The Miracle Of May 16 And The Awolowo's Curse

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The Miracle Of May 16 And The Awolowo's Curse

 

By

 

Mohammed Haruna

 

 

culled from DAILY TRUST, June 1, 2006

 

 

Early in 1985, the late Chief Obafemi Awolowo, probably Nigeria's most methodical and ideological politician, gave one of his most definitive interviews to The Guardian. He had maintained a studied silence for a couple of years following the military coup that ousted the elected government of President Shehu Shagari in December 1983, a coup which his newspaper, the Tribune, along with several other newspapers in the Lagos/Ibadan axis, had actively encouraged in the apparent belief that Shagari's loss could only be Chief Awolowo's gain. First in 1979 and then in 1983 the chief had lost the presidential elections to Shagari.

However, far from the coup being of any benefit to the chief, he became as much its victim as President Shagari; not long after the coup, security forces invaded and ransacked his Apapa, Lagos, residence for no apparent reason. Subsequently, several governors from his Unity Party of Nigeria (UPN) were jailed by General Muhammadu Buhari's military tribunals many lifetimes over for alleged financial misappropriations and other offences.

For someone who, in a manner of speaking, was not known to suffer fools gladly, it seemed strange that Chief Awolowo would maintain silence in the face of what looked like deliberate provocation from the new military rulers. It was not surprising, therefore, that one of the first questions The Guardian asked him was why he had been silent all that while.

His answer was a classic case of capitulation. "I have" he said, "exhausted myself on Nigeria and I have nothing more to say". The Chief also said he was silent because he had trained himself to speak only if his words could make a difference. "In a situation where I cannot do that," he said, "I remain silent." His insinuations were obvious; the new military chaps were impervious to reason.

As if all this was not pessimistic enough, the Chief went on to tell Dr Yemi Ogunbiyi, his interviewer, that Nigeria will not see democracy again for a long time, if ever. "I hope", he said, "that my prediction that people of your generation will never know democracy again doesn't come true. I hope so very much. But events don't justify that pious hope". At the time of the interview, Ogunbiyi, who went on to become the managing director of The Guardian and then the Daily Times, must have been in his mid or late thirties.

For a while, it seemed as if the chief's prediction or what, to me at least, was a "curse" on Nigeria would come true. For about 14 years after his prediction, Nigeria lurched from one military dictatorship to another culminating in the most brutal of them all under General Sani Abacha. Abacha's regime it was which seemed to have made a unique contribution to political theory when, apparently under duress, all the political parties his regime registered for politics during his transition programme nominated him as their sole presidential candidate for the elections slated for 1998.

And then just when it seemed that nothing could stop him from realising his ambition and, in the process, probably plunging the nation into another civil war, God mercifully intervened and took him away in June 1998. He was succeeded by his chief of defence staff, General Abdussalami Abubakar, who, ironically, was to get the sack the very day he became head of state.

General Abubakar organised the shortest transition in the country's history and handed over power to General Olusegun Obasanjo, one of the leading victims of Abacha's brutal dictatorship, obviously for his voluble and persistent criticisms of that dictatorship. Obasanjo had been sentenced to death by Abacha ostensibly as an accessory to an alleged coup plan in 1995. He only had his death sentence commuted to life due to pressure from his powerful international friends abroad.

He was quickly pardoned by General Abubakar in 1998 and dragged by the political establishment, apparently kicking and screaming, to head the presidential ticket of the Peoples Democratic Party, by far the biggest and broadest of the three parties that General Abubakar's administration registered out of the many that had been formed for the return to democracy in May 1999. Obasanjo's credentials for being looked up to, to salvage Nigeria from its long years of military misrule seemed impeccable; he was the first, and until General Abubakar, the only military ruler to voluntarily end his rule back in October 1979 when he handed over to a relatively well-run country to President Shagari.

If President Obasanjo's return in May 1999 seemed to have lifted Chief Awolowo's "curse" that Nigerians will not know democracy again for at least one generation, the massive rigging of the 2003 general elections, particularly by the ruling PDP, suggested the return of the "curse". In one of those ironies of life, the same President Obasanjo who was a hapless victim of Abacha's wish to impose a one-man dictatorship on the country embarked upon his own version of the same objective.

That journey began with the massive rigging of the 2003 presidential election. Three years later with the opposition parties in disarray and the leadership of the National Assembly, especially the Senate, pocketed by the Presidency, and both the judiciary and organised labour intimidated by the same presidency, Obasanjo, like his tormentor, seemed to have succeeded in squaring or squashing all opposition to his wish to perpetuate himself in office.

And then God's miracle came to Nigeria's rescue on May 16. For what happened on the floor of the Senate of the Federal Republic of Nigeria on that day can only be described as God's miracle. On that day, the majority of Nigeria's distinguished senators stood up to be counted in the fight for democracy when they threw out the constitutional amendment bill that President Obasanjo tried to use as a camouflage for his self-perpetuation in office.

By their action in resisting all sorts of presidential carrots including the now fabled 50 million naira bribe per senator and by refusing to be cowed by such frightening presidential sticks like the EFCC and ICPC, the senators, and subsequently their House of Representatives compatriots, have rekindled the hope of Nigerians that, in spite of Chief Awolowo's pessimism 21 years ago, no acorn of dictatorship will ever grow into an oak tree on the Nigerian soil.

In his somewhat graceless speech at the meeting the PDP National Executive Council hurriedly convened to discuss the sudden, and certainly unlamented, death of the third term agenda, President Obasanjo tried to distance himself from the agenda. "Throughout the period", he said, "I resisted the invitation to be drawn on either side and I maintained studied silence. I was maligned, insulted and wrongly accused but I remained where I am and what I am."

As usual, the mass media was cast in the role of the chief villains. They have since been accused by the president himself and his men of orchestrating the public's focus on his third term agenda in an amendment bill that had over 100 clauses, several of them critical to moving Nigeria's political economy forward.

Yet, if the president and his men were to be honest with themselves, they should not blame anyone but themselves for the concentration of the public's mind on the third term agenda. They should blame themselves not least because this is a president who believes he is infallible and he alone has the solutions to Nigeria's problems. For example, during the thanksgiving service on March 31, 2003 for his last inauguration, he told his audience, in effect, that having survived Abacha's plan to kill him, he has become indestructible and unstoppable.

Abacha, who jailed him, along with Major-General Shehu Yar'Adua and Chief M.K.O. Abiola, the putative winner of the cancelled presidential elections of June 1993, Obasanjo said, had vowed that none of them would come out alive. "But as it turned out", he went on, "two of his promises were fulfilled but one was not fulfilled. But this is not my making. It's not my wisdom. It's not my righteousness-oe"

"In fact, I make bold", he said on that occasion "that if you want your prayer to be answered, pray in the name of God of Obasanjo. So far that your prayer would just be answered because God has never, never disappointed me."

The president and his men can now deny that he harboured a wish to perpetuate himself in office, but some of his own words and certainly the actions of his men always spoke louder to the contrary. For example, fielding questions in his last phone-in programme, "The President Speaks" on NTA on December 22, last year, the president completely evaded a question from a listener in Sokoto who simply asked if he wished to continue in office beyond 2007. Instead of a simple yes or no answer, he took off on a long-winded story about his reforms and the need to sustain them and how he will not allow unpatriotic elements to destabilise the country.

That evasion alone spoke louder than a thousand denials by the president and all his men. As for the actions of his men, including the use of the EFCC and the security forces to intimidate and harass opposition elements and the use of bribery to influence the federal legislators, the actions are all too familiar to need recounting.

In any case, what is important now is not the fact that for once the president's God had let him down. The important thing is that enough Nigerians have demonstrated loudly and clearly that they will not allow Nigeria to be a fertile soil for any budding dictator to plant his tyranny. Even more importantly, however, is what Nigerians should do to realise the hope raised by the miracle of May 16.

There are at least two lessons to learn from that miracle. First, as one wise saw said, the miracle that moved mountains carried a pickaxe. The pickaxe this time was that Nigerians fought the third term agenda as Nigerians not as Southerners or Northerners or Yoruba or Hausa or Nupe or Muslims or Christians or whatever. What this means is that we cannot sustain our democracy if we do not jettison the silly idea that people should seek office based only on their ethnic or regional affiliations, which is what the concept of zoning and power rotation amounts to. Such a concept can only breed mediocrity in leadership. As we approach 2007, let every Nigerian, regardless of his region, ethnicity or faith be free to contest for every office in the land.

Second, the frontline of the battle against third term was manned not by well-known grand old masters of the game like Generals Babangida, Buhari, Vice President Atiku Abubakar, or the chieftains of Ohanaeze, Afenifere, the Middle Belt Forum or the South-South Forum. No, the frontline was manned by not-so-well-known names and relatively newcomers like Senate President Ken Nnamani and Senator Saidu Dansadau and House members like Dr Usman Bugaje.

The lesson here is that one does not have to be a household name to or an old political warhorse to be a successful leader. Unless the frontline candidates in the presidential race, who are too set in their old rivalries to allow for politics without rancour, learn this and other lesson(s) of the battle for democracy that has just been won, Chief Awolowo's curse may yet return to haunt us.

 

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