Excerpts from an interview published in The News magazine of October 26, 1998, Sen. Bola Tinubu, then fresh from exile on the intrigues of the Abacha regime, the games politicians and the military played and his hopes for the future. He spoke with Sunday Dare and Henry Ugbolue.
How do you feel to be back home?
It is very, very nice to be back, very good feeling of family, camaraderie to be back in one’s homeland. It is indescribable: the reception, the joy of being back home. First, I want to say a big ‘thank you’ to all journalists. Without you, without your steadfastness, your commitment to truth and justice, your tenacity, the struggle would have been nothing. We are back to strengthen that section of the press which stood for justice courageously. I salute the religious leaders, particularly the CAN (Christian Association of Nigeria) with honourable men such as Rev Sunday Mbang, Reverend Abiodun Adetiloye and the rest of them. To have seen this nation go through struggle without loss of lives in their hundreds of thousands; without turning this Nigeria into Rwanda or Burundi, was due to their prayers, and their courageous support for justice and truth. We will continue to praise them and hold them in the highest esteem. The history of this country will not be complete without their names being written in gold.
Let us take you to the journey to exile. At what point, did it dawn on you that you had to travel out of this country?
At the point that it was clear to me that my life was in danger? Yes, after the annulment and we declared Abacha’s regime illegal, Senator Abraham Adesanya, Senator Kofo Akerele-Bucknor, Senator Ameh Ebute, Senate president; Rev. Father Nwolu and Senator Nweje were arrested initially. I went underground and was being sought by the police and the authorities. Yet, I continued to grant interviews to the international media and the local press. Suddenly, on the 9th of October, my house in Victoria Island, Lagos, was petrol-bombed and a call came in that ‘you grant another interview, you try to abuse this government again, you will be miserable.’ I was still taking those as mere threats until a friend called to tell me that I should go deeper underground or leave the country, that what will happen to me might be a send-forth to eternity. The language he used, I mean the way it was used, coupled with the fact that I was still on drips for jaundice and typhoid, hit me hard.
Later, another friend phoned me that they were heading for my house and I saw the signs. They didn’t meet me at home. I headed for the hospital where I received treatment. I left that hospital in disguise because they were already at the door. They didn’t know I was the one.
My passports had been impounded. But I was assisted by some embassies to procure travel documents with which I travelled. I went through Agege and the rest by commercial motorbike disguised as a mallam (laughs). I even went to bid Kudirat Abiola and the rest good-bye. But I could not go to my mum, I could not say good-bye to everybody else because at that stage, it wasn’t safe to do so. So, I left through the routes that became popularly known as ‘NADECO routes’, out of the country. Sometimes, I had to hitch rides on bikes.
I landed in Benin Republic and made a call to Gen Akinrinade (Alani). As I was talking with him, they were right in front of his house. He said they’d just arrived.
He was still in Nigeria?
He was still in Nigeria. And the informants had already told me that Akinrinade was next. As I was talking to him, he told me that he was just preparing his luggage. So, I gave him the information that he should not come through the gate and he should not attempt to go to Murtala Muhammed Airport. He later said he even had to jump over his fence. He would be telling you his own story. He said he would be connecting Dan Suleiman. Then I told them where I was in Benin Republic. They sneaked out and joined me later. After some days, Akinrinade and Dan Suleiman left.
We will like to take you back to the June 12 struggle. When the struggle commenced, we want to have a clear understanding of what you faced then and what the military dictatorship did…
The intrigues are quite a phenomenon. It goes back to when Yar’Adua was manipulated believing that the divide and rule game played by Gen. Ibrahim Babangida was to make Abiola president and Kingibe his running mate, contrary to the promise made to Yar’Adua that Atiku would be hisrunning mate. Abiola was confused. He later went round and nominated Bafyau after the threat from IBB that if he announced Atiku Abubakar as his running mate, he should forget about the presidency. Abiola was worried. He got to Kaduna, Atiku was waiting for the announcement. Abiola could not make it. He called an emergency meeting and had to leave for Abuja.
Yar’Adua, of course, was angry with Abiola for dropping his man, Atiku. Babangida played on that anger, got Yar’Adua to endorse the interim national government and got Anenih to sign off the mandate.
That was how Yar’Adua got to support the ING and reconciled with Babangida by using Gen. Obasanjo. It’s the truth, Obasanjo did not support June 12. It was a lie, a propaganda, to say he supported June 12. He supported the Interim National Government (ING). He said it. They played on that intrigue that Yar’Adua would get that lost chance if the ING was there; that he would be able to recover all that he had lost, using his men nominated into the ING.
There were rumours making the rounds that there was a deal between Abiola and Abacha.
Okay, understanding, a sort of agreement. You were one of the men that accompanied Abiola to Abacha’s place. What really happened?
Until you have an understanding of what happened before then, you cannot have a clear understanding of what really happened on the day of the visit.
What happened is…you follow the intrigue… The case that went to the court, to Justice Dolapo Akinsanya was engineered and proposed by me, as an elected representative of the people. I was going to challenge the ING, its legitimacy, through Prof Kasumu. Prof. Kasumu was never Abiola’s lawyer. Prof. Kasumu drafted the case on that day. We reviewed it. We were about to go to court and I mentioned to Abiola, what I was about to do. Abiola invited Prof. Kasumu to meet with him. Kasumu met with him. He said we’ll, maybe Abiola himself as the candidate, the custodian of the mandate, should really go for it. We changed it overnight, turned the case round. Eventually Abiola took the case to court.
Prof. Kasumu won the case. Justice Dolapo Akinsanya declared the ING illegal. So, each time we condemn the judiciary, we have to make exceptions. No one was anticipating the judgment. We had made alternative plan: that if the judgment was in Abiola’s favour, he should take over that night, but if the government won, we would find other means. Unfortunately, may his soul rest in perfect peace, Basorun Abiola, was so trusting. The matter leaked to (Gen. Sani) Abacha, who was then minister of defence.
When, the judgment came and the court declared the ING illegal, and we were preparing to swear in Abiola…he was not ready to be sworn because… He said it should be done in the traditional, normal way, that he was not the only custodian. Suddenly, a message came from (Gen. Oladipo) Diya that he needed to see me. I then went to meet him at his house. They already had the information that Abiola was to be sworn in (laughter). Diya said ‘you’ve got the judiciary supporting you, you should now get the military backing. We are ready to back you, let’s go.’ Diya took me to Gen. Abacha’s house. There Abacha told me, ‘ look, distinguished senator, you are the closest person to Abiola. I voted for Abiola, I like us to handle the situation like gentlemen. We heard of a plan that he was going to swear himself in. In fact, the constitutional crisis that is on the ground now is a big one. This is the ministry of defence, we will instal Abiola and put the military behind him. Now that we have this judgement, Abiola should, however, not swear himself in.’
There and then, they called Abiola’s son, Kola. They told him on phone that, ‘we have spoken with Bola Tinubu, and he is coming to discuss with you.’
Were you aware that they were making the call?
I wasn’t. They went into another room… Abacha’s inner room. I went back and discussed at 2 am with Abiola.
I told him I was not sure that these people were sincere. I cannot forget the proverb that he used to explain his position. He said ‘if you have to fight somebody, you’ve got to get close to him. Even if they are not sincere, he is the de facto head of state now, let me listen to him. I’m ready to take him on.’ It was the time they gave us the date, and he said Abiola would not last. When Abiola met with Abacha, they told us that Col. Abubakar Umar was planning to topple Abiola. They listed about 17 officers, including Gen. Joshua Dogonyaro and the rest of them, who they said, were involved in the coup plot. They told Abiola, ‘You won’t be able to stop them, you won’t last four days.’ They said they needed to get rid of these dangerous boys in the military. Abiola became a little jittery.
Abacha told Abiola that if by the third day, they could not swear him in, in six weeks, six months when they have gotten rid of all the mines—that’s the way Abacha described it—the mines against June 12, and that Abiola should not walk through the mines at all. That if they couldn’t do it in three weeks, to six weeks, the maximum they would take was six months and they will hand over to him. Abiola was so trusting. On the second or third day, Abiola said he wanted to consult the SDP, the people. He did. We held a meeting in his house. We went back to Diya after the discussion and raised a lot of questions. Diya got angry because we were questioning their sincerity. He said he was a man of honour and won’t deceive Abiola. He asked Abiola what he was to gain deceiving him. He said he had received severe punishment and discrimination from Babangida because of June 12. He reminded us of his posting to Kaduna that is more or less a demotion. He said it was Abacha’s co-operation that got him to the War College and that he believed Abacha could do what he said he would and he (Diya) will do it with him. And then he got Abiola and my side trusting him as a matter of fact. And, as a result of that, Abiola decided to grant him the chance and opportunity to actualise June 12, believing that he will do it.
Then, another turn came for Abiola to appear for discussion with Abacha. They met that night with Abiola saying he was not sure of what will happen with his mandate, that he could not trust Abacha.
He told Abacha so?
Yes, he told Abacha that he wanted more convincing evidence. It was then Abacha convinced him of the danger to his life if he should go ahead to swear Abiola him. Then an emir who was a mutual friend to Abacha and Abiola was brought in to persuade Abiola to believe and to support Abacha. He swore under Islamic and traditional oath, more or less, that he would not sit down there and work against June 12—that he had spoken to Alhaji (Lateef) Jakande who would be Abiola’s eye in government. Diya had earlier called Jakande from his house that Abiola was on the way. Abiola spoke to him. Jakande said he would stay awake until we got there. We got to him at 2.30 am. When Abiola narrated the story, the discussion with Diya and Abacha, he said, well, we should go along with it and that he was going to take the appointment in Abacha’s cabinet and he could be trusted to work for June 12. He swore he would resign if they reneged. There and then we made a call to Papa Ajasin (may his soul rest in peace). The old man said, ‘no, don’t near them. They are dangerous.’ Abiola vainly tried to persuade Papa Ajasin about the sincerity of Abacha and Diya, but the old man was very angry. When we got back to the car, I asked Abiola what he planned to do about what Papa Ajasin said. He told me he would have to talk to Kudirat, to talk to Papa.
Six months passed, no June 12. Abacha became hostile. I went to Abuja to meet Diya in company of a prominent common friend of ours. ‘Gen. Diya, sir, what about the mandate?’ He said, ‘We are in crisis, we are still not stable, we have so much to do.’ Then I said, ‘You probably have deceived us, six months have lapsed, and your promise could not be kept.’ Therefore, I went to discuss with Abiola. The indications were that these people were liars and they would not actualise June 12. Then Diya’s influence started waning. Abiola said the honeymoon was over, he had to fight for his mandate. And it was then he started putting together the People’s Alliance for Justice and Unity (PAJU). I think
TheNEWS published those activities. I went to see Abiola in the UK.
Casting your mind back to all that happened, could you have adopted better strategies for the struggle, looking at the fallout eventually?
Probably that was the best option we had. Different strategies could have been employed. Abiola had too many advisers — all sorts of things were being suggested. One thing we must give him credit for, Abiola remained steadfast, remained resolute that he would not want Nigeria to go through bloodshed. He said ‘look, the poor masses, the down-trodden, would suffer if we allow this to degenerate to serious crisis.’ That is why he had negotiations with Gen. Abacha. When there were protests and students were killed, Abiola started fasting, started sending messages that it should stop, that he would not want to ascend office on people’s blood. So, no matter what option he opted for, that peace and dialogue approach was the best.
You mentioned that Diya was getting sidelined. Was he aware of what was happening?
I went to see Diya in Abuja in company of a common friend of ours — and I confronted him about these. He was not receptive. Navy Commodore Olabode George was there. We realised that Diya was either overwhelmed or was sober. I told him, ‘this is my last visit to you, Mr. Vice President, if you are not in this government to actualise June 12, you have betrayed us, you have betrayed the masses of Nigeria and you will not come back the same.’ He asked me whether that was a declaration of war between the two of us and I told him to assume whatever. I was bold and courageous enough to say that to him, that I will stop believing him. He started giving excuses that it was Abacha that was playing politics and that he was handicapped because of that. He said he wanted to be careful, that he was still going to play the role he was expected to play on June 12. He said he noticed that Abacha himself was not sincere and I said, ‘quit the government. If you quit at this stage, the government will collapse. Quit.’ He said, ‘well, you are not my adviser. I will quit when it is necessary.’ I said ‘it is better done now.’ He said ‘you don’t tell me, senator, what to do?
You noticed there was a transition in Abacha, from the gentleman officer…
Yes, he went crazy. There is one big lesson. We have to understand the antecedent of the military, particularly the Nigerian Army. The military Generals were trained to deceive, they take every opposition as enemy, and they deceive you. You have to be cynical in every political dispensation or arrangement; you have to distrust the military. In their professional calling and normal duty, respect them. But, in any political arrangement, don’t ever rely on any military ‘friend.’
What about the Abubakar transition programme?
Nigeria has gone through a lot. At this stage, it appears the military’s back is against the wall. You still have to ask these questions as to their sincerity and commitment. But, the country must move forward. You can see poverty written on the faces of the masses. Nigeria is retrogressing, not progressing in every aspect of social and economic development. I still doubt what Gen. Abubakar is still doing there. I still ask the question, why can’t he just hand over immediately to a government of national unity and reconciliation? But maybe he has other things in mind. I’m not privy to his plans. Maybe he needed to take care of the army, and maybe he needed to bring back honour and integrity to the military. He has the opportunity now. We have to give him the chance to demonstrate that he would not turn into another full-blown dictator and put us all in jail again. He has that opportunity. He has the option.
There are fears Abubakar may pursue another hidden agenda?
First and foremost, the abrogation of Decree 2 is important. The abrogation will help Abubakar, not the exiles, not because people are afraid of being detained. If the government abuses the rights of its citizens, it definitely loses its legitimate claim to civil obedience. You can’t abuse your citizenry and expect them to obey a dictatorial law. They could revolt. It is their right. They have a natural right to be whatever they want to be – to speak and worship freely, among others. They are God-given rights if you take them away, you’ve lost your own legitimate claim as a government, to obedience to your laws and regulations. If you profess to have free press, human rights and on the other hand, you promulgate a decree that takes away the rights on the other hand, are you really sincere? We are trying to help him sustain his credibility by asking him to abrogate Decree 2. It is going to help him with the international community. Nigeria is a signatory to the Geneva Convention and the Harare Declaration. Decree 2 is a complete violation of those agreements.
There have been these calls for restructuring…
The restructuring is to help the entire nation. Social engineering and economic empowerment and political development of a nation depend on the flexibility of people to devote their time to local and economic development within their environment. As a matter of fact, nobody should be scared of restructuring. It is just an imaginary fear of disintegration. Good governance, transparency, honesty, respect for human rights and equity facilitate unity.
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