BY OKEY IKECHUKWU
The endorsement was overwhelming, unanimous almost. The presidential candidate and his running mate were Muslims, but that did not bother anyone. The electoral body put up an impressive performance, in preparing for the elections. The voters put up their best behaviour on the day of election. Electoral materials arrived on time. Queued up voters exercised their franchise and went away in excitement. The results, announced or not, were obvious. Chief Moshood Kashimawo Abiola was going to become the next president of the Federal Republic of Nigeria by popular choice, after Gen Ibrahim Babangida.
Then, a malodourous stench began to seep out of the entire national project. It was subtle at first. The source, or reasons, were unclear. But there it was: A spectre of sorts. It had no real identity and substance. Or, so it seemed at first. Then, to everyone’s horror, it began to gain solidity. Yes! Why wouldn’t the electoral body announce the obvious results? Minutes turned to hours. Hours turned to days. Then an announcement! An annulment! Horror!
It put the nation in a mood that is best captured in the Lamentations of David in the Bible thus: “The beauty of Israel is slain upon the high places. How art the mighty fallen? Tell it not in Garth, publish it not in the streets of Ashkelon, lest the daughters of the philistines rejoice…exalt”. For Nigeria, it was this: “The proof that Nigerians can rally and speak with one voice, in response to someone they consider their own, irrespective of ethnic roots and religious loyalties, is murdered by an ethnocentric cabal that has inflicted a desperate stranglehold on the nation.”
But, unlike the biblical David, who called on his people not to voice the great calamity, to avoid ridicule by perceived enemies who never wished them well, Nigerians were urged to go to town. “On June 12 we stand” became the most popular war cry all over the country in 1993, immediately after the annulment of that near-flawless election. Sections of the elite, traders and tradesmen/women, workers, business owners, and many retired military officers spoke up and acted up. The international community was invited to say “no” to such travesty.
Then, and very sadly, this national battle cry, born of true patriotism and a sense of brotherhood among Nigerians, began to wane in a section of the country. A disengagement from one Nigeria, not from Abiola, was fanned and made to crystalize even further. The federation created by Abiola began to recede. The strikes, sit-at-homes and protests achieved nothing. A nation had just been buried.
Then came a not-very-surprising wonder: Many who were initially standing on June 12 out of genuine conviction began to lose their initial enthusiasm for various reasons. Some moved from “On June 12 we stand” to “On June 12 we sit”. Many who were standing on June 12, including those who had moved from standing to sitting, joined a new, “On June twelve we feed” group. “On June 12, and from June 12 shenanigans, we get our daily bread” was born.
But that was after General Sani Abacha had displaced the Interim National Government (ING) put in place by Babangida. Abacha met three categories of June Twelvers, namely: (1) Those who stuck to their guns on the need to announce the results and declare Abiola President Elect and (2) Others, including Abiola himself, who were in league with Abacha on his coup on the naïve understanding that the foxy soldier would hand them political power after displacing the ING. If only there was a law against delusions and reckless dreaming!
Abacha had come to stay.
Abacha invited many credible individuals including Mr. Alex Ibru, Publisher of the then phenomenal Flagship of print journalism in Nigeria, The Guardian, to join his government as a Minister. Typically, the publisher and gentleman, who had exceptional regard for the newspaper’s Editorial Board and its members, brought up the matter for consideration and counsel. It was a unanimous “Do not do it, sir”. But Abacha was his friend who, more than once, reportedly opposed Babangida’s alleged attempts to close The Guardian. An alleged open altercation between the two soldiers at an Armed Forces Ruling Council (AFRC) meeting, where Babangida was said to have angrily wondered aloud why Abacha was always protecting the newspaper, was said to have ended with Abacha banging the table and declaring: “Because Alex is my friend”.
The friendship and, more importantly, the need to demonstrate The Guardian’s driving aspiration for a better society, through his active involvement in shaping the fortunes of the federal Republic of Nigeria, was a compelling reason for him. Worse still, there was the blackmail of not announcing a cabinet until he accepted the offer. Thus, that Mr. Ibru was the person partly holding up his full constitution of a government.
It was a personal decision the publisher had to make. So, notwithstanding the clearly stated reservations of The Guardian Editorial Board about what the involvement could do to his reputation, he said he would accept the appointment. He added that he had never failed in anything he did, and that we were all the watch dogs that would not allow him to falter.
As Minister of Internal Affairs, Mr. Ibru was soon assigned the special task of liaising with civil society, especially NADECO, one of the foremost pro-June 12 organizations. Abacha was aghast at the continued public pronouncements of some NADECO chieftains. He could neither understand the advertised grief of some of them, nor make sense of their claim to superior sense of patriotism. So, the Minister of Internal Affairs was given the additional, private, task of finding out what the gripe was about.
Then he went to report this back to Abacha: (1) Some of them said that you did not consult them in making your ministerial appointments; (2) A specific prominent NADECO member is fuming that he has been bearing the cost of his transportation and accommodation on all the occasions he has come to Abuja at your behest and that of your government; and (3) There is a general feeling of exclusion by some members who expected certain appointments, or at least the request to recommend people for certain position. For the reporting minister, the private question he had for himself was “So where is the NADECO fighting for the restoration of June 12?”
His faith in so many things about the future of the pro-democracy struggle was badly shaken.
Abacha, on his part, was outraged at the feedback. He explained much to his friend and minister, summing it all up by an indignant declaration that he was disgusted by the lies. Most shocking for the soldier, for instance, was the report about a chieftain who he, Abacha, always personally made generous provisions for, claiming that he footed his own bills. This and probably similar experiences on several fronts may have helped to shape Abacha’s supreme contempt for certain aspects of civil society activism, and perhaps civil society in general.
Mr. Ibru narrated this to us in his Abuja residence and then explained why I was incorporated into a small group of five individuals created for in-depth State-of-the-Nation analysis, from the angle of power politics. This meant a weekly, overnight trip to Abuja, during which a lot that was going on in government were X-rayed and put in perspective, as objectively as possible.
Then came one very important edition of this meeting, just before Abacha shut down The Guardian. The issue before the nation at the time was whether Abiola should be released and given his mandate as elected president. A title editor from The Guardian stable was also invited to this meeting, so that a little spin to the political permutations of the hour might pressure Abacha’s hand into pressing the release button for Abiola. It was probably a mistaken gamble.
At this said meeting, the minister narrated how they met earlier in the day and resolved that there was no point keeping Abiola. That the man should be released forthwith and modalities put in place for healing the national wounds inflicted by the annulment. He said that the plane to take him to Lagos within hours of the meeting was arranged, to end the ugly post-June 12 drama restore faith in the armed forces. He mentioned, in particular, the arguments of General Chris Alli and Rear Admiral Madueke, who he said were simply set on ending everything by putting Abiola in office.
But there was a snag. Abacha was unwell, did not preside over the meeting and so had to be briefed about the unanimous decision. Another snag was said to have surfaced when they arrived the Commander-in-Chief’s residence. He would not come down from his room, nor receive the Chief of General Staff, Lt General Oladipo Diya, upstairs as he often did. He communicated with the latter via the intercom. After listening to Diya’s narrative, Abacha reportedly told him that he had just taken an injection and that they should all meet and talk about it by 12 noon of the next day.
This did not go well with Major General Alli. The matter was straightforward, he was reported to have said. There was already a unanimous decision for Abacha to nod into execution. As he reportedly stormed out, he made his colleagues aware that he would not miss his scheduled 7am trip to Lagos because of the new and, in his view, unnecessary, delay and ceremony.
It was a downcast and somewhat perplexed Ibru that was telling us all this. A media intervention on the battle between the hawks and the doves in Aso Rock might do the magic, especially as the SGF was averse to the proposal.
When he noticed that I said nothing after his long narrative, and especially also because everyone else in the small group had spoken, he wondered aloud about my pensive silence. I simply said: “Sir, you may have to consider the possibility that the days of Alli, Madueke and some others with this advertised disposition, are numbered in this government”. I pointed out that a simple television announcement can easily see anyone out of the government and out of service in a military regime.
The later closure of The Guardian, the rumours that later filtered out about Abiola’s aborted freedom, and the bitter rage of Abacha over alleged “betrayal” by a friend he later began to jokingly address as the NADECO in his government all had their basis in real events.
The message for us all, and especially for president Muhammadu Buhari who is now the chief imperator of our democracy is this: Act in the national interest. Respect the will of the people. Restore genuine democracy and help our people to regain the faith they once had in the Federal Republic of Nigeria. The faith they demonstrated on June 12, 1993!
OKEY IKECHUKWU With three decades of hands-on experience in the university system, the media and government at the highest levels, Ikechukwu, mni, is the Executive Director of Development Specs Academy, an internationally certified management consultancy and training partner of several institutions and organizations. Ikechukwu was, at various times, Lecturer at the University of Lagos, Acting Editorial Page Editor, and acting chairman of the editorial board of The Guardian Newspapers. He holds a doctorate degree in philosophy from the University of Lagos.