About a decade after the passage of Chief F.R.A. Williams (SAN) and Senator Abraham Adesanya, The Patriots, a body of well-meaning Nigerians, they respectively led appears to have gone into extinction. Omololu Ogunmade revisits the laudable roles played by the group in the days of their former leaders and provides insight into why the group is now in coma
At a critical time like this in the history of Nigeria, a period when efforts are being made to renegotiate the basis of its continued existence, the voice of a group of eminent Nigerians under the aegis of The Patriots would have made a significant difference. The one time active, vibrant and resolute group, in its glorious days, now appears to have gone comatose. Its voice would have been loud and resonate in the wake of the raging security, economic and general crisis of governance rocking the nation now and threatening its continued unity. This, of course, has thus raised a fundamental question on what has happened to The Patriots.
In recent times, in the face of endemic corruption, infrastructural decay, amongst other woes bedevilling the nation, strong voices and platforms which had hitherto shaped national discourse had disappeared from the political scene whilst some of the existing groups, including civil rights groups, are perceived to have largely compromised their identities.
Apart from The Patriots, which aptly fits into this category, other hitherto effective voices in the society such as Afenifere, the pan-Yoruba socio-political organisation, Ohanaeze Ndigbo and National Democratic Coalition (NADECO) are obviously missing in action, thus shrinking the space for serious public discourse devoid of political sentiment.
The Patriots in History
The Patriots was an informal group, which met periodically to discuss national issues. At inception, the group had 17 members drawn mainly from the Southern region and the North-central zone. It made a debut in 1998 before the sudden demise of maximum ruler, General Sani Abacha, and became popular in the early 2000s.
According to Chief Ladi Williams, General Secretary of the group and eldest son of the late founding chairman of the group, Chief Fredrick Rotimi Alade Williams, The Patriots was formed in the dark days of military rule as a platform for the opposition to Abacha’s junta. It was also meant to actively participate in the pro-democracy struggle, which was the most popular struggle at the time. However, it did not emerge as a popular platform probably because of the larger than life status of the National Democratic Coalition (NADECO), a resilient pro-democracy group at the time.
However, in 2000, barely a year after the return of Nigeria to civil rule, The Patriots resurfaced, this time with a louder bang. It did not only parade some eminent Nigerians, it also made remarkable impact which sent jitters down the spines of the then government of President Olusegun Obasanjo.
Upon its re-appearance in 2000, it had as its leaders, the late Williams, who chaired the group; the late Pa Abraham Adesanya, who was the leader of the vocal Afenifere; Chief Bola Ige, Chief Richard Akinjide, Sir Olaniwun Ajayi, Chief Ayo Adebanjo and Chief Ganiyu Dawodu.
Given the impressive composition of the group, The Patriots was perceived as a replica of Afenifere, thus prompting the leaders to bring on board notable individuals from other parts of the Southern region. To this end, constitutional lawyer and former Minister of Education, Professor Ben Nwabueze, the late Chief M.C.K. Ajuluchuku and Chief Bob Ogbuagu from Ohanaeze, an Igbo socio-cultural group from the South-east, joined the group.
In the same vein, the South-south under the auspices of the Union of Niger Delta was represented by a former governor of Delta State, Chief Felix Ibru, Ambassador Matthew Mbu, Senator David Dafinone, Prof. Itse Sagay and Chief Solomon Asemota (SAN), while Commodore Dan Suleiman (rtd.), and some others, represented the Middle Belt Forum in the organisation. This did not cause quite a small stir in the North as the group continued to recruit and strategise. Also at the same time the group was becoming influential in the polity, the Southern Governors’ Forum was formed.
The Patriots thus became visible in 2000, following an attempt by the Ooni of Ife, Oba Okunade Sijuwade, alongside the Emir of Kano, Alhaji Ado Bayero and the late Obi of Onitsha to convoke a meeting of ethnic nationalities in Nigeria with a view to discussing problems facing the country. In pursuit of this plan, Sijuwade reached out to Adesanya and some other members of Afenifere with the intention to persuade them to consider the meeting of ethnic nationalities across the country.
He collaborated with the late Obi of Onitsha, who also met with Ohanaeze Ndigbo for the same reason. The moves by the three traditional rulers were brought to The Patriots’ attention but Chief Richard Akinjide, an erstwhile Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, warned Afenifere and Ohanaeze against yielding to the suggestion.
Notwithstanding Akinjide’s objection, The Patriots bought into the idea of the three traditional rulers and consulted Obasanjo on the proposal to convene a meeting of the ethnic nationalities. Expectedly, Obasanjo opposed it, but he was later convinced. Thereafter, a meeting of the traditional rulers and The Patriots with Obasanjo was scheduled for March 2000.
The Patriots became so powerful that it soon took the shine off the traditional rulers who conceived the idea as it ensured that the March 2000 meeting was postponed until members had been able to bring more participants along.
Eventually, when the meeting was held in Abuja, some Northerners walked out because of fears that The Patriots was making frantic moves to actualise the convocation of Sovereign National Conference (SNC), which they thought could lead to division of the country. It was learnt that the Northerners later engaged the Ooni of Ife and Obi of Onitsha to prevail on Afenifere and Ohanaeze respectively to jettison the planned convocation of SNC.
Seyi Oduyela of Nigeria World.Com then wrote: “It then became Obasanjo's secret agenda to organise the conference once he won the second term. But as time went on and The Patriots saw that the leopard could not change its spots, they came to the open through Akinjide and made it a roforofo fight. At least, Chief Akinjide was compensated with a political appointment. His daughter, Jumoke, was appointed Special Assistant to the President on Federal Capital Territory (FCT) from 2002 to 2003. That was the time Bukola Saraki was fired as a special assistant. Saraki had barely settled down when he got the boot.”
The Patriots and Campaign for SNC
The Patriots became a leading voice in the campaign for SNC during the second term of Obasanjo’s tenure. Thus in October 2002, the group in a statement harped on the need to convene SNC which according to it would pave the way for restructuring and sustenance of Nigeria as a united entity. It should be noted, however, that as the name of the organisation implies, members did not fail to reiterate their unalloyed beliefs in the unity of Nigeria as they never at any given time campaigned for Nigeria’s disintegration.
In a statement in October 2002 and signed by Williams, Dafinone, Nwabueze and Adesanya, the group said: "The Patriots re-affirm their conviction in the necessity for holding a national conference to discuss and agree on an acceptable arrangement for the restructuring and continuance of the Federal Republic of Nigeria as a single and indivisible entity under a truly federal system of government.
"We, however, regret to note that the Federal Government failed to seize the opportunity of organising a national conference when it unfolded its plan to formally present to the nation, the report and recommendations of the presidential committee on the review of the 1999 Constitution. The announcement for holding zonal workshops or meetings all over the country left it uncertain, whether or not the exercise is in substitution for the national agitation for a national conference."
The Patriots said it was "firmly convinced" that the government would not succeed in mobilising the full participation of leaders of various nationalities in Nigeria and of all other interested groups in the proposed NPRC, adding: "We accordingly reject it."
While it hailed the traditional rulers who initiated the idea of dialogue, it added that the NPRC being convened at the time would serve no meaningful purpose, insisting that no alternative assembly could play the role of SNC. "We are gratified and encouraged by the initiative shown by our traditional rulers.
“However, we are bound to point out that their efforts will serve no useful purpose if their royal majesties conceive that what they are organising will be acceptable to this nation as a substitute for the national conference."
It may be needless to emphasise that it was the relentless campaign of The Patriots for SNC that forced Obasanjo to convene NPRC, with the hope that it would calm frayed nerves at the time. Indeed, the warning by the group against the NPRC that it would serve no useful purpose unless the SNC was convened is today a reality. The report of the conference did not see the light of the day as it was dumped following an allegation that Obasanjo had smuggled his third term agenda into the conference.
The Patriots and Rotational Presidency
The group, in 2002, addressed a press conference, where it asked Obasanjo who was warming up for a second term in office then to drop the idea and provide ample opportunities for a minority region to take a shot at power. Specifically, it asked Obasanjo not to seek re-election, insinuating that his quest for re-election was heating up the polity and thus putting the nation under undue tension. In its avowed commitment to pursuing a just course, The Patriots argued that it was high time that power was ceded to the South-south, which it believed had been marginalised since inception, being the only region that had not had a shot at the presidency either through the military or civilian rule.
The group also proposed a single term limit for the president and governors. While receiving the then United States Ambassador to Nigeria, Howard Jeter, in his law firm on October 21, 2002, the late Williams bluntly told the ambassador that if Obasanjo discontinued his second term ambition, the already tensed atmosphere would ease considerably. He also noted that if Obasanjo heeded the voice of reason, he would be helping the country to promote democratic growth as he emphasised that for the first time in the Nigerian history, the presidency should go to the South-south.
The late Williams argued that the struggle for power in Nigeria had mainly been a struggle among the three major ethnic groups in the country, viz: Hausa, Yoruba and Igbo.
Further, he reasoned that the North had maximised the opportunity of its size to exercise control over power which it tried to turn to its exclusive preserve. "The purported Northern majority has not been properly taught how to exercise its majority right," he said, regretting that the size had been used to checkmate the political aspirations of the smaller ethnic groups. Therefore, the late Williams believed that if one-term presidency were allowed among the six geographical zones, it would guarantee equal distribution of power among them.
The October 15, 2002 press briefing held at the law chambers of the late Williams and addressed by the foremost legal luminary had in attendance, Adesanya, Nwabueze and Mbu. There were many other distinguished senior citizens of Nigeria mostly in their 60s, 70s and 80s, who were also in attendance.
From their text of address, William read: “It is our considered view that in order to promote the objective of ensuring that no cultural, ethnic or linguistic group is accorded preferential treatment, we ought to develop a convention of ensuring that the top and most important political office in this nation goes round in a way that manifests our conviction that no particular ethnic, cultural or linguistic group is accorded preferential treatment over others.
“On this ground alone, the rotation of the office of the president every five years among the geo-political zones is likely to be a more effective demonstration of the equality of the nationalities in each zone if no one person from a particular geo-political group stays in the office for more than one term. This is why we consider that in the interest of peace and unity in Nigeria, Mr. President ought to reconsider his decision to stand for a second term. We very strongly suggest to him to make this gesture in the interest of national unity.”
This salient position of The Patriots dominated political discourse at the time and threatened Obasanjo’s second term ambition, thus highlighting the depth of The Patriots’ forceful influence in the polity. The former president could not resist the heat which accompanied The Patriots’ submission as the debate which followed had compelled Obasanjo to respond, imploring The Patriots to allow the electorate determine his fate as he openly rejected the suggestion.
Obasanjo in his response argued that members of the group were highly knowledgeable enough to know that he had the constitutional right to seek a second term in office. He was not only annoyed by the suggestion which became the dominant headline of major newspapers the following day, he also saw it as an affront to his personality, more so that some members of the group were his age-long friends and associates.
Against this background, he felt that The Patriots should have discussed their proposal with him privately before making it public. But the late Williams insisted that it was not a private matter but rather an issue of national concern which required public debate and therefore should be treated as such.
Besides, effect of The Patriots’ intervention in the moves by the National Assembly to impeach Obasanjo in his first term could not be easily ignored. The group opposed the move and described it as ill-timed and a threat spurred by ulterior motives, which could trigger ethnic tensions.
This was especially so that the impeachment move was perceived in the South-west as a conspiracy of sort by Northern politicians against the Yoruba race which had lost Bashorun M.K.O. Abiola, presumed winner of the June 12, 1993 presidential election, in the struggle for the country’s return to democracy. The emergence of Obasanjo as president in 1999 was aimed at pacifying the aggrieved Yoruba nation.
But many Nigerians see it as disheartening and traumatic that the type of vibrant interventions by powerful individuals in serious issues in the past are now rare in critical times like this in Nigeria, thus prompting the question, “where are The Patriots?”
Is The Patriots Dead?
When this question was put across to the late Williams’ son, Ladi, recently, he gave reasons why the group seems not to be active again. He listed two tragic episodes in the organisation which he claimed did not only slow down the pace of progress but also hampered its continuity. These episodes, according to him, were the demise of his father, the pioneer chairman, on March 22, 2005, and the death of his successor, Adesanya, on April 28, 2008.
According to him, the vacuum left by these great Nigerians have been difficult to fill, adding that the group would have to devise a means of recruiting fresh people into its camp before it can regain its lost vigour and flavour. He used the opportunity to chronicle the composition of The Patriots at inception and how the group is now considering drawing up fresh strategies to revive its activities.
“The Patriots is still very much there. You must have observed of late that, aside from the demise of the late Chief F.R.A Williams, my father, there was also the passing away of Senator Abraham Adesanya. Undoubtedly, you will agree with me that the passing away of these two eminent Nigerians has left a big vacuum in the composition of The Patriots. Our chairman is Prof. Ben Nwabueze (SAN). We are going to find time in the not too distant future to recruit other eminent Nigerians to replace those who have left us by reason of death.
“This is not really going to be easy, as you know, The Patriots was founded on four major pedestals — the South-east zone, represented by the Ohanaeze Ndigbo and the South-south zone, under the leadership of Senator D. O. Dafinone and former Governor Felix Ibru. Of course, the South-west zone, which was led by the late Senator Abraham Adesanya, Chief Ayo Adebanjo and the late Ganiyu O. Dawodu, were all there.
“The South-west came under the umbrella of Afenifere. We also had the Middle Belt Forum with eminent leaders, like Chief Solomon D. Lar, Isaac Shaahu, Dan Suleiman and Solomon Asemota. We have realised that there is the need to re-strategise and bring all members together, so as to know the next leaders to carry on the crusade and fight for nationalism.
“Once you are a member of The Patriots, you are identified as a Nigerian nationalist and not as a sectional or partisan politician. You become dispassionate; you make statements and contributions that are in the best interest of Nigeria rather than in the best interest of your political party or your tribal group. You look at Nigeria as a unit with one future and we debate extensively on what is good for the country, he said.
Continuing, Ladi said: “Don’t forget that The Patriots was designed as a bulwark against the dictatorship of Gen. Sani Abacha, and it was nothing, but love for the country, to come together and tell the General that Nigeria must go back to democracy. So, the ideals are laudable. Initially, The Patriots was unpopular amongst some people who were very close to Obasanjo, because we were telling him the truth. As it now turned out, many of the things that The Patriots said are now apparently true.
“Look at the level of corruption in his administration. The Patriots was the first group to scream about the massive corruption but only a few people listened to us. They felt that these men, old men, did not know what they were talking about. I remember an editorial in one of the newspapers, about one gentleman who said we should be stoned on the streets. But look at the situation now— can anybody say The Patriots was wrong?”
Nevertheless, analysts of the younger Williams’ submission said it was unfashionable to boast of past glory, more so when such “glory” has not translated into enduring victory. They argued that quitting the stage when the situation has not shown any measure of improvement amounts to leaving a battlefront when it matters most, a situation interpreted to imply defeat.
There are also arguments that his disclosure that the death of the two former leaders of the group weakened its potency was rather disappointing, especially when a new crop of leaders had emerged. However, unlike their predecessors, majority of the new crop of leaders are tainted by their obvious political leanings. For people in this school of thought, this trend alone is an indictment on the part of the group’s leadership since effective succession is the joy of former leaders.
Interestingly, Ladi had hinted of plans to bring back The Patriots to life, a move which if executed very well, could mark a fresh beginning in the nation’s polity. But most instructively and given the extent to which things had deteriorated since the lull of The Patriots, can the group still make as much impact? That question is, of course, contingent on a number of factors, chief amongst which is: who will now lead The Patriots and rally the Nigerian faithful?