ROAD TO EDO HOUSE:ADAMS OSHIOMHOLE’S BURDEN
THE UNTOLD STORY:ADAMS OSHIOMHOLE’S BURDEN
From the archives of: Mobola Lanre-Badmus,
National Standard Newsmagazine – April 2005
Adams Oshiomhole doesn’t like to think he is the most powerful man in Nigeria. He would rather pass that baton to Olusegun Obasanjo, the nation’s President. As the leader of the most populous country in Africa, with a forest of oil wells and current chairman of the African Union, (AU) Obasanjo cuts a lot of clout across the globe. So, for the President, the title is apt.
Only that Oshiomhole, 52, is the other President in the same country. Presiding over the Nigerian Labour Congress, (NLC) he dictates the temperature of the over 30 million labour force. A mere 23% of the 130 million population, the data would read, but significant enough to clog the wheels of Federal Government policies. Especially the incessant increase in prices of petroleum products, which the Obasanjo Administration dubs deregulation, but which Oshiomhole chooses to consider as gross inhumanity, in the face of the several hardship Nigerians have had to face. These include bad roads, lack of portable water, electricity, insecurity of lives and property, plus epileptic educational and health facilities. Whenever all negotiations fail, the NLC president’s answer has always been the same; paralyse socio-economic and political activities across the country via a nation-wide strike, until Government decides to co-operate. His strategy hardly fails.
“This is a very dangerous man,” Obasanjo jocularly announced to a curious Queen Elizabeth, as he introduced the diminutive labour leader, at a state banquet, during the last Commonwealth meeting in Nigeria. The dart in the President’s eyes betrayed the apprehension the Labour leader evokes in him. But Oshiomhole says even that, is not power. “I am only on the side of the people and together, we are claiming our rights” he says. The “only power in Nigeria,” he muses, “belongs to Obasanjo, because he is the number one leader”. And that is that. Except that whenever Adams Oshiomhole sneezes, government catches cold – the President, Governors, Local government Chairmen, their hangers-on and lately, top players in the private business sector. Still, he chooses not to dwell on the impact his actions or inactions has had on the leadership, but prefers to flaunt bloated modesty. And “anyway” he says with a chuckle, “I am too busy strategizing on how to make those things happen, than to start looking out for the implications of what I do.”
So far, he has led everyone by the nose. And except for one or two counter associations sponsored by government at the peak of its frustration during those strikes, the confidence of the Nigerian people in Oshiomhole is total. And that is his burden. Just the other day, the Labour leader sauntered into a restaurant in Abuja, the seat of the Federal Government. Suddenly, a youngster appeared from nowhere, grabbed his hand and then, an effusive, ‘good evening Mr. President… thank you very much for all you’re doing for us …’ His immediate reaction was to playfully ask the child, ‘ but who do you think I am?’ Of course, ‘you are Comrade Adams Aliyu Oshiomhole,’ was the definite response. Then entered a flustered mum, who in one breath apologized for her daughter’s intrusion and whatever embarrassment she might have caused the older man and then went on with another elaborate monologue of how much the Labour leader is revered in her household because of his messianic tendencies. “I was humbled”, he quipped.
Oshiomhole has had to deal with a lot of that in recent times. Somehow, people find it more convenient to walk up to him at the airport, on the street and other public places to register their complaints, than they would, if they bumped into their elected Representatives at the National Assembly. Well, they probably trust his result-oriented actions more than the endless debate.
But its quite easy to conclude that as Oshiomhole has promoted his ventures, he has also promoted himself and accumulated the power of celebrity. His face is one of the most recognized in Nigeria. And media merchants like to argue that it is marketable too. Back slaps, hand pumps, effusive hugs, words of commendation in hushed tones - even from unlikely quarters, are his most likely reward. Whenever the Labour leader enters a roomful of people, chant of ‘presido!’ rents the air. The pitch only increases when he walks the streets. And during strikes, his slight frame is raised shoulder high by the ordinary people that have come to regard him as their symbol of fairness and freedom. He responds with clenched fist-punching the air - the ultimate power salute.
It looks like incredible fun. But Oshiomhole says showers of affection like these, quite expectedly, strengthen his resolve to move on, but sometimes cast his heart in cold fear too. “When you find that people give you so much trust, it creates additional burden on how to service that trust”, he offers, displaying unusual emotion. He winces under the weight of this responsibility and fears failure fearfully because in his words, “Nigerians have been betrayed so many times in the past”. And it would be a slap on their collective psyche, if yet another hero, this particular hero, crumbles. Taking extra care to weigh his options is the price he has had to pay. And of course, matching his words with action and leading by example. None of which, he would be the first to tell you, is enough to breed perfection. After all, Adams Oshiomhole is human too and entitled to his fair share of mistakes. But, “one error in judgment,” he says and he would become public enemy number one, because the people would just conclude “that you have sold out”. Now, “If I go out then, where would I hide?” he asks with emphasis, obviously pondering the question. That script could have played out at the last nationwide strike. Once again, the Federal Government had increased the prices of petroleum products. Expectedly, Oshiomhole raised an alarm on behalf of the millions of Nigerians groaning below the United Nations stipulated standard of living. Engaging the government in a somewhat combative dialogue, NLC attributed the increment, the fifth in Obasanjo’s six years in office, to the insensitivity of the government towards the plight of its citizens. Especially since Nigeria is touted as the 6th largest oil producing nation in the world, with of course, a lot of petro-dollar and even more oil-induced influence to splash around. What sensible negotiation failed to achieve, Oshiomhole promised his lieutenants across the 36 states, would eventually be accomplished by the nationwide strike, as Government is brought to its knees. “There is no going back!” he reiterated to a cheering crowd, who passed the message from cities to town, towns to villages and villages to hamlets. The heat was on.
But nobody bargained for Gani. At 64, constitutional lawyer and Human rights activist, Gani Fawehinmi, is another credible face in Nigeria. Reputed to have fought on the side of the masses for more than 30 years of his life, Gani, whose “commitment,” in the words of Oshiomhole, “is total,” is an unflinching critic of government policies. He would naturally align with the position of the Nigerian Labour Congress, or anything that would put a smile on the faces of the ordinary people. This time though, Gani’s position was unusual. When he put a call through to the NLC president 24 hours to the strike, what Oshiomhole thought he heard from the other side of the line was a call for truce with the Federal Government. He needed to confirm he was indeed, talking to the no-nonsense Gani Fawehinmi. And most importantly, reassured himself that this was Gani, whose counsel was wise and who “cannot make a deal.” Always an addict to the rule of law and constitutionality, Gani told Oshiomhole that the only motive for his advice was the High Court ruling, issued some few hours earlier barring the NLC from going on strike. According to Gani, if Oshiomhole goes ahead with the strike he would be in contempt of the law. And anyway, why right a wrong with another wrong.
It wasn’t an easy decision for the Labour leader. “To whom much is given, much is expected,” he reminded himself. “If Nigerians trust me that much, I owe them everything and if I sense that they would misunderstand my motive I would rather err on the other side than on the side of the people,” he told close associates. Oshiomhole’s apprehension is understandable. Right after the court ruling and just before Gani’s appeal, the Labour leader had called a press conference, insisting that the strike would go on. “For me if the court tells me not to breath, I would breath o.” he emphasizes. Assuring himself that “it is better for somebody to be in jail (for contempt) and Nigeria would be free, than for all of us to be imprisoned.”
But now, he was caught between loyalty and reason. “In my heart (that day) I just was not sure of what to do. I knew Gani meant well, but he could be wrong you know. Genuinely wrong - mistake of the head and not the heart”. Eventually, when he came out of the marathon meeting with the National Executive of the NLC and prominent Human Right Activists including Gani, he gave only one condition for the NLC to stay action; the respected lawyer would accompany him to tell the nation to call off the strike. That became the only solution, as Oshiomhole insisted he could never face Nigerians with, “Gani said …. For me, it was, come and say it to them yourself.”
Yet, he has learnt to turn deaf ears on doubters. “People come to me all the time and say, Adams, do you want to kill yourself for this country? No, no! This country is not worth dying for.” But that is their problem not his, he tells himself over and again. “Otherwise,” such unsolicited advices, “could weaken my resolve” he says. Oddly enough, these noise is hardly from family quarters, but from his, “nine out of ten friends” who think he is carrying the crusade too far. And who knows? Could attract fatal consequences too!
Just some twelve hours to a public demonstration last year, yet another exasperated friend phoned to warn him “to be very careful”. And then the clincher, “…you know this man can kill you.” In a country where public figures are being gunned down in broad day light, without the culprits ever being brought to book, Oshiomhole was supposed to be frightened by this hint. But his resolute response was “if you have chosen to be a slave, may you be a slave. I will not be a slave in my own country” And anyway, “who told you I want to live forever? And who told you that those who are dead are worse off than those of us who are here?’ he muses to himself.
What shocks him most, when such conversations come up, he says, “is the critics’ understanding of the options.” He could easily forgive anyone that encourage him to stretch his dialogue nerves with government, but when he starts hearing things like ‘you are not getting younger’ ‘at this point, think of your family’ then, he says, ‘they lose me, because we are all thinking of the family, that’s why nobody is thinking of the country. There is no country that can grow if everybody is selfish.”
Still, the will to stay alive is part of this game. When an army of the State Security Service, SSS, stormed his residence sometime last year at 1.00 a.m, Oshiomhole didn’t submit his chest for a fury of ‘stray bullets’. Rather he executed a decoy when he stood in his compound shouting for his driver to ‘come and take me to the office immediately!’ ‘Office’ is the Labour House, which the perplexed officers, who obviously were still strategizing on the best moment to strike, were familiar with. So, they zoomed after his car. But it was empty. No Oshiomhole. In fact, he had escaped in an unmarked vehicle, which he summoned on the telephone through a trusted ally. To this he says “the state has some awesome power that could turn the table around anytime. If you are not ardent, they can make you at a point, doubt yourself, which you’ll regret, because you will cower, and some people will now think you have been bribed”.
He got a huge dose of that power flexing yet again. This time, the NLC president was approached by the SSS at the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport in Abuja. He was on his way to attend the burial ceremony of the mother of a top government official. But his aggressors didn’t think his trip was priority, as they reiterated the need for him to meet with the SSS Director immediately. Oshiomhole refused. An altercation ensued. And in the presence of prominent Nigerians at the VIP lounge, he was dragged and forcefully carried into the convoy of black cars. “That couldn’t have happened if I was in the normal departure hall and not VIP”, he says. Maybe. Afterall, these other VIPs are not used to fighting anyone’s battle. What is certain however, is that Oshiomhole later told the world he sustained bodily injuries in the scuffle and had his clothes torn. Not many people believed him. Especially when the SSS came out with their version of having released him barely 30 minutes after the supposed arrest. Still, the NLC insisted that their leader was kept incommunicado for almost a whole day without a warrant of arrest. At that point, government was the first to blink.
It is one thing to see Adams Oshiomhole in public; it is another entirely to see him in private. This evening, he has traded his trademark combative Khaki for a neutral Buba and Sokoto. His no-nonsense trained face, dissolved into a passive, if not homely expression. Ensconced in a sofa in this modest home, with a silent T.V (probably playing catch-up with news from the National Political Reform Conference, where he is a major actor, he could pass for anybody’s pal. Well, except that once in a while, he tries to infuse the air with some sternness. “This is establishment news” he stated curtly, with a dismissive wave of the hand. Obviously referring to the Nigerian Television Authority’s (NTA) news and partly explaining why he decided to muzzle the volume.
Probably topping the popularity list of many, his phone goes off at the rate of two calls per minute. ”Yes, we’ll sort that out when I get to Lagos next week…” he says into a mobile phone, his assertive voice, filling the room in one breath. In another conversation it was, “… oh yes, my birthday is next week … (April 4th) you are organizing something in Lagos? Okay then, we’ll see about that …” Then, “…well, the CONFAB is on… you know, so much grammar everywhere…” and he crackles with laughter.
No doubt he doesn’t bring the baggage of aluta continua into his home. Or at least, he tries to suppress it. These days, Oshiomhole is chummy with those he himself would tag ‘establishment people.’ They wine, dine, and party together. A likely source of worry to his fans that would prefer the comrade as an extremist. But his critics ironically prefer to keep mum on his choice of playmates, choosing to vend speculations that the NLC president has soiled his fingers instead. Whenever, a strike looms, with the Labour leader threatening fire until government negotiates, stories are peddled about him collecting bribe from the Federal Government and then turning around to sabotage its activities. But Oshiomhole says that insinuation is balderdash. “It is all government propaganda!” he booms. A wild one it appears, since some N300 million was speculated to have changed hands to smother the last strike.
Lately, there are tales that Oshiomhole’s thriving influence could only navigate in one direction – politics; with the Edo State Government House as his final berth. He has not called a press conference to deny that. But neither has his posters emerged too. Critics maintain he is frantically weighing the options “so that they don’t demystify him.” ‘They’, allude to the Olusegun Obasanjo government, which Oshiomhole has consistently criticized since 1999, and could never imagine him crossing to the other side.
Interestingly, his aides may have taken it to that level though. At the Labour House in Abuja, where Oshiomhole holds court, visitors are just beginning to realize that it is easier to see President Olusegun Obasanjo than it is, to see president Adams Oshiomhole, even on appointments. When his tinted jeep zooms into the frontage of the 12 storey building, security operatives in black suits and dark glasses, menacingly prowl the corridors. Then, lieutenants and aides are jumping out of their skins to walk him into the office and back into the vehicle. No one talks to him, unless he talks first. It is a convincing re-enactment of activities in the corridor of politics; that he appears to be warming up for it after all.
Even now that he is rushing back to the conference centre to continue deliberation after his one hour break, the scene is replayed; slamming doors, scurry of feet. At the back of the jeep where he sat with another security operative, he throws back his head in obvious relief. His mind drifting to events in the last six years; the dialogues, the arm twisting, the pleadings, the strikes… then, zoom, to the last impending strike, that was barred by the High Court, 24 hours earlier, but which he had vowed to execute. He recalls the marathon deliberations with all stakeholders. And then, Government’s tactical withdrawal and return to the status quo. Unable to rely on the court ruling, they had bowed to Oshiomhole’s demands and eventually reduced the fuel prices. Now, that is power.