Chief Ebenezer Babatope, 70 today, speaks on the contrast between the political culture he saw growing up and the present experience, the state of the PDP, and the Nigerian civil war. He spoke to Olawale Olaleye, Shola Oyeyipo and Nkiruka Okoh. Excerpts:
Do you feel fulfilled politically as you celebrate this milestone?
Well, I feel fulfilled and I thank God for what He has done for me, I come from the South-west political region where talents abound but despite that, Baba, the late Chief Obafemi Awolowo, found it important to elevate me from obscurity to national prominence by making me the national director of organisation of the Unity Party of Nigeria.
So, I have been fulfilled even though I had some challenges in my activist-political life. I have been detained three times, I lost my job, I was sacked by the Obasanjo (military) government during the “Ali Must Go” demonstration and then I have no pension because the minister who was in charge of my pension at that time was a soldier and refused to mark my services.
But those are things that are bound in the life of anybody committed to ensuring that there is progress.
I should be grateful to God because of the fact that God has been kind to me. I became hypertensive at the age of 23, in 1966. Doctors told me that what I was suffering from was essential hypertension for there was no cure, except for being hereditary. But since that time, by God’s grace and mercy, I have never been hospitalised again for 47 years.
Are you considering a memoir soon?
Oh, of course! In fact, I’m writing my memoir. I started sometime ago in my column in the Nigerian Tribune. I have a column I contribute in Nigeria Tribune titled Political Panorama every Friday. So, I have done a bit of it. But my memoir is coming. The title of the book is By Awo’s Side. And honestly, I think that by the end of this year, I will hit the market.
When you put the political parties in your early political career side-by-side with what we have today, what do you think?
I was lucky or people like me were lucky that we operated with leaders that in fact had vision; leaders that were very bold and courageous and leaders that loved humanity. For example, I served Baba Awolowo but there was Papa Nnamdi Azikiwe and no matter what anybody will say, Azikiwe was a highly visionary person. So, we had the opportunity of studying under them. But these days, you have to excuse some of the politicians now because they have not got sterling figures that they could emulate to move ahead.
But now that these young men have nobody to emulate or copy, they are developing on their own and trying to evolve political strategies that will keep their members on. I think that writing the younger generation off will be wrong, in the light of what I have said. Like I said, I had the opportunity of working with Baba Awolowo, a highly disciplined and organised man. Baba will wake up between 4. 30 and 5.00am and he had a peculiar way of putting down the things that he would want to do for the day and he will implement every item one-by-one. And second, Baba took very light breakfast. He never took lunch at all but had dinner at 5pm.
That was the type of life Baba led - a disciplined and honest life. Many of us tried to copy what he said. He also gave us a general background in terms of what a public officer must do in order to justify the office he is holding. Baba said, and all of us who were his associates went into government practising what the old man said.
Baba said: one, don’t enjoy in government, what you cannot provide for yourself in your private life. He said, for example, if you know that you are not able to buy Coca Cola when you are outside government, don’t indulge in the consumption when you are in government because when you indulge and the term of your office is ending, there are tendencies for you to steal money so that you can be buying Coca Cola. He also said don’t take gratification from anyone because the next morning you will not be able to look straight at the giver’s eyes.
Third, Baba said any public officer worth his salt must not collude with civil servants to defraud government because when you do so, you bastardise the public office you hold, you desecrate the public office and you compromise yourself.
But it’s ironic that in spite of your closeness to Awolowo, you are a PDP member; also, do you still consider yourself a socialist?
I remain a socialist as long as live. When they were forming the Alliance for Democracy I tried to be a member of the AD but there had been some issues between us. So, I waited for one year. I was waiting for their call because late Chief Abraham Adesanya was my in-law and the old man tried his best. There are some elements who were saying because of the internal fuss, they were saying he served Abacha and yet, they were the people who said we should go and serve Abacha.
I wrote a book about this in 1995 entitled, Abacha Regime and the June 12 Crisis, detailing all that happened. I have paid my dues and I believe that those who really remember all these things know that I have paid my dues. I will be a socialist until I go to my grave. I’m not saying my life is perfect and that is why I say those who feel offended by whatever they see as failings in my past should please forgive me. This is the only time I have now to say so because at the age of 70, only God knows what will happen next.
What do you see as the future of progressive politics in Nigeria?
Progressive politics definitely has a chance in Nigeria. The younger generation, I’m very happy, are taking the bull by the horn. And I’ll give you a practical example, which many people have refused to recognise. There was a time in the history of this country when the leadership of Nigeria could not come to anybody from the south because you had a particular group of feudal chieftains who believe that Nigeria must remain a permanent extension of their private family compound in the north. They will not just brook anybody from the south to be president. And I believe it is the activities of the young people that take anybody from the south to be President, and I believe that it is the activities of these young people that have changed the whole political orbit such that we now have people from the south now becoming president. As a student, I was a fanatical believer in Biafra because Biafra arose out of the political contradictions in Nigeria. I have never regretted being a fanatical supporter of Biafra.
They denied Baba Awolowo the presidency of Nigeria simply because of that. And not only that, we had a situation whereby people were senselessly killed because of the tribe they belong to and that was why when I was in the university, when Gowon was going to marry, some of us said why was this man getting married when innocent Nigerians are dying? I believe that with patience, Nigeria will get there. With encouragement, the younger generation we have in Nigeria will lead Nigeria to the land of progress and unity.
Do you still believe in Awolowo’s prediction in 1983 about a coalition of all the progressive elements?
It is going to happen. I fanatically believe in it. It is going to happen! For example, the PDP could have been an amalgam. Look at what the ACN, CPC and the ANPP are doing, they want to form alliance. I tell you my mind, there will still be occasions within the political firmament where all the progressive elements will move together and all the reactionaries will go along the same way. Don’t forget another promise of Baba Awolowo was made in Bonny in 1983 when Baba went there to campaign.
I was there. We went in a helicopter to Bonny. It was that time that Brigadier General Kurubo was joining the UPN from the NPN and Baba made a prophetic statement which has now come to pass. He said: “One day, an Ijaw man will be President of Nigeria. I know you don’t like me politically; I know you don’t vote for me, but mark my word, one of you will become President and you will realise all I have been fighting for in Nigeria.’ It has happened and Ebele Jonathan, an Ijaw man is now the President of Nigeria.
Do you have any cause to regret that you were part of the Abacha regime in retrospect?
My memoirs contain many issues that Nigerians don’t know about. For example, when we are talking about the June 12 crisis, the political class inside the Abacha administration pressed very hard for the discussion of the June 12 by the Constitutional Conference that General Abacha set up. It was major. All of us participated, particularly those of us that belonged to the progressive circle at that time.
We asked for a resolution to be passed on it and that he must make June 12 an issue in the constitutional conference – let them pass a resolution on it whatever they passed, Abacha must respect it. Chief Jim Nwobodo was coordinating the activities of the National Assembly for the government. So, we did not just go into government feeling we had done what Napoleon could not do; we went into government believing we are there to fight the cause of our people.
When we got fed up and wanted to leave the government, Alex Ibru and I went to Dipo Diya and said: “Dipo you better advise your man to let us go home because the field was getting hot for us. Already, our people are telling us to resign.” But we told ourselves if we were to bow to their clamour to go and resign, the military boys had the right to shoot us off (laughs). If that happens, you wouldn’t be talking to me today. But when we said we were ready, we went to Dipo Diya and interestingly, it was at the time Abacha was thinking of dissolving that cabinet because Adamu Ciroma who was the minister of agriculture has had problem with them over policies guiding fertilizer. Ciroma gave them advice and they didn’t adhere to it and so, he sent in his letter of resignation. So, on the final day we were dissolved, Abacha called a meeting of the Federal Executive Council – all of them were there, then we were talking all sorts of things about government and I noticed that Abacha was quiet and was listening to what we were saying.
So, when it became my turn to talk, I then I said “Your Excellency, you reserve the right to do anything with your government, but that the newspapers are full of stories that ministers will go and that he should do it and let us go home and believe me. At the end of the deliberations that day, Abacha just said: “I thank you for coming to this meeting, it was as if comrade (he used to call me comrade at that time) had read my mind. The government will be dissolved now.” And that was how our government was dissolved.
Looking back and given the Nigerian situation, are there ways that some of Awolowo’s ideals can be applied in solving Nigeria’s problems?
Apart from advocating Baba’s ideals particularly in terms of how national governance should be handled, I believe that justice must be done in the land. We have not got justice in the land! When Professor Wole Soyinka – he was my teacher in the university, he was the head of English department when I was at the University of Lagos and he was our role model – even up till now. He is a hero that I respect.
You must respect the rights of the people to express themselves and of course, it was obvious that Prof. Wole Soyinka was pro-Biafra. So, when he came out of prison, he said something which I want younger people in Nigeria to adhere to. He said: “To keep Nigeria one, justice must be done.” To me, it is still very relevant today. We must have justice. All of us must commit ourselves to accepting the fact that we are Nigerians; we run a federation and therefore, all component parts of the country have right to join to make Nigeria succeed. Also, the Biafra situation must never be allowed to occur again. We were unjust and many of them were killed and slaughtered. I have books that detailed what happened during the imbroglio and, believe me, we should not allow it to happen again. We still deserve to use many ways of apologising to these people.
So who should offer the apology?
We have governments - state governments and of course federal government. The Federal Government can come out and say “we are sorry for what happened, we are sorry that innocent people lost their lives and we want to ensure that there is a country we want to build in which every individual will feel free to belong and feel free to contribute his or her own quota to the development of the country” and of course, to a great extent, Ebele Jonathan has been doing that.
He has refused for example, to shut the door of dialogue against the Boko Haram people because they are Nigerians too.
A socialist in PDP, what has your experience been like?
The progressives are not discriminated against in the party. I have a very good experience with the PDP. People know that I’m politically restless; people know that I’m ideological, yet, I was made a member of the Board of Trustees (BoT) of the PDP and that is one of the principal organs of the party. And don’t forget, at one point in the history of this country, we nearly had – if not for death, we nearly had a man who professed socialism – the late Yar’ Adua was a thorough socialist. When he was a secondary school student and his father was minister of Lagos affairs, in the First Republic, the young man was a member of the Northern Progressive Union (NEPU), a socialist outfit at that time, led by late Mallam Aminu Kano. And when Second Republic politics came, he went to join PRP. So, if not for death, it could have been obvious to Nigerians by now that the person we had as President was a socialist-oriented person. So, we have not been discriminated against. Many of us operating and are given opportunities to operate.
For example, I hold the title of OFR. I would never have believed in my heart that I would be given a national honour. People who are my leaders, Comrade Ola Oni, Bade Onimode, Omafunmi Onoge and other great names in socialism, Prof Achebe, even though he has been turning down his own. Achebe is a progressive, despite the mistakes he made of recent, but he was progressive, Prof Obiechina, Prof. Chimere Ikoku – they all didn’t have honours. So, when they nominated me, that I was going to be honoured, I laughed and said “honour, what type of honour is that?”
Then, they wrote me a letter and later on I discovered that despite the fact that Obasanjo and I have been sharply opposed politically, when they told him that civil servants recommended me for OON and sent it to him, he crossed the OON and put OFR, which is much more senior to OON.
I think the PDP has been fair to us and I think all of us have reason to be part of PDP. I’m proud of the PDP. If I leave the PDP today, I will go inside my house at Ilesha and I have a good retirement house where I can eat my pounded yam and live until God says “come home”. I cannot jump ship because if I jump ship at this age, what lessons are you leaving for the younger people. You are leaving lessons of opportunism which in fact will not augur well for the politics of this country.
Are you not worried about crisis in the PDP?
There is nothing happening that should make people panic. I thank God that Baba Awolowo did a lot to train me to become a powerful political organiser. When the head of the secretariat of the UPN, late S.K. Ajuku was alive, himself and I were sent by the party to undergo training at the SPD in Germany and we got that opportunity through the Fredrick Hubert Foundation which paid for our fares and our stay. And I went to the Labour Party office in London and had training there and there I met the then African researcher, Martin Plaut.
The crisis we are having in the party, I believe are crises to challenge the party to prepare, more than ever before for the challenges of elections to come. Now, the oppositions are thinking of fusing together and we must not take them as jokers. And the mere fact that the party announced the reshuffling of the party executives after a court battle does not mean we have a crisis. And what has happened is this, we don’t have to go and shout in the open market that this is why we took that decision. Oyinlola has not done anything. You see, if you allow Oyinlola to continue in office as secretary, there are litigations that could come against the party as a result of what he could have signed as secretary.
So, that was why we said okay, for the m
eantime, deputy should take over till we sort out things and that is why the party has not said the secretary was given to the South-west and South-west, go and bring somebody. There is no problem at all. So, we just have to sit down and ensure that we don’t allow the crisis to escalate into one that we cannot manage. Issues of BoT Chairmanship will be finished in the PDP in the next one month. I can assure you.
As a PDP BoT member, what’s your take on the state of Osun under an ACN governor?
I’ll not want to say I’m assessing the government, but I will say that we of the PDP lost the South-west states to the ACN because of lack of unity. We were so fragmented, we were disunited and I have been telling my colleagues that if we continue with this disunity, the ACN will overrun us in any election from 2014. So, we are now trying to unite and we must do that fast.