Adams Oshiomhole: A Labour Activist as Governor

The recent threat by the Edo State Governor ‘Comrade’ Adams Oshiomhole to arrest Chief Anthony Anenih, the former Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the PDP, made headlines. Oshiomhole was quoted as saying: “Whether Anenih likes it or not, I am the chief security officer of Edo State. I can restrict his movement in this state if he becomes a security risk. I can arrest him, prosecute him and have him jailed.”(Daily Sun online January 24, 2010).

The context of Oshiomhole’s threat is the battle for the soul of Edo state, which, Chief Anenih, also known as “Mr Fix it”, had long regarded as his fiefdom. It is thought that Oshiomhole exploited the schism between Anenih and his former political godson Professor Osunbor who was declared the winner of the 2007 poll by INEC. Apparently Oshiomhole promised to be a more loyal political godson than Osunbor in exchange for Anenih’s support during Oshiomhole’s protracted legal battle to unseat the law professor from the Edo Government House. Oshiomhole was reported to have publicly feted Anenih as a father figure to him and had in numerous public fora poured effusive encomiums on the political godfather while the alliance lasted. However as often happens between political godfathers and godsons, the unholy alliance began to unravel as soon as power was won and consolidated. As the former allies fell out, the 23 January 2010 re-run elections of the Etsako central constituency of the Edo State House of Assembly became an opportunity to determine who is really in control of the soul of Edo politics.

While I am not a fan of Anenih’s politics, I equally believe that so-called political godsons who obviously exploit the political godfathers to gain power only to start demonising them once they have won and consolidated power, are not often sufficiently told their ‘sins’ to their face. There is something morally wrong in the present trend whereby some relatively weak power hawks willingly enter into an unholy alliance with some powerbrokers only to double-cross their benefactors and camouflage their deceit by unnecessary moral grandstanding. To constantly demonise the political godfathers while exonerating, or even lionising their political godsons, is akin to blaming only the perpetrator of a 419 scam while treating the victim as innocent. Just as both the perpetrator and victim of a 419 scam knew they were involved in a shady deal, so does a political godson often know that his adopted political godfather can deliver power to him only by using unconventional methods. Where is the honour in double-crossing the devil after using the same devil to achieve your goal of capturing power? It is unacceptable to assume the moral high ground when the devil wants to fight back because anyone who wants to go to equity must go with clean hands.

Apart from being unimpressed with Oshiomhole’s grandstanding, there are also concerns about the implications of his threat for our young democracy. In his threat, Oshiomhole was implicitly telling us that as the Chief security officer of Edo state he has the judiciary in his pockets and even knows the type of punishment that will be meted to those convicted by the courts. In more mature democracies such as the US and the UK, it is extremely difficult for public officials to even bring libel actions against the press or anyone for fear that such could ‘chill’ free speech and undermine democracy. In free speech jurisprudence, Oshiomhole’s threat to Anenih is a greater danger to democracy than the threat of using libel action to ‘chill’ criticisms of a public official.

Though Oshiomhole impressed many people as President of the Nigerian Labour Congress, history teaches us that some of the most famous labour leaders of the past few decades failed woefully as political leaders. This should be a source of concern to Oshiomhole. Consider for instance the cases of Lech Walesa of Poland and Frederick Chiluba of Zambia – two of the most celebrated labour leaders of the last 40 years.

Lech Walesa was in 1980 the leader of the occupational strikes held in Lenin Shipyard in Gdansk, Poland, where he had been employed as an electrician since 1970. The strike committee legalised itself into National Coordination Committee of Solidarmosc Free Trade Union, otherwise known as Solidarity, with Walesa as the Chairman. He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1983 and in 1990 decided to cash his fame by contesting the presidential election in Poland. He won the election but quickly found there was a world of difference between being a labour leader and being President as the goodwill he accumulated as labour leader was squandered in no time. He was for instance notorious for changing his cabinet every year in what he termed ‘revolution from the top’. He lost re-election in 1995, and when he tried running again in 2000, he got less than one percent of the votes cast.

Consider again Frederick Chiluba of Zambia. After being expelled in his second year in secondary school for his political activities, the pint-sized rabble-rouser developed a passion for trade unionism while working as a bus driver. He later joined the National Union of Building from where became the chairman of the Zambia Congress of Trade Unions. In 1981, President Kenneth Kaunda detained Chiluba and several leaders of ZCTU for calling a wild strike that paralysed most of the Zambian economy. In 1991 he won the country’s multi-party presidential election as the candidate of the Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD), defeating long-time President Kenneth Kaunda. He was ‘re-elected’ in 1996.

Like Walesa, Chiluba failed as President of Zambia to replicate his successes as a labour leader. He was rather infamous for his Machiavellian tendencies such as amending the country’s constitution in order to stop citizens with foreign parentage from standing for the presidency of the country – a move that was aimed at stopping Kaunda from running against him at the 1996 presidential elections (he was himself to face charges that his real father was from Zaire). President Chiluba did very little to stop the escalating crime and poverty in his country and instead tried to amend the constitution to elongate his tenure. On 4 May 2007 a London high court judge Peter Smith accused him of shamelessly defrauding his people and flaunting his wealth with an expensive wardrobe of “stupendous proportions”. His eventual acquittal from these charges triggered protests across Zambia, especially among leading NGOs in the country. So much for a once popular labour leader!

While it may be too early to judge the performance of Adams Oshiomhole as Governor, it is obvious that when the balance sheet of his administration is drawn up, channeling scarce state resources to defeat an ageing political godfather will hardly count as an ‘achievement’. And if Oshiomhole, who, so to say, is carrying the banner of the ‘progressives’, the ‘radical press’ and the ‘usual suspects’ fails as Governor, it would accentuate the usual derisory dismissal of these groups by traditional politicians with smiles of superior wisdom, and of course that cliché: talk is cheap.

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