By Ejike Anyaduba
Foremost Nigerian Trade Unionist and community leader, Comrade David Ojeli, recently died at the age of 90 and will be buried Dec 9, 2023.
Ojeli was a Labour leader of note who fought many battles and led several agitations for better working conditions of the Nigerian workers. He was fearless and committed to the workers almost to the point of denying himself. A shrewd negotiator, he was hardly intimidated by the state into settling for less of the workers’ demands. Quite consistent, he carefully shunned episodic moments when agitating for the rights of workers as has become common in the Union struggle over the years. In fact, Ojeli’s time as the national president of the Nigerian Civil Service Union (NSCU), which spanned the period between 1977 and 1986, was perhaps the most glorious in the lives of the Nigerian civil servants.
A vibrant leader, he saw to many reforms in the Nigerian Civil Service and ensured the rights of workers were not trampled upon by the State. He went to court a number of times to argue for their welfare and secured victory for them most of the time. A case in hand was when the Federal Government decided to abolish Car and Housing Loans made available to workers. Leading the workers in resistance, he went to court to challenge the action. It is important to state here that like any battle he had fought, he confronted the Loan issue with every fibre of his being. And at the Industrial Arbitration Panel – (the quasi-Judicial Agency of the Nigerian Government under the supervision of the Federal Ministry of Labour and Employment), where the matter was heard, he won a consequential victory against the State. The decision against the loan offer was reversed.
It may be fair to argue that the victory was a watershed in the lives of Nigerian workers as many of them who ordinarily could afford neither a car nor a house, got either or both through the repayment process. And to this day that period in the history of Nigerian workers still evokes nostalgic feelings.
Ojeli was also the deputy national president of the Nigerian Labour Congress (NLC). He held that position for eight years (1978 – 1986). He worked closely with Comrade Hassan Sunmonu who was his boss at the Labour Congress between 1978 and 1984. Ojeli was a fearless and consummate unionist who was ever ready to identify with the workers and very often bucked the trend just to ensure their rights were protected. He led a simple life and retired with less of the encumbrances that have continued to impugn the integrity of unionism in Nigeria.
Born December 12, 1933, to late Chief Patrick and Mrs. Mary Ojeli of Atani in Ogbaru Local Government Area of Anambra State. Ojeli had his secondary school education at Stella Maris College, Port Harcourt, Rivers State from where he proceeded to Uganda to enroll in African Labour College, Kampala, Uganda. On graduation from African Labour College, he moved to International Centre for Advanced Technical and Vocational Training, Turin, Italy. He later obtained a Master’s degree in Industrial Relations and Labour Studies at The Hague, Netherlands.
Traversing countries where he was schooled, exposed him to the nuances of trade unionism and imbued him with cosmopolitan disposition that helped him accomplish so much. He was among the few trade unionists whose period in office was without scandal.
Ojeli was a prolific writer with a beautiful span of works that include, but not limited to, Development of Trade Unionism in Eastern Nigeria Thesis (The Hague), Financial Problems of Trade Unions in Nigeria (Turin), The Professional Trade Unionist in Nigeria (The Hague), The Role of Trade Unions in Rural Development(Kaduna), Labour Legislation and Administration in the USSR, The Role of Trade Unions in Industrial Accident Prevention (Enugu), Industrial Relations in English Speaking West African Countries (Geneva), Workers’ Organization: Its Role and Activities in the Promotion of Sound Labour Relations, Increased Basic Salary and the Productivity of Nigerian Workers, The Role of Trade Unions in the Economic development of Nigeria among others.
He impacted trade unionism in theory and in practice fairly equally. He built a near cult-following among workers with his simple, but effective leadership style. On retirement, he was appointed chairman Labour Transport City Service, Yaba, Lagos for the period between 1995 and 1996. He was later appointed into the late Governor Chinwoke Mbadinuju’s government in Anambra State as Special Assistant.
A man of integrity, Ojeli lived for humanity. He led the Civil Service Union with abiding sincerity and lived a simple life that was devoid of the complexities that have come to define modern day trade unionism. He was sparing on material acquisition and lived a frugal life style. Extremely hard working and accountable, he took every assignment with uncommon dedication and did not deliver out of time. He lived his life of retirement, attending to his gardens, playing table tennis, going for walk and relaxing with his family. He was blessed with five children – a man and four women, sixteen grandchildren and four in-laws.
Ojeli was a dedicated Christian of the Roman Catholic faith who lived and discharged his Christian obligations to the very end. He was indeed a giant in Trade Unionism whose contributions will remain indelible in the minds of workers both of his time and now. May his soul rest in peace.
Ejike Anyaduba, wrote from Abatete, Anambra State.