The news caught me in the web of the post-okada-ban heavy Lagos traffic jam: Owei Lakemfa has been elected the Secretary-General of the Organization of African Trade Union Unity (OATUU). I quickly eased myself out of the traffic logjam to have a cool celebration in the nearby watering-hole. As a coalition of trade union movements in various African countries with its headquarters in Accra, Ghana, OATUU could not have boasted of a better champion than Owei Lakemfa who was elected into office on Friday, December 7, in Algiers, Algeria.
Journalist, trade unionist, human rights activist, author, Labour historian, and revolutionary, Owei Lakemfa through the epochal feat thus succeeds the founding president of the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC), the legendary Alhaji Hassan Sunmonu as the OATUU helmsman. Owei’s election at the 10th Congress of OATUU under the presidency of Professor Ibrahim Ghandur of Sudan alongside 12 other officers is for the initial four-year tenure. Some 43 African countries took part in the congress that lasted from December 1 to 7 with the theme: “Pan-Africanism and Africa’s Socio-Economic Development.”
Owei, in his acceptance speech, said: “We are committed to the unity and solidarity of workers in the continent; this will require discouraging further fragmentation of national labour centres, and the encouragement of united actions and unity amongst national labour centres with the ultimate aim of merging them into stronger organisations that can withstand internal and external pressures as well as defend the working people. We also pledge to promote women and youth workers as that is a sure way of building a formidable labour movement in Africa. Another major objective we are committed to is the fast-tracking of Africa’s economic integration, increase in inter-African trade and the adoption of basic needs development programmes as alternative to the ruinous neo-liberal economic policies. Also, we will work for the consolidation of people- empowered democracy in Africa. On the international arena, we pledge, in accordance with the OATUU commitment to international co-operation to work assiduously for the unity of the international labour movement. We shall continue in the OATUU principles and traditions of struggling on the side of all oppressed people and nations denied their right to nationhood like the Western Sahara (SADR) and Palestine, or people whose fundamental right to live in peace without harassment as in the case of Cuba. Comrades, apart from soliciting your individual and collective support, we ask that you pray for the success of this new leadership because we will like to be worthy successors to our predecessors.”
Owei Lakemfa’s landmark achievements as the pioneer Labour Correspondent of The Guardian, Labour Editor of Vanguard and scribe of the NLC are generally well-known. But for me what stands Owei out is that he earned his plaudits from his formative years. As classmates in the Dramatic Arts Department of the then University of Ife, Owei stood out as a born leader and organizer. He was fearless. Known as “The Bouncing Prefect” in his secondary school days, he carried his leadership and motivating qualities into all he did in all his endeavours.
There is no better analyst of international politics that I know than Owei. An avid reader, he buys all the books and encourages everybody around him to be very hungry for knowledge. He would borrow me a book for one to get abreast of something, and when I deign to return the book he would ask me to keep it as he had bought another copy for himself. In short, when my library got burnt some years ago I found out that many of Owei’s books went down with the inferno especially the book on evolution that helped me to write the novel The Missing Link. Owei has the courage of his convictions such that he could in class tell the lecturer, for instance, that the man’s not exactly teaching what the celebrated Marxist literary critic Raymond Williams wrote in his book!
On a recent visit to Germany, Owei made it a point of duty to visit the grave of the great playwright Bertolt Brecht, as he related to me. We had studied Brecht as our “Special Author” in Ife, only then to find out that the German great wrote too many plays, all of which we were expected to read. Owei alongside all our other classmates decided to confront our Head of Department, Professor Wole Soyinka, with the issue of whether we were studying for a Ph.D or an ordinary first degree. Soyinka tactfully told us to take our war to Dr Yemi Ogunbiyi whom he said was the lecturer to blame for the curriculum overload.
In inter-personal relationships Owei was nonpareil. When I could not fix my accommodation in school he simply asked our friend Deolu Ademoyo that they should join their two beds together to create three spaces. The three of us slept on that large bed for the entire session. It was such fun travelling with Owei from Ife to visit his mum in the Mile Two area of Lagos, a very amiable mother who told us that half of the people milling around in Oshodi were spirits!
A good number of Ife students who wanted to be friends with Owei were somewhat too scared to meet him, believing quite erroneously that he was “too strict”. Even now a lot of people out there are still to get to grips with the personable Owei, a friend and brother who always gladly hands over his salary to me anytime I’m broke, which happens to be always!
Owei took his destiny in his own hands from very early in life, forming revolutionary friendships with the likes of Dapo Olorunyomi, Femi Falana etc. His clarity of vision is exemplary. Knowing him, he will deliver as the Secretary-General of OATUU. Africa has found a leader in Owei Lakemfa.