HISTORY AND THE TRAGEDY OF 1989

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HISTORY AND THE TRAGEDY OF 1989

 

By

 

Edwin Madunagu

emadunagu@hotmail.com

 

 

 

Culled from GUARDIAN April 3, 2003

 


I consider the year 1989 a tragic one in the history of post-independence
Nigeria. Coincidentally, the year was also significant in the history of the
Nigerian Socialist Movement. Beyond that, it was a tragic year for the world
socialist movement. For the avoidance of doubt, by history, I mean, the
actual movement of society through a continuous chain of contradictions, and
resolutions of these contradictions. History is not the official records of
the deeds of rulers, or the sanitised accounts of events rendered by
victors. Although the deeds and pronouncements of rulers and the state over
which they preside and the classes whose interests they represent may, in
certain periods, be significant, even decisive, the point I am making is
that they, alone, do not constitute history.

My concern in this piece is limited. I wish to present, in chronological
order, and as logically as possible, and without analysis, some critical
events which took place in our political history in 1989. I want to put the
records straight, as the saying goes, so that researchers and analysts, and
Nigerian youths, in particular, can have a reliable compass. And I am
restricting myself to the political actions of the military government of
General Ibrahim Babangida and the responses of a fraction of the socialist
movement. I am compelled to undertake this unusual exercise because I have
heard, and read, certain accounts that amount to a gross and dangerous
distortion of history. Nigerians who are 25 years old today were merely 12
years old in 1989, 2 years old in 1979, and unborn in 1975. In a country
where history is not accorded a respectable status in school curriculums and
where what is given by the media is often eclectic, youths are placed in
great jeopardy when they are required to act from the premise of our
history.

Let me begin this account with the main political deeds and actions of the
military government in 1989. On February 28, 1989, Professor Eme Awa was
removed as Chairman of the National Electoral Commission (NEC) and replaced
with Professor Humphrey Nwosu. A month later, on March 31, 1989, the
Prohibition Amendment Decree (1989) was gazetted. The decree stipulated that
"banned" politicians would not be allowed to "canvass for votes for, or on
behalf of, themselves or others". Violation would attract a five-year jail
term or N250,000 fine. A few days later, on April 3, 1989, the Guidelines
for the formation and registration of political parties were approved by
General Babangida's Armed Forces Ruling Council (AFRC). A month later, on
May 3, 1989, the ban on party politics was lifted. By 6.00pm on July 19,
1989, 13 political associations, including the Nigerian Labour Party (NLP),
had submitted their applications for registration as political parties. On
September 29, 1989, NEC recommended six political associations, including
the Labour Party, for registration as political parties. Eight days later,
on October 7, 1989, the AFRC turned down NEC's recommendation, banned all
the newly-formed political parties and announced the formation, by
government, of two political parties, the Social Democratic Party (SDP) and
the National Republican Convention (NRC).

Now to the Socialist Movement. I shall mention only a few names that are
absolutely necessary for the account. More than half of these Nigerians have
passed away; others are alive. In February 1989, the Directorate for
Literacy, led by Comrade Bassey Ekpo Bassey, who was then the Chairman of
Calabar Municipal Council, and Comrade Eskor Toyo, a professor of Economics
at the University of Calabar, organised a Conference in Calabar. It was a
successful political gathering of the Nigerian Left. In early April 1989, a
four-day (April 4-7) national workshop under the auspices of Nigeria Labour
Congress (NLC) was held in Calabar. The theme of the workshop was Workers
and the Political Transition. In attendance were leaders and representatives
of the NLC, leaders and representatives of senior staff associations,
professional groups and mass organisations as well as radical intellectuals,
workers and students organised under the National Association of Nigerian
Students (NANS).

The NLC Workshop was the first outing of the Labour Congress after the
lifting of the nine-month ban placed on its leadership by the Babangida's
regime in March 1989. Together with Kayode Komolafe of Thisday newspaper, I
played a crucial role in producing the unified force that ensure the
emergence of the new NLC leadership under Comrade Paschal Bafyau. The new
NLC president and his team were given a Hero's Welcome to Calabar by crowds
which literally took over the Calabar Airport and later "seized" the ancient
city. The event was organised by the Calabar Group of Socialists in
conjunction with the state branch of NLC. Among the socialists were Bassey
Ekpo Bassey, Eskor Toyo and myself. The Calabar Workers' Workshop passed a
resolution asking the NLC to sponsor a Workers Party as soon as the ban on
political activities was lifted.

The Nigerian Socialist Alliance (NSA) was formed on Wednesday, April 5, 1989
in a room on the ground floor of Metropolitan Hotel, Calabar. As NSA was
being formed, the National Executive Committee (NEC) of NLC was holding a
meeting in the Conference Hall of the hotel. The meeting ended with a
resolution to sponsor a Worker's Party. The meeting national secretariat
made up of two Coordinators was set up for NSA. I was one of the
Coordinators, the other being a comrade of Akwa Ibom extraction, a close
associate of late Comrade Dapo Fatogun. The night before, on Tuesday, April
4, 1989, Bassey Ekpo Bassey and I organised and hosted a meeting of veterans
of labour - socialist struggle - who had been invited to the workshop. The
meeting was held in Bassey's house in Calabar. It was a coup, as none of
them knew what was being planned, some believing it was a dinner. Known
antagonists were conveyed in different vehicles. The gates were locked as
soon as the buses entered the compound. Although reporters were barred, an
Oyo State Television crew manage to enter the compound. Unable to persuade
them to leave "empty handed", I granted an interview in Yoruba language on
the prospects of the proposed Labour Party.

Veterans who were "captured" for the meeting included Wahab Goodluck, M.E.
Kolagbodi, Mokwugo Okoye, S.G. Ikoku, Eskor Toyo, Dapo Fatogun and Ola Oni.
The veterans agreed to keep the veterans' forum alive and support the labour
party whenever it was formed. Bassey and I were appointed conveners of the
forum. On its part, the inaugural meeting of the NSA agreed to draft a
Programme and a Constitution for the proposed Labour Party and put these
forward for the consideration of the labour leadership. I took part in
drafting the two documents, which later proved unacceptable to the labour
leadership. The rejection of the socialists' documents by the labour leaders
effectively ended the joint "sponsorship" of the Labour Party. From then on
it was NLC's show. The Labour Party was launched in Lagos on May 20, 1989.
Socialists, though excluded from the leadership, opted to play the role of
giving the party the needed credibility, colour and justification.

The inaugural meeting of NSA ended about 4.00am on Thursday, April 6, 1989.
I got to my house about 30 minutes later. I had slept for less than two
hours when I was awakened by a comrade sent by Bassey Ekpo Bassey. I was
asked to come out and help save the agreement which we reached less than
three hours earlier. What happened was that as soon as the inaugural meeting
of NSA ended, a number of comrades re-assembled at the same venue to reverse
the decision earlier taken. Bassey and I rushed to the venue and took our
seats. It was about 7.00am. the reason provided by the "rebels" was that
they were not comfortable with working with some of the veterans because of
what these veterans did in the past, before and during the First Republic
(1960-1965). We listened to them and patiently re-presented the case for
NSA, the Veterans' Forum and the Labour Party as elements of the same
political strategy. After about seven hours, the earlier agreements and
decisions were confirmed.

On September 9, 1989, some members of NSA met in Kaduna and removed me in my
absence, as a National Coordinator of NSA, accusing me of taking unilateral
actions. No replacement was made. On September 19, 1989, NSA members and
some labour leaders attending an executive meeting of the Labour Party in
Calabar held a joint meeting with Calabar-based socialists and overturned
the decision of the Kaduna meeting. On October 7, 1989, as the AFRC was
meeting in Abuja over party registration, a meeting of NSA, convened by me,
was taking place in Lagos. The NSA meeting broke up shortly after it opened
because of one those who took the Kaduna decision insisted that I had been
removed.

This was the last meeting of the NSA. Later that day the AFRC announced the
proscription of the Labour Party and the other 12 parties that had applied
for registration. Thus, in one day, the Nigerian Left, or a fraction of it,
lost both its core organisation, the NSA, and its electoral ally, the Labour
Party. It was also about this time that the communist regimes in Eastern
Europe were falling, one after the other, as if obeying the domino theory.
1989 was indeed a tragic year.

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