Should Abiola have died incarcerated?

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By Bolanle BOLAWOLE
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What you are about to read was written by me and was published in The PUNCH edition of Monday, July 7, 1998; which is 26 years ago, the very day the winner of the June 12, 1993 presidential election, Basorun MKO Abiola, died in incarceration in Abuja.

I must have scribbled the piece a day or two before Abiola’s death; it is titled “Abiola: Coming home empty-handed?” Enjoy it:

“Once again, we are living in interesting times! Events are happening in rapid successions. Last week as Nigerians feverishly debated the way forward, all manner of rumour was agog. Kites of various colours, sizes and shapes were flown. When former President Ibrahim Babangida, the greatest disaster to have befallen this country, visited General Olusegun Obasanjo, recently released from jail on trumped-up charges, tongues were set wagging. A few days later when Obasanjo told journalists he was not available for anything except where he was (Ota farm), not a few people tried to add up the equation. Did IBB go to Ota with any proposal for Obasanjo’s consideration? Softly, softly, Aremu! Once bitten, twice shy!

Tongues are still wagging concerning IBB’s high visibility lately. The ‘evil genius’, so thoroughly evil that despite the havoc he has visited on the nation, still wouldn’t leave us alone, is rumoured to be plotting a come-back! Tufia! There are talks, too, of this or that think-tank. And talking of think-tanks reminds me of a group called “The New Millennium Collective”. In newspaper adverts, the group lionised General Abacha, a man whose demise generated applause worldwide for his many ‘achievements’, one of which was that ‘the late General also succeeded in checking the traditional sacred cows’.

And who are these ‘sacred cows’? Alhaji Ibrahim Dasuki? General Olusegun Obasanjo? The late General Shehu Musa Yar’Adua? The chief executives of supposed distressed banks who have been awaiting trial in detention camps these past years? So much for this group’s respect for the rule of law and the fundamental rights of the people. Yet, the group, in the same breath, advocated the setting up of a Transitional Government with, wait for it, General Obasanjo at its head!

If this suggestion by the New Millennium is silly, its reasons for tipping Obasanjo shows a willingness to distort contemporary history. According to the group, Obasanjo is acceptable ‘to both the June 12 protagonists and antagonists alike…’ Lies! Obasanjo was not acceptable to June 12 protagonists in 1993; he will be more stridently opposed by them today if he falls for this New Millennium deceit. Space constraints will not allow me to take up the group item by item, but let’s take a look at one of its suggestions for the way forward. We are to ‘groom credible persons to take over the politics of the Fourth Republic, preferably those with military background, so as to achieve stability in the praxis of politics and democratization’. What a gratuitous insult!

So there are no credible persons in civil society to be groomed for the democratization project? Only in the armed forces will you find them, serving or retired? Pray, which armed forces are they talking about? The one rubbished by IBB and laid waste by Abacha? The Millennium people wouldn’t end their treatise until they had taught the press its job: ‘Very important, journalists should be responsible and re-orientate themselves towards the truth. It has been said that journalism is the first rough draft of history. This duty is onerous’

That is right, but if I may ask, what is the truth of our situation? Isn’t it that a man won an election but has been prevented from assuming his mandate? Isn’t this the cause of all the subterfuge, rigmarole, somersault, beating about the bush, speaking from both sides of the mouth, inconsistencies, confusion, the way forward, the way backward, stepping aside, illegal ING, brutal dictatorship, Viagra and the ‘last supper’, Abdulsalami Abubakar, etc. Yet, this group of Nigerians gleefully announced that they are ‘committed to a new Nigeria’! I am not surprised, though! Two organizations that I know which mouth the same ‘New Nigeria’ slogan – one, a bank; the other, a newspaper, are both not doing well at all!

If one can excuse a faceless group (like the New Millennium Collective), what does one make of Tony Lloyd, deputy foreign affairs minister of Britain, and Koffi Annan, United Nations Secretary-General? The two, together with Nigeria’s Emeka Anyaoku, the Commonwealth’s Secretary-General, were in the country last week to help us seek ‘the way forward’. Of the three, only Anyaoku proved his calling. For Lloyd, some are suggesting that his comments on June 12 are a confirmation of the rumoured ‘agreement’ between the British Empire and the Sokoto Caliphate that only Northerners would forever rule over Nigeria. Says (one-time Senegalese president) Leopold Sedar Senghor in his poem titled ‘Pain’: ‘Lord, God, forgive white Europe!’ But there is a recent precedent that should have guided the international community on Abiola’s case.

In April 1985, Nelson Mandela, the world’s then most famous prisoner (of conscience), found himself in the same position that Chief MKO Abiola (at the moment one of the world’s most famous prisoners of conscience), finds himself today. The racist regime of PW Botha had offered to release Mandela from Pollsmoor prison on stringent conditions. Mandela demanded to consult with his comrades in the ANC and with the people of South Africa. The racist regime refused. Unfolding events in this country (Nigeria) today bear striking resemblance to those in racist South Africa in 1985, except in one very significant sense.

Mandela, incarcerated under white minority rulers, enjoyed more freedom than Abiola, who is detained under black majority rule. Mandela was met in prison by his lawyer and wife, Winnie, and was able to send out messages from prison, later read to the people by his daughter, Zindzi, stating why he was refusing conditional release. In 1998, Abiola, held by his own (Black) people, was not allowed visits by his wives. He is not allowed to consult with his comrades; neither has he a statement to be read to the people by his daughter. In short, Abiola is treated worse in a free, independent Black-ruled Nigeria than Mandela was treated under the racist, white minority apartheid regime of Botha. And to think that the UN Secretary-General could be a party to this charade!

When I compare the two situations – a free Nigeria under self-rule and a racist South Africa under white minority rule, I feel like crying! I reproduce here, today, in an abridged form, the statement by Mandela as read to the people of South Africa by his daughter, Zindzi. It goes thus: ‘On Friday, my mother and our attorney saw my father at Pollsmoor prison to obtain his answer to Botha’s offer of conditional release. The prison authorities attempted to stop this statement being made but he (Mandela) would have none of this and made it clear that he would make the statement to you, the people.

‘ Strangers like Bethell from England and Professor Dash from the United States have in recent weeks been authorised to see my father without restriction; yet, Pretoria cannot allow you, the people, to hear what he has to say directly. He should be here himself to tell you what he thinks of this statement by Botha. He is not allowed to do so. My father and his comrades wish to make this statement to you, the people, first. They are clear that they are accountable to you and to you alone. And that you should hear their views directly and not through others.

‘My father says: I am surprised at the conditions that the government wants to impose on me. I am not a violent man. I cherish my own freedom dearly but I care even more for your own freedom. Too many have died since I went to prison. Too many have suffered for the love of freedom. I owe it to their widows, to their orphans, to their mothers and to their fathers who have grieved and wept for them. Not only have I suffered during these long, lonely, wasted years, I am not less life-loving than you are. But I cannot sell my birthright nor am I prepared to sell the birthright of the people to be free. I am in prison as the representative of the people…Only free men can negotiate. Prisoners cannot enter into contracts.

‘My father says: I cannot and will not give any undertaking at a time when I and you are not free. Your freedom and mine cannot be separated. I will return!’

If Nigeria were as liberal as racist South Africa where political prisoners like Mandela, Walter Sisulu and others could spend nearly three decades in prison and still come out of it sane and sound, I would have encouraged Abiola to persevere and reject out of hand any offer of conditional release; but from what I have seen of recently-released detainees like Chief Frank Kokori, Dr. Beko Ransome-Kuti, General Olusegun Obasanjo and the recent photographs of (a thoroughly emaciated) Abiola himself as released by the Commonwealth Secretary-General, Chief Emeka Anyaoku, Chief Abiola should say whatever they want him to say, sign whatever they want him to sign, even allow himself to be video-taped by Aso Villa video experts – just anything – to noregain his freedom.

‘Concerning his mandate, leave that for God and the people to determine! Leave all those who seek to bury the truth to contend with God. Let those who want to build the ‘new Nigeria’ of their dream (on lies and deceit) contend with Thomas Hobbes when he said, ‘when men build on false grounds, the more they build, the greater is the ruin’…

The most reasonable and enduring way forward for Nigeria is not to impose an unjust peace, a diktat, on Abiola and the army of June 12 loyalists. But if the powers-that-be insist that they must have a diktat, I will advise Abiola to take it and go home. The ultimate loser will be Nigeria”

When The PUNCH chairman, Chief Ajibola Ogunshola, read this piece in the early parts of the day, he wrote this comment on top of the page and sent it to the MD/Editor-in-Chief, Ademola Osinubi: “MD, the weight of his argument is totally contrary to his conclusion. It is curious. Please bring these my remarks to Bola’s attention. 7/7/97” I was PUNCH’s Deputy Editor-in-Chief at the time.

For those who know, the chairman’s language was coded. Bolawole must have compromised on June 12! But before the end of the day, when news of Abiola’s death broke, Chief Ogunshola rushed down from his Lagos Island office to the PUNCH office at Kudeti to ask me questions. But it’s too late! I was a Foreign Affairs correspondent for many years and kept my sources, usually impeccable, even after I became editor. So much more to say about those years of the jackals!

On this day, the 26th anniversary of Abiola’s death, may his blood and the sacrifice of other martyrs continue to water Nigeria’s tree of liberty!

* Former Editor of PUNCH newspapers, Chairman of its Editorial Board and Deputy Editor-in-chief, BOLAWOLE was also the Managing Director/ Editor-in-chief of THE WESTERNER newsmagazine. He writes the ON THE LORD’S DAY column in the Sunday Tribune and TREASURES column in New Telegraph newspaper on Wednesdays. He is also a public affairs analyst on radio and television.

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