Monday, August 31, 2020 12:05 am
BY Hope O’Rukevbe Eghagha
Did I say in my last narrative that MKO Abiola was arrested when he declared himself president? No. I didn’t. I have not reached that part of the story of my encounter with Nigeria yet. Abacha took over the reins of government and set about establishing himself as Military Head of State. He had no time for the title of President. That man? Hehehehehehe! He wanted to rule forever. As the Buhari government has shown he was a big thief. Even from his grave, millions of dollars which he stole from the nation’s pot keep coming in, some two decades after! Abiola had thought he would hand over to him after kicking out the government of Ernest Shonekan. But he was daydreaming. Abacha was there for himself. In fact, it had been said that Abacha and IBB had a pact that Abacha would rule after IBB. We cannot substantiate that story. Abacha is now on the other side. IBB won’t talk. So, there! May be IBB will release his memoirs to settle many matters someday. Who killed Dele Giwa will also be revealed! Perhaps!
When it became clear that Abacha had no intention of handing over power to him, Abiola entered the vehicle of Epetedo Declaration! Declared himself president. Abacha wasted no time. He arrested the ambitious businessman for trying to truncate his sweet days in the beauty of Aso Rock. No trial. No nothing. Just locked him up. Abacha scared everyone. Just looking at his face was enough to give one the shivers. But the fighting spirit of Nigeria came up. Different coalitions came were formed. Afenifere. NADECO. All to fight for the restoration of June 12. There was uncertainty in the air. Clashes between police and civil protesters. Bombs exploded in different places. Assassinations took place. Kudirat Abiola, wife of MKO was assassinated. Mr. Alex Ibru Publisher of The Guardian was shot. Narrowly escaped being killed by Sergeant Rogers, head of Abacha Hit Squad. Dr. Olu Onagoruwa’s son was not so lucky. He was killed in front of his father’s house! Abacha hanged Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight others over their campaigns for a better deal for the Niger Delta. What else? Obasanjo along with some others were arrested tried and jailed for allegedly plotting to overthrow Abacha’s regime. Retired General Shehu Yar’Adua, Obasanjo’s deputy from 1976 to 1979 died in prison, allegedly poisoned by Abacha’s men. Beko Ransome-Kuti, Fela’s brother, was also arrested. The international community took notice. Pressure continued to mount on Abacha to do something positive to reduce tension. The man was as stubborn as they come. Then on June 8, 1998, the unexpected happened. Do you know what happened? People said God had a hand in the matter. Abacha suddenly dropped dead! Ha! Just like that? You know what that means? He was alive one minute and the next minute he was a corpse.
Stories, rumour flew around the country. That he ate apples offered him by two Indian CSWs. Others said he suffered a heart attack. That he had been poisoned by a visiting leader from the Middle East. Bottom line was that the maximum ruler had kicked the bucket! What followed the announcement of his death was unprecedented. Nigerians were celebrating. I saw okada riders doing stunts on Ikorodu road in Lagos as I raced home to join my young family. In clubs across the country, people bought beer to celebrate the end of Abacha. Yet, there was tension. What was going to follow? The politically naïve thought Abiola would be brought out from jail and sworn in as president. No way. A new Head of State emerged. That was Nigeria! Always on the brink!
General Abubakar Abdulsalami, Chief of Defence staff took over the hot seat. His actions and words calmed nerves. He provided hope. He released Obasanjo from prison. Visited Abiola’s family. Engaged politicians. Listened to the public. He set prisoners free. Abiola was set for release. But another bomb suddenly exploded that shook the country. Can you guess what happened? No, you can’t. MKO Abiola suddenly died on 7th July 1998. They said he suffered a heart attack and died. At the time an American delegation was visiting. Dr Ore Falomo, MKO’s personal physician cried foul. His patent had been killed. We suspected the Americans. There was no proof. Hehehehehehehehe! It was not easy oo! How the nation escaped total anarchy during this period is left to history. But politicians showed how chameleonic they could be. They easily forgot June 12. A new transition period was announced and on May 29, 1999, a democratically elected president emerged.
Chief Matthew Okikiolu Aremu Obasanjo, the same man who had handed over power to Shagari in 1979 came back as an elected president. Hmmmm! Some said ‘giving’ him power was to compensate the Yoruba nation which felt aggrieved by the death of MKO. Whatever it was Obasanjo was now on the hot seat. He set about reducing the country’s debt profile by traveling to important countries in the world. People complained that this was a travelling president. He was able to reduce our debt burden. He was experienced on the job, having served before in that capacity. Under him GSM was introduced into the country. He retired all army officers who had been politically exposed and neutralised the military against future coups. Some northern states introduced sharia to rattle Aso Rock. Obasanjo did not budge. He got a second term by stooping to conquer. He and his VP, Atiku Abubakar fell out. It was a big war. It was rumoured that Atiku had him in the jugular. But somehow, he wriggled himself out and went after Atiku. That is story for another day. Obj ran his second term successfully and started arrangements for a third term! Ha! Against the constitution. He denied any such thing. Some politicians were willing to swear that they received fifty million naira each to support a third term for him. The matter soon died. That is Nigeria!
Eh, there is something about the Obasanjo administration that I forgot to mention. There were high profile deaths in those years. Marshal Harry. Chief Bola Ige, the Attorney-General. A.K. Dikibo. Funso Williams in Lagos. They were assassinated. Till date we do not know the killers. That’s Nigeria for you!
Obasanjo started searching for a successor. He had set up the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) which gave bite to the anti-corruption gospel which he preached. Most state governors who could have qualified to succeed him were in the red books of EFCC. No one was sure about who would emerge as presidential candidate of PDP. Before the Convention, former governor of Rivers State Peter Odili, was favoured to clinch the ticket. But the ways of Obasanjo were different from the ways of establishment politicians. I was in Nairobi the day the announcement was made. I was baffled by the turn of events of December 17, 2006. I called Lagos for news. A sickly but honest man emerged as PDP candidate for president. His name was Alhaji Umaru Yar’Adua. His running mate was newly elected governor of Bayelsa State, Dr Goodluck Jonathan, the man who was reputed to always succeed all his principals halfway through their tenures. How he governed the country and the drama of his presidency in the short period that his health permitted him, is it not the subject of my next essay?
-Professor Eghagha who writes from the University of Lagos, can be reached on 0802 322 0393