By Ekerete Udoh
Last week marked the 19th anniversary of the election that proved that even though Nigeria is essentially heterogeneous in its socio-political definition with deeply internalized cleavages, and where elected leaders are often not propelled by national impulses but by primordial instincts, and where zero-sum tendencies have been elevated to an art form, that we, sometimes, can bury those demons of religion and ethnicity and be infused by the wind of nationalistic fervour and celebrate the oneness of our spirit.
The June 12 Presidential election was a watershed moment in the political evolution of our nation. It was the day that the boulevard of democracy – otherwise strewn with harzardous bends and sharp turns was however, travelled by many disparate souls; souls that spoke different languages and held different creed and ideologies, but were on that day, united by a common purpose: to consign once and for all, the ghost of ethnicity and religious intolerance and prove in the words of our old National Anthem that “though tribes and tongues may differ, in brotherhood we stand”.
From the young and the old, they trooped out from the dusty corners of Borno to the deep jungles of the Niger Delta, from the chaotic streets of Lagos, to the tranquil streets of Calabar, Nigerians came out and voted across ethnic and religious lines for a man who was the Barack Obama of our time. His campaign slogan was wrapped around the simple word: Hope, hence “Hope 93”.
Like Obama, he rallied Nigerians to believe that our best days were ahead, that the essence of our founding, the greatness embedded in all of us, can be unfurled and with that, the human spirit-curious, hopeful, engaging, ambitious and daring can come full circle. Like Obama, he told us, we can – that we can be great again, that the human capital, the abundance of natural resources that God Almighty so generously endowed us with, can be appropriated for the common good instead of the common greed. He asked us to believe, and believe we did...until the thieves in army fatigues came and stole our dreams and sent us back into the dark corners of our little tribal and ethnic enclaves, from which we have since been trying to crawl out.
My column today is not about June 12; a lot has already been written about it. My emphasis today is to celebrate the man who defined that day-the moving sprit of our national renewal that was so brazenly truncated by a few men in starched uniform, who without the power of the gun and bayonet that they wielded would not have had the capacity to toy with our collective destiny. My column today is on the late MKO Abiola, the humanity he espoused, the humility he exhibited and the kindred spirit he lived his life.
Most of you readers would remember that I wrote columns in the defunct Concord Newspapers – Sunday Concord (for over five years) and the Daily Concord under the editorship of former Lagos State Information and Strategy Commissioner, Dele Alake. Most of you also would recall that in my precocious years in the 90s, that I had attempted to bring to fruition a talent in music that I felt I genuinely was blessed with, which unfortunately, did not pan out (thank God my daughter, Carolyne, has inherited that dream today and is poised to become a huge music sensation. You can listen to her songs on YouTube by typing “Carolyne – Thinking About You –Carolyne.” I don’t need your money).
It was in the course of the pursuit of music that I had the opportunity of meeting the late MKO Abiola one-on-one. As most people at Concord then will recall we were used to seeing the chief from afar whenever he came by the office for those rare meetings. We thus didn’t have opportunity of engaging him. I remember him breezing into the Sunday Concord newsroom one day and how nice he was to those of us in that room: Mike Awonyinfa, Dimgba Igwe, Onoise Osunbor, Chuma Adichie and the late production editor, Mr. Omotosho. That was the closest I had the opportunity of seeing the chief up close and personal until that Sunday afternoon in 1990 when Chief Abiola treated me in a manner that brought tears of joy to my eyes.
I had held the launching of my album at Niteshift the previous Saturday, an event that was attended by an assemblage of prominent Nigerians including the late Ikemba Nnewi, General Emeka Ojukwu, the late Secretary to the Federal Government of Nigeria in the Second Republic, Alhaji Shehu Musa (bless his soul. He told me I was the only person that would make him leave the comfort of his home then on Victoria Island to attend the launching of a secular music), Senator Florence Ita Giwa and other prominent Nigerians. Chief MKO Abiola was scheduled to be the chairman of the occasion. However, a day to the event, he sent words to me through the then chairman of Concord’s editorial board, the late Chike Akagbogu, that he had to take a last minute trip outside the country and that Chike would represent him at the launching. He asked me to see him the next Sunday for his donation.
The next Sunday, in the company of late Chike Akabogu, we were ushered into the large sitting room of the chief’s Ikeja residence and shortly I was invited upstairs. As the Chairman and Publisher of my newspaper, I was a little tense when I was in his presence, but he quickly disarmed me with his infectious smiles and jokes. Soon we were laughing and chatting and the mood was decidedly relaxed. I was shocked to my bones, when the chief later handed me an envelope that contained N50,000, which by that time, was a huge amount of money. He apologized for his inability to be at the event and went ahead to ask me if I would love to accompany him to see one of his wives. A little startled but pleasantly surprised by the invitation, I told the chief, I would love to.
Soon, we were on our way to the home that was located in the outskirt of Lagos, just the three of us – Chief Abiola, the driver and I. It was a rare privilege to have had the opportunity to be with a man who was arguably one of the most powerful and influential Nigerians, and who, also was my publisher. We talked about a wide variety of issues and I was surprised when the chief pulled out a bottle of Coca-Cola, began to drink it and later asked me to share the same bottle of Coke with him. I was so touched and it almost brought tears to my eyes. I mean, I couldn’t believe the simplicity of a man whose presence men of power tremble, treating me like a son. I couldn’t believe that a man so powerful, so wealthy could be as humble as to sharing his bottle of soda with me. Gladly, I accepted the chief’s offer and that moment is etched in my memory. On our way back from the visit, the chief also was magnanimous enough to have dropped me at my home then – off Oregun Road, Ikeja, Lagos.
I have never told this story until now. I decided to tell it now, when I read stories of students and some faculty members who have protested the re-naming of the University of Lagos after the late chief to know how lucky they are to have their institution named after such a great Nigerian. Abiola, though a devout Muslim, was a secular humanist. He treated people as God’s own special creation with unique gifts and abilities. He was never condescending, never looked at people from the Olympian height of success that God almighty had so kindly blessed him with. His philanthropic gestures were legendary and above all, we are all beneficiaries of his ultimate sacrifice today- living in a democratic environment where political culture, though taking root in fits and starts appears to be consolidating.
May God help us bring a few more good men in the mold of the late Bashorun Moshood Kashimawo Olawale Abiola – men who are determined to use the awesome instrument of government to advance the human condition and spread the ideals of the common good. May those few good men-some of whom have already been identified help engender that tipping point in our governance process where public service is no longer seen as an avenue to self-aggrandize but a pathway to do the most good for the most people. May the main essence that June 12 represented: the birth of a nation where ethnicity and religious differences were subsumed by our shared ideals never perish and may the merchants of bigotry, of religious zealotry and ethnic irredentism be condemned and shamed in the court of public opinion.
Stories that touch the heart will return next week