Tunji Bello at 60: Testimonial to Charisma in Unionism, Journalism and Activism

Tunji Bello at 60: Testimonial to Charisma in Unionism, Journalism and Activism

Friday, July 2, 2021 2:05 pm


Tunji Bello

By Lanre Arogundade

Robust framed, fine-skinned and afro-haired while oozing handsomeness in his parliamentary gown, he somewhat stood out among the students’ union leaders that had thronged Great Ife campus on that occasion in the 1982/83 session.

Back at the students’ union office soon after the event, a group of us whispered and joked that the guy from the University of Ibadan (UI), must be an ‘e dey happen chap’ – the other moniker in those days for those categorised as ‘ome aje butter’ – students or young guys whose mien pointed at privileged background.

The guy was Tunji Bello. He was the students’ union leader – the Vice President – who had come to represent the University of Ibadan students’ union at the second memorial anniversary for four students from the University of Ife who were cut down in their prime by the Police during a funeral procession in Ile-Ife town on June 7, 1981. The irony was that the march was to protest the beheading of another student – Bukola Arogundade.

The brutal killing of Bukola Ojewoye, Fatimah Adebimpe, Paul Alonge, and Wemimo Akinbolu after the Police had fired live ammunition and tear gas at thousands of students lined up behind the then students’ union president, Femi Kuku, in front of Mayfair Hotel in the Lagere area of the town shook the campus to its foundation. It shocked a Nation to whom humanity then mattered.

Indeed, the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU), under the leadership of Dr. Biodun Jeyifo had to set up an administrative panel of inquiry comprising Chief Gani Fawehinmi (the head) and Labanji Bolaji, veteran journalist and member, to unravel the mystery behind the death of the students. It was the panel that found conclusively that their death was a direct outcome of the police assault on the peacefully marching students.

The Fajemifo Christopher executive on which I served as the Secretary-General came into office two sessions after the massacre and one of our early resolutions was to organise a befitting commemorative activity including the erection of a June 7 statue in front of the students’ union building, to serve as a permanent memorial for the June 7 four.

It was thus the unveiling of the statue, the memorial march by students’ union leaders from Ife and nearby campuses and other related activities that marked the first crossing of paths with Tunji Bello.

Beyond the specific symbolism of immortalising the June 7 four, the commemorative events organised by our Exco were reflective of the ideology driven, purposeful and focussed nature of students unionism in that era. The elements of the mission that shaped unionism included defence of independent students’ unionism; protection of students welfare; promotion of a culture of enlightened and robust debate of national and international issues; holding the civilian governments accountable for their deeds or misdeeds; and doing same to the military governments that succeeded them in the aftermath of the military putsch of 1983, which marked the demise of the second republic.

The early to mid-80s was also a period when the privileges being enjoyed by the students such as subsidised feeding system, subsidised accommodation and affordable tuition fees were already being threatened. At first, the attack on the educational system was a product of the profligacy of the Shehu Shagari led National Party of Nigeria’s (NPN) Federal Government. It was that corruption ridden government that started the establishment of more universities for political considerations without giving deep thought to how they would be funded. Later, the attack became bye-products of the shift in the direction of neo-liberalism by the military governments.

By the late 80s, it had become clear that the attempt to commercialise education was in part fulfilment of the conditionalities imposed by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to which the country had turned for loans. The most notorious of the initiative in this direction was the Ibrahim Babangida military junta’s Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP), which he claimed had no alternative but which was duly resisted by students, youths and Nigerians in what became famously known as the anti-SAP riots of 1989.

Tunji Bello deserves to be acknowledged as a player and leader in the student movement of that era, which to a significant number of Nigerians constitutes a golden generation.

Sections of that generation believe their radical and or revolutionary vision of Nigeria should not die with campus activism but should be taken into the arena of their professional callings and the larger society. This was especially so with those who had been active as campus journalists, students’ unionists and leaders; and members of socialist, black nationalist, anti-apartheid, etc, movements, some of whom would later become professional journalists.

One of the earliest indications of that commitment was the convergence of a group of erstwhile campus activists and unionists now working as journalists in Lagos at the then secretariat of the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) in Yaba, Lagos, to form the Progressives Journalists Associations (PJA) in the period between 1988 and 1989. Adopting the ideology of socialism, the main aim of PJA was to use the instrumentality of journalism to transform Nigeria through the pursuit of journalism with social relevance. In the course of time the platform expanded to accommodate like-minded elements especially those who didn’t have campus activism background and it got transformed into the New Trend movement of the NUJ.

As I attested in my recent tribute to another active participant in that movement, Femi Ojudu, who also recently turned 60, Tunji Bello was a prominent player in that movement and would emerge from the forum to be one of the leaders of the NUJ in Lagos State. I wrote: “The New Trend platform took the Lagos Council of NUJ by storm when in 1989 it elected the dynamic leadership of Ladi Lawal, Tunji Bello, Richard Akinnola, Kayode Komolafe, Bong Ita, Niyi Bankole, Dagogo Jack etc. It later extended its foray to the national level with the subsequent election of Sani Zoro as the National President of NUJ”.

Tunji Bello was the Treasurer in that famous Ladi Lawal executive, which embarked on educational and welfare empowerment of journalists. The exco put up a robust defence of press freedom for which it established the Press Freedom Defence Committee and was active in decrying human rights abuses that was characteristic of the military government of that era so much so that by the time of the June 12 crisis of 1993 following the annulment of the presidential mandate freely given by Nigerians to Bashorun MKO Abiola, the council teamed up with other pro-democracy forces to be part of the Joint Action Committee on Nigeria (JACON) led by late Gani Fawehinmi.
On the above account, Tunji Bello, also deserves to be acknowledged and commended as a key player and leader in that radicalisation of the NUJ via the new trend platform.

History, as far as my relationship with Tunji Bello is concerned, ran full cycle when I joined the National Concord where he was already established on the features and political desks, and would soon become the Political Editor. Though I also became the Features Editor we related more as former student unionists and NUJ combatants than as line editors. We became friends and on occasions embarked on joint rendezvous the full details of which can only be preserved as unwritten memoirs.

Well read, well connected, urbane, focussed, amiable and intellectually endowed, it was not hard to guess that Tunji would rapidly climb the journalism professional ladder and one the earliest indications was when he was offered the Alfred Friendly fellowship in the United States. The development so much excited Bashorun MKO Abiola that he organised a farewell reception for Tunji at his Ikeja residence with some of us present to devour the meals and savour the banters of the occasion. I was the one that dropped Tunji off at the airport for his departure and was equally on hand to pick and drop him at home upon his return.

With such other cerebral journalists like Victor Ifijeh, Sam Omatseye, etc, forming part of his formidable team, it could not have been otherwise that the political desk would be part of the success story of the National Concord in the 1990s. And here again, the contribution of Tunji to media professionalism and development as someone who transverse the vast field of political reporting should be duly acknowledged.

Tunji’s charismatic attributes, the journalism front at which he operated and close relationship with MKO obviously recommended him for the inner circle role he played in the National Concord Publisher’s bid for the presidency on the platform of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) in 1993. The annulment and the nationwide anger it provoked also meant that he would become a core participant in the struggle for the restoration of the June 12 mandate for which MKO ultimately paid the supreme price. Tunji, in my reckoning, is one of the top ten Nigerians who could write authoritatively on the intrigues, the backstabbing, the horse trading, the betrayals, the somersaults and the sharp twists and turns of the June 12 struggle. He owes present and future generation the historical obligation of telling his June story. While we wait for the epic, we have to equally acknowledge the sense of commitment to a Nigeria free from the shackles of military oppression with which he participated in the pro-democracy movement despite the obvious risks.

My conclusion therefore is simple. On this special occasion of his 60th birthday, Tunji should be saluted as a hero of purposeful journalism and a hero of Nigeria’s democracy. Especially encouraging is the fact that Tunji has remained Tunji – humble, level headed, compassionate and humane – his long sojourn on the corridors of government and power notwithstanding. For he is a jolly good fellow? You can say that again and again.

Being my contribution to the book: ‘In Pursuit of Public Purpose – Essays In Honour of Tunji Bello at 60’ published to mark his birthday today, July 1st, 2021.

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