In this interview with SaharaReporters, former Minister of External Affairs, Prof. Bolaji Akinyemi, talks about his time with Chief MKO Abiola, the acclaimed winner of June 12, 1993, presidential election – what he thinks about the late politician and what he thinks June 12 stands for. Excerpts:
There is no way we’ll talk about June 12 without mentioning your boss(IBB). Without the annulment what do you think could have changed?
I’m not dodging your question. But I’ve often found it unhelpful to deal with ‘if’. Because it becomes speculative. We don’t know Abiola could have turned Nigeria into a Switzerland, a paradise, on the other hand, the system could have consumed him. We just don’t know. It’s more productive for us not to go through that speculative path.
June 12 will continue to be the beacon by which the present and the future of Nigeria will be judged. What do I mean by that? June 12 is no longer about the actualization of the mandate. It cannot be actualized in any way, the man is dead. And by giving him the highest award reserved for presidents and giving his deputy the number two award reserved for vice-president I think indirectly Buhari has recognized the election of June 12. He can do more than that. Is June now all about the actualization of the mandate? My answer is ‘no’. June 12 has come to symbolize if I can borrow the title of Chinua Achebe’s book– A time when there was a country. Or If I could modify that a time when there was a nation. If we voted across the religious line; we voted across tribal lines. Abiola, an Egba man went to Kano defeated Tofa who is from Kano. Who then turned around and defeated Abiola in Port-Harcourt in the South. So we voted against tribal lines. We voted against social cleavages. Both the poor and the rich voted for or against two multi-millionaires.
Now, what has happened since then. All the indices we thought we had overcome in June 12, 1993, are now only still with us but they are even worse now. So we have to reclaim June 12 by addressing these cleavages. Again, infrastructures, youth unemployment, health, education, religious antagonism. We need to address them. Every United Nations or IMF reports we’ve had since 1999 has shown us regressing. We’ve got to stop that regression. We’ve got to – not only put on the brake—but turn it around and start coming back. That to me is what June 12 means and not some debate about whether we should decline him (to be) president. We’ve given him the honour. One plus two equals three. I don’t need it to spell it out for you to know that. Buhari has already done that. Not only giving us June 12 now has democracy day. You know what that means? Why don’t we focus on the symbolism of things than rather go in for all these elementary interpretation of things, you know? For me, we’ll never finish actualizing June 12.
What manner of man was the late MKO Abiola? Why did you throw yourself into the thick of democratic struggle? Was it because he was a Yoruba man or because you believed in democracy?
What manner of man was Abiola?
Cuts in… Yes for the sake of posterity.
A badly misunderstood man. Even those who are embracing June 12 still cough whenever they want to talk about him. To me, Abiola was a great hero. He was not a reckless man. He was a brave man. What do I mean by bravery and heroism? Somebody who sees a problem confronts the problem and is prepared to pay for the consequences of confronting the problems. Look, Abiola was not a stupid man. It is not possible for a stupid man to become a billionaire. You have a military government and yet he decides to go and declare himself a president. He knew that the military has one way of reacting to challenge: They shoot. they don’t negotiate. That’s what is happening in Sudan now. They shoot. He knew that was going to be a pushback from the Abacha regime. And that was going to threaten his life. NADECO did not advise him to declare himself. In fact, we tried to stop him. But when we realized we couldn’t stop him we laid on that NADECO route. He refused. He would declare himself and stay in the country. So he knew he was risking his life.
Plan B if you have to declare yourself then you would go to an embassy for asylum. The United States embassy offered him asylum. I know all these things because I was involved in some of these negotiations. He refused. He was going to stay and confront this issue of reclaiming his mandate. Then he went into a safe apartment but after a while, he got fed up. And his last triumphant trip down Ikorodu road to his house. And he knew they would arrest him. If this is not bravery if this is not the hallmark of a hero then what is? And he went home and his house was surrounded by the security forces and he was arrested that night.
Let me tell you something which a lot of people don’t know. He is still alive… thank God. Chief Doyin Okupe and I were the last two people with Abiola that night. It was even my phone he used to have that BBC interview. I even teased him that the richest man in Nigeria you don’t have credit on your phone and you have to use the phone of a poor professor like me to do the interview. And then when he finished and I heard everything he said. Then he said, ” Professor you had better go” And asked him why. And he said, ‘Well, you don’t look like the type who can tolerate force and roughness. We don’t know what these people would do when they burst in here’.
Then I left Doyin there. But when I got out I ran into the hands of the police. They treated me well. Their commander was even surprised. He said, ‘Prof. what are you doing here?’ I said, ‘Well, I’ve come to greet Abiola’. Then he said let them check the boot of your car. I said, ‘But it’s a Renault, even I cannot fit into the boot not to talk of Abiola who is twice my size. He said let them open the boot because if Abiola disappears they will say you are the one who carried him.
All these I’m saying, are these the characteristics of a coward, of a reckless man? No! Abiola made himself a sacrificial lamb for democracy. And I’m saying this in a positive tone. He was a man to the very end. He wrote a letter to Gani Fawehinmi two days before he died. He was offered Freedom by Emeka Anyaoku and Kofi Ana in exchange for surrendering his mandate. And he said Never! And this is a man that had been imprisoned for 4years and lost his wife. And he still said NO! Oh, the world should stand up for him and recognize him as a man. That is my image and that would forever remain my image of Abiola.
So talking about Kofi Anan and Emeka Anyaoku: it is on record that Abiola died in the presence of Condoleeza Rice and other American delegates. Don’t you think something was fishy about that?
I don’t really know. I’m old enough in this game to know that the truth can be shaded. You know you could put a spin on what you’re saying to leave people confused.
Why did he reject the NADECO route? Don’t you think it was because he was Aare Ona Kakanfo( the Generalissimo) because you that propagandist, Chukwumerije once called him a generalissimo that was running away from war?
Again who knows what was going on behind Abiola’s mind. Shakespeare once said something about the mind so deep… I don’t know. NADECO tried to persuade him not to declare. When I was alone with him and his wife. I ask him why are you are insistent on doing this, it is dangerous. He said because i left the country they called me a coward. I’m not a coward I won’t change my mind.