Abiola vs Abacha: Weepy Reminiscences

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Soyombo Opeyemi

Frank Kokori: The Struggle For June 12 is an engrossing account of how General Sani Abacha, the Defence Secretary of the Interim National Government and later Head of State, successfully deceived the President-elect, Chief MKO Abiola and viciously decimated the June 12 movement. It recounts the betrayals by the elites of different hue and shade across the country, majority of whom benefitted from the immense generosity of Abiola; the wranglings and waverings within the Labour and pro-democracy movements; and the travails of the author in the epic struggle for the revalidation of June 12, 1993 presidential election.
Kokori was arrested by the Abacha junta in August 1994 and incarcerated for four years, regaining his freedom upon the sudden demise of the maximum ruler.

Comrade Frank Kokori, then General Secretary of the National Union of Petroleum and Natural Gas Workers (NUPENG), literally put his life on the line for the restoration of democracy – inauguration of Abiola as the President of Nigeria.

He effectively primed NUPENG and the Petroleum and Natural Gas Senior Staff Association of Nigeria (PENGASSAN) “previously used to aluta for personal and immediate gain” to engage in political liberation fight for the restoration of the June 12 mandate. The Paschal Bafyau-led Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC), however, remained impervious, a hard knock to crack. Indeed, had NLC supported the resistance, the Abacha regime would probably have collapsed within days. “Gain first political freedom and every other thing will follow,” was the message of Kokori. Engaging only in parochial bread and butter issues on behalf of the workers will only lead to preservation of capitalist wage slavery. Union leaders must, therefore, be the tribune of the masses and use their organisations to fight for a just and egalitarian society.

The first debilitating NUPENG-led oil workers’ strike that paralysed economic activities after the June 12 annulment by General Ibrahim Babangida took place between August 28 and September 7, 1993. It brought the Labour activist in a face-to-face contact with Sani Abacha, the Secretary of Defence. Since Abiola had called Kokori on phone while abroad to cooperate with Abacha, who promised that most of their demands would be met, the strike was suspended.

Wrote the union activist on page 59 of the memoirs, “I found General Abacha very cordial; almost patronising. You would think he could not hurt a fly. Nothing revealed that underneath such a gentlemanly facade hid a deadly ambition that would later mow down countless politicians and citizens.”

Indeed, anyone could be taken in by the personality of Abacha and one must accept the charge of culpable naivety. When sometime in 1993, a national magazine first carried a rumour on the political ambition of Gen. Sani Abacha, then the Defence Secretary of the Interim National Government, headed by Earnest Shonekan, I dismissed it as a huge joke. Abacha, I reasoned, was too unpolished to crave a political space of such magnitude; besides he’s barely able to write his name. Consequently, I did not imbibe the rumour.

One should have been guided by the immortal words of William Shakespeare: “There’s no art to find the mind’s construction in the face.”
Abacha sacked Shonekan on November 17, 1993. A day after, “Names were being mentioned, and I could see that Kingibe had his name penciled down for External Affairs Minister and Member of the Provisional Ruling Council” by Abacha’s confidants in the military, assisted by two Permanent Secretaries at a compound in Ikoyi. Abacha sought and greeted Frank Kokori on phone. The Labour activist was alarmed about the unfolding events. He was not interested in biting the political appointment bait being dangled before him. A regime said to be provisional, hoping to restore the Abiola-Kingibe mandate but right there giving a ministerial appointment to the Vice President-elect, was a situation too thick for Kokori to swallow.

“Did you get clearance from him (Abiola)?” Kokori asked his political associate, the Vice-President-elect, Baba Gana Kingibe.
“Abacha must have told him,” Kingibe replied.
“Let’s go and see MKO,” demanded Kokori.
By the time MKO and Kingibe emerged from their private discussion the next day, it was clear all was not well. MKO regaled Kokori with parables on disappointment and betrayal.

“With Kingibe gone,” wrote the author, “the chances of recovering MKO’s mandate looked as remote as getting a one-winged bird to fly!”
Was Abiola confronted with a Hobson’s choice? It seems dubious on the face of it the seeming promise by Abacha to overthrow Shonekan and first govern before handing over the reins of power to MKO. One would be an irredeemable optimist to acquiesce to the proposition of ‘let me overthrow, govern small and then hand over!’

In his authoritative book on the June 12 struggle, Out of the Shadows: Exile and the Struggle for Freedom & Democracy in Nigeria, John Kayode Fayemi, who was one of the arrowheads of the anti-Abacha struggle in exile and now governor of Ekiti State, had predicted in the cover story of Nigeria Now, published just before the Abacha coup: “The irony of it is great, though that a man who won the right to power by popular democratic means, should wait on extra-democratic forces to consummate that right. The trouble is, the people may be predictable, electoral orientation and inclinations even more so. But the art has not been discovered to hold a man with a gun to his words. This is the tragedy of Abiola’s strategy.” (Emphasis supplied)

According to Kokori, “He (MKO) had been assured that Abacha would shove out Shonekan and hand over power to him. With Shonekan off the scene, Abiola waited for the General to fulfil the last leg of the bargain, and Abiola waited with unalloyed hope.”
After the inauguration of Nelson Mandela as South African President in 1994, where MKO received a red carpet treatment, Abiola renewed his interest to reclaim his mandate. But Kokori initially demurred: “At the time the people told you to claim your mandate, you did not; now you want to claim your mandate when everybody’s interest has fizzled out. How do we do it?”

MKO declared himself President in Epetedo, Lagos on June 11, 1994 without any contingency security plans. You could feel the disappointment of Kokori by the manner MKO handled the whole matter. Although the activist never remotely suggested an armed struggle, it was so baffling to him – just like the NADECO ultimatum to Abacha to step down – that there were no coordinated plans such as debilitating mass action by Labour and civil society groups to back the Epetedo declaration by Abiola.

I had not read Kokori’s memoirs as at 2016 when I reviewed the book by Jamiu Abiola about his father – The President Who Never Ruled. In that review, published in THISDAY and The Guardian, I observed as follows: “On page 158 of his autobiography, the anti-apartheid hero (Mandela) submitted: ‘For me, nonviolence was not a moral principle but a strategy; there is no moral goodness in using an ineffective weapon.’ I believe the debate will rage for a long time on whether MKO should have embraced both sides of the ANC struggle against white minority rule.

Should MKO have backed his declaration up with active resistance, especially when he had the resources to do so? Is it not as much ridiculous to accuse Abiola of attempting to overthrown a military government sitting illegally on the expressed wish of the electorate as accusing him of treason based on self-declaration as President by a patently illegal military government? Could he have succeeded by cashing in on the schism within the army at the time? Was MKO unwisely idealistic? The debate will linger for a long time to come.”

It is quite interesting to read in Frank Kokori: The Struggle For June 12 how Abacha and his deputy, General Oladipo Diya, initially courted the union leader. Diya, one of those whom Abacha used to kill June 12, eventually ended up in the belly of Abacha!
Of course, given the way things later developed, it would continue to be a debate whether Abiola should have accepted the bail conditions and then use the opportunity of the limited freedom, which I reckon would be virtually a house arrest, to plot his realisation of his mandate.

We equally read in the memoirs a moving account of how the gadfly – Kokori – was lured out of his hiding place by a Personal Assistant of Abiola and arrested on the “night of 19th to 20th August 1994.” One recalls here in parenthesis that it was another Abiola’s Personal Assistant that was said to have betrayed Kudirat Abiola to her killers on that fateful day of July 4, 1996!
The radical Labour leader took his first bath after 12 days in detention and was in a torn dress for the first 100 days! He was initially placed in a dungeon, stinking cell littered with excrement and in solitary confinement…
Much after the visit, a new special self-contained cell was built for the Prisoner of Conscience, courtesy of Kingibe, who had then changed portfolio as Minister of Internal Affairs. “That singular gesture speaks volumes about Kingibe’s helplessness. Instead of working to release me, he worked to keep me comfortable in prison!”

We equally learnt that “But for the four years that I languished in jail, my (NUPENG) comrades did not as much give my people (family) One Naira.” But support came from strange places. The Good Samaritan Engr. Ade Thompson “just appeared on my family’s doorsteps one day and began to give money to Esther and the children.”

“Against the backdrop of all these killings, democracy activists like Femi Falana, Abdul Oroh of CLO and Dr . Funmi Adewunmi of Friedrich Ebert Foundation liased with the international community and took my children out of the country” through “NADECO Routes”. Cordelia Kokori quickly teamed up with Hafsat Abiola in the anti-Abacha campaign.

The Labour activist was aghast that Kofi Annan, then Secretary General of the United Nations and Emeka Anyaoku, Secretary General of the Commonwealth, both of West African descent, could not speak truth to the military junta “about their transgression, but instead reverting to coercing a helpless prisoner to forgo his presidential mandate… “

One recalls that in a later visit by the American delegation, led by Thomas Pickering, Abiola was served a cup of tea, then slumped and died – after four years in solitary confinement on account of the billionaire’s decision to concretise the presidential mandate freely given to him by the generality of Nigerians on June 12, 1993! His wife, the Amazon, Kudirat Abiola, had earlier fallen to the bullets of the Abacha agents. In effect, the annulment of the freest and fairest election in the annals of Nigeria by the Babangida regime led to the death of the winner, his wife and hundreds of other Nigerians. This, clearly, is a crying injustice.

The book laments how pro-democracy activists and June 12 warriors failed to come to terms with realities of politics; how they failed to take advantage of the post-Abacha era and get themselves into political power.
On page 262, Kokori submits, “What I told Pa Enahoro in America has today come to pass. Revolutionaries must have a base. We don’t just boycott and boycott the political process. If Tinubu does not reign in Lagos today, we would not have been able to give Pa Enahoro this kind of rousing welcome…”

But then the General Abdusalami Abubakar transition could also have turned out to be a hoax, a stratagem in the mould of the Babangida’s and Abacha’s. Only a reasonable political gamble could, therefore, be encouraged at the material time. The activists who were sceptical and those optimistic of the Abdusalami transition had a foundation for their positions.

Finally, Frank Kokori: The Struggle For June 12 exposes the reader to the world of the Organised Labour and career unionists.
It may seem invidious, giving the untold sacrifice of the author, but a reviewer must do his job. The publishers of the 340-page book could have done a better job! It seems the manuscript was published unedited! The author missed out in his list of honour a few other names that equally played a key role in the anti-Abacha campaign. On the whole, Frank Kokori: The Struggle For June 12 constitutes a weepy reflection on the road Nigeria had marched. Kokori deserves all the plaudits for this historical work of immense significance.
––Soyombo, author and media practitioner, writes via densityshow@yahoo.com