when Obasanjo was the military head of state, he realized there were over 1000 house and trade unions in the country, because any organization with 20 staff and above could form a union.
There were also about more than four labour centers. So Obasanjo, in his wisdom at that time, felt there were too many small unions all over the place and we were not effectively serving the interest of Nigerian workers. That was what he said he felt and so he decided to dissolve all the 1000 unions and four labour centers and appoint a committee to restructure the trade union movement.
That committee came out with its recommendation, reducing the number of unions to 42 industrial unions, such that unions were based on industries, health, education and so on. But formerly, unions were based on just employees. Also, the committee recommended that there should be employers’ associations and there were about 19 senior staff associations, though this was a contradiction because in industrial union you find both senior and junior Staff in one union.
But somehow in the private sector, they separated the junior from the senior workers. Then, about 11 unions from my group were joined together to make one Medical and Health Workers Union.
Medical and Health Workers Union was one of the first 42 industrial unions and at the same time all these industrial unions were united to form one labour centre which was the Nigeria Labour Congress .
After getting the 42 industrial unions, they went round the states to form state councils of the NLC.
They came to Maiduguri and formed one and I became the first chairman of the NLC in Borno in the North-East. That was how I first joined the leadership of NLC and continued as the chairman of the state council till 1981 congress in Kano when I was elected first deputy president of the now national NLC in the centre.
I was there till another conference came in 1984 because congress was after 3 years at that time, so we met in Enugu where about three of us contested for the National President of NLC and I won the election. That was how I became the NLC president.
You led a protest over the killing of some students of the ABU when you were the NLC president. What actually happened?
What actually happened then was that there was a serious demonstration at the ABU and security agencies were called in and they went and shot some students, about seven of them.
The NLC felt very bad and issued a statement condemning what happened. Unfortunately, the minister of education, while responding, said only four students were killed. That comment further infuriated the workers.
So, at an emergency central committee meeting of the NLC, I was at Geneva attending the annual ILO conference, our central working committee decided to demonstrate by marching from the NLC secretariat to Dodan Barracks in Lagos.
I was contacted immediately the decision was taken and that there was going to be a demonstration for four days. I took an excuse from the ILO and returned home to lead the protest.
On the eve of the protest the government and the security agencies kept calling me to stop the demonstration, I said ‘no because the central working committee took the decision and I can’t unilaterally stop it, it must go on’.
When the security people found out we were not going to pull out from the protest, at midnight they began going from house to house picking labour leaders.
They picked about 11 of us. That was how that demonstration was aborted. We were held for some weeks before we were released.
I think it was in 1987 during General Babangida’s regime.
You led another protest when the IBB administration tried to remove subsidy on petroleum products….
Communication was not good at the time. I was not told until I returned to Lagos. At the airport, my driver told me that the comrades have been picked by the SSS. I asked when and they said about two days ago. We came back home and I kept my luggage and arranged another one. I took my driver down to the SSS office
Yes, about a year later again there was another incident about this IMF thing which asked our government to devalue the naira. Apart from that, there was also the issue of subsidy withdrawal. The government said they were subsidizing petrol and President Babangida increased the prices of petrol.
That one too workers felt it was going to affect their well-being because they had to go to their work places by transport, especially Lagos State workers who were far away from their work places.
Transport is very essential so labour felt we will not allow that petrol price increase. So we started sensitizing Nigerians on the dangers of allowing the petroleum price increase.
We introduced some handbills and posters to sensitize Nigerians. Some of those posters the government felt were with a offensive, especially the one a snake putting on a military cap and with somebody close by holding a stick, saying ‘kill him, he is dangerous!’
Then I was in Maiduguri for a weekend and they went to the (NLC) secretariat and picked Dr. Osunde who was my General Secretary and my Treasurer and the acting General Secretary.
Communication was not good at the time. I was not told until I returned to Lagos. At the airport, my driver told me that the comrades have been picked by the SSS.
I asked when and they said about two days ago. We came back home and I kept my luggage and arranged another one. I took my driver down to the SSS office.
At the reception, I told them three of my comrades were arrested and I would like to see them. They asked me to sit and went inside to inform the director. They came back and invited me inside. They took me to an office and kept me there. There was nobody in the room. Later some of them came and said they wanted to take my statement.
I asked which statement because as far as I was concerned I didn’t do anything. I told them I needed to know my charges before I could write a statement.
The usual thing when they detain you is they will want a statement by giving you a form to fill. So that was what they wanted to do. So I said, ‘no I’m not going to write any statement until you allow me to call my lawyer’.
They did all they could to make me agree but I refused. So they left. We did that for about two to three days and I kept telling them I would not speak until I get a lawyer. They left me alone by not taking me to where my three colleagues were. My colleagues were held in different section.
I was there for another two weeks or so and on their own they decided to release us. That was my second detention.
Were you tortured during your detention?
No I was not, except maybe psychologically; I was held incommunicado; I was not getting newspapers, didn’t have radio and television and was also not fed well.
I must be frank with you that I was not
fed well because when I came, a lady caterer came and said I should tell her whatever food I wanted to eat. I declined and told her: ‘I’m in detention so I will not tell you what to eat because the place is not my house, just provide anything and I will eat’.
They were buying food from the roadside and giving me. Honestly, it was not a good food but it doesn’t bother me that much. Except for that there was no torture.
How did your family take your being in detention, were they worried?
My family was in Maiduguri all these while. But the second time I was detained my first wife came to visit me… (Sobs for minutes) I was in detention when I was told that somebody wanted to see me so when I came out I was surprised to see her. I asked her not to come; I told her it was none of her business so I went back inside. After I went back the people came to talk to me to go and talk to my wife. That it was not like she came to beg them. She was very stubborn, just like me. She was strong. She kept telling them that I am not a saboteur; she said rather it was the people in government that were saboteurs. But my family was in Maiduguri all the while.
You tried to re-contest for a second term and the military allegedly stopped you. Why?
Yes it is usual in the NLC, people always contest. Sharman, the president of electricity workers wanted to contest but by that time we were sharply divided into ‘The Progressives’ and ‘The Democrats.’ But somehow we were always in the majority. Before we went to the conference, Sharman came and said he was going to contest, he issued his nomination, but the representation at the NLC conference depends on the payments. Unions are given delegation according to their payments such that the more you pay to the NLC, the more you get delegates. But they were not paying, so the government gave them money to come and pay en bloc, so that the number of their delegates would rise. It wasn’t enough and it was late.
So they said what else could they do. Initially they decided to boycott the conference but later they decided against it and said they would continue with their business. So they decided to go and hold a parallel meeting in Benin a day or two before our own. They elected Sharman as the president of the NLC and other officers. We came to Benin a day after and to hold a conference. So on the morning of the conference, before I came out, the governor sent a message that he wanted to see me. I came to the government house and met the governor with some of his cabinet members, the Attorney–General and the Minister of Labour at that time, Abubakar Umar.
I asked what was happening and he said, ‘Chiroma, the court has given an injunction that you should not hold the conference.’ I told them no court had given such an order, but the court had given an injunction, asking me not to bar the state chairman. The state chairman of the congress in Benin was also in the other group, so the court gave an order not to stop him. They turned to the state chairman and said, ‘is that what you asked from the court’? They started arguing with him but I said, ‘when I leave you can do whatever you want but for now it’s too late he has already sought for that’. They said, that in view of the division, I should not hold the conference.
I said, ‘This is not your job Mr. Minister of Labor, it’s my conference, it’s my unions conference’. They were just wasting my time going back and forth. I said, ‘you can do anything Mr. Minister but I am going to the conference’. We did our opening ceremony at the stadium, then moved to the conference center where we did everything, people registered, we counted and formed a quorum and continued with the conference business and I was re-elected the president. That was in February 1988.
When we finished we came back to Lagos, but before we arrived the government had already brought police and taken over the NLC secretariat. When we saw our offices taken over by the police we asked, ‘what is happening?’ They said they were ordered, so I went back to my rest house. Later, I was called by the General Sectary and told that the government was going to announce a decree banning the NLC because the union which was supposed to be helping workers was divided into two ideological blocks: one
At that time the perception was that the union was a sellout. I consulted with some veterans some agreed, some disagreed. In fact the veterans were saying instead of allowing a government man to be running the union, you better take it. So that was how I decided to accept to be the union’s sole administrator for NUPENG and I went to Uba Ahmed and told him
calling themselves ‘communists’ and the other ‘democrats’ and for this reason the military government of Babangida had decreed there should be no NLC.
I didn’t believe, I said, ‘is Babangida that callous? What has he has to do with this union?’ But it turned out to be true as the minister came and announced that night that the NLC had been dissolved. That was how the NLC was dissolved and that was how I was removed. The government appointed an administrator and ran the union like a government parastatal. They did that for about one year. But before then, Babangida was working underground with the other faction. He was against us, he infiltrated my camp and then convinced them that if they wanted the NLC back, they should forget about me, that they should leave me alone and should elect Pascal (Bafyau) as their leader. I think Pascal was the only contestant in the conference. So that marked my leaving the NLC but before then I was in the governing body of the ILO. The governing body is like an executive arm of the ILO supervising and looking after and approving budget before it gets to the National Assembly. About 190 countries are represented, so I was in the governing body. I was elected for three years and then reelected for another three years. So l went to the ILO, they said they had no business with government and no government had the right to dissolve the union or declare somebody not a union member. They asked me to continue with the leadership of the governing body. The NLC in Nigeria elected Pascal and the trade union at that time was doing business with Babangida. Babangida was bankrolling them. In fact when they got the land where they built the NLC secretariat in Abuja, the Labour House, Babangida gave them N50 million to start doing something at the place. So the Labour Congress became like a government ally. That was the beginning of the problem of trade union up till now.
IBB is alleged to have a way of influencing those that did not agree with him. Did he ever approach you with an offer?
Never ever! Because they knew it couldn’t work with me, they knew me.
When the military appointed a sole administrator for the Nigeria Labour Congress, what action did you take, did you go to court?
No, I didn’t go to court myself, but the union did. We had a meeting on the day they dissolved the union on the way forward. I told the members that this matter is just like somebody who chases your wife; there is nothing you can do except to go and chase his wife too. That is how to balance it. If Babangida dissolved the NLC, the NLC should show him that workers will down tools. Unfortunately my members chickened out. They said, ‘we can’t go on strike; we have no problem with our employers and we didn’t give them two weeks notice’. I said that Babangida didn’t give anybody 2 weeks’ notice before taking that action. I insisted we go and do it, just go on strike; no Nigerian worker should work until the NLC is left alone; until Chiroma is left alone. But my people didn’t accept that, they suggested that we should go to court. But I said no we should not go to court because it’s not a court matter. If somebody chases your wife, what are you going to court to do? Because everybody knows that if the military makes a decree there is no court in Nigeria that will entertain a case against it. Even the court will tell you, ‘we have no jurisdiction, this is a military decree’’. We all knew this but they just wanted to pretend that we were in court. So I said, ‘I am not going to deceive anybody’. So Falana said that we should go but I said, ‘no, don’t go and waste your time’’. They insisted they would go, I said, ‘you go ahead but I’m not going’. They went to court and the court told them: ‘we can’t listen to a decree.’ That was how it was dismissed.
Given this background, were you surprised at the role the NLC played when
the June 12 election was annulled?
During the annulment, the NLC did not take any action against the government. It was NUPENG because of Kokori who was in the party with Abiola that acted. He was the one who made his union NUPENG and then PENGASSAN to take action. These were the only two staff unions that took action in support of NADECO against both Babangida and Abacha, but Pascal did not participate. But when Abacha later came to dissolve the NLC, Pascal was saying: ‘but I have not done anything.’ NUPENG and PENGASSAN were dissolved along with the NLC. That was how Pascal left and also lost his office with all the cooperation he had given the government all along.
Your contribution to the struggle has always been commended but whenever it comes to where you accepted to serve as the sole administrator of NUPENG, many felt you did not do the right thing. Why did you accept to take up appointment as a sole administrator of NUPENG?
My colleagues were just being hypocrites and it is very unfortunate. I told them so. My point was: ‘when NUPENG and PENGASSAN went on strike why didn’t you go on strike and now you are telling me I should not accept?’ So I said, ‘no, I will go and salvage the NUPENG if the government was looking for a soft landing’. Later, when Mr. Uba Ahmed was made the minister of labor, he approached me after about two years that he wanted me to take over from Jalingo as sole administrator of NUPENG. I said let me consult. At that time the perception was that the union was a sellout. I consulted with some veterans some agreed, some disagreed. In fact the veterans were saying instead of allowing a government man to be running the union, you better take it. So that was how I decided to accept to be the union’s sole administrator for NUPENG and I went to Uba Ahmed and told him. And as we agreed he was not interfering, the government was not interfering, they allowed me to organize NUPENG, make its branches to function, restore remitting of check off dues because they were taking it from the workers but were not giving to NUPENG. I came and regularized all these things and NUPENG started functioning.
I stabilized everything and NUPENG was better for it. We paid everyone, we paid all over our debts, we had over N20 million in the bank before I left. This is because when Abubakar Abdulsalam took over after Abacha died suddenly; Mike Akhigbe was his second in command. Mike and Adams Oshiomole were from the same place. From the influence of Mike, Abubakar was made to have sympathy for NUPENG. They lifted the ban on NUPENG and PENGASSAN, released Kokori who was in prison all those years because I was negotiating to get Kokori released before this time. He was released, I was asked to hand over the union back to NUPENG officials. But it was the NUPENG people that said I should stay and organize a conference for them where they elected their officials. Then Kokori also resumed his office before I left. I thought about this thing but I was not happy with the trade union at that time for taking appointments with the government and how they were running the unions like government parastaltals. So why are they now coming to say I have taken appointment? I’m not a hypocrite. So you don’t regret your action? I don’t regret my actions. Up till now NUPENG members respect me. One day they met me at the airport and brought N5,000 and said ‘please Baba take.’ So they still respect me.
The NLC is currently demanding a review of N18,000 minimum wage, what do you think?
You know in Nigeria our salary system is not commensurate with the cost of living all over the world. If you want to set example, pay a salary that is enough to maintain minimum
What is Facebook? (Laughter) Educate me. I don’t know how to manipulate my hand set that is my problem, otherwise they say if you know how to use the internet or whatever you will see all the newspapers there. Even this one I can only call and receive and if there’s a missed call I can’t recall it. I can’t do more than about five things even with all I tried to know but I couldn’t fit in maybe because I am analogue
standard cost of living not a flamboyant lifestyle. Salary should be enough to pay rent, pay children’s school fees, eat food, etc. But the salary system is never near a living wage. So with the minimum of living wage of N18,000 what can it do for a person? It can’t even take you home. And the government is pretending to pay salary. More than half of the states have not implemented the N18,000, workers are still paid less. Now it is nothing. Now they want N56,000. I don’t know if this will be enough, especially right now .You know naira is devalued, each time you devalue naira you are killing market, you are killing people’s income. I used to tell my members that if the government cuts your salary by half will you agree?
They said no we will fight, but I said inflation is doing the same thing or doing worse. If price is doubled today your salary is cut by half already because after all we are taking money to sustain ourselves not to keep in banks. Unless we go back to the basics, this devaluation must stop. We must revert back to our position we could not do that because government has already owed World Bank, IMF and Paris Club money and it’s because of this money that we owe.
When Buhari came (in 1983) he was paying off all our debts, that was why they removed him, the western countries did not want any country to be free especially the developing countries from IMF entanglement because it is with that, they control us. They will tell you to go and devalue the naira which they can’t tell themselves. They can’t tell America to devalue the dollar and America is owing money more than anyone in the world today. But nobody will tell America to devalue or Britain to devalue pounds or France to devalue franc or Germany but they will tell Africans, especially the colonized countries to devalue their money. They say stop subsidies, privatize government companies because they are not working but we know they are not working because people are stealing money. Nigeria Airways used to have 30 planes, it became 25 then 22 then 15 then 3, 1 then nil and they were all watching and the were. If people temper with money, jail them but in Nigeria today nobody has ever been jailed. Go to the prison only ordinary people are jailed for minor crimes.
So would you recommend downsizing in the present circumstances?
No. Workers should struggle to keep their jobs. Go to government schools in any part of the country no teachers, the same as government hospitals, no workers; nobody is over blotted they are just being cheats. Okay its true in some cases they have made some workers redundant and formerly I was in charge of public health schools in Maiduguri, we were given allocation to run the schools. Now since the civilian regime started the government is in charge of all the money given. Budget is just fake because you will never see that money. Governors will control all the money they give whatever they want to whomever they wish. So the department do not get allocation. Vehicles are broken down; no maintenance, vaccines are finished, government is killing the jobs, they make workers redundant, at the end of the day nobody goes to work because there is no means to work.
You did not join politics despite your popularity, why?
Where are the political parties? Where is the honesty? They are all liars. We don’t have political parties; we only have nonsense parties in Nigeria. One man will be in the PDP today, the APC tomorrow, and that is how all of them are. Is that the kind of politics that I should join? Atiku is in the PDP today tomorrow another party or Kwankwaso and the rest of them. That is not politics. You know Buhari said he was not cut for Nigerian politics, but then somehow he came in. I was blaming Dr. (Aliyu) Tilde and the late Wada Nas. That was at the early stage. But God has something for us that was why he brought Buhari. I am happy with his politics but me I can’t join. But look what they are doing to him all those who are saying they want change they are just corrupting his office everywhere. People are still stealing. Buhari is the only one different.
They are sabotaging the war against corruption. It is pathetic. They would take somebody to court on shoddy prosecution and they man will go free. They settle everybody that is why up till now nobody has been jailed except ordinary people. Whatever it is, may God give Buhari long life, and he should come and do his second term in good health. For me the only alternative to Buhari is back to Jonathan because the PDP cannot bring anybody better. Even the APC itself cannot bring anybody better. It is only Buhari.
Did any of your children join unionism?
None of them but they are in unions in their departments. My first daughter is deputy registrar in the University of Maiduguri. She belongs to the union of the university’s non academic staff but she is not playing any role. So she didn’t take after me. The second one is a director but he is not taking over from me in unionism. I have 15 children; my youngest one has finished university some six years ago. They are all grownups now. Nobody is into unionism
What is your favorite food?
In fact I’m 84 years now going to 85. I have lost all my appetite and don’t enjoy any food; I eat as if I’m being forced to. You don’t enjoy food again at this age. Some people can still eat at 90 but I don’t enjoy any meal. The only meal I enjoy is burabusko dinner and couscous and I eat it every night, but breakfast, it is as if I’m being forced. Whenever I’m eating lunch, I lose appetite, my stomach will not be happy but I say, ‘ok since I have to eat something’. I’m taking pap and Quaker Oats and I eat a lot of fruits. It was not like when I was younger, I don’t enjoy food anymore, only dinner.
What about books?
I’m not reading any book but I read two newspapers every day, Trust and one other and that is a daily affair. If I need to read a book I will only read religious books. But I don’t read western books.
Are you on Facebook, do you have a Twitter handle?
What is Facebook? (Laughter) Educate me. I don’t know how to manipulate my hand set that is my problem, otherwise they say if you know how to use the internet or whatever you will see all the newspapers there. Even this one I can only call and receive and if there’s a missed call I can’t recall it. I can’t do more than about five things even with all I tried to know but I couldn’t fit in maybe because I am analogue. This is my problem. I bought the bigger, one that you can type on and swipe, but my grandchildren picked it because I couldn’t operate it. I bought an iPad because I admire people who use them but I couldn’t operate any of them. Even if I am taught, I just can’t do it.
Former NLC President Comrade Ali Chiroma
“Up till now, NUPENG members respect me,” says Comrade Chiroma