By Dele Momodu
Fellow Nigerians, let me start with a Yoruba proverb that states: if it takes a man 20 years to prepare for madness when is he going to develop full-blown lunacy by biting the trees? This ancient adage is very relevant to the message I have for you today. I’m reasonably convinced that we have completed our 20-year cycle of preparing for insanity and we are almost ready to explode and go stark raving mad into the streets except a miracle happens. Those who doubt this analysis and prediction should cool temper and read me through. It is pertinent to remind us of how we meandered our way into this mess since History is not one of our favourite or compulsory subjects.
I intend to demonstrate that nothing has changed in 20 years to convince me that our politicians have learnt any lessons. Sadly the same politicians that created monumental problems at the time are back at their game. For them life begins and ends with being in power not just for the fun of it but because it represents the surest path by which they can gluttonly enrich themselves. It is a game they enjoy at the expense of their compatriots because they do not care even if most Nigerians perish in the process of their power struggle. The time has come to tell the story again with the hope it will help us prepare for the challenges ahead. The Jonathan-Amaechi debacle in particular should be situated in our contemporary history.
On June 12, 1993, Nigerians united for the first time to vote for a Presidential candidate with true national appeal. That mystical election remains in the spiritual realm till this day going by all indices. Chief Moshood Kashimawo Olawale Abiola, the generalissimo of Yorubaland, was locked in a contest with Alhaji Bashir Tofa from the populous and groundnut city of Kano. Abiola was a candidate of the Social Democratic Party while Tofa was the candidate of the National Republican Party, an establishment candidate, so to say. Abiola’s party was not as formidable as that of Tofa, or so it seemed. Abiola’s party had fewer Governors to Tofa’s. Tofa’s party was an offshoot of the old National Party of Nigeria which collapsed under the blistering coup of Generals MuhammaduBuhari and Babatunde Idiagbon. It was that coup that first launched the then Colonel Sani Abacha into national attention and prominence.
Abiola had a hell of a fight on his hands and a Mount Everest to climb if he must achieve his presidential dream and actualise his ambition. His first battle was how he was going to secure the ticket of his political party. He had such men of timber and calibre like Ambassador Baba Gana Kingibe and Alhaji Atiku Abubakar to beat in the SDP primaries. Now try to picture the fact that Kingibe was already a seasoned politician and Chairman of the party SDP while AtikuAbubakar was a sizzling upcoming politician and the anointed godson of Katsina’s Al Capone, Major General Shehu Musa Yar’Adua. To compound Abiola’s headache, Kingibe enjoyed the overwhelming and unflinching support of the SDP Governors who called the shots at the time like some of the ones we have around today.
I was a witness to the battle of the titans in Jos and saw how Abiola and his team held endless meetings and negotiated compulsory deals with the powerful men of that period. Abiola kept wakeful days and sleepless nights trying to broker agreements with different Mafia dons here and there. It was a sacrifice he had to make for the sake of democracy in Nigeria. When asked why he had to subject himself to such ordeal just for the sake of becoming a President especially when he was already bigger in stature than most African leaders, his response was that he had realised the impossibility of banishing poverty from the lives of most Nigerians with his humongous personal fortune. But he was ready to redistribute the common wealth of Nigerians for the general need of the people than for the personal greed of a few. He believed that it would take a personality like him who was already generously endowed with wealth by God to embark on such re-distribution. This was in effect some form of reparation, an international crusade which he spearheaded. As a disciple, I believed totally in his sincerity. Abiola probably spent more money daily than he ever made. He was never shy of touching the lives of everyone, everywhere and at everytime.
Abiola’s legendary generosity would come in handy in 1993. His fame had spread across continents like an ocean and he needed no introduction to most people anywhere he went. Indeed, his incursion into politics was supposed to have been payback time for him. Even then, it was not a rosy ride. His epic journey was bumpy all the way and he was forced by circumstances to navigate through shark-infested waters. He managed to persuade General Yar’Adua to get Atiku Abubakar to step down. The next hurdle was to convince the omnipotent Governors that he was a better candidate to lead the party and not Sai Baba, Kingibe. That was very tough because he was supposed to compensate Atiku Abubakar whose magnanimity gave him a slight edge in the race. The Governors, I wonder where they all are today, also insisted he must pick their man, Kingibe after Abiola had obtained the party ticket.
It was a state of anomie as Abiola had thought he was going to pick a Northern Christian as his running made. The controversy was so combustive that Abiola couldn’t announce his Vice Presidential candidate even as he flagged off his campaign in Kaduna. He had earlier assured his media team of which I was a member that he was going to announce a Christian candidate until we suddenly received the shocking news from his wife Dr Doyinsola Hamidat Abiola that he’d been forced to eat humble pie by those who wanted Kingibe and a Muslim as Vice President. This decision threw our camp into total commotion. The media team comprising of Dele Alake, Segun Babatope, Tunji Bello and company had the unenviable task of defending a Muslim-Muslim ticket in a country where religion was always a volatile issue. I remember a former Governor of the old Ondo State, Pa Adekunle Ajasin, telling Abiola that the Muslim-Muslim concoction was like murdering Jesus Christ a second time but Abiola doused the boiling tension by jocularly remarking that he was not in Calvary.
We climaxed Abiola’s marathon campaign with the launch of the works of Drs Yemi Ogunbiyi and Chidi Amuta on June 9, 1993. I left Nigeria later that evening for Vienna, Austria, where the gadfly Chief Abdul-Ganiyu Oyesola Fawehinmi, the quintessential symbol of radicalism and advocacy in Nigeria was billed to receive the Bruno Kreisky Award for Human Rights on June 11, 1993. Abiola had sent me with a congratulatory letter to Chief Fawehinmi. I was in Vienna from June 10 to 12 when I left for London but tried to monitor developments in our dear country. By June 13, all available reports indicated a clear lead for Abiola in the presidential race.Nothing could have prepared me for what would happen in the next 48 hours.
I had managed to reach Mr Nduka Obaigbena on June 14, two days after the election. Our relationship had always been close and exciting. In 1992, I was the founding Editor of his Leaders & Company which gave birth to THISDAY. The decision of Abiola to go into politics would separate us but not sever our cordial association. I followed Abiola while he followed Bashir Tofa but we remained in constant touch. In reality, we were both close to Abiola but it was in the nature of politics to drive a wedge between associates. Nduka wasted no time in telling me to reach Abiola as quickly as possible because he heard from impeccable sources that some powerful cabal were mounting pressure on President Babangida not to hand over power to Abiola. I politely told Nduka to perish the thought as it was practically impossible for anyone to contemplate such a dastardly act. But Nduka was right while I was wrong.
Our biggest error was in under-estimating what desperate and despicable people could do. No one would have thought it was possible to throw one’s child away with the bath water. When I told Chief Fawehinmi what I had heard, after he joined me in London later that day, he thought I was hallucinating. He said he was ready to die in prison if such a thing ever happened. Sadly there are no longer many principled people like Gani Fawehinmi around these days.
As always, the ubiquitous, but negligible, members of the cabal thought themselves wiser than the rest of us. They had to decide for us like parents treat their kindergarten kids. Eventually, the election was annulled in a most savage manner. And all hell broke loose with its ashes sprinkling all across our land. A nation of peace became a country of perennial pestilence. A land overflowing with milk and honey became a famished wasteland. The cabal simply moved on to plot fresh evil and abandoned President Babangida to bear the cross alone. As a man of military training and discipline, he has not been able to spill the beans and tell the whole world why such a beautiful baby had to be mercilessly murdered at childbirth.
It is a big lesson for all of us. The leaders of today would soon understand the futility of playing God. Some of the actors of those days are still very much around. They are not only in government; they are fully entrenched in power. And they have no intention of allowing others steer the wheel of our common destiny.
As I write this, on a long haul flight, the intrigues are brewing in Abuja. The brewers are tearing at themselves over transient power. Those who had always misled men of power are erecting a masterpiece of confusion. The President’s men want him to prove his manhood by killing off a Governor. They are beating their tam-tam drum of war and setting the whole nation carelessly onfire as prodigals do. It is obvious they will not back off until they seek and receive their pound of flesh from a man they see as a recalcitrant child.
Someone should please educate us sincerely on what President Goodluck Jonathan stands to gain if he succeeds in annihilating whatever imaginary ambition he thinks Governor Rotimi Amaechi has. Those accusing Amaechi of arrogance for simply exercising his rights are not being charitable. It is always in the character of confident and opinionated people to have the toga of pride wrapped around them by less confident people. While growing up, the greatest attack against Chief Obafemi Awolowo was that of haughtiness. It was when I started reading his highly cerebral works that I understood why his crucifixion was a priority for his enemies.
In my view, Rotimi Amaechi’s battles and travails are necessary for our Federalism to germinate and grow. It is a fight for all believers of the democratic process because no one has a monopoly of ambition. No one should coerce him into abandoning his own dreams just because the gods are angry. The Governors who want to be seen as being close to the President are making a total mess of our fledgling democracy by heating up the polity unnecessarily. If 36 Governors cannot conduct a free and fair election, then we are in bigger trouble than we ever imagined.
Mr President should remember the story of June 12, 1993. When tomorrow comes he will bear his cross alone because the gladiators would have moved on to new suitors.