It has now been 12 years since we lost Teslim “Samore” Oyekanmi. He was a fearless revolutionary, versatile unionist, brilliant activist, and unrepentant Mayist who lived life to the fullest.
But alas, sickness took him away from us in his prime. And this was barely two years after we lost his partner, Zainab, a revolutionary Mayist in her own right.
Teslim was Secretary General of the LASU Students Union towards the end of the last century. Zainab would later serve as Vice President and then Ag. President of the same union in the following session.
I met Tes in the run-up to the election, where he emerged as SG of LASUSU. While I’d started full-time work in the trade union movement, I kept in close contact with the student movement, spending many an evening on campuses like LASU.
He was recruited into the May 31st Movement (M31M, the precursor of today’s SWL) when he was a LASU union leader. And he remained a lifelong member of the movement. He was quite critical of a number of things bearing on internal democracy. Some of these became clearer only after his death. We have, however, learned our lessons from them.
Foray into Journalism
After graduating with a B.A. in History and International Relations, he started working as a journalist with Alao Arisekola’s paper. I think it was called the National Monitor.
He wrote an exposé on KWAM1, the popular pro-establishment fuji crooner. Not surprisingly, Wasiu (KWAM) had ties with Arisekola.
The paper’s publisher put pressure on Samoré to retract the story and/or identify his source. He refused to do either of these. He stood by his story and dared KWAM to go to court. Tes was then summarily sacked.
Before this, he had taken his first steps into the trade union movement. He had been elected as Chair of the Lagos State Correspondents Association (LASCA) Chapel of the Nigeria Union of Journalists.
Organising the Nigeria Union of Police
His open, generous, and vibrant approach to life, work, and politics had endeared him to many. It also incurred a few enemies.
Anyway, he got to work as a correspondent for the Punch newspaper. This led to what might be one of the most important but unsung steps in the country’s revolutionary history: organising the short-lived Nigeria Union of Police, which led to the police women’s strike in February 2002.
The opening chapter of this historic development was written at a bar in the ancient city of Benin. While having a drink and inviting people in the bar to join him, amidst his witty thrust of conversation, he met with some junior ranks in the Edo State Police Command.
They complained of how they were suffering (while the top ranks were enjoying life). Most of them had not received promotions in years. Salaries were also irregular, and they had to sew their uniforms at their own cost.
Samore told them that this was because they didn’t have a union. The police officers first laughed at his suggestion that they should be unionised. Policemen and women, they said, are law enforcement officers, so they could not be unionists.
Samore debunked this argument. He gave several examples of countries where police unions existed. He won them to his line of thinking when he gave the example of the Police and Prisons Civil Rights Union (POPCRU) in South Africa.
This was not some distant Western country. If there could be a union in another African country, why couldn’t there be one in the so-called giant of Africa?
Not all the officers were convinced, though. And among those convinced, morale initially went down after they discussed it with other officers. Those ones pointed out that they were playing with fire, which could cost them their lives.
Informing and Inspiring
Samoré was, however, someone who would not let an idea die out once he had sown it in people’s minds.
He informed and inspired them with histories of trade unions emerging as clandestine societies even in countries now considered the gold standard of (liberal) democracy.
Gradually, but surely, he won over and established a core group. For them (to start as a clandestine) union envisaged to be national, they had to seek out like-minded people and build structures across the country.
It was at this point that he came to brief me at Akure, where I was working as the Ondo state secretary of MHWUN. For three days, we reflected for hours through the night with quite a few emptied bottles of Squadron and cigarette butts in the background.
He knew that he was putting his life on the line. If things went wrong, the state would definitely act nasty. But he felt this was an opening that we were duty-bound to seize.
Realising the perilous path we were taking, we decided to restrict information on what was happening within the movement. This was to protect the effort, our organisation, and its cadre. For accountability, only one other leading comrade was informed until much later.
Teslim assumed the nommé de guerre of “Monday Sule” becoming secretary of the underground NUP. He and a select few from the Edo State Police Command toured strategic centres in the country where they found support.
The faceless NUP issued demands to the IGP for the improvement of rank-and-file welfare. This was dismissed as mere irritation by the top brass. Tes then convinced the NUP that they had to use the ultimate power of workers and unions: the mass strike.
Shocking the State
In February 2002, after nine months of building the NUP underground, the union called a strike. To say this was historic would be an understatement. President Obasanjo and the entire state machinery were thrown into a state of shock!
Indeed, the bourgeois could not comprehend how such a thing could happen. I remember going to the First Atlantic Bank branch I used at Akure at the time.
The manager took pains to explain to customers that they had to shut down the following day when the strike would commence because they didn’t know how long it would last and they couldn’t guarantee security! I couldn’t hide my smirk.
Soldiers were drafted to take over policing functions, and hundreds of rank-and-file police suspected of being members of the NUP were silently rounded up.
All the NUP’s demands except for democratic involvement were implemented. But behind the curtains, dozens were tortured, with many of them executed.
According to Samoré, as many as 37 people were killed. Several of them knew Monday Sule. But they defended this knowledge with their very lives.
NUP was snuffed out after this. Virtually all its leading lights in the force were among those executed.
In 2006, Samore applied to work with MHWUN as an organising secretary. He commenced work with the union a year and a half later. He served at different times as state secretary in Gombe and the FCT, as well as in the national secretariat.
The union leadership appreciated his skills as a writer and organiser. His frankness, fearlessness, and prioritising rank-and-file’s roles in the union, however, led to his having several head-on collisions with the state chairpersons in the councils he worked in.
This was one of the reasons why he was brought back to the national headquarters. Both Comrade Ayuba Wabba (National President) and Marcus Ighodalo Omokhuale (Secretary General) appreciated his talents as a unionist and mourned his death.
His move to the HQ came while I was studying in Germany and Brazil. On my return, we had time to bond again for a while. Little did I know it would be for less than two years.
Friend for Life
He lived with me briefly at that point in time. As I write, I remember those nights we would come home drunk, much to the consternation of my wife.
He always stood by me. When my family was to be thrown out by the landlord while I was away, he was one of the people I turned to for a loan. And when I returned and tried to pay the debt, he refused to collect it.
I could also never deny him anything within my reach. So, when he asked me to help get Che Oyinatumba (also a leading member of our tendency at the time) a job at the Labour Party, I had to.
I walked up to Dan Nwanyanwu, the party chair, the following day to push for this. He promptly said yes. It was the first and last favour I ever asked for from him in the 12 years we were on the LP national leadership team together.
Things started to go downhill in Tes’ life in 2009. Nine months after delivering their daughter (Augustina Neto; her elder brother is named Cabral) on May Day 2008, Zainab (Zee Mama), an activist and lawyer who had been his soulmate from school, died.
This hit Samore badly. I don’t think he ever recovered psychologically from that. The physiological blows came not long later. By the beginning of 2011, tuberculosis and diabetes had ravaged his body.
Unfortunately, he did not help matters. He kept drinking, even if not as much as before. We would quarrel over this several times when we met. Esther, whom he’d started dating in 2010, would also call me on several occasions to ask me to tell my brother and comrade to leave the bottle.
Tes would promise to “try” each time we talked about it. But it would be the same story next time.
Laughing over the Comedy of Errors
I remember the last time I saw him, which was a few months before his death. There was some drama in that meeting.
OSJ had informed me that Tes had been admitted to LUTH. I was in Lagos for a day’s assignment. But I sure as hell wasn’t going to leave without checking on him.
So I called to let him know, but he wasn’t picking up his calls. I then texted, asking him to send details of his ward, which he did.
On getting to that men’s ward in LUTH, I couldn’t find him. I then called, and he said he was there. Still confused, I asked that we meet at the laundry section, got there, and called. He said he was there too.
It was at that point that I asked him, “Which hospital are you actually in now?” And it turned out it was LASUTH and not LUTH.
I headed straight to LASUTH that night, and we had a good laugh over that comedy of errors. I never knew that that would be my last laugh with our Samore.
Rest in power, comrade. Like the rejuvenation of May, your name will be written with the spirit of spring when our story is told.
Baba Aye, an activist of over three decades, has an international Master’s degree in Labour Policies and Globalisation.