The swearing-in of President Muhammadu Buhari for a second term on May 29, 2019, would mark the 20th anniversary of our country return to civilian rule.
Of all those who stepped on history’s stage in 1999, only few of them are still active on the national stage or any stage at all. History is a revolving stage. It shows us some faces now and then move them to the other side of eternity. Many faces are fleeting, flickering for a moment and then disappear into the dim vastness of time. Some are eternal or at least embrace some aspect of immortality.
May 29, 1999 was a significant moment and how can we forget? For a country that is lumbering into the future and hardly spending a moment for reflection, Nigeria’s journey looks more like a drunken man on a merry-go-round. We are moving forward. Yet we are on the same spot but on the move nonetheless. Though the nation may not spare time to evaluate its history, yet it is obliged to bear the consequences of that history.
May 29 was a significant milestone in the annals of our country and the sacrifices of many men and women made it possible. They invested in hope for a democratic country and that investment bore fruits. It is another matter if what we have are not the fruits we believe we deserve.
I am sure there are many Nigerians who have stories to tell about the great men and women who were participants in those stirring events that culminated in the final stage when President Olusegun Obasanjo was sworn-in as the third elected ruler of Nigeria.
Perhaps the most significant player in those events of 1998 and 1999 was General Abdulsalami Abubakar, the last serving soldier to hold the office of the Head of State and Commander-in-Chief of the Nigerian Armed Forces.
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 those soldiers accused of participating in the Gideon Orkar coup of April 22, 1990, the bloodiest attempt to topple the General Ibrahim Babangida regime. After that event, Abubakar faded out of the news headlines.
In the wake of the annulment of June 12, 1993 presidential election won by Chief Moshood Abiola, the country was grip by crisis.
One day we were in the office at the headquarters of TELL magazine in Ikeja when a young military officer brought a message from a director in the Ministry of Defence, General Abdulsalami Abubakar. He said his boss, General Abubakar, would like to see at least one of the directors of TELL. “Tell your oga that we don’t work for him,” Nosa Igiebor, the then Editor-in-Chief of TELL magazine told the officer. “If he wants to see us, he should come here.”
In the end, we despatched one of our colleagues, Austen Oghuma, to see Abubakar the following day.
Oghuma came back with a good impression. Abubakar complaint was the old one: that we were not showing enough respect to the office of the self-appointed Head of State. He pleaded that we should desist from calling General Ibrahim Babangida the Head of the ruling junta, which we considered more appropriate considering his manner of assumption of office.
Abubakar played a significant role in installing General Sani Abacha in power in November 1993. When General 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 de-jure second-in-command.
But Abubakar was not a favourite member of the Abacha court. He always kept a straight face and would rarely volunteer any comment.
After the arrest of Diya and the generals in the so-called coup of 1997, many of the top generals who had survived the big purge where fallen over each other to curry favour from the strong man. They knew Abacha not only wielded power in absolute terms, he also had the power of life and death. Abacha was in serious competition with God but he was a god with clay feet. Then he died, something that God would never do.
The sudden death of Abacha in 1998 changed the geometry of power in Nigeria forever. The military, to keep its house in order, announced General Abubakar as the new Head of State. In an unprecedented twist, the Chief Justice of the Federation brought out the tattered 1979 Constitution to swear-in Abubakar as the new military Head of State. All the so-called five political parties that had hitherto unanimously nominated Abacha for President collapsed like a pack of cards. Chief Bola Ige had famously discredited the five parties as “the five fingers of a leprous hand.”
When Abubakar resumed in his new office, they brought him all the old files pending on the desk of the late dictator. In one of the files, there was a letter addressed to Abubakar waiting for the signature of the late Abacha. It was the letter of Abubakar compulsory retirement which would have been announced on the date Abubakar resumed office 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 asked him that his loyalty was to Nigeria and not to a single individual. Abacha died. Abubakar survived.
But Chief Moshood Abiola, the President-presumptive, did not survive. Abiola was the winner of the June 12, 1993 presidential election. His victory was later annulled by the dictator, General Ibrahim Babangida. By the time Abubakar was propelled to power, Abiola had been in detention for four years. He was kept in solitary confinement and seldom allowed to see the sun. When Abacha died suddenly and Abubakar came to power, we called it Miracle 98! We believed that all political prisoners, including Abiola, would be released and that the Abiola saga would have a new boost. Instead Abiola was brought home to us in a body bag July 7, 1998.
Senator Abraham Adesanya, the fearless and forthright leader of Afenifere, the mainstream Yoruba political and cultural movement, believed that Abubakar was a good man. After he came to power, Abubakar sent for Papa Adesanya and he received him and his delegation at the Aso Rock presidential lair, with generous courtesy. He introduced General Leo Ajiborisa, the first military governor of Osun State, as the liaison officer with Afenifere.
The meeting ended in an upbeat note. Abdulsalami promised to release Abiola, like the other political prisoners. Few days later, more political prisoners were released to join the league of free citizens. Earlier released were the likes of General Olusegun Obasanjo, Dr Beko Ransome-Kuti, Kunle Ajibade, Chief Bola Ige, Mrs Chris Anyanwu and General Oladipo Diya. Despite these flurry of activities, our main man was never released.
What was also shocking was that there was no change of circumstances for Abiola despite the change in the tenancy of power. He was still kept in the same solitary confinement where Abacha’s Man Friday, Major Hamza Al-Mustapha, had configned him. Yet there was no apparent reason why Abiola could not have been released along 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 carried out with Abiola as a free man? By the time of his sudden death, no agent of the government had volunteered to see him not to talk of negotiating with hm.
Abdulsalami delivered on his promise to return his country to democratic rule and for that this country owes him a debt of eternal gratitude. But he also owes us an explanation why Abiola was still kept in detention weeks after many of the leading political prisoners have been release. It is one secret he needs to share with his countrymen 21 years after the sudden death of the man elected the President of the Republic. After all, the current democratic dispensation that our politicians are harvesting was built on the blood of Abiola and many unsung heroes.
* This article first appeared in The Guardian newspaper