For comrade James Crentsil – Part 2
Continued from yesterday
The conventional wisdom in all tendencies of the Calabar Group of Socialists was that if you conceive a mass political action or radical intervention you first discuss the viability with Comrade James Crentsil, the “Baba Isale”. He might then tell you, “Comrade, give me two days”. It is his preliminary report and advice at the end of that period – after he had “hit the grounds” with some other “foot-soldiers” under his “command” – that will suggest to you whether to move fast with minimum publicity or just move forward and table the idea in a group meeting or simply bury the idea – permanently or for the meantime. The movement had paid dearly whenever it violated this simple rule given to us by our own history.
In the late 1980s when the military dictatorship under General Ibrahim Babangida was executing a convoluted, strait-jacket transition-to-civil rule programme with fascist methods, Comrade James Crentsil became a member of a self-constituted Security Committee of the Nigerian Left in Calabar. The committee was not armed and did not direct any armed formation or activity. So, what did it do? Let me answer with a Nigerian proverb which may be translated thus: “A mother hen says that when she makes noise on the approach of a hawk, the purpose is not to scare away the hawk, but to alert the world to what is about to happen to her, or is happening to her”.
In like manner, the Security Committee of which Comrade James Crentsil was a prominent member was created not to confront the Nigerian state, not even to defend the Left or the masses, but to raise the alarm when a danger was apprehended. Older members of the Calabar Group of Socialists, visiting Leftists from other parts of the country, activists of the labour movement and popular-democratic organizations may recall a number of “narrow” escapes, sudden postponements of meetings, shifting of venues and disappearances of comrades during the Babangida and Abacha dictatorships. Most of these occurrences were results of alarms raised by members of the Security Committee.
Now, what factors-biographical, occupational, educational, objective and subjective – enabled Comrade James Crentsil to play the roles he played in the Nigerian Left in general and in the Calabar Group of Socialists in particular? First, James was the product, on June 10, 1956, of a union between a Ghanaian father and a Nigerian mother. Secondly, he had an all-round technical secondary education in Ghana and an all-round technical tertiary education in Nigeria (Kaduna Polytechnic) (1975-1978). In the latter he specialized in Building and Printing technologies. Thirdly, he was somehow radicalized as a teenager both in Ghana and in Nigeria.
Fourthly, he had the benefit of living in the barracks in Lagos and Kaduna after the Civil War with a maternal aunt who was an officer of the Nigerian Army. This partly explains the discipline he exhibited in private and public life. In the fifth place, with his decision to settle in Calabar from about 1980, he was spotted by a revolutionary formation, the Calabar Group of Socialists. Finally, Comrade James Crentsil was fortunate to enjoy what several comrades of his generation did not enjoy: a relatively non-turbulent family life.
In summary, how will the Nigerian Left and the Calabar Group of Socialists remember Comrade James Crentsil? What, in other words, is the essence of this tribute? The answer can be tentatively given under two broad headings: the “Highlights” of Comrade James’ revolutionary career as a “foot-soldier” and “Baba Isale”; and the “Examples” of Comrade James.
Under “highlights” we remember Comrade James’ role in workers’ participation in the 1986 national political debate in the old Cross River State which included the present Akwa Ibom State; his role in the formation and endeavours of the working class-based Directorate for Literacy which emanated from this debate; his role in the Citizens’ for Community Action (CCA), his role in the 1987/1988 non-party local government elections which the Left won in Calabar Municipality and in Biase and Obudu Local Government Areas (in central and northern parts of Cross River State respectively). The Left creditably ran the three local governments for the periods they existed. We also recall Comrade James’ role in the Nigerian Labour Congress (NLC) Workshop held in Calabar in April 1989; the formation of the Labour Party (LP) later that year; Left politics during the long years of Babangida-Abacha dictatorship; the prolonged protest over the “June 12”, 1993 election annulment; and Left resistance during the Abacha-instigated coup hysteria of late 1997 to early 1998. All these were before the Fourth Republic which began in May 1999.
In the last two decades we may list the following: Comrade James Crentsil’s role in the mobilisations around the funerals (other than burials) in Calabar, of several comrades-in-arms, including Ola Oni (2000), Ita Henshaw (2004), Assim Ita (2009), Gani Fawehinmi (2009), Eskor Toyo (2016) and Eyambi Akpet (2019); and his courageous role during the state persecution, and then, personal tribulations of Comrade Bassey Ekpo Bassey in the period: (2000-2010). In all these, and more, Comrade James Crentsil rose to his fullest height as “foot-soldier” and “Baba Isale”.
Finally, what are the “Examples” of Comrade James Crentsil? These can be articulated and simply stated: Beyond his exemplary revolutionary understanding and practice of commitment, service and sacrifice; faith and loyalty; humility and proletarian taste; kindness and humanist passion; friendship, comradeship and solidarity, we may underline the immediate material implication of his being a Leninist “cadre” or “foot-soldier” of the Nigerian Left and Calabar Group of Socialists. By this I mean the implication on his material life of his decision to subject his work for family sustenance to the demands of his unpaid revolutionary duty. This particular choice of his put an absolute limit on his material comfort, talk less of personal material accumulation, however good or productive he might be as a commercial printer and all-round technician.
I was shocked, but could do only very little to ameliorate the situation, when, about a decade ago, Comrade James Crentsil told me that what he charged any comrade who brought a job to him (in his capacity as a printer, builder, electrician, plumber or mechanic) was based on “communist costing”, rather than “capitalist costing” – where the latter was at least twice as high as the former! Put differently, when Comrade James Crentsil printed a book, journal, pamphlet, calendar or programme, built a house, dug a borehole, repaired a machine or electrical fittings for a comrade he did this not as a contractor but as one of his own paid workers utilizing “unpadded” market purchases.
The critical aspect of this story is that practically everyone who brought a job to Comrade James Crentsil came as a “comrade” who should enjoy “communist costing” and for whom James should work as an ordinary worker and not as a contractor. To deepen the contradiction and worsen the situation, the many people (comrades and non-comrades) who continually made material demands on him would not, on such occasions, consider him an ordinary worker that he considered himself and who he was in objective material terms. No wonder Comrade James Crentsil died in personal material penury!
Comrade James Crentsil must have derived his concept and practice of “communist costing” from the “direct labour” and “communist” costing principles with which the Calabar Group of Socialists, through its popular-democratic formations, ran the non-party Calabar Municipal Government (under Comrade Bassey Ekpo Bassey) from March 1988 to May 1989. James served that government whose territory has since been split into three local government areas as a tireless, but unlisted, unpaid and self-effacing “cadre” and “foot-soldier” committed to our common burning desire to produce the best-run local administration in the country. And so it was. Comrade James Crentsil was one of the heroes of that successful Calabar experiment in Leftist governance.
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