For Ndigbo, another chance beckons in 2019. Yes, in 2019, Nigeria will go through another election process. After the self-inflicted tragedy of 2015, the coming election should be an opportunity for Igbo to mend or further mar their chances in a Nigeria that is built on multi-ethnic chassis. Will it be a period for Igbo to undo the mistake they did to themselves in 2015, which has worsened their fate? Will Ndigbo use that golden opportunity to make political peace with the rest of Nigeria and most importantly, signify their intent, their readiness, and their suitability to handle the baton in 2023? Or will Ndigbo fail to seize the current and rather make another egregious political miscalculation that will reduce their chances of leading the country in 2023? These are critical questions, whose answers are still whirling in the wind but which, one way or the other, must be answered by how well the Igbo play their card in 2019.
To be clear, Igbo made an egregious mistake in 2015, by packing all their political eggs in one fragile basket. Call it political naivety. Call it political myopia or anything but it was a costly mistake that boomeranged. The ripple effects of that regrettable political mistake resonate in the noisome clanging the Igbo have made their primary business in Nigeria since 2015. That mistake finds expression in a poorly articulated and awfully hatched Biafran utopia, whose contradictions charges fully at the chaotic demand for it. Ndigbo may strive to underplay the effects of the 2015 political mistake but the acrimonious darts and furious allegations of marginalization and dissenting clamors that emanated after the 2015 election show that Igbo is faced with the consequences of its political choice in the last election. As escapist as the Biafra agitation is, Ndigbo must stay in Nigeria and fight it out with other constituent units. Demanding to be given Biafra, with all the inchoate arguments and the real promises of a more conflicting life in the said Biafra, if granted, amounts to a defeatist way of walking away from a problem one inflicted on oneself and which one must confront.
To get what they desire or what belongs to them in Nigeria, Ndigbo must realize that there is no shortcut; there is no room for the self-pity, which had dotted most of their agitations since 2015. There is no room for beggarly appeal. There is no room for the victim mentality the race has stubbornly stuck to. There is no room for the kind of group think Ndigbo have adopted since 2015. Ndigbo must realize that they will make their bed in Nigeria the way they want to lie on it. In politics, power is never given on a platter of gold. It doesn’t come for free. It doesn’t land on your laps just because you have made enough appeal to be pitied by others. It doesn’t come to you because you have made the loudest noise. It doesn’t come to you because you have cried loudest. It is struggled for and the best way to struggle for power is for a race to first, embrace introspection. This is a time the race goes into its inner covens, reviews its moves and strategies so far, tells itself the home truth and adopts new, workable and acceptable strategies to get what it wants.
Sadly, one of the major deficiencies Igbo have is the lack of capacity for introspection. Igbo have not yet fangled out a forum where it looks itself in the mirror and tells itself the truth, no matter how unpalatable it may be. This deficiency has accounted for why any reprobate, miscreant and scoundrel seizes the center stage, with cheap popular mantra and every other person follows. This is the sad stage Igbo are today and this can never elevate the race in any sphere of human endeavor, talk less of politics. Igbo must recreate its society and allow the philosopher-king to assume his rightful place to dictate where and how the society is headed. Igbo must disperse the illiterate rabble that has seized its throne and get for themselves a credible leadership that would not shirk from telling them the unpalatable truth and exile the rabble from the throne to the lowest rung of the society where it belongs. A tail does not wag the dog, as we are seeing in Igboland today.
Next, Igbo must evolve a credible political leadership that is not ruled by selfish and narrow interests and who will not sink the collective ship for its self-interest. This blight has been the singular most portent atrophy that has held Igbo down at present. Those clubs of evergreen political profiteers who have made a life business of making a profit from Ndigbo must be retired. This emergent political leadership must sit down and mobilize the good brains in Igboland to chart a political way forward. No one should be afraid of hearing dissenting opinions on how best to achieve the goals. No one should seek to take the quest to the unthinking mob, believing to reap the aftermath. This is what led Igbo to the political valley it is in today. Whatever political roadmap Ndigbo comes up, en route and beyond 2019 should take full regard that Nigeria is a multi-ethnic and multi-cultural entity so whatever political course must adequately take care of the interests, the fears and the assurances of other ethnic groups. It must, while attending to the Igbo political needs, accommodate the fears and interests of others.
Then, Igbo must follow up by identifying political platforms that will make it practically possible for them to realize their interests and build support for that platform. This, by no means, will amount to outlawing other platforms but rather the concentration of efforts at supporting or building such identified platform. Such platform could be APC, PDP, APGA or any other platform but Ndigbo must ensure they live with the consequences of supporting such platform and living with the aftermaths and not sulk or seek dismemberment because their chosen platform lost in an election. That means more than a narrow perspective will come into play in deciding what platform Igbo need to back to realize their political ambitions in Nigeria.
Based on the choice of platform, which I presume, must be built on future strengths and prospects, Ndigbo should proceed immediately to repair and rebuild damaged bridges with every other ethnic group in Nigeria. Igbo should employ its brightest and best for this task and ensure that no stone is left unturned in cementing the deep crevices that have been carelessly created in the bridge that links Ndigbo and other ethnic groups in Nigeria. The aim is to eliminate mutual suspicion, anger, and acrimony with other Nigerians for the 2019 and subsequent elections. Bridges mended, Ndigbo should look deep enough to get the best Igbo that is not only Igbo enough but trusted by other ethnic groups to steer the Nigerian ship to fruitful anchor and prepare such person for the 2023 presidency.
With the foregoing, Ndigbo can go into the 2019 election with deep conviction that whatever move they make in 2019 will affect the future relationship between Igbo and other Nigerians and of course, prepare the grounds for the long expected Igbo presidency in 2023. Igbo should note that how well they play the 2019 card will determine how they achieve the 2023 goal. If they misuse their cards again in 2019, they must embrace the reality that their 2023 quest for the nation’s presidency will get greatly damaged.
On the other hand, if Igbo elects to approach the 2019 election with the reigning post-2015 election mindset, with the grudge, bitterness and deep-seethed anger they are carrying over from their historical mistake of 2015, then they should be prepared to warm that role longer than 2023. After 2023, they will realize the truth in the saying that power is never surrendered on a platter of gold. One has to work to get the power he dreams of. Again, it is very difficult in Nigeria today to get power while antagonizing or working at cross purpose with the majority of other Nigerians. It is impossible to get power while building a wall of hatred, antagonism, and bitterness. It is impossible to access power while erecting reclusive garrisons around one self. We must open up, reach out to others and generate a pan-country understanding that will tremendously assist us to realize our just political ambition. How we play our cards in 2019 will determine how ready we are for power and Ndigbo must start now to work towards making the very best use of that golden opportunity. Posterity will not spare Ndigbo if they fail again to make use of this golden window.
Biafra? Perish that thought. It is an unrealizable utopia for now.
Peter Claver Oparah
This article was first published in September 2017. The 2019 election has come and gone and the question of Igbo presidency in 2023 has risen to make the re-publication of this article imperative
In The Spotlight
Finally, June 12 as a historically iconic date is official. It is no longer a mere symbol of what could have been. It is now encoded as a take-off date for the resurgence of the democratic experience in Nigeria.
And the credit goes to President Muhammadu Buhari, a man whose comrades-in-arms, led by Ibrahim Babangida had, in a streak of authoritarian madness, vitiated the peoples’ will in 1993. Whenever the injustice of June 12 is remembered, it will always be said that Buhari was the man who righted that wrong. History will be kind to him in this regard. But June 12, known euphemistically as the 26-year old pregnancy and national albatross, which has haunted the trajectory of Nigeria’s precarious democracy, can only get final closure if, and when Gen. Abdulsalami Abubakar tells Nigerians why he kept Abiola to die in detention while other political prisoners were released.
Without doubt, Nigerian democracy has come a long away. Most Nigerians who are old enough to remember the significance of June 12, hailed the decision of the Buhari administration to recognize June 12 as Democracy Day. Whether it was an obligatory atonement emanating from genuine contrition, or an expedient after-thought contrived for political reasons, Buhari’s conferment of the national honor, Grand Commander of the Federal Republic (GCFR) on Abiola, and his public apology to his family were acts of nobility and magnanimity.
Viewed as an act of statesmanship, the apology and multiple honors granted Abiola underlines the move towards appeasement, reconciliation and national unity. Buhari claimed the reason for the double honor rightfully granted the late Abiola was not “to open old wounds but to put right a national wrong.” To assuage the feelings of Nigerians and “recognize that a wrong has been committed,” the president made his offering: “This retrospective and posthumous recognition is only a symbolic token of redress and recompense for the grievous injury done to the peace and unity of our country. Our decision to recognize and honor June 12 and its actors is in the national interest. It is aimed at setting national healing process and reconciliation of the 25-year festering wound caused by the annulment of the June 12th election. I earnestly invite all Nigerians across our entire national divide to accept it in good faith.”
The travails of the prevailing democratic order make imperative the interrogation of what June 12 called Democracy Day is all about. Do Nigerians really appreciate what democracy means? Are Nigerian politicians making democracy worthwhile or perverting its content and process? Undoubtedly there are many Nigerians who have stories to tell about the great men and women who participated in those stirring events that culminated in the final stage when Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo was sworn-in as the third elected president of Nigeria. Perhaps the most significant actor in those events of 1998 and 1999 was Gen. Abubakar, the last serving soldier to hold the office of Head of State and Commander-in-Chief of the Nigerian Armed Forces.
Gen. Abubakar was known among his colleagues as a rigorously apolitical soldier. He joined the nascent Nigerian Air force in 1963 but crossed into the army in 1966, a move that proved to be quite fortuitous. He was a member of the military tribunal that tried and condemned the soldiers who staged the Gideon Orkar coup of April 22, 1990 - the bloodiest attempt to topple IBB. After that event, Abubakar faded from the news. In the wake of the annulment of the June 12, 1993 presidential election, Nigeria was grip by crisis. Abubakar played a significant role in installing Gen. Sani Abacha in power in November 1993. When Gen. Oladipo Diya fell suddenly in 1997, it was Abubakar’s turn to rise in the byzantine politics of the Abacha court. He became Chief of Defence Staff and Abacha’s de-jure second-in-command.
But Abubakar was not a favorite of the Abacha court. He had an uncanny ability not to betray his emotions and would rarely volunteer any comment during meetings. His trademark poker face like a ventriloquist confounded even his most ardent critics and detractors. After the arrest of Diya and the generals in the fake coup of 1997, many of the top generals who survived were falling over each other to deify Abacha. They knew Abacha wielded absolute power of life and death. Abacha’s sudden death in 1998 changed the power geometry in Nigeria forever. The military announced Abubakar as the new Head of State. In an unprecedented twist, the Chief Justice brought out the tattered 1979 Constitution to swear-in Abubakar as new military ruler. The five political parties that had hitherto unanimously nominated Abacha for President collapsed like a pack of cards. Chief Bola Ige had famously described the five parties as “the five fingers of a leprous hand.”
When Abubakar took office, he had to clear all the old files pending on the late Abacha’s desk. In one of the files, there was a letter addressed to Abubakar awaiting Abacha’s signature. The letter demanded Abubakar’s compulsory retirement which was to be announced on the date Abubakar was sworn-in as Head of State if Abacha had survived to that day. The irony was not lost him. He knew his offence. He had refused to wear the Abacha loyalty badge that many generals were wearing. He had told those who cared to listen that his loyalty was to Nigeria and not to an individual. Abacha died. Abubakar survived.
But Chief Abiola, the presumed winner of June 12 did not survive. By the time Abubakar took power, Abiola had been in detention for four years. He was kept in solitary confinement and seldom allowed to see the sun. The circumstances in which Abiola was being detained were surreal. Then UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan, was one of the last people to see him alive. Annan described how Abiola was watching the England-Argentina World Cup match on television without the sound when he entered the room. When Annan asked the guard to turn up the sound, he was told this was not possible.
When Annan greeted him, Abiola asked: “Who are you?” On hearing he was the UN secretary general, Abiola was overcome with emotion and kissed his hand. “What happened to the Egyptian [Boutros Boutros Ghali]?” he asked. Annan explained he had taken over the position in January last year. Abiola had no idea that the Pope had visited Nigeria and had pleaded for his release. He had only heard the day before Annan’s visit that Abacha, had died. He had been almost completely isolated from the world for nearly four years. Abiola said he had been allowed a radio in prison for his first month, but in mid-1994 was cut off completely. His guards refused to talk to him and he had stopped trying to get information from them. He had no newspapers and was only given two books - the Bible and the Qur’an.
Gen. Abubakar had asked Annan to get a written assurance from Abiola that, if released, he would not immediately declare himself president as a result of the 1993 elections. Abubakar feared massive disruption, with Abiola being hailed in the south, while the northern Hausa controlled the army. He wanted Abiola to support a period of transition until new presidential elections in which he and others could compete and Annan said Abiola appreciated much had changed since 1993 and he did not want to come straight out of prison into Aso Rock. But he was apparently reluctant to give a signed undertaking. Instead he opted to meet Abubakar and give his word. Instead he died on July 7, 1998.
Although many seem carried away by the prospects for national reconciliation, which the recognition of June 12, exemplifies, the deeper import of the injustice of the Babangida regime would be lost if the country doesn’t muster the courage to exhume and resurrect what certain quarters consider a fossil of Nigeria’s political history. Abubakar must tell Nigerians why he kept Abiola in prison, until he collapsed and died after drinking tea during a meeting with two US envoys –Thomas Pickering and Susan Rice. The US diplomats, who travelled with Abiola to a nearby hospital and watched as doctors tried to revive him, said Abiola was in a poor state of health after four years of brutal imprisonment. “He had some record of hypertension,” Pickering said. “Both of his legs were swollen and he showed them to us.”
For the record, upon taking office, Abubakar received a delegation of Afenifere, the Pan-Yoruba group led by Senator Abraham Adesanya. The meeting ended in an upbeat note as Abubakar promised to release Abiola and other political prisoners. Days later, Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo, Dr. Beko Ransome-Kuti, Kunle Ajibade, Chief Bola Ige, Mrs. Chris Anyanwu and Gen. Diya were all released. But Abiola remained detention. Even more shocking, there was no change of circumstances as Abiola remained in the same solitary confinement where Abacha’s Man Friday, Major Hamza Al-Mustapha, had consigned him.
Yet there was no apparent reason why Abiola was not released with the other prisoners of conscience. Abiola’s claim to power had been weakened by the destruction of the political structures that supported his mandate. The political parties, the national and state parliaments and elected executives were all gone. What sort of negotiation could be imperative that could not be done with Abiola as a free man? By the time of his sudden death, neither Abubakar nor any agent of his government had volunteered to see Abiola, talk less of negotiating with hm.
Gen. Abubakar delivered on his promise to return Nigeria to democratic rule in 1999, and for that the country owes him a debt of eternal gratitude. But he also owes the country an explanation why Abiola was still kept in detention after many of the leading political prisoners had been release. It is one secret he must share with Nigerians, 26 years after the death of the man who paid the ultimate price for the current democratic dispensation that Nigerians have enjoyed for the past 20 years. Until Gen. Abubakar breaks his deafening silence, June 12 as Democracy Day will remain a mockery of justice and atonement.
The continuous silence of Gen. Abubakar speaks to an unwillingness to confront the monstrosity of that great injustice, and constitutes an act of violence to the collective memory of Nigerians. Feelings might be assuaged, and emotions dissipated over June 12, but Nigerians in their minds and hearts remain open to revisiting this vexing national question of why Abiola was never released. The clamor for national reconciliation transcends the recognition of June 12 and if genuine honor is to be accorded to what June 12 symbolizes, Abubakar must address the hovering controversy; there must be investigation of persons or institutions; who were willfully culpable in the atrocities of the military junta. The assassination and unexplained disappearance of pro-democracy activists, journalists, human rights lawyers; the brutal murder of perceived enemies of the junta and the wanton destruction of property and deliberate incapacitation of opponents must now be brought to light.
This is an opportunity for all such acts of injustice hanging on Nigeria to be addressed, and all found guilty must face the lawful consequences of their actions. As a first step towards atonement, there should be a roll call of honor of all the victims of June 12, dead or alive. Most importantly, there is need for the dramatis personae, including Gen. Abubakar to come out and offer an unreserved apology to Abiola and other victims of June 12. This is necessary for them to make personal atonement and seek inner peace for the injustices perpetrated. Atonement and reconciliation are volitional for the attainment of peace; it can rarely be done on behalf of another, especially when the perpetrators are alive. The successful foreclosure of the June 12 controversy will only be complete when Gen. Abubakar tells Nigerians why he allowed Abiola to die in detention. The country deserves to know the truth.