|the remains of rof. Festus Iyayi...killed by a projectile in the heart|
The remains of Festus Iyayi await the silence of soils that is mother earth’s final embrace, barely a day from now. I still find it difficult to put words on paper somewhat on the great mind with a large heart that Comrade Festus was, and will continue to be, as an inspiration to us, and those that will come after us. A lot has been said and written about his life, and his death, not the least during the tributes session of the ceremonies for his last journey, which started two days ago. A lot more will still be said, indeed, have to be said.
I wouldn’t know if “tribute” would be the most apt word to describe what I know try to write here. But I cannot think of any more appropriate term, really. When I heard the news some two hours after his brutal killing in what initially seemed to be an accident, numbness was what came over me. This was partly due to my state of health at the time. Arriving from the NUMSA International Colloquium four days earlier, I hit the road in pursuit of an inter-party struggle, ending up with an auto-crash. Unscathed though, I took ill the following day, but self-discharged against medical advice to meet up with long delayed book chapter for Lou R, and to prepare for travelling to Lagos for Baba Omojola’s burial rites. With all these, I just found a seat in my General Secretary’s office when he broke the news...and literally broke down.
The sudden loss of so many of our tribe of activists have hit me badly before, particularly such of my generation like Teslim, Laitan and particularly Chima whose corpse I received at Abuja from Potiskum. They were all in the prime of their lives, in their early forties. Festus died when he was sixty six, some fourteen years younger than Baba Omojola whom we lost three weeks before that black November 12. Why has such a broad spectrum of activists and other citizens been shocked by Festus’ death to this hardly describable extent?
The circumstances are important in this regard. Like Chima Ubani, he died in a car accident, whilst on active service in the cause of the working people. Festus Iyayi might still be alive if the Federal Government had the slightest tinge of honour and had respected the agreement it reached with ASUU four years ago. Further dimensions of “circumstances” have also unfolded with the realization that he was his heart was pierced by a projectile, which could have been a bullet.
The very vast depth of Festus Iyayi as a person, an intellectual, a revolutionary, equally account for the avalanche of tributes that have poured in since that Black Tuesday. I do not intend to go regurgitate much of this. It was a honour for me to have written a tribute to this great man when he turned sixty, on the pages of The Health Worker, the flagship periodical of Medical and Health Workers; Union of Nigeria, which he appreciated. Festus was always very practical as well as having a rich grasp of theory. I am concerned here, as his remains await interment to point out some critical elements of who and what he was, that maybe, could be imbibed more within the circles of the revolutionary Left, and change-seeking activists in general. This is particularly so as we live through an era of crises in which discontent is rife, revolts become more commonplace, but the theoretical and practical leadership remains abysmally weak and inchoate.
Comrade Festus Iyayi was first and foremost a revolutionary socialist. His literary works, dynamism as a unionist, patriotic and yet internationalist activism were derived from this primary commitment to the socialist transformation of society which can be enthroned only with the emancipation of the working class. The fate of the socialist movement operating more often than not underground was woven with that of the social movements and mass democratic organisations in which Festus played key roles.
He was ASUU President at a crucial point in Nigeria’s history. But this is only part of that story. A deeper part is the charged flux of changes going on in the world in the mid o late eighties when he was president of the union. This was the period of Mikhail Gorbachov’s perestroika and glasnost. Socialists and activists in the labour movement world over were faced with the challenges of interpreting and acting on the basis of a world-historical context of capitalist triumphalism as the Soviet empire moved from decline to collapse.
In Nigeria, there were turning point events within the socialist Left as well as in the trade union movement (with the 1989 “compromise” of the progressives with the democrats that brought in Pascal Bafyau as NLC President). In 1986, when Iyayi was taking up the mantle of ASUU, the Socialist Congress of Nigeria was established. While it was supposed to be a united platform for the Marxist-Leninist left, the Working People’s Liberation Movement was formed more or less immediately as well, and the Trotskyite Labour Militant publication commenced within months of this period.
Festus Iyayi was a dedicated member of SCON till he died, serving at a point in time as its General Secretary. He was one of the most doctrinaire Marxist-Leninist you could ever find. But, he was never sectarian. He never allowed tendential differences to stand in the way of working together, and was actively involved in every effort to rally the Left as a body, in his lifetime.
It was one of such efforts that brought me to working closely with him. This was in 2002/2003 during preparations for the 3rd All Nigeria Socialist Conference, which held on February 21-23, 2003. The Conference established the (short-lived) Nigeria Socialist Alliance (NSA) and elected a 14-person leadership comprising 2 persons each from the seven leading organisations that participated. Festus insisted that the leadership structure should be called “Working Committee”, as it had to work a lot. His Centre-piece Consultancy office in Benin City became the base of the Working Committee.
It was great trying to work with Festus in that committee. I say trying to because most of the members of the committee were never available for work, and never attended meetings to even plan such work. Despite the battles in the CDHR then, which Iyayi was in the thick of, he always found time to be active in the committee (I remember him shuttling between a CDHR national meeting and the WC meeting on May 31). But apart from him, there would only be myself, and both Eskor Toyo and Laoye Sanda (both representing the SRV) being available. Eventually NSA simply stopped existing. Chima Ubani was saddled with coordinating NSA, but his hands seemed to be filled with work as the Executive Director of CLO.
It is important to point out here that Chima Ubani and Festus Iyayi were the two representatives of SCON on the WC. Why is this important? It is not so much because they had such strikingly, and painfully so similar endings of their lives. It is much more that they lived such strikingly, and honourably so, similar lives. They were both doctrinaires as Marxist-Leninists. But they were strongly against sectarian politics and had open hearts. Consequently they established bridges of trust, respect and work with comrades across the broad spectrum of the Left. Another important dimension of the matter is that SCON had earlier split nine years before then.
In the pro-democratic movement this took the form of the breakaway from Campaign for Democracy and formation of Democratic Alternative by the largely NGOs-based (younger) “SCON II” cadres (which Chima was a part of). “SCON I” remained rooted in the Universities-based intelligentsia, of an older generation. The Iyayi-Ubani representation of a joint SCON presence in NSA thus reflects a unity-seeking within a revolutionary Left organisation, as part of the broader unity-seeking between organisations that the alliance was.
A sharper and more lasting effort after the NSA was initiated in 2005 and could be considered as having collapsed by 2011.. This took the form of the All-Nigeria Socialist Alliance (ANSA), which Festus Iyayi was a pillar of. On October 12, 2005, at its inaugural meeting, the Abuja Socialist Collective (an effort by the then Socialist Workers’ Movement to rally Left activists based in Abuja as a united front for discourse and work), resolved to utilise the presence of comrades from far and wide at Chima Ubani’s burial on October 27/28, to call for a national united front of the Left). This united platform which adopted ANSA from the earlier experience of 1989 had several contradictions within it, which Festus Iyayi and Eskor Toyo were the first to point out.
Most of the left groups were comatose to some extent or the other at the time. An “alliance” formation became not just a call for “Left unity”. It also spurred the re-awakening of most of these groups. A debate on how loose the alliance/coalition/organisation should be. Both Eskor and Festus pointed out the centrifugal forces that could be unleashed in the context within which the re-alignment was taking place. In 2008 when this debate raged, Festus got the Abuja Socialist Collective (which was a model of working together despite nuanced differences) to pass a resolution that ANSA be a “Socialist Organisation of Nigeria”, with room for platforms.
This was when Comrade Festus was doing his sabbatical with the Nigeria Labour Congress. He was a leading light of the ASC serving on the editorial board of Working People’s Vanguard which I was editing, and which later became the ANSA paper. Our resolution was defeated and ANSA it was...at least as a nomenclature, for slowly, but surely, like NSA even if in a different way, it atrophied. But while it lasted, Festus hosted most of the ANSA meetings. His office, and more often than not (particularly for those meetings throughout the night when the few that slept where much younger comrades”) in his home became home to ANSA.
At this different junctures, a number of leading comrades of became distraught drawing back from efforts at building unity in work and/or organisation/coalition. Some did out rightly drop out of that penumbra of revolutionary political life in the shadows (of semi-legality at the best) as a whole, while still being active in the social movements. And some even just fashied everybody and continued living their lives as if the knowledge of socio-historic truth did not place the burden of fighting on their shoulders. We need not talk of those like Labarn Maku who lived in Iyayi’s boys squatters and ate from the same pot as Festus during his NYSC days in Benin. For those, we have no description short of dammed treachery.
But Festus never tired or looked back. In February 2011, he was at the fore in initiating the process of “Benin meetings” at forming a Socialist Party of Nigeria. He had been very active in the Labour Party hitherto, and had been commissioned by the NLC to write on how to revamp the party. He was of the view that the socialist party cannot be “seized back” by revolutionary forces.
We had healthy debates on this. I pointed out that he was more active in the Labour Party “nationally” in a way that was through the trade unions that had themselves been distant from it, at the time. A clear manifestation of this was during the 2nd National Convention of the party on December 19, 2009 when Festus Iyayi initially wanted to vie for the office of National Vice-Chairman South-South. Meanwhile, structures from below in Edo state and the zone had settled for a veteran trade unionist, Comrade Lawson Osagie, without his being aware of this initially. He subsequently withdrew from the contest.
The road to the SPN efforts could arguably be said to have started with Professor Eskor Toyo’s declaration of ANSA as dead and calling for a “Revolutionary Socialist Party”, at Calabar in August 2010. Festus, did something that few ever got to do, while agreeing with Eskor on the essential, in his view, i.e. establishing a socialist party, he challenged the “superman me” approach of Eskor to this. Without the slightest sense of disrespect for Eskor’s greatness as a revolutionary, he does obviously have a chronic sense of acute megalomania, which is only near matched by his genuine self-sacrificing commitment to revolutionary struggle for the past 60 plus years.
As the organisationally-minded revolutionary that Festus was, the Benin meetings were initiated based on collective decisions and efforts. This time it was largely on the platform of Edo Future group, led by Comrade Ihonde, a former Deputy President of the NLC. The SPN1 if I may so put it, with the formation of yet another SPN, this time by the DSM in Lagos, had dozens of activists from the different geo-political zones in the country.
Iyayi was however very much bothered by the fact that most of them were tested and trusted over the years, but on average, in their 60s and 70s. He called for regeneration and made it clear that for the party to have a future it had to be driven by young hands, with the old guards as trustees within the structures, while remaining active as members. He did see Felix O, Sylvester O-A and my humble self as being a fulcrum in that direction and many a time he called on me to be ready to serve as the General Secretary of the party.
Of course, I pointed out time and again equally that, based on party formation on the basis of the 199 constitution, I would rather be in a party with workers that is not explicitly socialist than in one that is socialist but not rooted in the working class as it were. I thus would choose, if the decision were mine alone to make, to be in the Labour Party, warts and all. This I saw as not barring collaboration with the SPN as a non-member.
The last time I saw Iyayi, which was in September, we still had this debate. Alas, I did not know it would be the last time, I would see him...alive.
Why have I eventually taken up the task of this rather lengthier than I thought it would be when I started article, as Festus’ remains await interment? I think it is largely to stress a few important lessons to be learnt from Festus Iyayi’s life.
First, the struggle to change society beyond merely winning the concessions of a few reforms now and then is one which requires the building of social movements as well as unwavering commitment to building vanguard organisation, without which the steam of social movement’s rising could dissipate without fully turning the wheels of history. Festus was one of those rare breeds that gave the most commendable levels of leadership in the most self-sacrificing manner at all levels of service to the organisation and the working people. The linkages of the concentric circles of organisation driving revolutionary struggle are hardly ever visible for most, not the least because of security concerns, but require documentation, in the ways we can.
Second, is the fact that our pathways as revolutionaries could at times, indeed most times, be frustrating. But radical faith is not only possible, it is the essence of a permanentist commitment to permanent struggle itself. But within this haze of frustration, there is a halo of fulfilment. While we cannot fully win until capitalism is globally overthrown, the partial victories won yesterday and today are because we dare to seek for much more than what they are. Besides to live in the hearts of the masses is to live forever....as Festus does.
It would not be apt to round up without addressing one or two other issues relating to Professor Festus Iyayi.
One, I daresay that Festus Iyayi had one of the most robust relations with working class activists amongst our comrades outside the trade union movement. Shop stewards, state, zonal and national officers of different unions that had the opportunity to listen to and read Iyayi’s presentations over the years would run into a few tens of thousands. Over the last ten years, this has largely been as a result of his being one of the most regular lead speakers at the NLC National Schools. As a member of the NLC Education and Training Coordinating Group, I can say the reasons for these include: the succinctness of his presentations, which were simple without being simplistic; his down-to-earth nature which saw to his establishing close relations with several unions beyond the schools and; the fact that you could be rest assured that Festus would have a fully completed paper ready when he would arrive for his presentation, unlike many other presenters.
Two, I had a debate once with another radical professor who has impacted on me, particularly in the field of industrial relations, with regards to Professor Iyayi as a consultant, not being a poor man. It is important for the records to point out that Iyayi built his Centre-piece management consultancy to survive after he was kicked out by the state in UNIBEN for his ideas. He fought this impunity and won after a decade, during which Centre-piece flourished. There was no untoward practice by the consultancy, and more importantly, he put his substance where his ideas where. I actually remember discussions with Paulo Bambe, Lanre Filani and Muyiwa A, when in 1990 I took the decision to leave medical school and become a professional revolutionary and build the M31M. While I would still take the same decision within those same context, I think their argument then that our objective roles in the logic of capitalism as bourgeois or petit-bourgeois elements those not necessarily have to debar our political commitments. Engels as a manufacturer is probably the sharpest example for us as Marxists.
Three, Professor Festus Iyayi could and did commit his life to the revolutionary cause, to a great extent because he was blessed with a warm heated, loving and tolerant wife. Aunty Grace would always make us feel so much at home whenever we visited No 11 Bello Street. And it did not matter if we were two or thirty two, she would prepare such mouth-watering dishes and interact with us all as family. And believe you me, she cooks some of the most delicious ogboni soup you can ever imagine. In fact the last time I saw comrade Festus, I asked him to tell her that I was missing her ogboni soup and would be coming soon to Benin to eat some more.
Fourth, I learnt from Comrade Festus that it is not enough to have the best of ideas and be “committed”. We were discussing once about his being profound as both a novelist and a political essayist. He said there are no two ways about it beyond “hard work and perseverance”.
Finally, I must say that I did not know where I was going or where I have ended with this piece, when I started. But I do think that the death of Festus, and just days after Baba Omojola, is a very symbolic one for us at the threshold of what would most likely be a tumultuous 2014 in Nigeria. The challenge of learning from the lives of these greats who have just departed from us cannot be overemphasized. But much more importantly, as Festus would argue, I do hope this inspires greater commitment to theoretically-informed action for us, in the unfolding period, as hopefully, the Nigerian Left awaits rebirth with the working masses rising revolts to come.
For now....my last respects I must go pay! Hasta la Victoria, commandante Festus!!
 The doyen of the Nigerian Left, 83-year old Professor Eskor Toyo has challenged the description of that Conference as the 3rd “Al Nigeria Socialist Conference”, tracing similar conferences, even if not so described then since 1953
 Interestingly, while a number of members of the SPN at Benin felt a sense of betrayal by the DSM in adopting the same SPN-identity, after a leading DSMite had participated in one of the SPN meetings at Benin, and thus were of the opinion that discussions need not be held with the DSM-SPN, Festus was of the view that the essential thing was to forge Left unity and deepen its partisan capacity, and thus, despite this legitimate question of the sincerity of the DSM in this direction, discussions should be pursued with its SPN efforts