By Jiti Ogunye
Comrade Rufus Olugbade Oyatoro succumbed to mortality, and we dare say immortality, on the 3rd of September, 2020. His passing was sudden and unexpected. He was 61 years old.
I met Comrade Rufus Oyatoro in 1999. Twenty one years ago. He was the Chairman of the Steel and Engineering Workers Union of Nigeria ( SEWUN), a junior workers union in the Osogbo Steel Rolling Company Limited, a fully owned enterprise of the Federal Government of Nigeria. The senior staff union in the Company (Iron and Steel Senior Staff Association of Nigeria – ISSSAN-) was headed by Comrade Sam Omotosho.
Following the sack of many workers of the company, vide termination of employments and forcible retirements, the leadership of the junior staff union and senior staff union in the company sought legal assistance against their sack.The workers were purportedly sacked by the management of the company with the touted approval of the then departing military head of state , General Abubakar Abdusalam, pursuant to the now repealed Public Officers ( Special Provisions ) Decree No. 17 of 1984. The draconian decree had an ouster clause, which took away the jurisdiction of the court of law to exercise its power of judicial review to adjudicate on any matter instituted in court to challenge the exercise of power of removal, under that decree, of any public officer from public office , by the military executive branch of government. It was a monstrous decree. Nothing done or purported to have been done under that decree could be questioned in a court of law. The cynical phrase in the draconian Decree that was used to justify the removal of a public officer was that it was done “ in the public interest”. The decree was used to weed out of the public service labour and trade union leaders and radical academics opposing the military regime.
Before the mass sack, the workers had been at loggerheads with the management of the company , for mismanaging the company, and with the government for its privatization designs. Some of the workers were initially suspended . Their leaders were subjected to unending police harassments. When the workers were sacked , they were expelled from their official residences, and rendered homeless.
When the workers were sacked vide letters dated 28th April and 6th May, 1999, they sought legal advice in Osogbo and Osun State. Unfortunately, the views and legal opinions of the lawyers they encountered were that their case was hopeless because of the ouster of jurisdiction of the court by that terrible decree.
It was in this state of confusion that the sacked workers, who had been receiving solidarity support from the Ife Collectives ( a radical intelligentsia platform of academic trade unionists of socialist conviction in Obafemi Awolowo University), sought advice from Professor Omotoye Olorode, a Professor of Botany, former ASUU Chairman of Obafemi Awolowo University, a Marxist Scholar, and one of those who championed the struggle against military despotism in Nigeria. Professor Olorode himself, apart from being a victim that had been detained a number of times under the now repealed State Security ( Detention of Persons ) Decree No. 2 of 1984 , which allowed the military junta to detain political dissidents and opposition figures for a renewable term of three months ( also with the jurisdiction of the court being similarly ousted by an ouster clause), had also suffered a dismissal from the University under the said Decree No 17 of 1984, during the IBB Military dictatorship He was reinstated by the Court.
It was Professor Olorode who gave the distressed sacked workers a note to meet his comrade lawyers in Lagos for intervention. These comrade lawyers were Femi Falana, now SAN and then Principal Counsel, Femi Falana Chambers, and Jiti Ogunye , who, at a time, was a deputy head of chambers in that “ people’s law firm “. Mr. Femi Falana, SAN had and still has a solid credential of being a dogged and well learned champion of workers’s interest through the law.
And so it was that in May 1999, Comrade Rufus Oyatoro and the other leaders of the workers , namely- Sam Omotosho, G. A Thomas, J. O Eluwole , Alimi Amusa and Mrs. C. O Ojo came to our Obafemi Awolowo ( Glass ) House, Obafemi Awolowo Way, Ikeja Chambers in search of solution and redress.
I was the lawyer who handled the matter from inception. In spite of all the comrade workers had heard about the impossibility of challenging any removal from public office that was done under Decree 17 of 1984, we assured them that we could succeed. Thus began not only a lawyer-client relationship between Comrade Rufus Oyatoro and I and the rest of the workers that I later met in Osogbo, but also a relationship between us as comrades, friends and brothers.
One of the earliest attributes, nay values, that I realized that Comrade Rufus Oyatoro had was that he was a very patient person. In spite of his revolutionary force of character, solid principles, and insistence on justice, he was a patient person. I saw that on early display. When the workers came to brief us, time wise, the three month statutory period within which to institute a court action under the Public Officers Protection Act was already running. If we didn’t file the suit within the three month period, any challenge of the sack in court by an action would become stale, statute-barred and would be struck out. As lawyers sometimes do, I took my time in crafting their court process. It was the lot of Rufus Oyatoro and his sacked comrades to be traveling down from and back to Osogbo weekly, based on appointments given to them. The work wasn’t moving as expected. But Comrade Rufus Oyatoro did not flinch. He betrayed no anger. No frustration. Expressed no disappointment. He would express gratitude for trips to Lagos that did not yield the expected fruits, due to my workloads and schedules.
Comrade Rufus Oyatoro was also a very humble and respectful person. For him, stubborn fidelity to principles and humanitarian values should not rob one of his humility. In spite of the obvious biological edge he had over me , he never addressed me without a “ sir”. And he would never close a conversation without his characteristic “ e seun “. He thanked people so generously.
Comrade Rufus Oyatoro wore humility like an inseparable garb. Kindness and generosity of spirit complemented his humility. He was a very caring person. From so little, he gave out so much.
The case for which reason I encountered Comrade Oyatoro was filed on 22nd of July , 1999- about five days to the expiration of the three month period for filing the case. I left the law firm to establish my law firm months later.
The case, a representative action on behalf of the sacked workers, sixty-six in all ( RUFUS OYATORO & 5 OTHERS v. OSOGBO STEEL ROLLING CO. LTD & MINISTER OF POWER & STEEL , Suit No. FHC/ OS/ CS/26/99) lasted at the Federal High Court Osogbo for four grueling years. The Defendants challenged the jurisdiction of the Court, in a preliminary objection, contending that Decree 17 forbade any adjudication. In a ruling delivered on 27th day of November, 2002, the Court dismissed the objection to jurisdiction. The case, thus, continued. After trial, judgment was delivered by Hon. Justice Chukwura Nnamani ( of blessed memory) on the anniversary of the institution of the action on the 22nd of July , 2003. The workers won. The Court held that they were not properly and lawfully sacked under the provisions of Decree 17. The military head of state , the appropriate authority or his delegate, who had exclusive power to sack any public officer under the Decree, did not sack the workers. The Management of Osogbo Steel Rolling Co. Ltd did so in the name of the Head of State. And that was unlawful. The Court ordered that the workers be paid the backlog of their salaries and reinstated to their respective positions within six months of delivery of judgment.
The Company appealed the judgment to the Court of Appeal, Ibadan. After lodging the Appeal, It filed an application for stay of execution of the judgment. But Hon. Justice Nnamani dismissed the application on 29th October, 2003.
The Company and the Federal Government of Nigeria, however, failed to comply with the judgment. They brushed aside the defeat they suffered in attempting to stay the execution of the judgment and continued to pursue their Appeal.
The Company was, however, liquidated by the Federal Government vide a winding up proceeding at the Federal High Court. The workers participated in the proceedings to ensure that their interest was protected. The Receiver and Liquidator that was appointed paid the workers their entitlements in 2006. The Company was sold to a private interest under the privatization exercise of the Federal Government of Nigeria.
Expectedly, the pursuit of the case witnessed many twists and turns. Some of the workers became weary of endless litigation and went back to the Management to settle , so that they could receive some terminal benefits.
The workers also embarked on ceaseless settlement moves, during litigation and after securing their judgment. They wrote many letters seeking intervention of the authorities, including Chief Bola Ige, SAN and Liyel Imoke, both ministers of power and steel, at different times. They wrote to the Presidency, pleading for resolution. No resolution came.
Remarkably, however , it was during that period of uncertainty in waiting for judicial justice that the patience and resilience of Comrade Rufus Oyatoro and the rest of the workers became more noticeable.The energy, zeal and indomitable spirit of Rufus Oyatoro and the workers did not flag nor fail. In distress, the workers became one huge family. They enjoyed the solidarity of the Nigeria Labour Congress ( Osun State ), and the solidarity of labour generally. But the House and Senate Committees on Power and Steel, Bureau of Public Enterprises, and National Council on Privatization did not give them a listening ear. The workers were undaunted. They met regularly, assisted one another in distress and organized prayer sessions together. Going to prayer mountains even. And Osun State is blessed with many mountains. Their faith was unshaken. Their resolve was incredible. Their optimism astounding .
Comrade Rufus Oyatoro became my friend and brother during that period of struggle and after. When my mother took Ill, he would procure and bring herbs in sacks from Osogbo for her. Calling regularly to ask how she was faring. And he became a permanent face in all my family events. Wedding, my 50th birthday ceremony and my mum’s funeral. Unfortunately, he would not be around to bury his own mother. What an irony of fate!
In the theatre of popular mass struggles, Comrade Rufus Oyatoro was at the forefront. In the Campaign for Democracy, in the National Conscience Party, in the Committee for the Defence of Human Rights and in many workers’ rights agitations and campaigns for rights and justice, he was always at the barricades. Many times, he and other comrades in Osogbo provided legal support as sureties to our students comrades who were being persecuted vide trumped up charges and crippling prosecutions by the State and authoritarian tertiary institutions administrations.
Comrade Rufus Oyatoro was very fond of his family-his wife and children. He introduced his daughter, Olamide, to me . Olamide, a lawyer, did her externship in my law firm and worked with us for some time.
Here goes a good man. My client, comrade, friend , brother, uncommon working class warrior, leader, patriot and a revolutionary like no other. A loving husband, a caring father, and a good family man.
His service and work in our community will be sorely missed. A General of the People’s Army has fallen when the battle is not yet over and when victory over the enemies of our people is yet to be accomplished.
Comrade Rufus Oyatoro, I wish I had the poetic composure to erect a tombstone of elegy in your honour to mark your painful passage. Words failed me. I could not go beyond the first building stone -stanza:
“When a day loses its sun rays
And a rainbow suddenly fades away
When from the sky a lodestar is erased
Memories become our only solace”
May the beautiful soul of Comrade Rufus Oyatoro find a well deserved rest and may the Good Lord comfort his grieving family.
Jiti Ogunye, former Chair, Committee for the Defense of Human Rights wrote this tribute in honour of Comrade Rufus Oyatoro on the occasion of his funeral in Osun State on 9th and 10th September, 2020