Many different thoughts came to my mind last week, when news of Festus Iyayi’s tragic death broke. The pain was deep and the anger and confusion were overwhelming.
In that tragic accident, Nigeria lost one of its finest patriots; a Marxist revolutionary whose dedication to the liberation of our country and the enthronement of a society of social justice for the working people, were the defining motifs of his work as well as his life.
Festus Iyayi was simply one of our greatest heads, and we can paraphrase Fredrich Engels, that with his death, Nigeria genuinely became a head shorter! I first met Iyayi in 1982 in Benin City. The often, fractious Nigerian communist movement had been meeting over a period to find a united front against the depredations of the Nigerian ruling class during the Shagari regime.
There had appeared clearly fascistic trends in the manner the ruling NPN and the other parties of the bourgeoisie were desperately conducting themselves in the run up to the 1983 elections. We analysed that the Nigerian left had to offer a non-sectarian platform of struggle, able to bring everybody together, in what we believed, was leading to very dangerous portents for Nigeria. That was the basis of the creation of the National Democratic Movement, NDM.
It was a meeting of NDM that took us to Benin; a meeting held in a well-appointed hotel owned by a comrade whose name I cannot recall, but who had been a commissioner in one of the military regimes. That was also my first meeting with Iyayi. He had studied in the Soviet Union and had recently returned home.
Of course we knew about him, as we knew of comrades around Nigeria; individuals whose commitment to the struggle against neo-colonialism; capitalist exploitation; underdevelo-pment and for socialism, brought out the very best of their intellectual labours and genuine commitment. Festus had an easy manner about him, which was always so easily welcoming and he was a genuinely humane individual whose commitment was total and unstinting. He hosted us to dinner in his house and over the years, he went on to demonstrate the depth of his commitment to the struggle for the liberation of our country.
He was a local leader of ASUU at the University of Benin and would eventually become the National President of the union. He joined a long list of Marxist scholars from the late Mahmud Modibbo Tukur through to Biodun Jeyifo, who helped to define the union and made it one of the best-organized trades unions in Nigeria.
It was part of their tradition of commitment that they even took ASUU into the Nigeria Labour Congress, thus helping to deepen its class roots and assisting in the further radicalization of the central labour organisation. For his commitment and dogged defence of the organisation he led, Iyayi was sacked from the University of Benin, during the reactionary, rightwing vice chancellorship of Professor Grace Alele-Williams.
But Festus suffered his personal setback with stoicism and exemplary fortitude relying very much on the solidarity of his comrades around the world. There was the sensibility of the writer and cultured individual in the persona of our comrade and it was therefore no surprise, that his literary writings won the Commonwealth Prize.
His writings were the best expressions of realist and committed literature, which examined the Nigerian condition from the standpoint of its exploited mass of working people and the poor.
In 2007, to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the NLC, a national body of committed intellectuals and working class leaders was put together by the Nigeria Labour Congress and after our first meeting, I recall an aside with Festus, where we tried a brief tour through the history of the Nigerian socialist movement. This was at a juncture when many comrades have retreated into ethno-religious laagers while many more had become executive directors of imperialist-financed NGOs.
Festus was still as refreshingly committed to his vision for the liberation of the Nigerian people from imperialism and the worst manifestations of capitalism as we have continued to face over the decades. In writings and interviews, Iyayi lucidly set out his vision and they were always a welcome engagement with the mind of one of the greatest sons of Nigeria: patriot, intellectual, Marxist. No ambiguities!
It was one tragedy too many that we lost him in an accident involving those convoys-from-hell that the members of the Nigerian ruling class have continued to terrorize our roads with since the days of military dictatorship.
There is a psychology of conquest and a most absurd level of arrogance and impunity embedded in the culture of convoys. Governors, ministers and all kinds of officials dominate roads with suicidal drivers and inhumane security details who push other road users off roads, as if the citizen means nothing. And in truth, the citizen means nothing in the nether world of evil, arrogance and impunity that they reside in.
It was this culture of disdain for the Nigerian citizen and impunity which led the convoy of the KogiState governor, Idris Wada, to kill Iyayi, one of the best sons of Nigeria! We must interrogate the culture of convoys. It is built on impunity, arrogance and disdain for the Nigerian people.
If we are building a democracy, and if these crooks have genuinely earned the vote of the Nigerian people, why must they treat the people with so much disdain and disrespect? Why do the convoys-from-hell continue to waste the lives of Nigerian people? Related to this culture of impunity is another culture from hell: the one they call “VIP Movement” in the Nigerian airspace.
You are in a flight from Lagos to Abuja and all of a sudden, the pilot announces that the plane will not be able to land, because there is “VIP Movement”. Your plane then hovers around the Abuja airspace, for another 30 or more minutes because a “VIP” is moving, thus endangering up to a hundred citizens in a commercial airliner! That happens regularly in Nigeria.
If Iyayi’s death can trigger sufficient anger in the Nigerian people to help stem that culture of impunity, he would not have died in vain. Iyayi’s name and example will endure to continue to inspire patriots committed to the liberation of our dear country!