MKO Abiola's Martyrdom and the Machinations of the "Nigerian Factor" – Niyi Osundare

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MKO ABIOLA’S MARTYRDOM AND THE MACHINATIONS OF ‘THE NIGERIAN FACTOR’-Niyi Osundare

Speech at 10th Memorial Anniversary of MKO Abiola’s Death

July 7, 2008

Lagos, Nigeria

                   By Niyi  Osundare

I consider my presence here today a rare privilege and a golden opportunity. Nothing can be more pleasing, more fulfilling, and, I daresay, more intimidating, than being in the midst of those intrepid men and women from various occupations and diverse groups, with a miscellany of political inclinations and proclivities, whose words and actions have aided the nurturing and survival of Democracy in our dear country, whose overarching concern has been the inauguration and sustenance of true civility in political governance. The road has been rough, the terrain mined with devastating explosives. Lifelong careers have been ruined; hard-earned properties destroyed; close-knit families scattered; personal liberties lost; sundry privations suffered; precious health ruined by the malarial assault of mosquito-infested prisons; normal blood pressures have shot to the roof in state-designated torture chambers.

     We all know that what has now been christened the ‘NADECO Route’ was no tree-lined avenue with cheering crowds on both sides. It was a grim path, paved with thorns and brimstones, armed men with blood-shot eyes and gendarmes with little patience with broken English. Only the strong-heeled defied its terror; only the strong-willed embraced its forbidden stretch. The struggle for democracy has been anything but an easy ride. Far-reaching were the sacrifices, and frequently grave. Many paid with their very lives. We remember today, as always, that paragon of beauty and virtue, of courage and conviction: Kudirat Abiola, gunned down in broad daylight while on a steadfast campaign for the actualization of the June 12 mandate; Papa Alfred Rewane, veteran businessman and patriarch of progressive forces, who was murdered in his own house, Omotshola. . . . and countless other Nigerians mowed down in cold blood by agents of the military junta during the many demonstrations against the annulment of the June 12 1993 election.

      The barricades swelled with determination and patriotic anger. The world stood aghast as Babangida-Abacha’s soldiers poured live bullets into raging crowds and corpses littered the streets. Some of those bereaved in different ways by these mayhems are here with us today. Some have died from the heartbreak resulting from the loss of bread-winners and loved ones. Orphaned children, widowed wives. Parents whose only children were dispatched by the soldier’s bullets. Many who survived have had their lives turned upside down for ever. These, too, are unforgettable  martyrs of the June 12 struggle; those on whose sweat and blood Nigeria plodded on its wobbling road to Democracy. Those who must forever bear the scars of the Nigerian wound.

     Chief Moshood Kashinmawo Olawale Abiola is the supreme martyr of this struggle, the one who laid down his life for the survival of democracy in Nigeria. In saner parts of the world, an electoral victory leads inexorably to orchid-festooned garlands and the triumphant assumption of office; but in Nigeria, Abiola won the freest and fairest election in his nation’s history, and his reward for it was a long, excruciating incarceration and eventual demise under his captors’ watch. The foundation of the current much-touted Nigerian democracy is laid on this cache of innocent bones. How can the structure hope to stand without terrible pangs of unhealthy conscience? How can the walls endure without tremors of unexpiated guilt. . .? The ‘demon’ in Nigeria’s democracy can never be exorcised until a full and fair atonement has been made for these crimes against the spirit of justice; until a wholesome righting of these errors of the rendering. . .

But how can this atonement begin, how can the righting commence when all around us now are drummers of amnesia and willful forgetfulness? It is only 15 years since General Babangida and his clique annulled Nigeria’s fairest and freest election, thus setting the country on a path of chaos and ruin; it is a mere ten years since MKO Abiola, the acclaimed winner of the election died under the watch of the General Abdusalam  Abubakar junta after the now famous cup of tea. Babies born on June 12, 1993 are still in secondary school, while those that came to the world as MKO breathed his last have yet to hit the teenage bracket. Yet, the principal perpetrators of these our yester crimes and mis-shapers of our troubled present are talking as though June 12, 1993 never happened, and July 7, 1998 never had a place in Nigeria’s calendar of official murders. General Babangida, self-confessed ‘evil genius’ and architect of contemporary Nigeria’s anomy, has never tired of fictionalizing the painful fact of June 12, taunting us, as he pleases, with a forever forthcoming book on the June 12 saga. Here is the villain of the drama who keeps rattling our ears with proclamations of his innocence, the principal actor in a monumental crime who would like to trick the world into believing that his was a minor role. With the unctuous arrogance and condescending demeanor, General Babangida struts around a damaged country, with little backward glance and no remorse. His comrade-in-arms, General Abdulsalam Abubakar, under whose vigilant watch MKO died, would like us for forget June 12 so as to ‘move the country forward’, a catch phrase that has now become a subterfuge for nation-wreckers and opportunistic fatherlanders.
    
And just recently, as if this unrelenting assault on our collective  memory and sense of decency were not enough, three of our former dictators, who also happen to be three Generals, chose the tenth anniversary of the demise of a fellow military dictator to mock the country’s pain and insult our collective intelligence. The wily General Babangida, the smooth General Abdulsalam, and the ‘no-nonsense’ General Buhari (yes, even the squeaky clean commissar of Abacha’s PTF), summed up the life and great achievements of General Sanni Abacha, and gave him a clean bill of health. He wasn’t corrupt, they insisted; he never stole a penny of the country’s purse. How can an ungrateful country so mindlessly soil the name of the man who restored order by mowing down June 12 agitators and dumping the winner of Nigeria’s fairest election in a deathly dungeon; the man who pacified a restless country with the ubiquitous operations of the killer squad; the man who hanged Ken Saro Wiwa and other Ogoni patriots, and made Nigeria the most-favoured nation on earth; the legend who enriched  our folklore with the lurid tale of the Indian inamorata and their famous apple; the man who loved the country so much that he almost made himself its life president. . .

      Yes, in the true tradition of what Louis Odion of The Nation has ingeniously coined as espirit de loot, our three former dictators, who also happen to be three Army Generals, declared their erstwhile colleague clean, innocent, and incorruptible – all this at a time when the media is awash with mind-boggling figures of the monies stashed in numerous overseas banks by Abacha and his family, the raw cash in different currencies heaving in overhead water tanks and backyard money dumps; all this at a time when a looter’s haven like Switzerland was constrained to reveal to a startled country how much of the Abacha loot it had returned to Nigeria. Yes, all this was happening before our very eyes when our former dictators, who also happen to be Army Generals, declared that their kleptomaniac comrade was never a thief. So the Nigerian people whose treasury he looted must be lying. To think that the authors of these opinions were once heads of state and commanders-in-chief of the armed forces of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, whose word was law, whose power was absolute and unquestionable! To think that a troika so dim, so morally deprived, and so provocatively blind once directed the affairs of this unfortunate country! Is anyone still wondering why Nigeria has remained a moral wilderness, and has never been able to change its unenviable status as a ‘big-for-nothing country’?
      
Almost invariably, we are tempted to ask: before their comprehensive clearance of their late comrade, did these three ex-dictators, who also happen to be Army Generals, for once think about the countless victims of Abacha’s dictatorship? Did they think about a nation impoverished by his kleptocracy and terrorized by his iron rule? Did they think of the victims of his killer squads – those like Kudirat Abiola and Alfred Rewane, and those who barely escaped, but not without grievous scars, such as Alex Ibru and the late Abraham Adesanya; those stuffed into detention dungeons all over the country; those forced into exile, painfully separated from their kith and kin; those whose homes and businesses were reduced to ashes by state-sponsored arsonists. Did they think about Ken Saro Wiwa and other Ogoni patriots?

Well, even if there isn’t much honour among thieves, at least there is a certain measure of blind loyalty among their ranks, especially loyalty of the base, self-preserving type. The argot of the robbers’ den is not only a dialect of exclusion; it is also a code of solidarity and allegiance. Put in simpler terms, if you looted the treasury when you were head of state, chances are that you would vehemently defend the ‘honour’ of a predecessor who did the same. This robber analogy has been so insightfully deployed by Sina Kawonise in his recent column in the Tribune on Saturday: let’s hear him:

‘When a robbery gang is in operation and the police shoot down a member of the gang, don’t you see that the rest of the gang always strive to carry the fallen member and escape with him – even if already dead?’

Memory manipulation, willful forgetfulness, and  pathological amnesia. In a misbegotten, sadly misgoverned, criminally abused country like Nigeria, it is simply natural that the rulers and the ruled should remember differently. As the Yoruba say, Eni to na ni lo gbagbe; eni ti o se ti a ko ni patie ko le gbagbe lailai (It is normal for the inflictor of pain to forget; but the offenceless receiver of an unjust punishment can never forget). It is the nature of human conscience and consciousness that some people are actively trying to remember what others are desperately struggling to forget or to dis-remember. The saga of June 12 and MKO Abiola’s uncommon chivalry has become a Nigerian phenomenon: protean, mercurial, ubiquitous, irrepressible; a veritable Ajantala who never fails to torment its tormentors, one who becomes bigger the smaller you try to make it. It has assumed the borderless sweep of an epic; a morality drama with a ground-shaking contest between good and evil; a myriad cast of serpent-tailed devils and charming angels.. . . 
 
     Enter Humphrey Nwosu, professor of political science, the no-wuruwuru, no-magomago chairman of the National Electoral Commission (INEC), the body that organized and supervised the June 12, 1993 election. Now, let’s give the devil its due. Nwosu and his team worked hard, really hard, devising electoral structures and strategies and putting them in place in a country as chaotic and lawlessly unmanageable as Nigeria – a country with a gruesome record of brazen ballot rigging, electoral brigandage, and inconclusive poll returns. To circumvent these electoral traps, Nwosu and his team devised the oxymoronic Open Ballot System, aka Option A4, and presented it to a skeptical electorate. Crude, even primitive as it sounded, the Option A4 worked through its uncomplicated transparency and physical, face-to-face enumeration method. From this crude methodology emerged what is now widely believed to be Nigeria’s freest, cleanest, and fairest election. The election produced results, and Nwosu was on his way to becoming a national hero, the man who wrought a miracle that we had considered absolutely unworkable in Nigeria. The symphony of his achievement was about to hit its crescendo when, all of a sudden, the music stopped! The baton fell off the hand of the consummate conductor; the players looked aghast; then went into momentary trance. The house lights dimmed, then faded to black. A stage-managed interim order from a court presided over by Justice Dahiru Saleh        halted further announcements of the results three days after the election. This was, of course, the saboteurs’ sequel to the one issued in the dead of night of June 10 by Justice Bassey Ikpeme, restraining INEC from conducting the election. (Justice Ikpeme, by the way, was widely rumoured to be a magistrate in her original state, smuggled into the nation’s capital and promoted judge – all in preparation for the great national assignment which her sponsors had in store for her). Although her order was never carried out, it provided the needed excuse for a group called  Association for Better Nigeria under the very distinguished chairmanship of Chief Arthur Nzeribe, which wanted the June 12 election annulled because of their self-created legal controversies . General Babangida and his military clique hid awkwardly behind this subterfuge, and on June 23, 1993, shocked the entire world with a formal announcement of the cancellation of the June 12 election. The world received the news with utter disbelief. Nigeria tumbled into chaos.

     Come out now, Humphrey  Nwosu; Say something, the nation clamoured for a word from the professor of political science and chairman of NEC whose elaborately laid eggs had just been smashed by the hawks in power. Defend your honour. Come out on the side of truth and justice. Say something for the world to hear, something for the world to remember. The chairman of INEC relapsed into silence, picked up his portmanteau, and slunk into hiding. Now, 15 long years after, Humphrey Nwosu is back, by an act of self-exhumation that must be a wonder to political morticians all over the world. Bristling, huffing, awkwardly self-defensive. Yes, barely one week ago, the erstwhile chairman of INEC declared, at last, the results of a presidential election he supervised 15 years ago. And we are being told, 15 years later, that MKO Abiola won that election by a landslide. We are now waiting for the INEC chair’s recommendation that the winner, MKO Abiola be declared duly elected prior to being sworn into office. I am sure the INEC chair is ready to hand over to Chief MKO Abiola the Certificate of Return (or whatever it was called 15 years ago). So, will the just-anointed MKO now step forward and claim his mandate? Shall we roll out the drums for his inauguration while everywhere in Nigeria the streets resonate with that catchy ditty that nearly became a national anthem 15 years ago: MKO oooo is our Man oooo?. . . .  Professor Nwosu, please complete your valiant act of necromancy: summon MKO now and give him the garland which for 15 years you and your military paymasters have kept away from him. Then go before the nation and explain the intricate machinations of your time-warp; the games which you and others have played with the nation’s destiny for a decade and a half. Summon Kudirat, summon Rewane; summon Adesanya, summon Ibru; summon the relations of all those souls lost in the crises precipitated by the June 23 annulment. Tell them your cock-and-bull story about your blameless military paymaster. You have played games with the past, hardly realizing that the future never forgets. History, you may not know, has an elastic memory.. . .

  The professor of political science even has a new book out: Laying the Foundation for Nigeria’s Democracy: My account of the June 12, 1993 Presidential Election and its Annulment. A useful book for students of Nigeria’s history of electoral fiascoes; an eye-opening guide to the sweat and swagger that went into the making of the Open Ballot System, Option A4. But so much tergivization, so much evasiveness, so many missing links in this ‘account’ that the narrative figures do not seem to add up. So many holes in the tale. So many crude assaults on our collective memory. So many justifications of political perfidy that a knowing acquaintance wondered whether “ Slaying the Foundation of Nigeria’s Democracy…” wouldn’t have been a truer, more fitting title.  The erstwhile chairman of INEC even went as far as absolving General Babangida of any responsibility for the annulment of the June 12 election. In a nauseating mix of sophistry and arrant puerilty, the learned professor of political science laid the foul act of the annulment not at the door of the self-proclaimed military ‘President’ who once boasted that he was not only ‘in government’ but he was effectively ‘in power’, but at the gate of faceless straw men and subordinates whose actual roles Nwosu was too disingenuous to specify. The poor Babangida was, therefore, a man more sinned against than sinning. He wanted so much to see the election to its logical conclusion. He wanted so much for Abiola to succeed him as President. But being the staunch democrat that he was in the liberally democratic military junta over which he presided, he was helplessly out-voted.

     So, as a military democrat to the core, he was left with no choice but to succumb to the will of his colleagues and subordinates. And he annulled the election much against his personal will and desire (to quote the words of another military pretender whose eight-year rule has just brought a proud nation to its knees). No, the June 12, 1993 was not annulled, Professor Nwosu would like to have us believe: it simply and miraculously annulled itself! To borrow an insight from the irrepressibly amusing Barkin Zuwo, we now have to blame the conductor for the accident of the bus while we absolve the driver. So much for Professor Nwosu and his nation-wrecking shenanigans! No Nigerian public functionary has so fatally snatched ignominious defeat from the jaws of victory. Why didn’t Humphrey learn a thing or two about integrity from the brave, incorruptible Eme Awa?
 
     Within the space of one week in the month of June 2008, the country was slapped with two cases of tendentious absolutions: the canonization of Abacha by his comrade-at-arms as mentioned earlier on in this discourse, then the beatification of General Babangida by an erstwhile INEC commissar who served him while in office. Nigeria is a sweep-the-rot-under-the-carpet country, a never-never land of sinful angels whitened sepulchers. There seems to be no end to the enormity of the insult that our rulers and their functionaries are always too ready to heap on our collective memory, no end to their habitual disdain for our collective intelligence.     

   But why is Humphrey Nwosu’s role in the June 12 debacle (I am using the word ‘debacle’ here with an unmistakable Olatunji Dare resonance) so important, and why will he go down as one of those who betrayed the dreams and possibilities of that event? Because History and prevailing circumstances made Nwosu such a central figure in the whole event, the one through whom Fate was anxious to deliver Nigeria from the bloody claws of military dictators and their civilian collaborators. We remember with patriotic gratitude now the tremendous sacrifice made by civil society in the struggle to wrest democracy from the iron grip of the military. The way the country reeled from one coup d’etat to another; from stern military czars who treated Nigerians like a bunch of overgrown delinquents begging to be whipped into the WAI line, to the smiling, gap-toothed masquerader who hid a hatchet behind his smile.  They ruled us like conquered people, circumscribing every civil right with decrees and edicts, preaching patriotism and discipline while they patriotically emptied the national treasury.  Undaunted, civil society pressed on with the demand for democratic governance, a pressure which reached its apogee during Babangida’s military presidency. Babangida dribbled the political class like the amoral Maradona that he was; banned and unbanned them; regimented them into two political parties (a little to the left, a little to the right); changing the transition rules in the middle of the game. It was with palpable reluctance and deep-seated grudge that the series of elections culminating in the presidential polls of June 12, 1993 was fixed.

The military’s desire to cling to power was never lost on the Nigerian people. Neither was the sit-tight tendency of the then military ‘president’. But civil society stuck to its demand for democracy, and June 12 came to assume the status of a liberation day, a triumphant rendezvous with History. Which was why that Saturday took on the aura of a holy day. People sang and danced in the polling queues, exchanged warm greetings and pleasantries. I remember distinctly that nursing mother in one of the queues in Ibadan, who patted her crying baby on the head and said: ‘joo ma sunkun omo mi; jen dibo. Tori tire naa ni mo se fe dii (don’t cry, my dear baby; let me vote. I am doing it for the sake of your future.’) Or the young man who held his voter’s card aloft, saying in a sing-song tone: ‘with this we shall send the khaki boys back to the barracks’. So many years of military excess and oppression had roused the people, even the seemingly apathetic among them. The idea of democracy was in the air. The military didn’t want it to thrive, but the people insisted on nothing else.

     But the democracy feeling was an abstract idea waiting for physical embodiment, a symbolic gesture in search of concrete instantiation. The country needed a rallying force, a tall totem at the foot of which to lay its manifold wishes and seamless anxieties. It needed someone with a titanic enough stature to stand up to the military, one that would not be fazed by the swagger stick or dazzled by clanging medals. It needed someone that could not be pushed and dribbled as had been the fate of the feckless, over-compromised political class in the hands of the Maradona in Aso Villa. After so many years of battering by military adventurers and their civilian cohorts, the Nigerian people wanted a leader who would listen to their yearnings and heal their wounds. After so much agony under the boot and the belt, the people longed for someone with a soul. After so many years of the locust under rampaging rulers, the people prayed for a leader with a human face and human heart. MKO Abiola loomed into view, first to a liberal dose of skepticism, then to a kind of infectious enthusiasm hardly displayed on a national basis for a Nigerian  politician. After all the horse trading and arm-twisting in the inner caucus of the Social Democratic Party (SDP), he emerged as the party’s presidential candidate and instantly struck the country as an idea whose time had come. 
 
     So many virtues earned MKO this almost instantaneous acceptance. In addition to his stature as someone who was believed to be capable of check-mating the military, Abiola possessed in abundance many of those attributes that endeared him to Nigerians irrespective of geo-ethnic and religious affiliations. Ebullient, vivacious, and stupendously generous, here was a billionaire who never forgot his humble background; a super-rich elite who never considered himself too high to trade earthy songs with a kokoma band, one that was never too much in a hurry to stop over on the highway and help out an accident victim. Abiola showed the people he knew what it meant to endure an existence that is ravaged by hunger, disease, illiteracy, and suchlike deprivations in a country rated as the world’s seventh largest producer of oil. Abiola saw poverty as a sin committed by a heartless state against its helpless citizens. He was aware of the pestilential corruption by which the powerful enriched themselves while progressively impoverishing the populace. He saw poverty as a curable disease, and told his country women and men that given the right management and husbanding, the resources in the country were abundant enough to make life comfortable for all and sundry.

      Abiola vowed to make accountability the watchword of political governance,  remove the gap between power and responsibility, and shorten the distance between the ruler and the ruled. He promised to overhaul (not merely launder) Nigeria’s foreign image long soiled and battered by years of military dictatorship and its attendant lawlessness. His language was demotic without being disingenuous, elegant without being meretricious, spiced with proverbs and myriad witticisms. A veteran accountant, he demonstrated how to divine facts from figures, and the best way to get the national budget to achieve its stated objectives. Abiola spoke about the kind of efficiency that went beyond mere competence, insisting that the provision of good transportation, clean water, and steady power supply should not be beyond the attainment of a country as bountifully blessed as Nigeria. He dreamt about transforming our can-do into has-done , our plentiful endowments into concrete achievements.      Abiola dreamt the kind of dreams we thought millionaires could never dream. There was passion in his promise, power in his purpose, agility in his agenda. He exuded an infectious optimism rare in Nigeria’s political space, assuring a cobbled Nigeria citizenry that their country could, indeed,  be ‘On the March Again’. Invariably, the people listened to him, sized him up, compared him to other politicians, and discerned the genuineness of his intent and the sincerity of his purpose. HOPE 93 became a national manifesto. From Lagos to Nguru, from Port Harcourt to Kaura Namoda, a chorus rose and shook the wind: MKO is Our Man o o o.   
                   
     But the MKO whose life we celebrate today was by no means an angel (I have never met one). Deeply human as he was, he had his numerous flaws and vulnerabilities. His temper was sometimes short, but his spirit of forgiveness was equally swift. He possessed a flamboyant, expansive personality, a craving for titles and social recognition, an almost insatiable desire to be accepted, to be loved. Having amassed such fabulous wealth, he wanted all the good things that money could bring. One of them was cultural relevance; the other two were social visibility and political power. It was a combination of these yearnings and desires that led him to his brief but expensive romance with the National Party of Nigeria (NPN) during the Second Republic, a romance which alienated him from his ethnic South-west base, resulting in what many observers saw as a political misadventure uncharacteristic of someone with Abiola’s level of political shrewdness and savvy. His timely retreat from the NPN and partisan politics in the early eighties aided the restoration of his lost credibility, while affording him the chance to reflect more deeply on Nigeria and the nature of its politics. When about a decade later it was time to go back to the hustings, he opted for the Social Democratic Party (SDP), the ‘little to the left’ side of the partisan coin tossed in the political wind by General Babangida.

     The SDP provided a wonderful platform for Abiola’s message and mission. His remarkable personality energized the party; his tremendous wealth lubricated its financial engine. Within a few weeks the country was abuzz with MKO’s ‘Goodbye-to-Poverty’ campaign clarion. Abiola took the country by storm, visited  virtually every corner of its vast terrain. And everywhere he landed, Nigerians cushioned his path with velvety hospitality and love. His many years of pan-Nigeria philanthropy were beginning to pay off. The almost magical appeal of the SDP ticket despite its Muslim-Muslim tally was no doubt helped by the choice of Baba Gana Kingibe as Abiola’s running mate. A suave, well-spoken former ambassador, Kingibe possessed the kind of smile that could turn hard rock into liquid paste, and was considered solidly loyal to the SDP cause (well, until the annulment brought out his true colour).

     Well, as is now common knowledge, June 12 came, a beautiful day, produced Nigeria’s freest and fairest presidential election ever, and a resounding victory for MKO Abiola and the Social Democratic Party. But the announcement of the results was abruptly stopped, and 11 days later, General Babangida shocked the entire world with a declaration of its annulment.

June 12, MKO Abiola and the Nigerian Conundrum of  The June 12, 1993 election produced a baffling knot of ironies and contradictions inherent in the Nigeria project. While the philosophy and conduct of the election demonstrated the very best in the Nigerian character (the yearning for democracy and the desirability of national unity), its annulment and its aftermath brought out the most nightmarish in what is now commonly called the ‘Nigerian Factor’. The announcement of the annulment was greeted with a loud national and international condemnation, with many political commentators vowing that it was an affront that must not be allowed to stand. Demonstrators trooped into the streets, hurling invectives at military dictatorship and calling for the de-annulment of Nigeria’s most peaceful election. The brave and patriotic Frank Kokori led the oil workers on a protracted strike that nearly crippled the country; while the Campaign for Democracy, CD, under the intrepid leadership of Beko Ransome-Kuti, operated the ‘stay-home’ campaign which paralyzed commercial and social activities in all the major cities.  Abroad, there were calls for sanctions and other reprisals, as Nigeria seemed set for its journey into pariahood on the international scene.

     But within a few days of the annulment, the Nigerian Factor was set in full motion as the military junta and its civilian collaborators resorted to the old stratagem of divide-and –rule. Old tribal scars reappeared, throbbing like new wounds; long forgotten shibboleths re-surfaced with their primordial argot of estrangements and exclusions. Soon, astonishing rationalizations started popping up for the annulment. This is not the first injustice in Nigeria, some argued. Some compatriots from the North cited the lop-sided pogrom of the January 1966 coup (but fell silent on the reverse pogrom of the counter-coup that came some seven months later). Some from the East brought up the issue of the civil war and the Westerners’ role in it. ‘We have fought our own war’, they argued, ‘now it’s the Yoruba’s turn to fight their own’. Gradually and amazingly, what started out as a national cause was reduced to a Yoruba problem. Traditional rulers, religious chieftains and other proverbial ‘facilitators of dictatorship’ (Akinola 200  ) were jumping over one another in their ‘solidarity visits’ to Aso Rock, in their desperate bid to thank Babangida and his collaborators for annulling Nigeria’s fairest election ever. (By the way, I was reliably informed that none of the solidarity pilgrims returned without a bulging brown envelope!). And they all did this so as to ‘move the country forward’. Astonishing somersaults became the dangerous sport of ranking politicians. For instance, with my own ears, I heard the veteran politician,  Malam Adamu Ciroma declare on BBC that Abiola won the election ‘fair and square’ and should be allowed to fulfill the mandate justly given to him by the Nigerian people. But a few days later, the fire went out of that declaration and the respectable politician’s take on June 12 became tepid, then vanished altogether.  All this so as to ‘move the country forward’. 

     Wardrums were loud in the air as ‘Comrade’ Uche Chukwumerije (currently born-again democrat and distinguished senator of the Federal Republic of Nigeria!), Babangida’s energetic and ruthless propaganda commissar, whipped up a campaign of encirclement and containment that isolated the so-called Southwest as a battleground ripe for pacification and conquest. And he and his boss did this to ‘move the country forward’. Add to this mind-boggling defections and decampments from the winning party, the SDP: Chief Anenih, then Chairman of the SDP, traded off his party’s phenomenal victory without as much as a whimper, and later went on to justify the act. All this so as to ‘move the country forward’. Alhaji Babagana Kingibe went diplomatically silent over the annulment, then re-surfaced later as minister in the Abacha junta. All this so as to ‘move the country forward’.

 Many other chieftains of the SDP became official or unofficial supporters of the annulling junta, some literally apologizing for their party’s temerity in winning Nigeria’s most propitious election. They became roving ambassadors for the increasingly despotic and murderous Abacha junta. All this so as to move the country forward.  I have yet to know if there is any country in the world so generously cursed with the kind of venal, unprincipled, and degenerately opportunistic band of political adventurers that populate Nigeria’s sad terrain.   

     Watching all these scenes unfold in Nigeria’s political theatre of the absurd, the baffled observer is bound to exclaim with Kunle Ajibade: ‘What a Country!’. What kind of country so mindlessly, so shockingly abandons the electoral mandate it has so willingly and readily given, then turns round to vilify the recipient and join forces with the annulers of that mandate?  In what kind of country do citizens look so helplessly, so nonchalantly on while the legitimate bearer of their electoral mandate is bundled into detention from where he never returns alive?  In what kind of country do people talk about ‘moving forward’ when every utterance, every act of theirs is designed to put the nation’s vehicle on a reverse gear to the Stone Age?

     MKO Abiola and the June 12 Mandate suffered the fate they did because Nigeria is not yet a country (those who call her a ‘nation’ only engage in a most disingenuous hyperbole). Knocked together in 1914 by Lord Lugard for the benefit and glory of the British Empire, Nigeria, even up till now, remains what Wole Soyinka presciently called the ‘gathering of the tribes’ at the dawn of her independence in 1960. Wracked by an insidious moral relativism (a public treasury robber at the federal level is almost invariably a local hero in his/her tribe or village), characterized by sundry incoherencies and inconsistencies, Nigeria looks, even over 40 years after formal independence, NOT like a work-in-progress but an accident-in- waiting. The country has yet no moral centre, no code of values, no canon of ideas and ideals, no rallying clarion, no steady paradigm of patriotism. No glue in her yawning crevices. The June 12 debacle and its grave aftermath could only have occurred in a country where ‘tribal’ passion supersede national thinking; a land where the street of superstition is still wider than the boulevard of science. Too many cracks in the Nigeria wall; too many opportunistic lizards thriving in those cracks. The killers of the June 12 dream and their collaborators are denizens of those cracks. The loudest mouthers of the ‘ Nigerian unity’ mantra  are the most virulent enemies and saboteurs of the ideal they so stridently proclaim. Let us face this fact: it is not in the interest of most of those who rule us that this country should have a common purpose. Babangida and his clique destroyed the June 12 dream because they knew Nigeria was/is too fragmented, too dissolute, to fight a common cause. Those lizards will always want cracks in the wall to make their homes. But it is the duty of the Nigerian people to make sure that the walls are whole and the lizards are kept at bay.

      To reiterate: it is 15 years since the result of the June 12, 1993 presidential election was annulled; 10 years since its acclaimed winner, Chief MKO Abiola died in his captors’ incarceration  while trying to demand the restoration of his mandate. It is amazing, the almost inexorable way Abiola’s political life was bound up with the caprices of the Nigerian Army and its Generals: one General annulled his electoral mandate; one General committed him to detention; he died in highly mysterious circumstances under the watch of another General. Oh, yet another General became the grand beneficiary of Abiola’s martyrdom, misused that opportunity for eight long years during which he never mentioned his Martyr-Benefactor’s name and the circumstances that brought the beneficiary to power in 1999!

     The June 12 phenomenon was Nigeria’s resounding rejection of military rule and a clear vote for democracy. Chief Abiola’s travails must be seen in that perspective. He laid down his life for the restoration of civil rule in Nigeria. But what have we made of his supreme sacrifice; what are we doing to honour his legacy? A cursory look at the situation in the country today will reveal that we are a people that have learnt nothing from the tragedy of the past, and are therefore bound to live down its farce in a most unedifying way. Consider this fact: most of the current political gladiators in Nigeria in all tiers of government were those who worked assiduously against June 12 and for the continuation of military rule – the proverbial maggots who festered on the carcass of our nation’s freedom. Today, they are not only reaping where they did not sow; they are actually harvesting crops from the fields which they did everything to lay waste and make infertile. Because they never made any investments in the struggle for democracy , they seem to have little or no stake in its survival. Acquisitive and insatiably greedy, they are in politics for the sake of what they can grab, not how dutifully they can serve. Any wonder that Nigeria stinks to the high heavens even as she relishes her unenviable status as one of the dirtiest, riskiest, most lawless, and most corrupt countries on earth? Chief MKO Abiola must be wondering: is it for this that I laid down my life? But as the patriot and relentlessly resourceful person that he is, I trust his mind will be bristling with possible solutions to the Nigerian problems, solutions which made his Hope 93 such a compelling covenant with the Nigerian people.

     First and foremost, the rickety, potentially fatal  structure of the contraption called Nigeria. An essentially pluralistic conglomeration of nationalities that have been squeezed inside  the straitjacket of a self-serving   unitary arrangement, Nigeria is urgently in need of a true federalism which generates cooperation, harmony, and interdependence among the constituent parts while ensuring that none of these parts is so powerful as to be able to dominate the others; and that none is so weak that it cannot function adequately without being overly dependent on the others. The present situation in which the Federal plays Big Brother and Father Christmas from whom all disbursements flow to the states, is an irritating damper on state rights and stifler of local initiative. Let us not forget that Nigeria had her golden years in the era of regional governments – before the advent of the military who corralled the country into a choking political monolith under one supreme commander . 

     We pretend, and the truth is not in us, when we treat this diverse country as though it were some invariate, homogeneous organism to be administered through the fiat of some omnipotent, omniscient  centre. The ‘tribe and tongue’ issue (a phrase which riles us so badly in our old anthem) is a reality that must be confronted head-on, not treated as though it didn’t exist. No constitution has treated the multi-ethnic nature of Nigeria with the thoroughness and honesty it deserves. (Which is also part of the reason none of our constitutions has ever worked well). It is a subject Nigerian politicians would rather shy away from or bury in an avalanche of cant in the name of sanctimonious patriotism, but one that they will exploit to their own selfish advantage whenever it becomes politically expedient to do so. The real fact is that Nigeria remains a conglomeration of ethnic groupings which quarrel more than they cooperate, whose relations are soured by mutual fear and suspicion, among whom the problem of the domination of one group by another remains a clear and present danger.

     Rather than work single-mindedly for a solution to this problem, Nigeria’s rulers have always compounded it since it serves their divide-and-rule tactics. The June 12 struggle was, no doubt, a victim of this tactic: what was a grand Nigerian triumph was corrupted into a ‘Southwest, and Yoruba problem’; the electorate which gave the mandate scurried back to their tribal tents. And thus ended the life of a truly pan-Nigerian mandate. Needless to say, no country ever grows and prospers on this kind of ethnic vulnerability. We urgently need a Sovereign National Conference where the people of Nigeria can freely and honestly spell out the terms of and conditions for their continued  coexistence. The present centralist, federalist pretence has not worked and may, if care is not taken, engender the disintegration of the country when we have come to the end of our pretence. Needed without further delay: a constitution generated and fashioned out by the real Nigerian people, not one imposed by the military and their civilian collaborators after being doctored to serve their selfish political and socio-economic motives. 

It is not until these two vital and related issues (the Sovereign National Conference and a people-oriented constitution) have been duly and honestly addressed that we can begin to solve the most devastating, most expensive, and most internationally embarrassing geo-political problem of the moment: the Niger Delta. The absolute degradation and impoverishment of human life, habitation,  and the environment in that running sore of the ‘Federal’ Republic of Nigeria loudly challenge Nigeria’s claim as a land where ‘peace and justice reign’. The proverbial goose that lays Nigeria’s golden egg lies pillaged and wickedly neglected. Those who proffer a military solution to the Niger Delta problem need to re-don their thinking caps. No government has ever won a permanent victory against a people who are fighting for their just and legitimate rights as human beings. What our Delta region needs is the restitution of justice that the Nigerian state has long denied, a restoration of the humanity of the Delta people and their environment, and a revenue-sharing formula that gives the people substantial control over their own resources and a just and sufficient share of the proceeds therefrom. The foreign oil companies in that region must be told to treat our people with the kind of equity and respect that guide human interactions in their home countries in Europe and the United States. We must put an end to the era of differential justice.

     Also urgently needed is a drastic overhaul of the present electoral arrangement so prone to fraud and manipulation. As it is at the moment, this arrangement can only produce the kind of political monsters who now bestride the Nigerian terrain. The terrible irony is that while the June 12 election, the freest and most civilized the country has ever known, was annulled and its winner incarcerated until he lost his life, the other elections, universally condemned as fraudulent, have not only been allowed to stay, but their equally fraudulent ‘winners’ have also been allowed to fester in office. The trick-and-take (s)election of 2003 and its do-or-die follow-up of 2007 (both under the supervision of Nigeria’s great democrat, Chief Obasanjo), still rankle our political nerves. We the Nigerian people know most of those who rule us today were not those we voted for and elected. We also know that those who won our genuine votes have not been allowed to lead us. With this ‘abolition of the Nigerian electorate’ (thanks to Tatalo Alamu, that famously prodigious wag of The Nation on Sunday), how can Nigeria keep pretending to democratic governance? How can an arrangement based on such gigantic electoral heist hope to produce a stable polityt? MKO Abiola was deprived of his mandate, and later his very life, as a result of Nigeria’s notorious inability to manage electoral process. In saner parts of the world, perpetrators of electoral fraud are apprehended, tried, and served with the commensurate punishment; in Nigeria, such criminals are rewarded with plum appointments and political preferment. Next to its volatile ethnic predicament, the other potential cause of Nigeria’s disintegration is its heinously abused electoral process. A country that still has a man like Maurice Iwu in the saddle after the disastrous 2007 elections can only pretend to stability and integrity.

     We as citizens must not only beam the searchlight on the electoral process that gets our politicians into office; we must also ‘shine our eyes’ on what they do when they get there. It is a painfully common fact that Nigerian politicians and public functionaries hardly ever go into office so as to serve. Almost invariably, they go there so as to steal, to enrich their private purses at the expense of the public good. Consider, as current examples, the astounding number of public officers (especially governors) now under investigation, or waiting for one, for their flagrant theft of public funds. Consider the mouth-opening scandals that have ruled the front pages of Nigerian newspapers and magazines since Chief Obasanjo and his team left office barely a year ago: the billions of naira misappropriated in the power sector (Nigeria is one country in the world where it costs so much to produce darkness!); the billions squandered by those in charge of works and transport to make sure that our roads remain  death traps; the billions that cannot be accounted for in the aviation ministry (any wonder that planes drop pom pom pom from our the Nigerian sky like over-ripe fruits in a thunderstorm?); the billions spent on a fast-disappearing rail system; the intractable sleaze in the oil industry, more viscous than a petroleum smudge.

      Consider the politicians who fleece us to the bones, whose major task in office is the squandering of our national patrimony. Let us ask today: how much does each senator, each Rep, each State Assembly man/woman, each local government chairman/councilor take home at the end of each month? What are their constituency allocations and allowances, and how are they spent? How much do we spend for maintaining these do-nothing politicians and servicing their prodigal habits in a country where most of the citizens have no roof over their head and cannot afford a decent meal? Just what percentage of our national earnings is spent on the maintenance of our parasitic political class? Comparatively how much is spent on education, healthcare, agriculture, transportation? How much of our resources go into the building of a solid technological and industrial base in a country which produces virtually nothing and is ever so happy in its dependence on importation from more purposeful, , more productive countries of the world? Dear prodigal politicians, where will Nigeria be when the present astronomical oil prices crash precipitately and we are asked to go drown in our unwanted petroleum excess?  It is 50 years since Nigeria started producing oil in commercial quantities at Oloibiri: what does the country have to show for the billions of petro-dollars apart from the otherworldly estates of a few rich and their bulging bank accounts? What kind of future does Nigeria have ahead of her? Unhappy the land ruled by people without a vision. Unhappy the land ruled by thieves  . . .

     As Chief MKO Abiola, the man whose immortality we are celebrating today, would have asked, what’s there to be done? How do we get ourselves out of this mess?  We the Nigerian people need to take our destiny squarely and securely in our hands. First, we need to de-monitize public office by drastically reducing the emoluments currently enjoyed by politicians and political appointees, at the expense of the public good. We must show more interest in the way our money is spent: the not uncommon practice of state governors bribing traditional rulers with cars and the wives of Local Government chairmen with all-expenses-paid overseas trips in states with dilapidated schools and stone age roads, should be treated as a crime worthy of the people’s wrath.  This is necessary to ensure that those who vie for public offices do so in order to serve, not to loot. We need to hold those who rule us to account and take more interest in the way our politicians ease themselves into office, and what they do when they get there. We need to resist the backhanded philanthropy of the public functionary who steals one million from the public treasury and hands us a ‘gift’ of one hundred naira. It is our duty as citizens to insist on being served, not starved, led, not bled, governed, not enslaved. Time we recognized the scared nature of the vote we cast, and realize that the ballot-rigger is a murderer of the commonweal.
  
  We have so often laid the cause of the Nigerian malaise at the door of the leaders. Time we started asking why the followers acquiesce so pathetically to the abolition of their own rights, why we so sheepishly aid and abet our own enslavement. If the Nigerian people had vigorously defended the mandate so cheerfully given MKO Abiola on June 12, 1993, the annulment of that historic election would not have endured, and Nigeria’s history would have been different today. Nigerian people are too docile, too neglectful of their rights, too susceptible to ethnic and religious balkanization. This is why our rulers take us for granted. This is the reason for the audacity with which they misrule us and plunder our treasury. Time we woke up from the Nigerian stupor. Our fate is too vital to be left in the hands of politicians. . . .

Now my home run. . . .

   It is now 15 years since General Babangida and his collaborators annulled Nigeria’s best presidential election and killed the dream of a young and struggling nation. It is 10 years today since Chief MKO Abiola, the acclaimed winner of that election was dispatched to the world beyond. Since those terrible events, for Nigeria, it has been Adiye ba lokun; ara o rokun, ara o r’odie (The chicken has perched on the rope; no peace for the rope none for the chicken). We have been through all kinds of political grotesqueries: the illegitimate fidihee ‘interim government’ of Chief (Very) Ernest Shonekan; General Abacha’s murderous regime, General Abdulsalami Abubakar’s brief but eventful reign, and Chief Obasanjo’s imperial presidency which insulted Nigeria with the current inept and comatose arrangement.
     Today, Nigeria remains a delinquent, dysfunctional country wasted by rulers who steal our vote, plunder the public treasury, sponsor frequent assassinations, and carry on business without any thought about the country’s future. Today, Nigeria slides painfully and inexorably into the unenviable status of a one-party state as the leviathan ruling party swallows up the field through a process of cooptation and corruption.  Nothing can be more symptomatic of our deep and worsening malaise than the present meltdown of the national power grid and our consequent plunge into darkness – a darkness that is frightening in its literal and figurative import. Nigeria thrashes around as though in a state of stupor, leaderless, corruption-ridden, and pathetically disoriented. Chief Abiola must be wondering wherever he is: is it for this I laid down my life?

     Chief MKO Abiola had every reason to live, and everything to live for: a large supportive family, a huge business empire, fame, recognition, a sunny generous disposition, a tremendous zest for life, hope, abiding hope. Yet he gave up all these (except the last), resisted all entreaty to humiliating compromise and surrender. He refused to trade off the mandate freely and cheerfully given to him by the Nigerian people. Nigerian rulers bundled him into prison for securing the people’s electoral mandate, then facilitated  his demise for standing on his word of honour. Such courage and single-minded resolve this country had never known since Adekunle Fajuyi went down with his commander-in-chief and guest rather than betray and give him up. Nor is it possible not to compare the amazing equanimity and courage with which Abiola received the gruesome murder of his wife while he was in prison, with the stoic forbearance with which Chief Obafemi Awolowo took the sudden death of a sterling son, while he too was in Nigeria’s political incarceration.     
  
     But as is the universal custom of martyrs, Abiola died that Nigeria might live; he died that democracy might survive in our country. Martyrs matter so significantly because they have two birthdays: the day on which they were born, and the day on which they died (or were martyred). So, July 7 remains a birth, not a death day for Abiola, for Nigeria; a day with a far more monumental – and genuine – import than the May 29 imposed by our erstwhile imperial president to serve his afflicted ego and his brand of despotic, do-or-die democracy.
 
   I can hear the incurably optimistic MKO urging us on; telling us not to give up on Nigeria, our bountifully blessed but sadly misgoverned and wasted country. I can hear him thanking the Pro-Democracy groups, the Nigerian media (especially those among them that talked the talk and walked the walk, including the tendentiously  mysterious Radio Kudirat!), and all other organs of civil society that have sacrificed so much in the past 15 years to widen the democratic space and enter a strong voice in defence of  human dignity and freedom. I can also hear my daughter who, at 10 years of age in 1993, never missed the melody and magic of the catchy SDP campaign jingle which literally became an anthem among the neighbourhood children:

Nigeria on the march again
On the march again
Looking for Mr. President
Looking for Mr. President
MKO ooooo is our Man ooooo

     Ladies and Gentlemen, thank you so much for your attention.

 

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