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Ali Ciroma indomitable champion of workers’ rights

Ali Ciroma, who died on Tuesday  last week in Maiduguri, and was buried on Wednesday, was an indomitable champion of workers’ rights. He was blessed…

Ali Ciroma, who died on Tuesday  last week in Maiduguri, and was buried on Wednesday, was an indomitable champion of workers’ rights. He was blessed with long life, living to a venerable age of 91, most of it spent within the confines of the trade union of his choice.

He joined the labour union very young, at 17, and never looked back, becoming the president of the Rural Health Union in 1960 and rising to the climax of the presidency of the Nigerian Labour Congress (NLC) in 1984.

He was born in Maiduguri in 1933. His father was Sarkin Hausawa – the official title of the Lawan of Hausari ward and the Shehu’s official representative in that part of Maiduguri largely populated with traders and artisans from adjoining cities of Kano, Zaria, and Bauchi. He went to nearby schools, Yerwa Central and the Middle School. He opted for a career in health and went to a health workers’ school in Makurdi from where at graduation Ali Chiroma worked in many parts of the country teaching and researching, before the states’ creation eventually brought him back to Maiduguri. He was the Principal School of Health Technology, Maiduguri. He had always been a unionist rising steadily within the ranks ultimately becoming the Borno State NLC chairman in 1978. He became the Deputy National President of the NLC in 1981 and President in 1984.

Ali Ciroma’s times as NLC president fell within the mid-1980s when many governments worldwide were becoming intolerant of the powers and influence of trade unions. In the UK where I had lived in the early 1980s and later as a frequent visitor, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was engaged in a battle of a lifetime with the National Union of Mineworkers led by Arthur Scargill who was struggling against the government’s firm resolve to close the mines and make the miners redundant. After a long-drawn struggle, Thatcher would eventually win the battle of wits with the coal miners.

Even in the communist countries of Eastern Europe, such as Poland, Lech Walesa, leader of the Solidarity Trade Union, was famously daring the status quo in the country. He would eventually win, buoyed by the wave of democratisation that was sweeping across the communist countries in the late 1980s and become president of the country

Ali Ciroma took over the presidency of the NLC from Hassan Sunmonu in 1984 when the country was witnessing another phase of military rule under General Muhammadu Buhari. General Ibrahim Babangida would overthrow General Buhari in 1985 and set the stage for adopting the Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP), an IMF-inspired prescription to ginger up the Nigerian economy going comatose after years of falling oil prices and endemic corruption in running the affairs of the country. Normally, during the eras of military regimes, the labour unions, NLC, ASUU and to some extent NANS, saw themselves as the unofficial opposition, always at the neck of the government over one demand or the other.

Ali Ciroma took on the role with sufficient zest which fetched him harassment, arrests and even imprisonment. The NLC was vehemently against SAP which they regarded as anti-people and only resulted in the devaluation of currency, withdrawal of subsidies and retrenchment of workers. Ali Chiroma was vocal and intransigent, at whatever forum, in propagating the NLC’s objection to Babangida’s government policies.

I met him once when he came to Maiduguri to attend an NLC event. It was an event that the military governor had consented to attend and we were fidgety that the NLC president would climb the podium and rail against the government.

I had just taken over as permanent secretary (political) in the Governor’s Office and labour matters being within my purview, I naively thought I could dissuade the NLC president from making a fiery speech. In due course, he arrived in Maiduguri and came to my office accompanied by the State NLC chairman who was a staff of the Governor’s Office. It was a convivial meeting and when he found out that we were both from the contiguous wards of Hausari and Fezzan we ended up chatting a great deal. When he was leaving, I put it to him to tone down the rhetoric against the government, he just gave me a toothy smile for an answer. The next day at the event in Ramat Square, the NLC president’s speech was another blistering attack on the government. He was a very good speaker who would always faultlessly marshal his points from his ideological point of view.

The NLC under Ali Ciroma, on the one hand, was unrelenting and uncompromising. On the other hand, the government of General Babangida was focused on its market-oriented policies and would not brook any opposition. None budged until 1988, at the end of Ali Ciroma’s tenure, the government seized the opportunity of a rancorous election to roll out a decree to disband the NLC. Ali Ciroma kept faith with the NLC and continued to represent them at the International Labour Organisation until 1990. He was also a delegate to the Constitutional Conference Commission from 1995-98.

My condolences to my colleague, his son Usman, his brothers and sisters as well as the NLC larger family. Allah ya jikanshi da rahama.

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