My pension is yet to be paid – Ex-NLC President, Hassan Sunmonu

My pension is yet to be paid – Ex-NLC President, Hassan Sunmonu

By Ekene Agbor, Osogbo

 

Comrade Hassan Sunmonu
Comrade Hassan Sunmonu

Alhaji Hassan Adebayo Sunmonu is the pioneer President of the Nigeria Labour Congress, NLC, (1978-1984). Sunmonu, a former General-Secretary of the Organisation of African Trade Union Unity (OATUU) celebrated his 80th birthday on January 7 alongside his identical twin brother, Alhaji Hussein Sunmonu, a one-time Secretary General, Association of Technical Officers, Federal Ministry of Works. On same day, Hassan’s wife clocked 76. In this interview with TIMOTHY AGBOR, the famous ex-NLC President spoke on his life experience, state of the nation and other issues.

Excerpts:

You and your twin brother (Hussein) celebrated your 80th birthday on January 7, how do you feel being an Octogenarian?

I feel nothing but gratitude to Almighty God because you know, in Nigeria, the average age these days is maybe is less than 60. So,for one to reach 80 is nothing but grace from Almighty God and I thank him for that. So, the feeling is like, so, I am 80. How time flies? Am I really old? (Smiles). But thank God I am still able to talk to people, interact, argue and to reminisce the past. So, it’s gratitude to God.

You don’t look as old as 80 when compared to others. So,what’s the secret of your agility?

First, the grace of the Almighty Allah because there is a saying of our Holy Prophet Muhammad (SAW), he says: believe in God but tie your horse; do your bit before the Almighty God can do his own. So, that one has a relative good health is something that is bestowed by the Almighty Allah. And one also takes care of what one eats or drinks. I don’t smoke and I don’t drink alcohol and same goes for my twin brother because we are practicing Amadiyan Muslim. We also do regular exercises and we don’t also overeat. I have a wife who prepares a family meal and for those who who have the opportunity of tasting her cuisine, I will say she is one of the best Cooks in the world. 

When and where were you born?

My twin brother and I were born on a Tuesday, 7th January, 1941 at a little village called Akim Eshiem of the Gold Coast (now Ghana). Of Osogbo parentage. My Father from Odeyemi compound, Osogbo in Atelewo Area, my mother was born at Balogun Biro’s compound in Oke-Baale, Osogbo. My father went to the Gold Coast in 1925 and came back finally in 1965, he lived in the old Gold Coast for 40 years. He was a cocoa produce merchant; he was a cocoa farmer, later, he developed his farm and became a successful Cocoa produce merchant; that’s where he had his wealth in the old Gold Coast that became Ghana on the 6th of March, 1957. 

At what age did you leave Good Coast to Nigeria?

We left Gold Coast 1948 back to Osogbo and we stayed in Osogbo, our mother came with us but our father remained in Gold Coast because by the time we were coming, it was cocoa season, so, our motjer, grandmother and younger sister, Idowu, came back to Osogbo and started schooling at Ansarudeen Osogbo in 1948 and by 1950, we crossed to All Saints School, Osogbo because it was the best school then and most of the pupils, cousins in our compound, 90% of them went to All Saints School. We completed our primary school in December, 1954. So,we didn’t taste part of the Free Education of Awowolo which started in January,1955. 

What were your profound childhood memories?

Three things: First, the adoration of Yorubas for twins, particularly, identical twins like my twin brother and I have been. We were virtually deified sort of because all the people believe that twins are sacred human being and that they have very powerful spirits. That was the belief of Yorubas, so all the people selling goods within and outside our campus like selling ‘eko’ and other petty items,they would bring their wares to our house and asked my twin brother and I to just touch the wares; because they believe they would sell out always immediately and within an hour or two, they would have would out and they would always give us gifts and told us we have great lucks. We are very lucky children. The second one was when our mum had to go back to the Gold Coast to join our dad in 1949 and left us with our paternal grandmother who was a great disciplinarian. She also traded in colanut. There is no colanut as such in Osogbo, so our grandmother would go to towns like Ikirun and Okuku to buy colanut to Osogbo to sell. She was called Iya Olobi (Colanut Seller). Whenever she goes to buy colanut, she would leave us at home for like two days with yam, palm oil,garri, rice and so on. So, from the age of 8, we learned through our paternal grandmother how to cook and fend for ourselves. And on Saturdays, we will go to the bush twice to fetch firewood; first,for the cooking in our household throughout the week and second to sell. So, there was a time we thought our grandmother was too harsh on us and we thought we should threaten her. We said: “Mama,we are going to die” and she said, “you are going to die? You see, that’s the area I am going to bury you.” (Laughed) We never dared it again! So, from early childhood, we know the value of work and we knew the value of money because no matter how big the firewood we carried for sales,we knew it wouldn’t sell for more than 6 pence. We never became spendthrift as a result of the training and background our mother gave us.

How do you compare the general childhood upbringing system of your time with what is obtainable by present day parents bearing in mind the moral decadence in the society?

Parents are now very indulgent with their children and that’s why they have become spoilt children. They lack discipline, they don’t respect elders and what about traditions. Growing up with our mother and later, grandmother, we were able to imbibe our traditions for hardwork, for honesty, for respect for elders,for filial piety which is the duty of children to their parents. That’s why the Yorubas have a proverb that says: Enikan niibi mo, igba eeyan ni nwo (It takes a couple to bring forth a child but it takes about 200 people to nurture and bring up that child). You are not even fit to ask for a woman’s hand in marriage if you are not known to be a hardworker. In those days, if you are a farmer, your yam ban must be always full because they would not like to give their daughter to a lazy farmer/ man or a man who have no integrity. Then money meant anything without integrity but what we see now is that once you have money, you can get Chieftaincy titles, and marry whoever you want.

Tell us your secondary school life especially how you lived with your identical twin brother?

When we finished primary education in December, 1954, we took entrance exams to Osogbo Grammar School, we were both admitted. Because we were the first children of our parents and our father was wealthy, we opted to go to the boarding house in 1955 and we were doing well. During the holidays, we would come and stay with our grandmother at Odeyemi’s compound in Osogbo. Then, our mother came about July 1955 since she left us in 1949 to visit us when we were in form one and she gave us the bad news that our father lost his fortune on the diamond business. She told us that our father invested in the diamond business and lost his fortune and that she had been sponsoring our education ever since and that she had to borrow some money to pay for our school fees from one of one cousins who was also in Gold Coast that time. So, it was like the whole world fell down on my twin brother and I. So, my twin brother and I said if our mother had to borrow money to supplement out school fees for first year, it means we are going to use our adult years in paying debts for our education because it would take us six years to complete our secondary school then at Osogbo Grammar School. So,we passed to form two in 1956 but we decided we are going to withdraw from school because we couldn’t continue to put our mother in debts simply because she wanted to get us educated. So, we left and went to the Gold Coast to meet them. Our father tried to look for employment for us at the Good Coast village we were but who is going to employ form one students?

So, we joined our mother in his colanut business until we wrote to the Principal of Yaba Technical Institute (now Yaba College of Technology); it was then financed by the colonial administration. The boarding fees were six pounds per term. So, we wrote for direct entry but the principal wrote us back to say no, we were going to take entrance exams. So, we went back home in Nigeria to take the exams. After the exams, while waiting for the results of the exams, my twin brother and I decided to go to Abeokuta and meet the Oyewole brothers: They are twins; Dotun and Femi Oyewole. We asked them to help us finish our school at Osogbo Grammar School and told them how our father lost his fortune. But they said they were sorry and that as much as they could love to help, they already have so many indigent students they were helping from their own pockets and they could not add us. So, we went to the palace of the Alake of Egbaland, Sir Ladapo Ademola, the father of the Nigerian first Chief Justice of Nigeria. Owing to the Egba Women riot as a result of imposes taxes, the Alake of Egbaland (of blessed memory) was sent on exile. It was at Osogbo tht the late Ataoja of Osogbo, S.L. Adenle hosted his exile for six months. So, anytime we were coming from school (Ansarudeen), we would pass the frontage of the house the Alake of Egbaland was spending his exile and that was what emboldened us to go to his palace to ask him to give us scholarship to continue with our education at Osogbo Grammar School. He agreed to sponsor us and asked us on return to Osogbo to ask the principal of Osogbo Grammar School that time, Rev J. L. Omigbodun that he should the bills of our school fees to him for settlement. But fate said otherwise, on return to Abeokuta, we met a letter of interview for me to come to Yaba Tech Institute but it was only my letter that was sent, we couldn’t find that of my twin brother. So, Hussain and I fasted for three days and Hussain told me to go and that by the grace of God, I would be admitted and he would also be admitted. So, I went and I passed the interview and within two weeks, letter of admission came to me. So, with that letter of admission, Hussain and I fasted again for three days with prayers and we went to meet the principal. Of the 52 staff at Yaba Technical Institute, only two were black. The rest were British. So, we saw the vice Principal and when he opened the door,he was looking at us and he couldn’t see any distinguishing feature. He asked if we were twins and we said yes. He asked why we wanted to see him and I had to lie that my twin brother was sick and just managed to take the entrance exam and that it was only me that was offered an admission. And up till that time, we had never left each other up to two weeks since we were born. So he eventually gave my twin brother an admission form after assuring him that we would do well academically. 

 

Comrade Hassan Sunmonu
Comrade Hassan Sunmonu

As identical twins, how did you handle situations whereby staff and fellow students would mistake you?

Yes, people use to mistake us. Our staff and fellow students even at the dormitory, they used to mistake us. From one first year, I was made the class captain till the end of our secondary education but still, both teachers and students used to mistake us. Bust some could distinguish either of us from voice. For others, till we left, they didn’t. 

Was there instance whereby the teacher punished you instead of your twin brother?

No, we were not rascally students. We were very good students. Hussain and I used to compete with each other in reading novels. We used to read thirty to thirty-three novels every term in addition to our normal school works. We used to be Progressives, we used to question colonialism, so, we had a geography teacher, anytime he came into the class, he would say “where are my rebels?” because we used to question colonialism and he was a white man.

Was that the time you discovered the activism trait in you?

I didn’t know how and why I was appointed class captain. But during our second year, our seniors had a quarrel between themselves over who would be appointed Secretary of the Muslim Students Society branch of Yaba Technical Institute. After they couldn’t settle the dispute, they pitched on me to be the secretary of the Yaba Technical Institute branch of the Muslim Students Society of Nigeria. I used to be naturally a shy person but that activism began in 1958 when I was appointed the Secretary. As secretary, I used to organise Friday lectures by inviting Muslim scholars and also we used to pick topics amongst ourselves to talk about and that’s what broke my shyness. During Ramadan, as the Secretary of the Muslim Students Society of Yaba Technical Institute branch, I used wake Muslim Students up and also ensure that their early morning breakfast is ready before going for my ckasses. That’s how my activism started. So, after my secondary school, the Federal Ministry of Works employed my twin brother and I as assistant Technical officers in training and sent us to Yaba Technical Institute for what was like Ordinary National Diploma in September 1961 in Civil Engineering. I was one of the people that were asked to come back for our Higher National Diploma and by this time, the name of the school had been changed to Yaba College of Technology and I graduated in June 1967. 1966/67, I was appointed president,Yaba Tech Student Union, in same year, I was elected President of National Association of Technological Students and same year simultaneously, by virtue of being an affiliate of National Association of Nigerian Students (NANS), I was second Vice president of NANS. So, I had three positions in my final year.

How were you able to combine all these leadership positions and your studies?

Well, I finished my studies successfully. After my final year exams, I had two distinctions. 

What are your hobbies?

I love sports and reading. I used to be at in a relay team at the old Technical Institute. I was into a football tram at Osogbo Grammar School called ‘Mosquito team.’ I used to engage in boxing too and reading of books. For instance, Jomo Kenyatta’s book, Facing Mount Kenya, I read it in two days. 

Can you recall how many books you have read?

I can’t remember but they would be in hundreds.

In all of these hobbies, which one you no longer engage in due to advancement in age?

I no longer play football. But my wife and I, we use to walk for about six to seven kilometers every week before breakfast. And when we don’t have time to walk due to one reason or the other, I use to engage in calisthenics by jugging at a spot.  A four by four space is enough for me to do my exercise.

What’s your philosophy of life?

Very simple! To Serv the Almighty Allah and my fellow human beings. 

What are the profound memories you can’t forget about your parents?

My father was a deeply religious Muslim. He was the Imam in the only mosque at the village we lived in Gold Coast and when he came back with his family, he was the Imam of the only mosque we had in Osogbo. He was a Tijaniyyah, of the Tijaniyyah sect in Islam (those who sing the praises of God when they go for their early morning prayer like the 5am prayer in the mosque). I like and I admired and I think my twin brother and I took that religious side of him. Then, my mum, how can you better appreciate a woman who was illiterate and still did everything to make sure that we had good education even if she had to sell some of her clothes to make sure we are in school. That’s a phenomena! She had no education but she was a colanut merchant. Let me tell you a funny story. The first and only truancy myself and my brother made at Ansarudeen school Osogbo was checkmated by my mother. At about 11am, (school normally resume at 8am and close around 1:30-2pm), my twin brother and I would ran away from school and came back home and my mother would asked if we had closed and we would say yes. But my mother would say it wasn’t true that there was no single pupil from other schools that she had seen passing. She marched us back to the school and found that we ran out of school. She asked the teacher to give us six strokes of cane each for the truancy. We got back home,she grind pepper and put it on our skin. Since that day, we never missed any classes throughout our stay in school. She was an illiterate but she wouldn’t like anyone of us to be illiterate. Two, when we were at Yaba Technical Institute, we used to go to Gold Coast to spend our holidays. So,when we arrived, our mother was already in Agege and loaded a trailer load of colanut from Ghana to Agege in Nigeria to sell. My father was at home in Gold Coast and our two grandmothers. So, there were two beautiful young girls who refused to marry two rich men who deal in diamond business. In fact, they rejected other wealthy suitors. So, their aunt, who was a friend to our mum later brought them to our village at Akim Eshiem, immediately these two girls saw us, they told themselves that they have found their husbands. My father heard this and he was happy. He said it was a thing of pride for him because the beautiful girls that rejected wealthy diamond magnates wanted to marry us. So,we also used to go and see the girls and had some chats with them. So, when our mother arrived, our father narrated the story to her. Then, my mother went to meet her friend (the aunt to the beautiful girls). When our mother came home, he called me and Hussain and told us she saw the girls and that they truly wanted to marry us. She now asked us,which of the wives would we want to marry? The one you have married in Lagos (that’s our education) or these two girls? Because she said she was not going to be sponsoring our education and still be taking care of the wives and children we would leave for her. So she asked us to choose one. Then, we told her that we wanted our education. Our father was disappointed but our mother was not because she was going to pay for our education. That was how the old woman made us to be focused on our education because once we have good education, we would have any wife of our choice and other things we want would follow. That was my mother for you. 

Comrade Hassan Sunmonu
Comrade Hassan Sunmonu

Are you that cordial with your twin brother becomes you both seem to agree almost on everything?

We are very cordial and close and in our youths, we made a promise to each other that come rain or shine, by the special grace of Allah, we would get married on same day. My twin brother is luckier than I with girls. He had a steady girlfriend for almost five years. On my own, I will try and before a year, the girl will go. I was so desperate because of my twin brother and our promise; not to delay him for too long. I nearly married a Catholic girl in Osogbo and you know what that could have meant; I would have become a Catholic. God has forbidden that. So, even Hussain’s original fiancee had to leave and marry another person after waiting and waiting and Hussain was not ready because I was not ready. But eventually, to God be the glory as people would say, I got my own (wife) through the Muslim Students Society of Nigeria like Hussain also got his own through same society because Hussain and I were very popular at Muslim Students Society conferences because of us being identical twins. We eventually got married on same day over 51 years ago.

At what age did you get married?

28 plus. On the 7th of September, 1969. We wedded on same day and same venue.

Do you always wear same clothes and foot wears and do things uniformly?

That exactly what we normally do. There are so many clothes we have in common. When I went to Ghana as secretary general of Organisation of African Trade Union, any major dress I buy, I buy his own and any major dress he buys, he buys my own even up till now. But there are some local wears that we don’t buy together.

So both of were always together until marriage?

Yes. We have a proverb that twenty children cannot play for twenty years. For instance, when we were in the Federal Ministry of Works, I was elected the Secretary of Association of Technical Workers in the ministry and he was a very active member in the association. He was my greatest critic but unknown to my other colleagues, they think how can my twin brother be criticising me and I would tell them that he wants me to do better. That’s the spirit we have. Anybody who criticise you wants you to be better. Not a destructive criticism. We don’t spare ourselves when we think what any of us had done is wrong. I won’t say because he is my twin brother and watch him do things wrongly; I will sanction him and same with him, he would also sanction me and that’s how it has been. Even when I was elected NLC president, he was the one that was carried up by cheering crowd and his picture was published by journalists. They thought he was me because he was not one of the official delegates who were inside when the news broke that ‘Sunmonu elected NLC president.’

Up to the time we were 16, we have never been separated from each other for more than two weeks. But after we finished our OND in 1964 together, we were both posted to the Federal Ministry of Works headquarters, he was in the planning division of the headquarters, I in the engineering office of the headquarters because we both did Civil Engineering. So, if at all our grandmother was sick or when they brought her or our juniors were brought from Ghana that time, one of us have to come and prepare for the primary school they were going to attend in Osogbo and I had to come and Hussain would resume my work and nobody knew because we used to go to work in same clothes. Later, it leaked to one of our senior managers who decided to punish us. For the first time, he sent Hussain to Shagamu/Benin express and he posted me to Zaria/Kaduna road. The wife of that senior manager, Engineer M.F. Kanye eventually gave birth to identical twins like us. Since that time, Hussain and I would get away with Engineer Kanye. 

Do you still your vehicle by yourself?

My children forbade me from driving five years ago. They said if I can’t afford to pay a driver, they will pay for me. But my twin brother still drives. He used to drive from Lagos to Osogbo even with driver seating beside him.

Did you give birth to twins?

No and neither my twin brother. Maybe our children have a 60/40% chance of giving birth to twins. But we have a history of twins and triplets in our family. My grandmother’s last born is twins. My father has twins three times. My brother and I. The former deputy Speaker of Osun State House of Assembly, Hon Yekinni Sunmonu and the brother, Rasak Sunmonu (they are not identical though). Then after that, there are twins from their mother because they are my half brothers. Then after, there are triplet from their mother. One of the triplet also had twins. One of my direct sisters also had twins. 

As an Octogenarian, do you have any regret?

No. I have no regret because every setback is a divine ordinance. For example, out inability to finish our secondary school at Osogbo Grammar School has a divine reason. First, we were not practising Muslims when we were at Osogbo Grammar School, we were nearly converted to Christianity by the late principal, J. L. Omigbodun and in fact when we withdrew, he promised us scholarship if we could change to Christianity. We said no because we were born two days before Ileya festival (Eid-el-Kabir) and since we were born, my father was slaughtering ram for Hussain and I until we started working and we have been slaughtering ram on every Eid Kabir day. Most of our classmates who were Muslims when we started at Osogbo Grammar School, majority of them up to 80%, were converted to Christianity through the influence of J.L. Omigbodun. When we went back to Gold Coast, our dad was the Imam of the only mosque in that village. In the morning, when the call to prayer was said, our father was expecting that all members of the family would be in the mosque to pray but after the prayer, he didn’t see us and he asked why we didn’t come for prayer; we told him that we didn’t know how to pray. He just burst into tears. So,we started learning some verses of the Holy Quran and how to pray.  So, since May, 1956, we started saying our give times prayer up till today. So, God stopped us from continuing our school because he wanted us to get close to him and also be Civil Engineers because if we ended up at Osogbo Grammar School, we wouldn’t have done engineering, we would have done maybe Accounting, Law or whatever. And God also wanted us to be known both Nationally and Internationally. So, when God does things wether good or bad, thank him. Wgen we were young, we used to go to Ataoja palace to play and we were popular there and people used to call us  Ataoja’s twins. There was a day the late Ataoja was being driven along the road in Osogbo and he was us at idi-Seke and he asked his driver to stop, and asked why we were not in school and we told him there was no money. He asked us to come and see him. We went later that evening to see him. You know at that time, Obas used to be the chairman of local Council. So,he asked us to write an application to the local council for scholarship. We wrote the application and gave it to Kabiesi. On the day they were to deliberate on the application for scholarship, an uncle of ours who was a councillor that time said no, that we were just liars and that our dad was rich enough to sponsor and it was because we were rascally, maybe that was why we couldn’t get money to continue our secondary education at Osogbo Grammar School. So, after about two weeks, were returned to Kabiesi and he said our uncle said we were rascals and all sort. That’s what sent us back to Gold Coast in May, 1956. For ten years,we didn’t use to greet that our uncle because our father used to send us money through him and he was the one that stopped our scholarship and we didn’t know that it was for divine reason. So,later, when it was an apparent to us that God used him as an instrument to unblock our going to the Technical Institute, we started greeting and giving him things. 

Since you left labour unionism as president, how do you feel when you hear stories that workers protest over unpaid entitlements and other complaints? 

Even my own has not been paid. It’s not during the time I served in NLC, it was during the time I served at Works. The Federal Government used to give trade Unions annual subventions.

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