The rise and fall of a Nigerian labor hero

Adams Oshiomhole was one of the most powerful trade union leaders in Nigeria. His career trajectory represents the wider political subjugation of the national labor movement.

Adams oshiomhole in a rally.

Adams oshiomhole in a rally. Image via Wikimedia Commons CC.

Adams Oshiomhole is probably the closest thing to political power Nigeria’s labor movements will ever have. In a remarkable career, over four-and-a-half decades, he rose to the top of both the trade union movement in the country, became a state governor and then national chairperson of the All Progressive Congress (APC), one half of Nigeria’s two-party system. In mid-2020 his political career came to a dramatic end when a court upheld his suspension from the APC. Vibrant and effective, Oshiomhole’s career trajectory in many ways represents the wider political subjugation of Nigeria’s labor movement. How this labor hero was ultimately defeated, is worth a short note.

The 1980s and 1990s marked a decade of turmoil for the Nigerian Labor Congress (NLC), the country’s largest trade union federation. Its troubles were worsened by the military’s repeated attacks on the leftist bastions of the labor movement. However, Oshiomhole’s appointment as NLC president in 1999, after Nigeria’s return to civilian rule, seemed to mark the opening of a new heroic chapter in the development of the movement.

Oshiomhole, now 68, came from a modest background in Edo State in southern Nigeria. He was fortunate to find factory employment with Arewa Textiles in Kaduna, a city in the northwest known as a trade and transformation center. His colleagues soon elected him union secretary. In 1971, responding to bad labor practices at his workplace, he led a shop-floor revolt. Four years later, he had become a full-time trade union organizer. Around this time, he left for the UK to study labor and industrial relations at Ruskin College in Oxford. (Ruskin had developed a reputation as an educational institution providing higher education to workers.) Later, he would also study at the National Institute for Policy and Strategic Studies (NIPS) in Kuru, Plateau State.

In 1982, Oshiomhole was appointed as the general secretary and chief executive of the National Union of Textile Garment and Tailoring Workers of Nigeria. As a 2017 report into the union’s fortunes would note: “At its peak in the 1980s, the textile industry employed up to 500,000 workers directly, making it the second largest employer after the government.” This made Oshiomhole one of the most powerful trade union leaders in Nigeria.

Oshiomhole’s emergence as a labor and political leader is best understood within the wider historical trajectory of the NLC. From the mid-1980s, the junta of Ibrahim Babangida (1985-1993) clamped down on radical organizations and social movements as part of its imposition of neoliberal structural adjustment programs. The labor movement and the National Association of Nigeria Students (NANS) were hounded by restrictions and state agents at every turn.

Meanwhile, an internal rift had grown within the NLC between progressive and moderate factions. The self avowed progressives were led by Jonathan Ihonde of the The Radio Television Theatre and Art Workers Union of Nigeria (RATTAWU) and  Ali Chiroma of the Medical and Health Workers Union (MHWUN), while the moderate were represented by Takai Shamang of the National Union of Electricity Employees (NUEE). The confrontation culminated in the emergence in 1988 of the charismatic Paschal Bafyau, a compromise candidate, as president of the NLC. Some argue that this “great compromise of 1988”, engineered to secure the continued legality of the congress, also represented the surrender of the Left within the NLC. Shortly after, Oshiomhole, then general secretary of the National Textiles and Garments Union, was chosen to be Paschal Bafyau’s deputy president.
Unwilling to kowtow to the radical momentum of the 1990s during which the June 12, 1993 revolts against dictatorship broke-out, Bafyau couldn’t lead a coherent NLC. Opting for the repressive option as had authoritarian leaders before him, Abacha intervened in 1994 banning the congress and appointing a sole administrator.
With the resumption of democracy, Oshiomhole, already in the limelight, was elected NLC president in 1999. Oshiomhole soon became the darling of all workers fighting anti-labor practices and using his oratory prowess in political debates to inspire mass action. The Oshiomhole of this era bore a striking resemblance to Michael Imoudu, the legendary “Labor leader No 1,” who led the 1945 Cost of Living Allowances (COLA) strike that lasted for 45 days and shook the foundations of the colonial state.

Oshiomhole had his most heroic moments as NLC president. Under him, workers went on general strikes seven times. These strikes were about salary increases but also fought against the deregulation of the oil sector and the continued implementation of structural adjustment policies.

Oshiomhole understood the power of strikes and mobilized for them with great vigor. He usually relocated NLC structures to Lagos as the commercials center once a strike was to be announced. His bold leadership stirred President Obasanjo to accuse him of running a parallel government in 2004.

However, the tail end of Oshiomhole’s second tenure at the head of the NLC saw the evolution of the labor hero. During this period, the NLC joined the National Privatization Council, which served as the engine room for the destabilization of the Nigerian economy as production-based, marking a clear betrayal of all that labor had been fighting against. This also meant that NLC was part of the council that supervised the sale of government-owned industries, shedding large numbers of jobs while empowering cronies in the private sector. By the end of Oshiomhole’s tenure, the labor movement was left in tatters industrially and politically.

Oshiomhole was drawn into electoral politics, helping to establish the Labor Party in 2002 (technically it was established as the Party for Social Democracy, PSD, in 2o02 and became the Labor Party at its first convention on 28th February 2004). However, this is where the parallels between Oshiomhole and Imoudu end. While Imoudu was left leaning in practice, Oshiomhole jilted the Labor Party in favor of the bourgeois dominant formation, the Action Congress (AC), in the same year in which the Labor Party was formed. (Oshiomhole only ran a double ticket after union pressure.) The AC ultimately merged with similar parties to form the All Progressives Congress (APC).

Oshiomhole and his allies registered the Labor Party and handed it over to liberal labor leader Dan Nwanyanwu. Under this leadership the party sold frontrunner tickets to the highest bidder while restricting union members from democratic participation. The party has yet to recover from the scars of this experience.

After gaining the governorship seat under the AC banner, Oshiomhole actively worked to prevent workers strikes. In Edo state, workers went on strikes at their union levels, but Oshiomhole violently prevented a general strike. The biggest general strike in Nigeria so far has been the Occupy Nigeria strikes in 2012. Instead of supporting the protests, despite being in the opposition, Oshiomhole helped to break the strike through a negotiation committee of which he was major state actor.

As governor, he also conducted the largest casualization of the work force by any state government thus far. More than 50,000 workers, employed through the Youth Employment Scheme (YES) in 2009, were sacked in 2015 when Oshiomhole claimed on television that he “picked them” from the “gutters.” Since this period Oshiomhole has used his overwhelming influence on both the NLC and the Trade Union Council (TUC) to ensure that general strikes are virtually forbidden under the strong-handed rule of the APC.

Oshiomhole gained a popular following in mainstream politics, retaining his characteristic khaki “comrade’s jacket”, but was increasingly seen through the godfather persona of “OshioBaba.” He has sadly also remained an example and a mentor to many in the labor movement, and labor activists are frequently seen in alliances with mainstream politicians in the PDP and APC. Labor bureaucrats have abandoned the Labor Party and like Oshiomhole, openly flirt with the ruling class. This is one reason why the movement lost two general strikes. However, the formation of a cluster of revolutionary organizations has brought new hope to the left and radical working class. Member organizations of the Coalition for Revolution (CORE) have been leading #RevolutionNow; the struggle precursor of the #EndSARS Protests that shook the world in late 2020.

Adams Oshiomhole rose to limelight and greatness while serving the working people as a labor leader. He managed to run Edo state government for two terms playing the devil’s advocate. In power, Oshiomhole denied workers most of what he fought for during much of his tenure at the helm of the NLC. Oshiomhole’s recent rise and fall within the APC is often viewed as the final desecration of a labor icon. Yet, it is evident that the workers movement lost its visionary leadership much earlier.

Further Reading