Abiola: A Night With The “President”

I can still recollect; time has faded nothing. It was in the month of April, 1992 when I got a radio message from my direct boss, Mr. Felix Ogwu who was the Features Editor of Sunray Newspapers in Port Harcourt. The message read:

‘After the Editorial Board Meeting today which dwelt on the effective coverage of the forthcoming general election, it was agreed that you cover the campaigns of the Social Democratic Party, SDP in the country. This means that you have to be on the campaign train of the party. Another staff will be doing the same for the National Republican Convention’.

Two days later, my Managing Director, Mr. Bobo Sofiri Brown, former President of Nigerian Institute of Public Relations, called me to emphasize how important that assignment was.

This was in the heydays of Sunray, the first full colour national newspaper based in Nigeria but published simultaneously in London. Drawing the best brains in the journalism profession and the academia including Professor Inya Eteng, Professor Goddy Nwabueze, Professor Eme Ekekwe, Mr Bobo Brown (who later became the Public Affairs manager of Shell), Mr Etim Anim of Newswatch etc. who was its Managing Editor, Sunray maintained a robust coverage of political events in the country and provoked serious issues that deal with the national question. It was not therefore out of order that every segment of the population including the international community looked upon it to get first hand information on the impending June 12 election.

I therefore saw my new assignment from my boss as a presidential order that was to be done with dispatch! I was to follow the campaign tours of Chief Moshood Kashimawo Olawale Abiola, Presidential Candidate of the party and his Vice, Alhaji Babagana Kingibe as they stumped from Jalingo to Jebba, Calabar to Kano and Lagos to Lafia. It was a herculean task.  Most of the time the campaign team arrived late to the venue which meant we had to spend the night without sleep. But I considered myself lucky to be in the company of a party which, through my crystal ball and first hand information, was tipped to win that decisive election.

Everywhere we went, the response was the same. The crowd went wild in jubilation as Abiola gingerly alighted from his helicopter. At Kano, the home state of his challenger Alhaji Bashir Tofa, the crowd that gathered to welcome Abiola was not only electrifying but equally unbelievable. The lame, the blind, beggars and personalities of every hue were there to catch a glimpse of the man who, as Daniel Webster would put it, was noted for scattering blessings along the pathways of life.  In fact, I am not sure Tofa who hails from that state pulled such followership.  And at Asaba, Delta State, it was the same. Supporters and those curious to just see the man’s shadow turned out in droves, many of them staying up as late as 2am when the campaign train arrived from Warri.  I must say with earthy candour that never in the history of political campaigns in Nigeria, at least in recent memory, has such a mammoth crowd gathered to receive a political personage!  Of course, not now that our uppity politicians, out of hubris to give some semblance of popularity, rent a crowd to their campaigns. MKO did not rent one, his large heart and ability to connect to the masses by extending his hands beyond his doorsteps paved the way for him in every hamlet across the country. I can say I am one of such beneficiaries, when he handed me an envelope that could be said to be ‘pregnant’ after an interview.

Abiola, as a publisher, knew the importance of publicity, and that was why his campaign managers never missed an opportunity to make him visible. He courted the press knowing that the battle before him, especially his Muslim-Muslim ticket in a country where the people were not religion-blind was hard to defend. It was within this context that he agreed for an interview during the tail end of his campaign, in the country home of Olorogun Felix Ibru, SDP Delta state governor, at Ughelli. Our State Editor for Delta, Mr Lawson Heyford , was there also.

At about 12 midnight, the door swung open for us to meet with the man whose image was larger than life. After the usual banters, we opened the salvo. He was candid to a fault; he did not parry any question. What dominated the interview was his decision to pick a man whom he contested the primaries with, and who also shares the same religion with him, Alhaji Kingibe. Abiola explained to us that the problem of Nigeria was not religion but bad leadership, which, he said, had brought about an unjustifiable poverty in the land. He told us that a poor man in the south shares the same traits as a poor man in the north, and that the longing of every man in the south or north or east or west was to have a decent living condition. ‘The poor don’t talk religion, they talk of how to eat and whoever gives them food and shelter and clothing is okay for them, and I am going to give it to them’, he intoned in his baritone voice. That, perhaps, informed why his campaign slogan was the eradication of poverty in Nigeria.

When the interview ended, we came out with an impression of a man who was cosmopolitan and brimming with the desire to turn his people and country around as he did his business empire. We came out with the impression that at last, contrary to what Obasanjo later said, this was the man who was the messiah to come, no need to look for another. He was focused, he had fire in his bones, and he was ready, like Moses, to lead his people to the Promised Land. Before this, the nation had been at the cliff edge of doom, coup after coup, looting upon looting, making us ask if there was no balm in Gilead as Jeremiah asked centuries ago. But Abiola came and said there was really a balm in Gilead, that the balm was good leadership, and that the balm was him. And so on June 12, 1992, we all rose up from the east to the west, from the north to the south and queued up for a wagon to Abiola’s land of milk and honey. Only that we did not—and have not—gotten there!

But what Abiola did not envisage, or what he underrated in his journey to the Promised Land was the giants. He forgot that even if he had crossed the Red Sea and crossed the Jordan, there were giants in the land. He did not even have the opportunity to look over the mountain to see them.  Goethe said that “while man’s desires and aspirations stir, he cannot choose but err, yet in his erring journey through the night; instinctively he travels towards the light.” Abiola did not see the dangers ahead, nor did he see the booby traps and landmines laid before him; he journeyed through the night but he did not travel towards the light and therefore he missed the stars that could have guided him. But now, the rest is history!

Relating this Abiola story, I have come to understand one thing: that life is not about what we possess but about what possesses us. Abiola was possessed by the need to do the greatest good to the greatest number. This was the prism within which he located his philanthropy. Till today, there are only few higher institutions in the country, whether federal or state-owned where Abiola’s imprints are not firmly and legibly planted. Through dint of hard work and focused vision he rose from a village drummer boy to one that shaped the destinies of men and nations irrespective of tribe or religion. And that was what he set out to do at the national sphere until the giants came.

This is why I get angry when I remember that the nation has been unkind to him, and to us, too. President Jonathan’s belated May 29 gesture to name University of Lagos after him underwhelmed us to the point of being crestfallen;  he missed the high impact such gesture would have generated if the institution had been located outside the south-west. Abiola was not a tribal figure; he was a national figure who deserved his due in view of his enormous sacrifice. Although University of Lagos is a federal institution, its admission policy is not national in outlook. We see it more or less as a regional institution meant to serve and protect the interests of the southwest.

Besides, June 12 was a watershed in our checkered political history; it was not an attempt by one tribe to railroad us or plant its hegemony over the rest, it was the resolve of Nigerians of every hue, rising and acting in concert and saying this rubbish over bad leadership must stop. Therefore, whichever way the federal government chooses to honour Abiola must reflect the spirit of June 12: It must be national in outlook, it must be big enough to worth the sacrifice, and it must be capable of affecting the lives of all—whether one lives in Kaura Namoda or in my remote village in Ozizza, Afikpo.  This is why I recommend that a national holiday be observed in his memory. June 12 instead of May 29 should be declared by President Jonathan and observed by Nigerians as Democracy Day or Abiola Day, whatever it may be called; it does not cost us anything. This was what Americans did in honour of Martin Luther King Jr. After many years of vacillation and skirting the truth for King’s nonviolent activism to end racial segregation which cost him his life, Ronald Reagan in 1983 signed the holiday into law and proclaimed January 20, which was later changed to January 15 to coincide with his birthday, as King’s Day. Anything otherwise will be tantamount to doing injustice to a just cause. His sacrifice to water the trees of democracy with his blood will not be allowed to recede into the mists of history. That will be dolorous.

However, what pains me is that we appear to have learned nothing from the lessons of June 12. Every day the nation is embarrassed and assaulted by the high level of corruption oozing out from the ‘hallowed’ chambers of the National Assembly where some men with itchy fingers are even ready to trade away our collective patrimony for their pocket. This ulcer has its dent on every facet of our national life. Our religious institutions have been taken over by charlatans and merchants parading as prophets. They preach more screed than sermon and fleece their congregation and say ‘thus saith the Lord’ when the Lord did not say. And at a time we feel we have some good luck on our side, some of our Muslim northern brothers feel its time too to leave a fingerprint of blood on every part of our country.

Besides, there is anomie everywhere.  Men without vision sit as leaders of the people, aided by electoral umpires who betray us by collecting money to make our votes as mere footnotes. We see freeloaders parading as politicians and the judiciary which we see as our last hope for justice gives us gall and hemlock in place.  Even our education system is not left out in this rot. Our children go to school but without love for learning, they prefer handouts to standard textbooks and sort their way through. At the end of the day they end up with sexually transmitted degrees, apologies to Okey Ndibe.  These were the issues June 12 set out to address, but we lost that golden opportunity in the pool of Abiola’s blood.

Today, no one remembers Abiola for his trillions; fortune is for the birds. We remember him for the sacrifice he made to enthrone democracy in Nigeria. His death created a seismic shift in our conception of politics. We remember him for the blood he shed on the cross of democracy so that you and I can savour the gains therein. Michael Dyson in his book April 4, 1968 said that “immortality is gained in service to the mass of humanity.”

Abiola gained it. True, MKO is dead, but like Absalom the son of David, he has erected a pantheon in the hearts of Nigerians so that in generations to come, no one will miss the mark he made here.

He belongs to the gallery of secular saints.

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