YMCA Picnic On Workers’ Day At Ibeshe

By Bola Bolawole

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Last Monday was Workers’ Day or Labour Day as some call it. Here in Nigeria, it is usually a public holiday declared by both the Federal and State governments and keyed into by even the private sector employers of labour.

It is a day when workers gather in stadiums and sundry other open or public spaces to march, with their leaders making fiery speeches in which they lampoon and lambast the government and other employers of labour and make demands that speak to the grievances of workers and what they expect government and other employers of labour to do to address them. The day is celebrated to also raise awareness about the rights of the working class as well as protect workers from exploitation. It serves as a reminder of the importance of workers in any society.

On May 1st of every year, workers proudly identify themselves as such for, as they say, there is dignity in labour and no worker should, thus, be ashamed of his or her station in life, especially where their political consciousness of the immense powers that they wield has been raised to the point of their understanding the rallying cry of the Communist manifesto as encapsulated in “Workers of all countries, unite!” They have nothing but their chains to lose!

As a greenhorn at the then Ibadan-based Sketch newspapers, one of the earliest beats that I covered was Labour. Those were the days when the Nigeria Labour Congress headquarters was at Yaba, not far from the popular Tejuoso market.

Comrade Hassan Sunmonu, whom I regard as the last authentic NLC president, held sway while easy-going Lasisi Osunde was the scribe.

Some of the colleagues with whom I covered the beat were Owei Lakemfa, Kayode Komolafe, Funmi Jolaoso, Nurudeen Alao, Muyiwa Adekeye, among others.

It was a mixture of fun and boisterous ideological engagements in those days; what with the radicals and ideologues recruited fresh from the university by the NLC leadership; the likes of John Odah, Christ Uyot, Issa Aremu, Femi Aborishade, Salisu Mohammed,to mention but a few.

Those were the days when an NLC leader sneezed and the military dictators caught cold. No more!The story is told of one Workers Day ceremony attended in person by the then military dictator, Gen. Ibrahim Babangida (IBB). Workers were angry with the government and showed it in the placards they carried and the songs they sang while marching past.

When it was time for the NLC president, Comrade Paschal Bafyau, to climb the rostrum and make his speech, he reportedly leaned towards IBB and said, “Your Excellency, permission to yab you small!” And IBB responded, “Permission granted!” Comrade Paschal mounted the rostrum and delivered a fiery speech that would make the country’s iconoclast and Labour Leader Number One, Michael Imoudu, green with envy in his grave. Of course, the whole stadium cheered and cheered. Done, Paschal marched majestically back to his seat, leaned towards IBB again and said, “Thank you, Your Excellency. You can see that they are happy!”

The story is also told of another NLC leader during the tenure of former President Olusegun Obasanjo who would lead workers on protests against fuel price increase in the daytime but retreat to Aso Villa in the cover of the night for settlement and tete-a-tete with the president. Little wonder, then, that nothing much was gained by the workers despite repeated protests.

The days of dedicated and honest Labour leaders committed to the protection and advancement of the interest of workers are far gone. May the good old days return! Nigerian workers need it!

Leadership deficiency apart – and benefitting from that is the lackadaisical attitude of government to issues concerning workers’ welfare – but the greatest danger that workers will confront head-on in the years to come is technology; ChatGTP to be precise. Only an illiterate and self-destructive government treats its workforce shabbily but turns round to expect quality service from it. As you make your bed, so will you lie on it! But technology has no such inhibitions.

I wouldn’t know if Labour leaders are already thinking about the loss of jobs that the new ChatGTP technology will unleash on their rank and file and the massive loss of check-off dues that this will entail. As robots take the place of workers in factories, offices, workplaces and even in homes, what does the future hold for workers and their bourgeois leaders? How many wives, for example, will lose their home to Madam Robot?

Last Monday, I wasn’t marching with Labour but the day met me at the YMCA campground at Ibeshe, opposite Dangote refinery. I and my team had been invited by an officer of the Association, Comrade Mike Onilude. It was fun as there was a lot to eat and drink.

YMCA chapters came from all over Lagos – Yaba, Festac, Amuwo-Odofin, Oshodi, Lagos Island, Agege, Alimosho, name it. Table tennis and novelty football matches kept the picnickers entertained even as music blared from the loudspeakers. The traditional ruler of Ibeshe was represented by three of his chiefs. Medals were presented to those who participated in the novelty match, which ended in a one-one draw. Some officials were recognised and awarded medals for their contributions to the Association. Funds were raised and children, the young and the young-at-heart enjoyed themselves to the hilt. The rains – a downpour in the real sense of the word – brought proceedings to an abrupt end after a few hours and when proceedings were already coasting home to their final destination. Pledges were made to make next year’s event more entertaining.

According to reports, “The first Young Men Christian Association (YMCA) organized group in Nigeria was formed in the city of Kano in 1925 but that local church-based group soon faded away until 1944 when the Lagos YMCA Central Club, which later developed into the Lagos YMCA, was formed.

Taking a cue from Lagos, YMCA groups sprang up in other cities and towns. YMCA work in Nigeria was further advanced by YMCA movements in the UK (1958), International Committee of the YMCAs of the USA and Canada (1963) and German YMCA (1964). In 1962, the National Council of YMCAs of Nigeria was formed as an umbrella body of autonomous local associations.

However, it was through the formation of the National Council that the YMCAs of Nigeria applied and were registered with the World Council of YMCAs at the meeting in Tosanzo, Japan in 1964 under the founding National President, the late Chief Timothy Oluwole Oyesina.

It was through this registration and affiliation that the franchise of the international YMCA family was brought to the National Council and subsequently to the local associations. YMCA work suffered a serious setback during the three-year civil war period of 1967 – 1970.

Subsequently, the days of fraternal secretaries were over in April 2000 when the last from Germany left the services of the Northern Zone YMCAs. However technical personnel for VTCs (Vocational Training Centre) and other special projects are still being recruited from Germany.The YMCA of Nigeria adapted the Paris Basis and Kampala Principles to suit local conditions until 1994 when a National Strategic Development Plan Workshop was held at the University of Lagos.

One of the highlights of that workshop was the adoption of a Mission Statement which runs thus:‘‘We provide relevant community-based programmes and services that develop the mind, spirit and body of the youths and the less-privileged on the basis of equality and justice and in accordance with the Christian mandate”That statement was considered relevant to the past, present and future aspirations of YMCA which, initially, focused on Youth Development Programmes, Leadership Training, Formal and Informal Education and Vocational Training. While these original thrusts are still relevant today, the statement is equally germane to new challenges arising from such phenomena as HIV/AIDS ethnic/religious conflicts, political violence and gender inequality. YMCA’s main programmes centre on Youth Empowerment, Gender Sensitivity, Poverty Alleviation, Leadership Development, Political and Civic Education, and Capacity-building towards self-reliance. It organises youth camps at local, national and international levels. Through leadership programmes, young people are trained to develop the capacity to assume leadership roles in the affairs of the YMCA and their communities.At its 34th Annual General Meeting and Conference held in July 2000 in Yola, Adamawa State, the National Council reaffirmed and implemented the policy of 30% youth representation on the National Executive Committee and directed Local YMCA boards to follow suit. YMCA has also organized leadership courses for various categories of its lay and professional members. It has Vocational Training Centres in different parts of the country for printers, carpenters, fitters, farmers, fashion designers and native cloth weavers. Gender issues occupy the front burner to promote the participation and leadership of women in YMCA affairs. YMCA is also involved in the Adolescent Reproductive Health Project in collaboration with the USA YMCA and Packard Foundation. The objective of the project is to enlighten the youth on the prevention of HIV/AIDS, among others, so that they can make wise choices for healthy reproductive lives. Another area of concern to YMCA is the promotion of peace and justice”.

From the above, we can see that the YMCA Nigeria has an rich history, an illustrious pedigree, a long list of great achievements and an intimidating array of VIPs that will make any organisation green with envy.

As it prepares to celebrate its 80th anniversary, we will hear more from this not-for-profit organisation devoted to the uplifting of the society, especially its youths, the down-trodden and less privileged classes.

Former Editor of PUNCH newspapers, Chairman of its Editorial Board and Deputy Editor-in-chief, BOLAWOLE was also the Managing Director/ Editor-in-chief of THE WESTERNER newsmagazine. He writes the ON THE LORD’S DAY column in the Sunday Tribune and TREASURES column in New Telegraph newspaper on Wednesdays. He is also a public affairs analyst on radio and television.

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