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Ex-NLC president, Ali Ciroma, reveals why he left Borno Elders’ Forum

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Ex-NLC president, Ali Ciroma, reveals why he left Borno Elders’ Forum

Comrade Ali Ciroma is a former president of the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) between 1984 and 1988. He joined union movement since he was 17, nearly 73 years ago. He was the president of the Rural Health Workers of Nigeria in 1960 before it eventually became the Medical and Health Workers Association.

Daily Trust reports that the 90-year-old Labour leader spoke on his activities and experiences with the military regimes led by General Muhammadu Buhari and General Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida (IBB) in the interview below.

How did life start for you in Maiduguri

I was born in Hausari ward. My father was the Lawan of Hausa in Maiduguri.

Does that mean you came from somewhere else?

Hausa migrants are in Hausari ward of Maiduguri, and my father was the village head. I was born in 1933. We were put under the tutelage of Alhaji Garba in 1936 or 1937, a Fulani man who was learned in Quran. After a brief period we moved to elementary school in Maiduguri about the age of 7. We started western education from elementary school, and after four years, we moved to middle school, which was next door.

We were there for five years. At the end, if you were lucky you would get admission into Barewa College, which was the only secondary school in the whole of the North.

But you didn’t go to Barewa, instead you trained as a health worker, is that correct?

Yes, as we finished from the middle school I applied to the health workers’ school in Makurdi. That was in 1950. It was known as Epidemic College. It was a new school after the Second World War. The British government sponsored some welfare packages for Nigeria and they established about 10 different units.

Was that a reward for helping them in the Second World War?

I think so. Ours was to fight epidemics.

Was it strange to go to Makurdi from Maiduguri to train in that school?

It was strange, but then, the whole North was regarded as one home, so we didn’t feel very much that we were away from home. And of course, at that time there were very few educated northerners, such that most departments, including our own school in Makurdi, were made up of over 60 per cent southerners. We were made up of Yoruba, Igbo, and other Nigerians. That was where we did the initial training.

After that, we were posted to another training school in Kaduna, where laboratory examinations of all sorts were carried out. We were trained in laboratory work, and after two years we passed out and were posted to units.

There were units in provinces. There was one in Maiduguri, the number three medical field unit that took care of rural health work in Borno State. I was there for three or four years and was posted to Yaba Laboratory Training School, where I did some training in mosquitoes.

Was that in Lagos?

Yes. That was in 1953 or 1954. After that, we came back to the North and continued. I was posted to Birnin Kebbi in western Sokoto, which is Kebbi State today.

There was malaria control by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF). It was sponsored by the UNICEF, which supplied drugs, vehicles and equipment. They posted some malarialogists and etymologists from the WHO. We established the malaria control unit in Birnin Kebbi, which lasted for about 10 years.

Were you in Kebbi for those 10 years?

I was in Kebbi for about six years. From there, I was posted to the Medical Auxiliary Training School, Kaduna. It was a new school. The Makurdi school was upgraded and brought to Kaduna and I was posted there to be one of the lecturers.

So you moved from being a field worker to teaching?

Yes. That was in 1959. I was in the school in Kaduna up to 1966/1967. When I became a senior officer I was posted to the field and back to Birnin Kebbi to continue the malaria control. But this time, another unit was formed, going round the whole native authority dispensaries. That was part of what we did in Kaduna. We were training native authority dispensaries along with government health workers.

I was in charge of all the native authority dispensaries in Gwandu for about one year and was posted to go and take over from the rural medical officer in Idah, which is today in Kogi State. We controlled a disease called yaws.

What type of disease is yaws?

It is a ‘junior brother’ to syphilis, which is a sexually transmitted disease. But yaws is not sexually transmitted, it is contacted through flies sitting on the sore of a sick man and transferring the virus to a healthy man.

That one too, was WHO-sponsored. We were issued drugs and medicals. We controlled yaws mostly in the Middle Belt area and some parts of southern Nigeria.

After that, of course my final station was Jalingo, which is in the present day Taraba State. We also controlled yaws there. The sleeping sickness unit was also attached to my office. I was there until 1970 when I moved my headquarters to Mubi to take care of those areas where yaws was also prevalent.

After few years there, a medical observatory school was established in Maiduguri; and as one of the former teachers in Kaduna, I was posted to inaugurate the school.

Were you made the principal of the school?

I was there until I started more development in unionism. I became a national officer of the Medical and Health Workers Union, then an affiliate of the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) as one of the 42 industrial unions attached to it.

There was the Borno State Council of the NLC and I became its chairman. From there, in 1981 I was elected as deputy president of the NLC during Alhaji Hassan Somounu tenure in Kano in 1981.

But it was a part time job. I used to attend meetings in Lagos very often but I was still in the Borno State Government until 1984 when I succeeded Alhaji Somounu and took leave of absence from the state government and moved to Lagos, where the NLC president stayed because it was a fulltime job.

Why did you choose to go the trade union way rather than continue as a very senior civil servant? You were already a principal of a medical institution; what motivated you to leave a comfortable civil service for the trade union?

I don’t know; maybe I thought trade unionism would help me to improve the condition of service of the workers. I think these things are in me or something like that.

Is it true that you started trade unionism at 17?

Yes.

In what form?

I was a member of the Medical Health Workers Union. I first joined the union at the training school in Makurdi. When my appointment was confirmed, we also joined the main union. From there, I never looked back. I always I combined my government work with trade union.

When you became the president of the Rural Health Workers Union in 1960, was there no conflict between that position and your civil service job?

There wasn’t conflict because the British government recognised unions in Nigeria and didn’t interfere with our activities.

It was when we got independence that our people started interfering with unions. And when the military came, they became dictatorial and interfered with unions. The colonial government, on the other hand, did not feel bad about the existence of unions, they rather encouraged unionism.

You became the president of the NLC as the military was taking over government; I think it was during the Muhammadu Buhari-led military regime; what was your experience?

When the military took over, there was a problem, especially because international trade unions did not like military regime anywhere. The problem was that trade unions in Nigeria supported the military when they came. In fact, the whole Nigeria was jubilating; they welcomed the military. That was the contradiction

So you supported the coup of 1983 because you felt the civilian government was not living up to the expectations of Nigerians?

Yes. The NLC came out in support of military takeover. We even offered to assist the military to stabilise the country and fight all those bad things, including corruption. That was how we started.

But Buhari didn’t welcome us. Before I became the president of the NLC, there was no contact between the unions and the government. But after I was elected, a letter was written to the NLC, inviting us to meet the head of state. When we met, Buhari gave his reasons for not calling us earlier. That was because I complained that he was calling political groups, apparently because of the problems they created in the country. I told him that unions should have been the first people to have called because they were the right people to assist him.

But he explained that he felt Somounu was outgoing and he felt it was better to allow him go so as to start from a level-playing ground with a new union leader. I thanked him.

He was known for decrees against the media and civil society organisations; how was your relationship with his regime?

At the beginning Buhari made draconian laws and meted very painful treatment to Nigerian workers, especially in the issue retrenchments.

Was the country under austerity measures at that time?

Yes.

Was the government running out of money?

Yes. And state governments were not paying salaries; only the federal government was paying. So, according to Buhari, instead of keeping people and not paying them salaries, it was better to dismiss them.

But for the unions, dismissing workers was worse than not paying salaries because if you were not paid, at least you would have a claim that your salaries were not paid and you would negotiate with the government.

Dismissal or retrenchment is most hated by unions because loss of jobs means loss of lives. In fact, that was the struggle civil servants had with Buhari from the beginning.

We were doing our best. We did not go on strike but we were making threats, and so on. But Buhari was very tough, such that once he made up his mind, he would stick to it.

But honestly speaking, we hated Second Republic politicians, especially those in the National Party of Nigeria (NPN). All Nigerians hated the Shagari government, so we decided to give Buhari a chance and see what he would do. Unfortunately, he stayed for only 15 months or so and Babangida came.

What was your relationship with the Babangida regime?

Right from the word, go, unions did not accept Babangida. We wanted to give Buhari a chance because he showed some honesty. That was the difference.

When Babangida came, I was in Togo for a meeting when Kashim and Somounu ran to my room and said there was a coup d’état in Nigeria. I was not happy because that was not what we wanted. We wanted whoever was there to stay and stabilise the country.

So, we did not trust Babangida, right from the beginning. Unfortunately, I could not hide my fear for the regime.

Did he call you for a meeting like Buhari? 

Yes. Babangida, like Maradona, tried to woo everybody, but we were not happy with him.

The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC)  said that was the first time a government was overthrown anywhere for refusing to take the International Monetary Fund (IMF) loan. Buhari was against the loan.

So, ideologically you felt closer to the Buhari regime?

Yes. The western government had agreed that this man was brought in to take IMF loan because the western powers and World Bank had strategies; they had planned their structural adjustment programme for the world.

They wanted all governments to run a subsidy-free economy, so Nigeria must run a free economy, where the capitalists would be allowed to run the country as they found it fit. Babangida accepted the Structural Adjustment Programme.

Before then, we heard the experience of Structural Adjustment Programme in countries like Zambia, Ghana and many other places. Workers all over the world were against the programme.

The first casualty was local currency, which they said must be allowed to flow freely and find its level. They said no government should fix its rate; and Babangida agreed to do that.

And with the naira falling, income and purchasing power were also falling. If the naira is devalued by 10 per cent today, tomorrow, oil prices goes up by 10 per cent. But nobody is going to give us the 10 per cent. And government was not ready to review salaries.

They wanted us to remain on fixed salaries and allow devaluation to continue to chop into the purchasing power of our wages until they were not even paying anybody again. You could not take anything home.

You said the Babangida regime came with policies the NLC considered anti people, what did you do about it?

Of course we opposed those measures. The withdrawal of subsidies included all schools, even universities. We all know that when the universities started, there was free food and children were not paying school fees, and so on. But suddenly, Babangida came overnight and said there was no free school, no food subsidy.

We said that people like Babangida, who were sons of ordinary people but had free education, couldn’t have been in a position to rule this country.

Babangida’s policy meant that western education was going to be only for the children of the elite.

I remember how poor people from villages used to gain admission into middle schools. There were boarding schools and we had free food. The poor enjoyed those schools.

Would it be a fair argument to say that the schools were affordable because the pupils were not many; and as the population of schoolchildren grew, the government could no longer afford to sponsor free education?

It is true, but there should have been planning and consultation to find a middle ground.

Also, overnight, all hospitals became pay as you were treated; there were no more free medical services. People must pay for everything.

Till today, many people cannot afford hospital services; and there is no free treatment. In fact, I had my 7th surgery in the last 10 to 15 years just about three weeks ago in the teaching hospital here in Maiduguri; and I know how much it cost each me time. I am still recuperating.

Several times that I had to go for surgeries, family and old friends were helping, including the immediate past immediate president of the NLC, Ayuba Wabba. And each time I went, I felt pity for ordinary people. I feel very bad.

Under the Structural Adjustment Programme, the value of naira fell so much. Before the programme, civil servants were given one year salaries to buy a brand new car. In 1966 we were given 1,000pounds, which gave us a brand new car.

Unfortunately, today, even N2,000 cannot buy a bicycle. After the Structural Adjustment Programme with its freight changes, a new car became out of the question for civil servants.

There was a time the government was not even giving loans because it could not buy you a car. In fact, your 10-year salaries cannot even buy you a car. So there was a blockage for few years until somehow, he was trying to bring in used cars and other things and things started picking up.

And of course, unfortunately, with corruption, everybody was stealing.

Under Babangida?

Yes.

How did you fight the government when they had all the powers on their side?

Well, we did our best. People still think our time was different from the present Labour leadership.

At least we behaved like a trade union. We did not sell out workers nor betray their trust.

But soon after us, Babangida dissolved the NLC. However, he later allowed the union to be established again under Pascal Bafyau, but he gave conditions to be fulfilled.

Bafyau began to deal with Babangida as an equal partner and he was given all sorts of subventions by the government. We never had subventions.

You were the president of the NLC when it was dissolved. How did you hear about the proscription? Can you tell us what happened?

When we were going for the 1988 election, all sorts of hurdles were put on our way by the government. One of them was that the government infiltrated into some of our unions and they agreed that the NLC could be dissolved. That was part of their agreement. Unfortunately, all the unions that wanted to break away were debtors to the NLC. They were not paying their dues. So, when it came to membership at the convention, they had no chance to stand against us. The government gave them money to pay overnight into the NLC account so as to raise their membership, but it didn’t help. So government said they should boycott the NLC meeting and hold their own.

That was how the NLC was split. They also went to Benin, where we were going to hold our meeting and held theirs a day earlier and elected officers.

The government, through the then minister of labour, operating under crocodile tears, said it was unfortunate that the NLC, which was meant to speak for workers, was split into two. They said the government would, therefore, not watch Nigerian workers to suffer from the leadership tussle of Labour leaders. Consequently, decrees 21 and 22 were promulgated to abolish the NLC. Ali Ciroma and Dr Sunday moved away from their offices.

Would you describe the action of the military government as a coup against the NLC?

Yes, it was a coup.

What happened to you after that announcement?

They asked us to hand over to the military administrator. But we refused to go because before we came back from Benin, the military government had sent troops to take over the NLC office. The administrator was already there with the police.

I called for a meeting in the guest house where I stayed, so that we would discuss our next line of action. I said workers should fight the government or down tools. Unfortunately, we were divided. All the trade unions said they could not afford to down tools because they were afraid that what happened to me in the NLC could happen to them.

The affiliates?

They didn’t want to risk anything, so they refused to follow me. They said we should go to court, but I said no court would entertain government’s decree no matter how you followed it. They said we just wanted to play to the gallery that we were fighting the government and going to court. I said I was not part of that because it was a deceit.

They eventually went to court and the court said they had no power to hear the case.

Did you eventually give up and returned to Maiduguri?

There was a government administrator for the NLC; and there was still Labour, so there was still hope that one day, the union would come back.

For one year, I stayed in Lagos mobilising things somehow, but Babangida made sure that before he released the NLC he had tied everything and made the union to support his government. There was no question about that.

So, after one year, when Bafyau was elected, I withdrew from the NLC. I retired and I came back.

By then, I was a member of the governing body of the ILO in Geneva. I continued my membership of the governing body for some years. My election period expired before I finally came back to Nigeria. I came to Maiduguri to stay.

But in 1989, General Sani Abacha brought you back to the trade union as a sole administrator of the Nigeria Union of Petroleum and Natural Gas Workers (NUPENG), is that correct? 

Yes.

Was that a surprise to you? 

Well, what happened was that before then, Abacha had established the Constitutional Conference Commission and asked the NLC to nominate one of their officers into the 19-man body. In his wisdom, Bafyau nominated me. There was no point refusing to serve in the constitutional conference, so I accepted the offer.

Justice Saidu Kawu was our chairman. We invited documents from Nigerians at home to write a new constitution for Nigeria.

I was doing that when the NUPENG, on the order of the National Democratic Coalition (NADECO), went on strike and crippled petrol supply to Nigerians.

Of course, the NLC, working with government, did not back that strike; it was a NUPENG affair. Abacha arrested Frank Kokori, the secretary-general of NUPENG and the secretary-general of the Petroleum and Natural Gas Senior Staff of Nigeria (PENGASSAN and dissolved the unions, this time with the NLC too.

It was when they dissolved the unions that the Minister of Labour proposed that I should take over NUPENG as the administrator.

When I consulted some trade union leaders and others, we felt that if the government wanted to release NUPENG to a trade union leader, same as the NLC too, we should take over. Ahmed Gusau, the deputy governor of Sokoto State at one time, was also a deputy president of the NLC.

So you didn’t feel any conflict going back to that role after they dismissed Kokori and others. Didn’t you feel as if you were betraying the Labour tradition? 

No. In the first place, Kokori was trying to use NUPENG for NADECO. It was politics, so we felt that Kokori had no right to sell the union or make it fight for NADECO.

That was the first thing that gave us the chance to try to see what we could do to help establish trade union relationship, away from the politics of NADECO. So we didn’t feel much discomfort.

After the long life of unionism and you are back to Maiduguri, what have you been doing all these years?

I have been trying to live my normal private life.

When they started selling shares in Nigerian companies as far back as the 1970s, I bought a lot in many companies. So, when I left the NLC, I used to get dividends every year. That’s how life has been for me.

And at that time, things were not very difficult; inflation wasn’t bad. We were managing ourselves.

Were you not tempted to go into farming or something else? 

I have not gone into farming. The shares were very good.

What about now? 

Well, I sold them all off when I was trying to leave Maiduguri for Abuja, Kaduna or somewhere else. I don’t have shares again.

You were in Kaduna for quite a while, didn’t you like living in Maiduguri?

It was because of Boko Haram insurgency. In 2015 there was an attack on Maiduguri airport and all flights were grounded. At that time I used to attend NLC meetings and I found it very difficult to travel by road from Maiduguri to Abuja. My Medical and Health Union workers have a hotel in Abuja, so they gave me a room to stay. That was how I first went to Abuja.

And my union had sponsored somebody to write my biography. Unfortunately, the guy they appointed was a former secretary general- of the NLC.

Was that John Odah?

Yes! He was given all the facilities to start writing, but unfortunately, he reneged and the project stopped. That was in 2015

My stay in Kaduna for one or two years made me look for accommodation because in Abuja, it was very difficult to afford a house. I got an affordable house in Kaduna and moved to that place.

Because of the weather in Kaduna, it was very excellent. While in Maiduguri, I used to have a lot of problems during the hot season, but for the seven or eight years I stayed in Kaduna, I was very comfortable.

Now, because of too much sicknesses here and there, I decided to go back home and face the rest of my life in Maiduguri.

Here in Maiduguri, are you involved in community activities? Are you part of the Borno Elders Forum or your ideology is different?

Somebody said he saw Borno elders in the Government House congratulating Kashim Shettima for emerging vice president-elect, as well as Bola Tinubu, the president-elect, but I was not there; I was not told, nobody invited me.

Well, the present leadership of those who think they are elders of Borno are very young people. I do not regard them as elders because I am much senior to most of them. They chose themselves to be elders and only contact one another. They are not interested in people like us.

Maybe I am not part of Borno elders because there was a time Kashim Shettima told me that they were afraid of me.

How do you spend your day in Maiduguri?

I can’t even do anything much now because I am not well; I can’t move. I stay here all day and night sleeping.

You hinted at the surgeries you had, but you look very much at alert mentally – you remember things; how is your health now?

I had very good surgeries. First, I had spinal surgery in India some 14 years ago. I used to have prostrate problem; I have had about two operations on prostrate seven years ago in Kano, and it was repeated in the teaching hospital in Maiduguri. Last year, I fell down in the room and broke my hip bone and I was in Kano and they fixed that one. I was given this thing to manage, and up till now, I have not recovered much, I still use this thing to move about.

Of course my wheelchair is there; if where I am going is far, I am pushed in it. There’s no much activity.

You are 90 and very few people of your age can sit for one hour granting an interview.

Yes.

What about your family life?

Alhamdulillah, I have a large family. I have 15 children. The youngest is almost 40.

My first and second wives died, so the third is the one with me.

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