Chima Ubani & Tunji Oyeleru: 10 Years After-The Civil Society And The Quest For System Change


Sisters and brothers from the Fourth Estate of the Realm, comrades and compatriots, colleagues and friends, I welcome you all to this media conference on behalf of the National Coordinating Committee of the United Action for Democracy. We are here as part of the activities to commemorate a decade of the martyrdom of Chima Ubani and Tunji Oyeleru. Sisters and brothers from the Fourth Estate of the Realm, comrades and compatriots, colleagues and friends, I welcome you all to this media conference on behalf of the National Coordinating Committee of the United Action for Democracy. We are here as part of the activities to commemorate a decade of the martyrdom of Chima Ubani and Tunji Oyeleru. Drawing from the inspiration of their lives and deaths, we are charged with raising the banner of working people’s struggle, for a better society, high. The two patriots died in an auto crash at Potiskum, on their way to Abuja after a rally against deregulation of the downstream sector of the petroleum sector at Maiduguri, organised by the Labour Civil Society Coalition (LASCO). The rally was part of a series of zonal rallies to mobilise working people against the anti-poor neoliberal policies of the Nigerian state, which started in Lagos.

They were both in the prime of their lives. Tunji was 46years old while Chima was barely 43 years of age. But within the short spans of their lives, they demonstrated excellence in the pursuit of what they stood for.

Tunji Oyeleru: the quintessential photo journalist and patriot

Tunji Oyeleru was deputy photo editor of the Vanguard newspapers. He was an exemplar of artistic rendition of reality with photography and displayed impeccable professionalism as a photo journalist. It was his front page photograph of the Lagos rally that caught the attention of Adams Oshiomhole, the then president of the Nigeria Labour Congress.
Adams made enquiries from journalists on the paper’s labour desk, keen to know who took such a superb photograph. It was the night before the Kano rally that he eventually got across to Tunji. He expressed his desire to have Tunji at Kano to take photographs of the rally the following day, but expressed regrets that NLC might not be able to get him down to Kano on time for the activity. Tunji Oyeleru told him not to worry, promising to be there.
He bought his ticket and was at Kano before the rally started. His lead photo of the rally was equally a masterpiece. From Kano to Maiduguri, he was full of humour as he discussed with labour and civil society leaders. We knew him closely only for those fleeting moments, but came to appreciate him as great person, committed patriot and thorough professional. The pain of his death shortly after that can never leave our hearts.

Chima Ubani: a life of struggle for the working people

Chima Ubani had been one of us for three decades, as a leader in the students, pro-democracy and socialist movements. Born to the family of a Seventh Day Adventist pastor, Chima spent most of his conscious life as a rebel in defence of the cause of the oppressed. As a student of crop science at the University of Nigeria Nsukka (UNN), he first became active as a pan-Africanist, in the reggae movement.

He became president of the students union and a member of the Marxist Students Movement by the mid-80s, at a very trying moment for the radical left on campuses. The National Association of Nigerian Students had been banned and in UNN, the university authority collaborated with neo-fascist confraternity groups organised as “Operation Zero Option” who physically attacked activists.

Ubani was jailed when the military government cracked down on the students’ movement in the aftermath of the Ahmadu Bello University massacre of May 25, 1986. After being released, it took a court order for the university to allow him take his final examinations. But he still graduated at the top of his class.

He took up employment with the Civil Liberties Organisation after school and worked there for the rest of his life, rising to become its Executive Director. But CLO was for Chima, basically a platform for extending radical political work, organising struggle through several forms of united fronts with the aim of achieving “system change”. Ubani was thus pivotal to the formation of the Campaign for Democracy (CD) at Jos in November, 1991. This was to be a united front of radical forces to fight for: overthrowing the military regime; establishing a mass-based provisional government and; convening a Sovereign National Conference. He became the first elected General Secretary of CD.

Chima was at the forefront of CD’s struggle for the actualisation of June 12, in those rebellious days of 1993. He came up with the concept and practice of an “Expanded Secretariat” where a broad array of activists strategized together and organised mass actions under his leadership. He however broke with the CD at the Teachers’ House Convention of February 4, 1994, at Ibadan.

The dominant elements of CD had illusions in the “national bourgeoisie”. And through collaboration with MKO Abiola and his cohorts, they had implicitly supported the November 17, 1993 coup by General Sani Abacha. Their misplaced belief was that Abacha would hand over power to Abiola.

After walking out of the Convention, Chima and other leading members of CD who were firm in upholding the central place of working people’s struggle to defeat military dictatorship as against compromises between civilian and military elements of the ruling class, took the bull by the horns in trying to build a more focused radical front. They initiated discussions with like-minded forces across the country, which led to the formation of the Democratic Alternative (DA), as a radical party of defiance, at Benin City on June 4, 1994. Chima was elected as the General Secretary at this founding convention. DA was modelled along the lines of the pre-1994 African National Congress (ANC) in South Africa. Its manifesto, The Liberation Charter was inspired by the ANC’s Freedom Charter. He was its Deputy President when he died.

Chima managed to escape arrest for a long time. More than once, secret police who had come for him were fooled by his slight frame and he would escape before it struck them that he was the larger than life picture they had in their heads. But eventually he got caught in 1995 and spent about a year in detention. Amnesty International declared him a prisoner of conscience and he was released a year later as a result of international mobilisation for his freedom.
Shortly after this, with General Abacha’s vice-grip becoming more vicious as he successfully crushed most mass democratic organisations resulting in the ebb of popular struggle by 1997, Chima Ubani was once again at the fore of finding practical ways forward, for uniting and revitalizing the popular struggle, through organisation. This eventually took the form of the establishment of the United Action for Democracy (UAD) on May 17, 1997.

UAD brought together different strands of the radical movement significantly those arrayed with the Campaign for Democracy (or rather a faction of it, as it had split in 1995) and those aligned to the DA. Chima Ubani was elected as one of its founding Co-secretaries (the other co-secretary was Sylvester Odion-Akhaine, who was General Secretary of the CD faction that was part of the founding of the UAD).

UAD gave new life to the democratic struggle against military dictatorship. It organised the “5-million man rally” in Yaba, Lagos, to counter the pro-Abacha “2-million man rally” organised by the sycophantic Youths Earnestly Ask Abacha (YEAA) group in Abuja, in 1998. This marked a re-ignition of the anti-military dictatorship struggle.

When the transition to a civilian regime was unfolded, DA resolved to participate in the transition. This led to a split in August 1998 at the Pending Hotel Convention in Port Harcout. Chima was convinced that the Left had to participate in the elections for a new republic, leading to a parting of ways with the majority of young revolutionary activists who were the majority of delegates. Eventually, DA was not registered to participate in the 1999 elections by the Independent National Electoral Commission. It however pursued its case in court along with parties like the National Conscience Party and the Peoples Redemption Party, opening the way for a liberalisation of the space for partisan politics with a court ruling in December 2002.After the exit of the military, two interlinked issues dominated the focus of Chima’s politics. First was building unity of the socialist Left, the other was forging of closer ties between the revolutionary Left and the trade unions. In pursuit of the first, Chima was the moving spirit behind the summoning of the 3rd All Nigeria Socialist Conference on February 21-23, 2003, at Benin City.

He was elected as one of the two representatives of the Socialist Congress of Nigeria (the other was Festus Iyayi), into the Working Committee of the Nigeria Socialist Alliance (NSA) which the Conference constituted. Chima was unanimously elected within the WC as its Chair. But unfortunately, Chima was too busy with his tasks as Executive Director of CLO and could not provide the required leadership for the NSA. This was central to the atrophy and unsung death of the NSA after just three meetings of the WC.

The last of Chima’s organisational achievements was with regards to the second issue. As a leading civil society activist, Chima was always at the fore of several mass protests called along with general strikes against pump price hikes, starting from 2000. The way and manner the 2003 general strike was called off by the trade unions however led to grave cause for concern within the ranks of the socialist Left which constituted the leadership of the civil society movement.

Very much like what would later happen in a more intensive way in 2012, first the TUC and later the NLC, called off the general strike at a point when it was clear that it was leading to revolutionary openings. Chima Ubani and other radical civil society activists then made it clear to the trade unions that there was the need for the relationship between the radical civil society movement and the trade unions to be more clearly defined organisationally.This led to the birth of the Labour Civil Society Coalition (LASCO), as a platform for discussions between the trade unions and civil society groups in planning, executing, and assessing mass actions. There was thus the need for the civil society components within LASCO to have a collective forum as well.

UAD represented the broadest form of a unified civil society coalition. But some groups, which included the faction of CD that had not joined in the formation of UAD (and which was then being led by Beko Ransome-Kuti after he was released from detention in 1998), were not part of it. Chima Ubani initiated discussions with them and this resulted in the formation of the Joint Action Forum as the civil society component of LASCO.

While Beko Ransome-Kuti emerged as the JAF Chair, Chima was unanimously made the General Secretary. It was in this capacity that he was a central figure in the 2005 rallies against neoliberal policies, particularly reflected in the incessant fuel price hikes. This would be his last duty, as death claimed this indefatigable soldier of the working class on the way from Maiduguri

Even in death, Chima’s very essence symbolised the life he lived; one for the working people. He not only died in the active service of the class he lived for. He died on September 21, exactly 30 years to the date that the Apena Declaration for trade union unity was signed by the leaders of the four trade union centres in Nigeria at the time, leading to the birth of the Nigeria Labour Congress.

In lieu of a conclusion
All his conscious life, Chima waged a struggle to change the system, playing leading roles in different ways, at different times. He was convinced that a better Nigeria, indeed a better world, is possible and can be won only through the working people’s ceaseless struggle. In the course of his life and over the past ten years, we have won several battles.

For example, Nigerians can now have the confidence that our votes will be counted and will count. But this is not enough. Democracy must mean much more than just the franchise right being exercised every four years, despite the importance of this. If democracy is, as we made to believe: “government of the people, by the people, and for the people”, it must flow from below.

Councils of representatives must be elected directly in our workplaces and communities. Such representatives, up to the highest level must not earn more than the wages of the average worker, unlike what we have now where public office holders who are supposed to be the servants of the people “earn” millions of naira, while the national minimum wage remains a paltry N18,000 per month. Our representatives must also be fully accountable to us, and the right to democratically recall erring public officers must not be cumbersome.
Chima fought against all policies and programmes that put profit before people. UAD continues to insist that democracy entails putting people before profit. Privatisation, deregulation and cuts in the funding of social services only benefit the rich and powerful. The wealth of our lands and from our toil as working people must be used to ensure the welfare and wellbeing of all citizens. UAD will thus continue to fight against all anti-poor people policies, as Chima did.

We will thus hold the All Progressives Congress and President Muhammadu Buhari’s government to their campaign promises. We want to know when the social protection measures they promised such as conditional cash transfers, massive low cost housing schemes and improvement in public healthcare delivery would commence.

Chima Ubani stood for the unity of organised labour and the civil society movement. UAD activists, state chapters and affiliates will be organising a series of activities in commemoration of the 10th year anniversary of the death of Chima Ubani and Tunji Oyeleru in: Port Harcourt, Lagos, Nsukka, Kano, and Abuja. We use this moment to call out to all pro-working people forces in the civil society movement to work more closely together, for in unity lies our strength. We also call on the NLC and TUC to take up the gauntlet of establishing the Labour Civil Society Coalition (LASCO) as the veritable platform of struggle which it has the potential of becoming, with the formation of LASCO chapters at states and communities levels.

Finally, it is regrettable that most of the promises made when Chima and Tunji died regarding the welfare of their families have not been met. We are happy that the NLC under the leadership of Comrade Ayuba Wabba has taken up a firm commitment in this regard. The Nigerian state is culpable of their deaths by default and should bear responsibility for the upkeep of their families. We also have to ensure that the historic roles of these two martyrs of our movement are presented for future generations, to inspire the kind of commitment that drove them in the struggle for system change. A biography of Chima Ubani would thus be published next year by the UAD.

Thank you for listening.

Baba Aye
National Convener
(Being the text of a media conference to addressed by Comrade Baba Aye, National Convener of the United Action for Democracy on Saturday, November 19, 2015, at the National Secretariat of the National Union of Air Transport Employees (NUATE), Ikeja Lagos)


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