What M.K.O Abiola Told Me The Night He Was Arrested - Prof Bolaji Akinyemi - Paul Ukpabio's Blog


Post Top Ad

Place Your Ads Here

Post Top Ad

Place Your Ads Here

Wednesday, 19 June 2019

What M.K.O Abiola Told Me The Night He Was Arrested - Prof Bolaji Akinyemi

Moments after the renowned Scholar and ex-Minister of External Affairs, Prof. Bolaji Akinyemi, left Chief MKO Abiola’s sprawling mansion in Ikeja, Lagos that night, the man who won the famed June 12 presidential election was arrested! The house had already been surrounded by security forces. It was the last time he saw Chief Abiola.

In this interview with Paul Ukpabio and Biodun Adeyewa, the elder statesman and professor of Political Science, relives his last moments with the late business mogul turned politician. He also tells us what June 12 means in present day Nigeria and the lifestyle he has chosen at 77.

We just had the anniversary of June 12. Can you reflect a little on that political date in our history, many years after?
June 12 over the years as a movement has become different things. Actually we cannot talk about actualization of June 12 in the sense of MKO Abiola being president. But his election has been recognized by being given the Grand Commander of the Federal Republic which is an honour reserved for and only people who have been Heads of State. I can only think of one exception up till now and that is Chief Obafemi Awolowo on whom it was conferred by Alhaji Shehu Shagari. So the conferment of the GCFR on him has actually actualized June 12.

What else does the date mean to you?
June 12 has also become an embodiment of civilian rule. And that we have had since 1999. You will notice that I didn’t say an embodiment of democracy that is because we have had civilian rule but we have not had democracy. So that is the third leg to me of June 12. Nigeria being a democratic country is a work in progress. We don’t have a democracy in Nigeria. We have civilian rule. We don’t have a democracy because we have never really had an uncontested, free, fair, transparent election. I was a member of the electoral committee that was set up by President Yardua under Justice Uwais former CJN and Yardua told us that his election was not free and fair. He made that confession. Democracy is government of the people by the people for the people. It is not just a cliché! It is true! All the indices since 1999, low standard of education, low standard of infrastructure, low standard of health care all goes to show that Nigerian lifestyle has been falling, which means we haven’t had democracy for the people. And on the contrary, there has been governance, against the people. So June 12 to me it’s still work in progress in these other areas I have mentioned.

Can we say that June 12 is still relevant?
June 12 was an actualization of a united nation or a united country. I would not want to get into an argument of whether we are a nation or a country. Ofcourse I am a Professor of Political Science so I know what those words mean! But that day June 12, we crossed all the divides. The religious divide and the social divide in the sense that, both the rich and the poor took part in an election that had the two candidates being multi-millionaires and Nigerians voted for the richest of them. So it was not about the rich versus the poor. So we overcame that social divide, we overcame that class divide. After all, Abiola’s campaign manifesto was farewell to poverty.

When I was leaving The Nigerian Institute of International Affairs, I gave a lecture which was titled ‘farewell to policy.’ And there have been other people who have written books on farewell to war, farewell to peace, farewell to this and that. If Abiola’s campaign manifesto said farewell to poverty and Abiola was voted for, it means that Nigerians meant to abortion poverty in this country. But we have not abolished it, so June 12 is still relevant.
If you look at Nigeria in 1993 and then Nigeria of present date, then you will probably agree with the title of Chinua Achebe’s book, ‘there was once a country,’ even if you do not agree with the content of the book, now, there is no country! So June 12 has all those things which it symbolizes to achieve.

Now can we say the June 12 struggle is over?
June 12 has not finished, we are just starting what I think is the second leg! We must make a confession that somewhere along the line, we lost our bearing and now, we have a divided country. Divided on social lines, religious lines and all the cleavages have gotten deeper now, than they were on that June 12. So June 12 will always be a work in progress.

Has the struggle for June 12 been worth it?
Oh yes! It has been worth it. At times not deliberately, but due to circumstances beyond control, a nation develops a vision which becomes a beacon by which such a nation can be guided. The beacon will navigate the nation to what it should be. June 12 has become our beacon. If I were still teaching in the university, I would have got a PhD student to write on June 12 as a beacon for nation building because all those things that form the pillars of June 12 are things for which we need to do in a nation to build a nation, to guide a nation, better health, better infrastructure, better education and whatever it is. Take any United Nations report, you will find the indices for social development there and those are the things that nations work towards. So June 12 is not just about MKO Abiola. But history will record that he had the fortune that, wherever you mention Abiola, people will mention June 12 and wherever you mention June 12, people will mention Abiola.

What can you say about the personality of Abiola?
Abiola as far as June 12 is concerned, was not a reckless man. He was a brave man. He was a hero. What makes me say this, there was a military government in power, you go to Epetedo, and you claim your mandate and declare yourself President of the country? Yes, it was a moral stand, but you know that the last thing anybody does is to challenge the military. Unless ofcourse you are ready to forfeit your life. So he knew that there was going to be a pushback by General Abacha. And he knew it was going to be a dangerous pushback. Nadeco advised him not to do so because, we believed that the pushback was going to be a difficult one. It was a personal decision by him. In order words, he was ready to make himself a sacrificial lamb for democracy. To do that, normally he would have been expected to make alternate plans to leave the country. NADECO made plans for him through the NADECO route out of the country. He could have taken that route out. Secondly, he was a rich man. He could have had his private jet waiting for him at Cotonou to fly out before the military could get to him. But he said No, he would not leave the country; that he was going to face the consequences. That to me is heroism. It is bravery. Option C was for him to go to an embassy and take up asylum. And the Americans were prepared to offer him asylum. I know this. I am telling you things that I was involved in. He said No, he would stay in Nigeria and face the consequences. He declared and went into a secured flat. But after sometime, he was fed up and decided to go home, even when he knew that security forces were looking for him all over town. And so he had that triumphant procession down Ikorodu road, his last free public appearance. Back at home, it didn’t take time before that house was surrounded by security forces. Again I know this because I was involved.

What happened next?
Chief Doyin Okupe is still alive; he and I were the last two persons that were with Chief MKO Abiola, in the sitting room of Chief Bisi Abiola his wife. Already the entire place had been surrounded by security forces. He had an interview with the BBC describing what was happening around him. It was my phone that he used. I even joked with him that, ‘you are the richest man in Nigeria, and there is no credit on your line and you now have to get the phone of a poor professor.’ We laughed about it. So he used my phone to tell the BBC that he was in his house and did not know what was going to happen to him, that his house is surrounded by security forces, and that there were going to break in any time. After the interview with the BBC, he said to me, ‘Prof, you better leave!’ And I said, ‘Bashorun, why?’ He said, ‘this place is surrounded by the police, they are going to break in at any time. Prof you are too gentle to suffer roughness at the hands of these people.’ So I said, ‘okay.’ Then he said other things to me which till today, I have kept to myself. So I thanked him and left him with Chief Doyin Okupe. Though, I don’t know whether someone else went in after I had left. Ofcourse, as soon as I left him inside the compound, I ran into the hands of the police. Their commanders were surprised. They asked me ‘Prof what are you doing here?’ I replied that I came there to see Bashorun. They looked at me and one of them said, ‘Look Prof, things are tough! Anyway, let us search your car.” I told them this is a small Renault car; I would not even fit into the booth, not to talk of Chief MKO Abiola. He told me, ‘Look, if we don’t search it and Abiola disappears, they will say that it was in your car that he was carried away.’ So I told them to search it, after all it was only the spare tyre which was there and had already taken 80% of the space in the boot. So they allowed me to go while he was arrested that same night.

Abiola seemed so sure that he would be arrested?
He knew what he was doing and knew the price. When the issue of bail arose, he was not prepared to accept the conditions of the bail. When Abacha died and Emeka Anyaoku and Koffi Annan came and told him that they will guarantee his release, if he will give up his mandate, by then Abiola had already spent four years in jail and solitary confinement. According to him, he was not allowed to see the sky, but he still refused the temptation. Are you aware of the letter Chief MKO Abiola wrote Chief Gani Fawehinmi two days before he died? What struck me was that here was a man that the world should stand up and say, ‘here was a man!’ That letter shows the character of Abiola. He was a valiant man. We really don’t tend to see that part of him.

Did you see Chief MKO Abiola after that night that he was arrested?
No, I didn’t. I never saw him again. As a stalwart NADECO, I had to leave the country shortly after that, to go and establish NADECO abroad.

But was NADECO there for him till his last moments?
We never betrayed him. Even when there was going to be the Abdulsalam transition. The reason some of us refused to take appointments in that new government was because, it was too soon and we saw that it would have amounted to a betrayal of MKO Abiola.

With all that you have said, will President Buhari trying to right the wrongs against June 12, bring the country together?
At the time President Buhari did it last year, I congratulated him. I still do because; it was a good move on his part. It was needed. The country needed it. He read the mood of the country rightly. Some people have said that he was playing politics and my reply is, ‘so what?’ If a man decides to come and build an airport in my village and I say it is politics, will I reject it? No!  Politicians play politics all the time. I don’t think there is any politician that does anything without thinking about how it would benefit him as a public figure. He could have refused to do it, after all, he was not and is still not the only post June 12 President. Others had their reasons why they didn’t do it. But he did it.

But has that united us?
Has the country gained the maximum values that we could have gained out of it? The answer is no! The cleavages in the country are not only still there, they are wider as we talk now. June 12 was the emergence of a new Nigeria. But now the drums of war are beating, the drums of secession are beating and they are not localized. June 12 marked the embodiment of farewell to poverty. Are we richer now than we were in 1993, no, we are not! So, this is a second term for the President. And if you ask me for an agenda for him, I think he just has to tackle the issues that divide us. All what makes June 12 relevant, are the things that we should do or else. People have warned, people whose voices can be heard in international community louder than mine have warned, that the rain which has started falling on our heads has now become a hurricane, that is tearing us apart. That must be addressed. The issues of: health, education, unemployment, infrastructure and others. John F. Kennedy once said that, ‘if the poor cannot sleep because they are hungry, the rich cannot sleep because they are afraid of the poor who are awake!’ Or as our fathers would say, in this part of the world, ‘the cock has alighted on the wire, both the wire and the cock will not be in peace.’ Ediye ba lokun ara ro okun ara ro adiye .

Do you miss academic life, are you still teaching?
I am retired for reasons of age and also we have a bad system in this country. There was a time when one of the Vice Chancellors approached me if I would like to come back and teach a course or two. I agreed and even offered to teach free of charge. Of course you can’t employ someone in the university without taking the issue through the department, faculty and then the senate. Surprisingly, it was my former colleagues in my former department in the university who vetoed it and said ‘no, we don’t need him.’ But this short sighted is not only directed to me personally. 

In 1975, I took a concept to General Murtala Mohammed who was head of state at that time. I said to him, ‘you are retiring these people, can we copy the American module whereby some of these permanent secretaries who have had 15, or 20 or more years of experience, preparing budgets, implementation of budgets and things like that or persons who have been handling policies in the ministries or in a ministry like foreign affairs and know about conflict resolution could return to the university and get funded, it may not be part of the university budgets, but an extra budgetary allocation for them and even build a place for them in the universities so that their experience can then be used. If somebody is a permanent secretary at the ministry of finance for over 10 years, he does not need a text book to teach a student how to prepare a budget or teach the students about the constraints in implementing a budget or what often leads to supplementary budget. Murtala jumped at the idea. He thought it was brilliant because at that time the people that were being retired were in their forties and a few in their fifties. It was the universities that told us to get lost with the idea! 

They said ‘no, we decided to be scholars, while they decided to be public servants! Therefore, the two will never meet.’ Whereas in the United States, when one administration leaves the office, the assistant secretary of state ends up in the university to teach there: When the party comes back to power, the incoming president knows where to turn to because they are already there. Not that they will leave one administration to go home and vegetate. So this shortsightedness on the part of the university community is still there, But you know the interesting thing, the private universities are now benefiting from it using professors who have retired from federal and state universities to their favour! 

When we were coming in we saw the building closest to the gate, what is it?
Oh, that is my library, the seal I put there was the seal of the National Conference that I took part in, 2014. My intention was to open the library to scholars in international relations who could be looking for materials for their Masters of PhD degree but it is not fully operational yet.

What do you do in your spare time these days, we know you are retired?
I often get invitations to lecture abroad. And I do that but not on a permanent basis.

We were here in the past, and saw different animals that you keep. Are you still breeding those animals?
My animals are still there. They are a permanent feature of the Peacock Place. There are peacocks, antelopes, deer, geese, turkey and the others.

How about socials, do you still have time for it?
I get invitations, there are some that I can accept, there are organizations and societies that confer honours on me and I accept some of those and attend some of them. There are also some who invite me to chair their activities. If it is convenient I accept and attend.

Do students still disturb you?
(He laughs) Oh, I don’t see it as disturbance. Yes, students still approach me to interview me for their projects. I welcome that because basically, I am a teacher at heart. I welcome the opportunity to interact with students, the young, to pass on the knowledge that was passed on to me when I was a student.

Over the years, you have kept this gentleman’s style of appearance. Always corporate, some people would think that as you get on with age that you will perhaps dress down a little. Are you going to change sometime soon?
Why should I change? It is part of me. It is part of my branding. I find it convenient; I am at ease with this style. But then, one doesn’t know tomorrow, but I am at ease with it right now.

What’s the secret of your longevity?
(Laughs) What do you mean longevity; I open newspapers and still see people in their 80s and 90s! I am not 80 yet, I’m moving towards it. Though it is a serious issue that you have raised! Why should we in Nigeria of 2019 regard 77 as longevity. Yes, it is above median lifespan in Nigeria and Africa. But in Europe it is not so. If one does not over stress himself, one can live longer. Though, there are several ways whereby we overstress ourselves in this country, which can be avoided.

(This interview was first published by The Nation newspaper, last week Saturday)

No comments:

Post a Comment

Post Top Ad

Your Ads Here