By Denja Yaqub
Professor Festus Iyayi
Precisely twenty five days after we lost one of our most unswerving leaders, Baba Omojola, whose entombment proceedings are still ongoing, death has again taken one of our best through a ghastly motor accident primarily caused by the irresponsible culture of impunity often displayed by the convoys of crass public office holders who feel the capacity to “fly” on the road magnifies their obscure power of gripping other road users to acknowledge their weight even when it clearly further exhibits how much contempt they have for people and lives.
Professor Festus Iyayi, a very rare endowment; an embodiment of meekness, cerebral dexterity, prolific writer, articulate speaker, dependable leader, honest and valiant in all things; was murdered in his prime by agents of an uncultured, rash, spineless, vision-less and nauseatingly corrupt ruling elite as the convoy of a Governor who is yet to recover from an earlier accident resulting from similar reckless driving, which almost took his life, sped off with the blood of a man who had spent nearly all of his life and resources fighting for a decent society; spearheading protests for the enthronement of social equality; a man who wouldn’t have thought the convoy of one of the most unworthy beneficiaries of his struggles would eventually kill him with such reckless abandon.
Born in Ugbegun, Edo State 66 years ago in 1947, Festus started his education at the Annunciation Catholic College in his village and later, Government College, Ugheli, Delta State. He soon after read Industrial Economics at the Kiev Institute of Economics in the defunct Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, ending with a doctorate at the University of Bradford in England.
He thereafter returned to Nigeria and since 1980, until his death, he was a lecturer in the department of Business Administration at the University of Benin. He also did his last sabbaticals with the Nigeria Labour Congress where he added values to the work of Africa’s largest trade union federation.
An award winner from early stage of his education, Prof Iyayi got his first award as an essayist in 1968 when he won the John Kennedy Essay Competition organized by the Embassy of the United States of America in Nigeria. He was then in his final year at Government College, Ughelli.
A writer of high repute, his book, Heroes, did not only enjoy popular reading across the globe, it won him the esteemed Commonwealth Writers prize in 1988. He had also authored other thought provoking novels such as Violence in 1979, Contract in 1982 and Awaiting Court Martial in 1996. These books are compelling depiction of the decadence of the Nigerian society, a society that has continuously increased in her slide to banal reputations with leaders who continue to flaunt stolen public wealth in the face of the impecunious millions that form over ninety percent of the citizenry.
To these millions who bear the brunt of the imperious presence of profligate ruling elite that is exceptional in its contempt for good governance, Festus committed the entirety of his productive life.
Festus was a conscientious organizer who had been involved in the development of ideologically focused organizations of the Marxist flank as well as mass organizations committed to the desired change for a country that is so endowed with all that is needed to lead in development.
Festus did not only organize and led intellectuals; he was deeply involved in organizing peasants in remote areas of his native Edo State. He was a leading light in the socialist movement in Nigeria from the Socialist Congress of Nigeria (SCON) to the Socialist Party of Nigeria. He was part of the ideological substratum of the radical student movement in the 80s when students spoke with one patriotic voice under united, strong and vibrant auspices. A dexterous leader he was.
At the level of human rights and pro democracy struggles, he succeeded Dr. Beko Ransome-Kuti as President of the Committee for the Defence of Human Rights, CDHR. He was actively involved in the Campaign for Democracy. And as a writer, he was part of the Association of Nigerian Authors, encouraged by the commitment of personalities like Ken Saro Wiwa.
The most open attestation of his activism is his leadership of the Academic Staff Union of Universities, ASUU. He was elected President of ASUU in 1986 at a time when the imperial structures of international finance capital used the opportunity provided by the anti people regime of General Ibrahim Babangida to unleash all sorts of neoliberal policies that has today left nearly all components of our collective socio economic and political existence in shambles.
ASUU, under Professor Iyayi’s leadership was a leading voice against the manipulations of that regime, most especially the economic sting called Structural Adjustment Programme, SAP. He led ASUU to team up with Nigeria Labour Congress, National Association of Nigerian Students, and several others to challenge the introduction of SAP and other draconian policies that were clearly intended to hand over our country to the whims of neoliberal institutions whose policies were sketched to subsume the entire Nigerian populace and our collective resources in second slavery, the fulcrum of the new capitalist economic order.
He fought for quality education and the right of every Nigerian to have education regardless of class barriers. He saw scholarship as a major tool that can ensure the development of any country and to achieve this, only education that is people driven in access, content and essence is required. He put all of his energy, resources and intellect in this struggle; and indeed, lost his life in the cause of the struggle as he was killed on his way to a meeting scheduled to advance the cause of the struggle for qualitative education in Nigeria.
He had suffered so much state attacks in the cause of his involvement in the struggles of our people, the most ferocious and traumatic being the state sponsored evacuation of his family from his official residence as a lecturer at the University of Benin following his removal as staff of the university along with Prof. Itse Sagay, Dr. Osagie Obayuwana both of the law faculty at the time as well as Tunde Fatunde of the Faculty of Arts.
This was at the twilight of the orchestrated obliteration of quality education in Nigeria, which was carried out by the Babangida regime on behalf of neo liberal institutions, especially the International Monetary Fund, IMF, who abhorred resistance to their grit to seize our economy.
The systemic attack on education started with the annihilation of the culture of critical intellectualism when the regime, in open declaration of its disdain for quality education, claimed there were lecturers that were teaching what they were not paid to teach. Consequently, people like Festus who, in the perception of the regime fell in this category, were hunted and hounded out of the system. In fact, Dr. Patrick Wilmot, then a lecturer at the Ahmadu Bello University was thrown across the border, deported to the United Kingdom, and forcefully extricated from his Nigerian wife in a manner only presumed possible in war times.
The students’ movement was not left out and today, the result is clearly evident in the catastrophic recession in our education system. Intellectualism has not only been destroyed, teaching and learning infrastructures in the system have totally collapsed.
The demand for proper funding for the effective revitalization of these structures that will ensure quality education are the main issues in contention leading to the current strike by university lecturers. Festus was committed to the struggle to actualize these demands until he was cut down in an accident that could have been avoided if the governor’s convoy had learnt a lesson from their previous accident.
Prof Iyayi was a colossus in the movement and his death is indeed a major smack that would not elapse so easily, but the challenge of regenerating his fighting spirit, dexterity and courage will ensure the continuity of all struggles he was involved in until victory.
Denja Yaqub is an Assistant Secretary at the headquarters of Nigeria Labour Congress, Abuja.