Ali Chiroma: Leading Labour Under Rampaging Military Regimes


“Ciroma responded that the regime’s mobilization “is an all-out war, by land, sea and air, against unarmed workers”. On the eve of the protests, Ciroma, his lieutenants and many activists were seized and detained nationwide. The NLC headquarters and its offices in the states were occupied by armed security men…”


THE year 1984 was quite a trying one for the country. The military, which had five years before, handed over power to civilian leaders, had returned like a badly treated Military Tuberculosis. It was on rampage, smashing all other powers in the country. To deal with the press, the regime, led by the duo of Generals Muhammadu Buhari and Tunde Idiagbon, issued Decree 4 of 1984 under which falsehood and truth were punishable offences.

It adopted terror as state policy. For instance, it introduced a War Against Indiscipline, WAI, campaign in which Nigerians were given corporal punishment on the streets not based on any investigation or trial, but the whims and caprices of soldiers and security agents. Student unions were smashed and some of their leaders like Lanre Arogundade, then President of the National Association of Nigerian Students, NANS, were abducted on the streets.

Also, retroactive decrees carrying the death penalty on cases like drug trafficking, were enacted and executed. Nigeria was in a war declared by the military Generals on the populace. However, the regime found the Nigeria Labour Congress, NLC, a formidable foe and tried various means of conquering it. It saw the 1984 NLC election as an opportunity to take over the Congress. But the leading candidate was a stubborn radical, John Enas Dubre. So, pro-state unionists got a court injunction disqualifying him. But rather than allow state agents to take over the Congress, the radical unions swung support to an honest but obstinate Ali Ciroma. He won the election.

Ciroma’s non-radical posture, his being the Principal, School of Health Technology, Maiduguri and, his quiet disposition, seemed to have suited the regime. But the country was in for a shock as he came out fighting, boldly leading workers and refusing to back down. The Ciroma leadership demanded that the regime stopped its mindless mass retrenchment of workers and, delayed payment of salaries. It rejected the ban on strikes insisting that workers have a fundamental right to work or refuse to work. It defended the student movement and rejected the ban on cafeteria system. It sided with the press against the regime. Ciroma publicly demonstrated this by personally attending sessions of the Decree 4 trials of the ‘Guardian Newspaper’ journalists, Nduka Irabor and Tunde Thompson.

The nation heaved a sigh of relief when a palace coup on August 27, 1985 swept away the Buhari-Idiagbon dictatorship. Although the new leadership of General Ibrahim Babangida was more subtle, it turned out to be deadlier. When the regime tilted towards taking an International Monetary Fund, IMF, loan and its enslaving conditionalities, the NLC under Ciroma led the populace against it.

Babangida publicly announced the IMF rejection by the overwhelming majority of Nigerians in his December 13, 1985 broadcast. However, the regime went on to take the loan and implement the IMF dictates as the Structural Adjustment Programme, SAP. Ciroma led labour to reject it and refused to back down even when the regime decreed that as far as SAP goes, There Is No Alternative, TINA.

The regime also made opposition to SAP, a crime. Ciroma rejected this, fought against privatisation and the increases in prices of petroleum products. For these, he and labour leaders like Dr Lasisi Osunde were detained without trial.

In leading the opposition to SAP, Ciroma said it is like a Kanuri proverb which says: “If you dig a hole to fill a hole, you have one more hole to fill.” In other words, that is a fruitless and destructive endeavour. He was right. Today, 38 years later, Nigeria is still suffering from the cancerous radiation effects of the IMF-imposed programmes. The IMF was actually a quack doctor administering the same drugs on all patients irrespective of their ailments. In 2015, in its quarterly magazine ‘Finance and Development’ the institution apologised, saying: “The IMF is unconditionally saying sorry for its dogged insistence, particularly in the 1980s and 1990s that countries’ capital accounts needed to be liberalized…We now know that much of that research was useless- no more useful than the types of studies that say homeopathy works… The other culpa is the insistence on austerity.”

So, perceptive leaders with common sense like Ciroma were right, and their tormentors were wrong. Yet, Babangida has not apologised for ruining Nigeria with SAP and, the useless but highly toxic austerity measures. Another arena of confrontation between the Ciroma leadership and the regime, was over draconian labour laws, especially those that prescribed life sentence or death penalty for striking workers. This was threatened against striking National Union of Petroleum and Natural Gas Workers, NUPENG, members in May 1986, and later, used in sentencing 11 electricity workers for going on strike from October 5-8, 1988.

Back in 1986, the military regime accused Ciroma of trying to overthrow it. This followed the Friday, May 23, 1986 massacre of students and other citizens at the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria. The regime established a panel of inquiry headed by Major General Emmanuel Abisoye and, appointed the NLC into the panel. But the Ciroma leadership rejected the appointment, insisting that arrested students must first be released and that those directly responsible for the killings should be suspended from office. The NLC then mobilised the public for a Day of National Mourning slated for June 4, 1986. The regime banned the NLC demonstration. Its propagandists claimed the date was an attempt to replicate the June 4, 1979 Rawlings coup in Ghana.

Ciroma responded that the regime’s mobilization “is an all-out war, by land, sea and air, against unarmed workers”. On the eve of the protests, Ciroma, his lieutenants and many activists were seized and detained nationwide. The NLC headquarters and its offices in the states were occupied by armed security men with the army deployed on the streets of Lagos and Kano.

When Ciroma sought re-election at the 1988 NLC Conference in Benin, the Babangida regime decided to stop him. First, it paid up all the outstanding NLC affiliation fees owed by the pro-government ‘Democrat’ unions in order to shore up their votes. When it realised that even this will not give it victory, the regime’s preferred candidate, Takai Shamang and his group, boycotted the NLC Conference but declared themselves elected.

When Ciroma was re-elected, Babangida immediately issued a decree removing his leadership and imposing an employer, Michael Ogunkoya, as NLC Sole Administrator. When the regime ordered Ciroma to handover to Ogunkoya, he, uncharacteristically, did not consult his comrades before doing so. There was also the issue whether it was appropriate for him to have accepted to be the Sole Administrator of NUPENG after General Sani Abacha banned its leadership.

Over the years, Ciroma continued to side with the populace until his departure on Tuesday, April 2, 2024.

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