MISTAKES ABIOLA MADE — SEGUN OSOBA
Many Nigerians were at the receiving end in the aftermath of the annulment of June 12, 1993 election and the struggle to revalidate it.
Sixteen years after, Aremo Segun Osoba, former governor of Ogun State and one of the confidants of the late businessman and philanthropist, Bashorun Moshood Kashimawo Olawale Abiola, told Saturday Sun a moving story about June 12, 1993 election. He also revealed the mistakes Abiola made.
You were one of those in the vanguard of the struggle to revalidate June 12 mandate of Abiola, can you share your experience with us?
I believe that God loves Nigeria so much that on June 12, 1993 he created an atmosphere of serious divine intervention. Arrangement for that election was not totally competent, in terms of organization. Those who fixed that date thought that the month of June is the month of very heavy rain.
To the shock of everybody, there wasn't a drop throughout the country that day. That was the first miracle.
The second miracle was that people who had never exercised the right to vote in their lives - not just ordinary Nigerians, but highly placed people, professionals, elderly people - all came out to exercise their right on that June 12. They went further to police the poling booths, to such an extent that there wasn't even minor argument anywhere in the whole country.
Again, that was the second divine intervention. Everything went so smoothly and to think that we could have a Muslim/Muslim ticket and nobody raised eyebrow was another act of divine intervention.
I campaigned with MKO Abiola throughout the country. The response of the Christian groups everywhere we went was overwhelming. Bishops were clamouring to have meetings with us to discuss with Abiola. In Enugu, in Owerri, in different parts of the country, in the North, in the Middle Belt it was the same show of love. They didn't see Abiola, as a Muslim; they saw him as a Nigerian and the Christians didn't think of him as a Muslim and Baba Gana Kingibe as a Muslim.
They saw the situation as a project for everybody and we all worked as one. It was like when Nigeria was playing a football match and everybody is united. We were more united on that June 12 than we have ever been. So, that was the greatest experience and lesson that I learnt on that incident of June 12, 1993.
How did you take the annulment then? You were a serving governor.
Unknown to many Nigerians, on the eve of the annulment, on the 21st and 22nd of June, we held series of meetings with MKO Abiola; those of us who were the inner caucus of his team and that included SDP governors, Baba Gana Kingibe himself the running mate; Senator Iyorchia Ayu, then President of the Senate. In fact, on the 21st June, we held a meeting in Ikoyi, where we all decided that we should set out in groups to convince different aspects of stakeholders in the country about the sincerity of purpose of Abiola if he gets to office.
Then on the night of 21st June we held a meeting at the office of Hope 93, where we finalized arrangement to send different teams to different parts of the country, to meet stakeholders. It was at that meeting that message came that the father of General Shehu Musa Yar'Adua had died and would be buried the following day. Abiola had to arrange for a chartered aircraft to take us to Katsina, to attend the burial of General Shehu Yar'Adua's father, who was also the father of the current president.
When we got to Katsina, our plane was delayed for almost 40 minutes, apparently, in retrospect, to announce the annulment before we landed and then to have allowed the then President Ibrahim Babangida to leave Katsina before we landed.
We landed at Katsina airport soon after General Babangida left and arrived at the family house of the Yar'Adua's. We had prayers with the family and then proceeded to the Government House in Katsina to meet the then governor, Seidu Barda. It was at the Government House that a telephone call came. I think from the Emir of Zaria to Abiola, asking him to listen to the radio, that there was rumour that something would happen about June 12. The message eventually came while we were in the air that the June 12 election had been annulled. There was confusion about how to react to a situation that we never bargained. There was suggestion that we should divert to Akure or Benin rather than coming to Lagos. It was Abiola's insistence that if he's afraid to land in Lagos, why should he want to be president of Nigeria? He told us that any project has its risk and he insisted that no matter what is going to happen, the pilot should proceed to Lagos.
We landed in Lagos and proceeded to M.K.O Abiola's house. By the time we got there, most of the delegation had scattered because there was so much confusion about what was then happening. To annul the election, what should be the immediate reaction?
When we got to Abiola's house, a few of us were still with him. The confusion was such that people just scattered, instinctively to assess what was going on. That was what happened on that 23rd. There was total confusion. It was later we found out that the announcement wasn't signed by anybody—it was just a mere announcement on Radio Nigeria, signed by nobody. Till today, nobody knows who authorized or gave the instruction. It was just an unsigned statement that was read on the radio that led to the annulment.
But IBB had said that he took responsibility for the action
Yes, as the president, but what I am saying is that, how do you make such a major statement unsigned? I have my suspicion that may be the like of Duro Onabule, who was then the Chief Press Secretary, just decided to stay off that he found it unconscionable for him to sign such a statement. Normally a statement like that coming from the president should come from the CPS.
When you got the announcement, what was your instant reaction?
Shock! I couldn't just fathom or explain why anybody should tamper with something that had never happened in Nigeria, a great miracle, as I said earlier; an event that has no precedent in the history of this country and what some of us thought was the beginning of a new dawn. I was shocked beyond explanation as to why anybody should tamper with such a thing.
While the euphoria of Obama victory lasted, many Nigerians expressed the indignation that Abiola was our Obama that was wasted. Do you share that bitterness?
It's not bitterness, it's the objective truth. If Abiola had been allowed to exercise his mandate, he probably would exercise that mandate for only one term, Nigerians probably would have said, 'okay we want a change.' At a point Rawlings became what Ghanaians were calling Junior Jesus, but it got to a point that they said, enough of Rawlings and his party and him was voted out and Kuffour came in. He accepted the will of the people and went to his private residence. Eight years after, they went into another election, Rawlings' party came back again.
That to me is the opportunity we missed. It could have been Abiola then and eight years after in the life of a country, we would have been more stable now than Ghana. There would have been greater progress because why Nigeria isn't progressing now is the instability. As long as there is instability and lack of continuity, we would never make progress.
Sixteen years after, we are now in a so-called nascent democracy. Have we learnt any lesson?
Not at all. Nigerians haven't been this disillusioned, despondent and there is total disgust. I was shocked at the number of highly placed Nigerians, highly educated Nigerians who said why are we, 'the AC boys wasting our time going to Ekiti, that the result is already determined. That we shouldn't bother ourselves, they would write it'. Nigerians have become so cynical! Highly placed Nigerians were calling and warning that we shouldn't go to Ekiti to waste our lives; that PDP would kill and we said, 'is this not our own country?'
These are Nigerians who had served this country and they have become so disillusioned, so cynical about the situation and they have lost hope. You can imagine the effect of such feeling on the minds of our senior citizens and how many we have killed, who look back and see hopelessness in the horizon and look back and imagine the kind of life they had and look forward for their grandchildren and find nothing to hand over to them. This is the situation; so we have learnt nothing. We gained nothing from what God gave to us on that June 12.
Those who look back have also attributed the present debacle of a compromised democracy to the fact that those of you who fought for democracy abandoned the ship to charlatans after the death of Abacha.
In 1993, the military class, I'm talking of those serving then and those retired, had made up their minds as to who they wanted to succeed the military government. Unfortunately, my very good friend, General Abdulsalami Abubakar, isn't an ambitious person. He was more concerned about a quick transition and immediate retirement to his home town.
There was, therefore, not enough time for most of the NADECO leaders who were abroad to get back, to organize and arrange a political structure. It's not easy to just come in and organize a political party within six months to one year; that was the disadvantage we had, whereas most of the big players today were those who were in the vanguard of the one million man march for Abacha!
If you look at some of the ministers, I think they were the one million man march people; if you look at most of those in Government House, they were those in UNCP, the anointed party then; it was the biggest party before the PDP. So, they had been the biggest party; the UNCP was the grand father of PDP. They were the ones in the field; they were the ones who the military had empowered and that was the disadvantage that we had. It wasn't that we let go. We were disadvantage, the military had determined who they wanted to handover to and they had empowered those they wanted to give power to.
So, what we had was a kind of change of baton, not really a change to serious democratic governance in 1999. That was why a man like Obasanjo would come out of prison to be prison. He was incarcerated for close to three years. He needed to be debriefed, to be rehabilitated mentally, to be brought back to normal life! The military suddenly brought a lion, which had been caged for years and threw him out among the people. He would devour anybody around! That was what happened. How can you bring a man direct from prison and make him president? Even Mandela had time to readjust to normal life before he became president. That was what happened; it was an arrange thing.
You were very close to Abiola; did he share his personal frustration over June 12 with you?
Abiola was a very strong character, a man with serious determination and a very courageous person. At no time did he show any sign of frustration or despondency. The only mistake I would say that he made was he was an over trusting person.
While he was away in his first exile, he placed too much trust in Abacha, who was then Chief of Defence Staff under Shonekan and Abacha was on telephone assuring him, almost everyday and he believed him; he believed Abacha could help to manage the June 12 crisis to a point he would regain his mandate. His major point is trusting people, otherwise he was a man of high courage, highly intelligent, kind hearted and over generous.
People on the other side of June 12 said the inner caucus of NADECO pushed Abiola to his death. With benefit of hindsight, do you think he should have made the Epetedo declaration?
It's always okay to say hindsight and look back. When Abiola went into exile in the first time, the first person that called me was Obasanjo. He asked, cynically, 'where is your president?' I was still governor. I told him that Abiola was out of the country. Apparently, he didn't know that Abiola had asked the governor of Oyo State, then Kolapo Ishola, to drive down from Lagos to Abeokuta to tell me factually that there was an attempt to organise his assassination and he wanted to get out. Abiola phoned me and said Governor Ishola would come and give me a message. He came to give me the message to say Abiola would get out of the country because there was plan to get him assassinated.
Well, with hindsight if you say he should have stayed he may have been assassinated then; you never know. When Obasanjo told me that evening and asked, 'where is your president?' and I said I didn't know, he said further that 'is that how to be a leader?' Obasanjo said Abiola should have stayed back to fight, like Mandela. Quote me. Obasanjo phoned me that evening from his Otta farm. Nigerians have the general feeling that why should Abiola go away. That was why he came back and became hostage to Abacha. You remember, many people said, why did he run away?
The same people said he should have taken the purported bail arranged for him by the late Adedibu.
That's the problem with Nigerians! After you have criticized the man for running away and he came back, they said another thing. That's Nigerians for you; you can't be right with them. When he went away, they abused. They said the man they were fighting for ran away; that he was enjoying himself.
The fact that the man, who gave his life for the democracy we enjoy today hasn't been given his due recognition makes some to come to the conclusion that Nigeria is unappreciative of people's efforts and not worth dying for.
For now, people may think it isn't worth dying for, but I'm confident that one day, like Martin Luther King said, 'I have a dream.' He had a dream and that dream manifested in Obama. Look at how may years it took. Today, Americans have a day dedicated as public holiday in honour of Martin Luther King. It didn't happen immediately.
Those who thought that they could rubbish Abiola's name; those who benefited immediately from the sacrifice that Abiola gave , where are they today? Our God is giving instant judgment. What can you say about those who decided to rubbish Abiola's image? I can tell you, until the second coming of Jesus Christ, which we are all waiting for, Abiola will remain a martyr, a celebrated name and his image, as long as there is democracy, as long as there's Nigeria, will continue to rise and rise. No matter what anybody does, you can never wish away that name in the history of this country.
It's Abiola who sacrificed himself for us to have the freedom of speech - under Abacha. Could I sit down here with you and grant this kind of interview and say something then? If there's nothing else that we have gained under this democratic system, at least we can talk. We can criticize the president and PDP can come out to say we want to destabilize this country; you can say you want to go and meet Obama in Ghana and then somebody will say America want to destroy and government will come quickly out to say, nobody wants to destroy Nigeria. Under Abacha, that will be a sing song.
So, as long as we are having freedom of speech, as long as we continue to have democracy and we will continue to have democracy, no matter what happens, Abiola will remain in the hearts of all of us, including those who hate him, including those who envied him, even in death and those who still envy him, even after his departure and who are now paying for their misdeeds.