Jonathan Ihonde: Red Salute to an ubiquitous leader

By Owei Lakemfa

JONATHAN  Ihonde. I never came across a leader so dominant, but invisible. So influential, but unknown. Silent waters, running deep, he was like a wall gecko in the Nigerian house, observing everything, but remaining virtually unnoticed.

Traversing the country’s political terrain since the 1960s, a major labour leader for over five decades, accepted leader of the Left forces and one of the most creative minds who ran a drama series from 1962. Yet, if a vox pop were to be held, most Nigerians would ask: Jonathan who?

Many Nigerians know Raymond Dokpesi as the founder of African Independent Television, AIT, and Ray Power, but only a handful would know that he started out as an actor under the tutelage of Ihonde, or that famous actors, like Sam Loco Efe, passed through his hands.

In trying to trace Ihonde through the flow of life, I first located him in an incident in 1961. He was suspended without pay as an accounts clerk on the fourth floor of the Western Nigeria Development Corporation, WNDC, when a communist book, Lenin in Britain was found on his desk by the Chief External Accounting Auditor, a Whiteman.

The following year, Ihonde at 23, created a satirical drama series, “Hotel De Jordan”. This came to define him. He said of the series which became one of the most popular and longest-running television drama series in the country: “The theme of ‘Hotel De Jordan’ is class antagonism; the perpetual struggle between the rich and the poor, especially in a bourgeois society … Many characters are created in the programme; revolutionary characters and reactionary characters.”

Patrick Obayagbon, a logophile who loves high-sounding words and language, must have been a student of Professor Milo Moro, one of Ihonde’s fictional characters.

Hotel De Jordan was staged across theatres in Ibadan and Benin, and the studios of NTA “highlighting the ills and foibles of the society, and with a view to solving them”. It was one of the precursors of Nollywood.

In 1963, he joined left elements in the country to establish the Society for Progress, SOFOPRO. It was led by high school teacher, Olu Adebayo, who, one day, disappeared and was never seen again. Ihonde said this group directly or and indirectly, influenced the Socialist Movement in the country.

In 1968, Ihonde was thrown into the Oko Prison by Colonel Samuel Ogbemudia, the Military Governor of then Mid-West, later renamed Bendel State. They were friends, but Ihonde who was the leader of the over 17,000 workers of the Urhonigbe Rubber Estate, Ughelli Glass Factory and Ewohimi Oil Palm Plantation, opposed the privatisation of viable and profitable public companies.

Reminiscing on this, he said: “Foreigners came from abroad to buy from these companies in hard currency. With these benefits, somebody just rose up and said he was going to sell these companies to private individuals. I then told my friend that was not possible. I resisted it.”

Ihonde had written an anti-Apartheid play: “Our blindness”. So when he was detained for organising the workers strike, Apartheid South Africa mocked Nigeria as being a worse country for detaining Ihonde whose crime was fighting for social justice.

After a long stay in prison, he was released but was further punished by being demoted from Grade Level 12 to Grade Level 4: “They -the military regime – insisted that they were going to make me an example for fighting against the government.”

When 20 years later, the Babangida regime’s privatisation policy became like full blown AIDS, the post-Chiroma Trade Union Movement embraced it. Perhaps, if the labour leaders had fought privatisation like Ihonde did, the country would have been in a far healthier state.

When the four trade union centres: the United Labour Congress, ULC; the Nigeria Trade Union Congress, NTUC; the Nigeria Workers Council, NWC; and the Labour Unity Front, LUF, merged in December 1975 to established the Nigeria Labour Congress, NLC, Ihonde emerged one of its leaders.

However, the military regime under General Murtala Mohammed dissolved that NLC. After a new NLC was born in 1978, Ihonde became the Chairman of its Bendel State Council, comprising Edo and Delta states.

In 1984, despite the stout opposition of his mother union, the Radio, Television and Theatre Workers Union, RATTAWU, Ihonde was elected a Vice President of the NLC.

He became the ideological arrowhead of the NLC. When then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher visited Nigeria in 1978, Ihonde came to Lagos from Benin to lead the massive demonstrations against her for supporting the Apartheid regime in South Africa. I recall that loads of armed security men were deployed at Ojuelegba to block the buses of the protesters and stop them from getting to the airport.

Rather than put up resistance, Ihonde ordered the demonstrators to disembark and walk the two-three hours distance to the airport. Having lost control, the security services caught up with Ihonde on Ikorodu Road and begged him to order the demonstrators back into the buses. He simply ignored them and led the protesters to the airport. There, the Union Jack was burnt as Thatcher’s bewildered convoy was forced to sneak its way through the angry crowds.

The 1988 NLC conference was endangered by the Babangida regime that had hired fifth columnists to cause mayhem and forcibly break up the Congress. The NLC wisely turned to Ihonde in Benin, to host the conference. He did so successfully, although an angry Babangida later issued a decree to ban the Congress.

It is a measure of Ihonde’s political stature that when Chief Moshood Kashimawo Abiola sought the support of Edo State people to actualise his presidential mandate, it was to Ihonde he was directed.

Indeed, there was hardly any progressive tendency that emerged in Edo State in the last four decades, without Ihonde’s imprint. There was ecstasy in 2008 when former NLC President, Adams Oshiomhole, was elected Edo State Governor. In the euphoria, Ihonde studied Oshiomhole’s moves and told comrades that they were free to join the administration, but he would not because Oshiomhole merely signalled left but is taking a right turn.

On January 22 and 23, 2024, when a group of us organised the Lenin Centenary Conference in Abuja, Ihonde sent a paper and participated virtually. On March 8, 2024, I got a message that he was hospitalised. I spoke with him. He was recovering fast and we agreed to speak on his discharge. He was billed for discharge on Wednesday, March 13. However, the night before, he developed complications and at 9.50 am, Comrade Jonathan Ihonde marched on to assume other commands.

As the guns boomed at 7 am on March 14, in Oke-Ora to announce his interment, it was a red salute from us his political children.

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