Elijah Okougbo: A tribute
Something tragic happened to the Nigeria State on the road to its Third Republic political struggle. The record is there in the history of the combative labour movement and civil society groups, which presided over the ouster of the military boys and chased them back to the barracks.
Military dictatorship, wherever it is found, goes with dehumanisation. From the period of colonial rule to the time of military interregnum, the Nigeria State was replete with courageous voices from the labour movement, calling for independence, democracy, social justice, equity and fairness. The voices of the likes of Pa Michael Imoudu, Hassan Sumonu, Frank Kokori, Joseph Akinlaja and Elijah Okougbo were consistent as the northern star. Despite the ravages of military locusts, despite the tyrannical occupation of streets by the agents of darkness, there were avatars, particularly from the oil unions, who heroically stood between the oppressed and the oppressors. July 5, 1994 is a testament. On that fateful day, the National Union of Petroleum and Natural Gas Workers (NUPENG) and Petroleum and Natural Gas Senior Staff Association (PENGASSAN) began the longest strike in Nigerian history to protest the annulled June 12, 1993 presidential elections. The nation was plunged into a monumental fuel crisis, causing untold hardship to citizens. This was followed by riots on July 8, 1994, in the Southwestern states, especially Lagos, Oyo, Ondo, Ogun, as well as Edo State. The Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) merely called for solidarity strike in support of (NUPENG) and (PENGASSAN) on August 3, 1994. I asked the elder statesman, Comrade Frank Kokori, not too long ago in Abuja how he held on to the struggle unbroken while in the gulag under the military jackboot at the same time sustaining the non-violence agitation for the validation of the ‘June 12 Mandate.’
He responded thus: “The heroes and titans of that era are Comrades Elijah Okougbo and Joseph Akinlaja, both retired Secretary-Generals of NUPENG and Comrade WariebiAgamene”.
He painted moveable pictures of the derring-do spirit of Comrade Elijah Okougbo, a shrewd negotiator, as one of the greatest men ever thrown up by the labour movement.
Comrade Kokori, however, regretted the lack of cohesion on the part of the progressives to form a formidable political party to contest elections and form the government at the centre. That was long before I had anything to do with NUPENG. He lamented that those who profited from the blood of innocent Nigerians, occasioned by the military brutal ruination of the nation were those who leaked his hideouts and that of his loved ones to the military boys the traitors and enemies of the people. Comrade Kokori said the history of Nigeria can never be told without the role played by the likes of Comrade Elijah Okougbo. Courageous, impeccably well-mannered, well-bred, with an absolute touch of toughness and thoroughness, Comrade Elijah Okougbo and his colleagues organised punitive strikes against the military goons who were determined to keep the nation underfoot while he, Kokori, was kept in detention. Okougbo is one whose immerse contributions to modern Nigeria’s search for political determination, education, nation building or self-retrieval and continental self-validation will not escape the inquisitive pen of historians.
Comrade Okougbo was a giants in size and in intellect. He stood out like a supreme exemplar for his exceptional courage, his indomitable spirit, his intimidating brilliance, stupendous energy, entrepreneurial wizardry. Thanks goodness for the immutable hand of destiny, which permitted him to witness the birth of the Fourth Republic.
• Ikhide, A Social commentator writes from Lagos, Nigeria.