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How we fought for June 12 – Ike Okonta

Dr Ike Okonta, a journalist and activist was part of the struggle for the actualisation of June 12.  Using his pen while working in the defunct Tempo Magazine, he railed relentlessly against the annulment of June 12 Presidential election.    In this interview, he relives his experiences on the struggle among other issues. It’s a good read. EXCERPTS:

By  UDUMA KALU

Let us into your writing career.I actually started writing in 1984 when I left the University of Nigeria,  Nsukka, where I studied  Sociology and Anthropology. I did my NYSC in Akwa – Ibom State. I began writing novels when I returned to Nsukka in 1987(July) for my masters in Mass Communication. The novel was published by Longman in that same year. Longman stopped producing the novel in 1989 which was the year I left Nsukka. I got employed by the Observer in the Editorial Board which kick started my journalism career.

How long did you work there?

I worked there from July 1989 to Sept 1990.  At the Observer, the former MD of the New Nigerian, Mr. Haruna Mohammed, called me and said he wanted to start a magazine ‘Citizens’ and that he wanted me to be one of the key persons. That’s how we became friends.

I worked at the Lagos branch of the magazine as Assistant Editor. My immediate boss was Mallam Kabiru Yusuf who’s today the MD/CEO of  ‘The Daily Trust’ in Abuja. September 1990 to January 1993 was when I worked at the Citizens.

At that time, I felt it was paramount to join the league of journalists’ human rights activists to fight for democracy against the regime of IBB which I actually did under the platform of Campaign For Democracy. People in the team were people like Olisa Agbakoba, Femi Falana, Dr. Beko Kuti, Chima Ubani etc.

Ike Okonta...IBB's regime was bereft of ideas

We met at a group meeting in June 1992 which served as the springboard for the Campaign. In January 1993, a group of journalists from the African Concord Magazine- Bayo Onanuga, Seyi Kehinde, Babafemi Ojodu, Kunle Ajibade and Dapo Olorunyomi, pulled out from the magazine following a disagreement with their publisher,  MKO Abiola.

They formed a new magazine called The News,which they said would will be a tool in ending military rule. They came to me. Discussions were in the same perspective. This made me leave the Citizens, and joined the ‘The News’ as head of Nation Desk. This became the beginning of ending IBB’s military regime. We wrote cover stories targeted at the regime.

They replied by banning the magazine. We also counter-replied and went underground, still publishing stories geared towards ending military rule. Going underground made publication difficult.  This made us create a tabloid called ‘The Tempo’.

That was how underground journalism started in Lagos. We did also, collaborate with ‘Tell’ a lot.

How was it like coping  with family and the publication?

I wasn’t married but I had a girlfriend then. Her Dad asked her to leave me because of my chosen course. We were wanted. Our houses were broken into. My books were carried away. Along came a kind man, who left his flat for us at Lagos Island (Bamgboshe), which now became our house and office. The IBB’s regime raised a propaganda that we  were supported by the American Embassy and we were all allies.

The support we had were from ordinary people and the press, people who felt we working for a just course which they could identify with. It became clear to us that the military had lost ideas on how to elevate the socioeconomic and political life of the people. The military thought they were the only ones with fresh ideas. This was made clear by their authoritarian rule being used. You can differentiate between IBB as a person and the structure with which he used to rule.

He introduced Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP) to improve on the standards of the people and in turn, buy the legitimacy of the military. It proved to be a colosal disaster, and even the IMF proved that it has not worked in anywhere in the world. With this, by 1992, it was clear to the military that they had run out of ideas. The economy had run into a halt. Social infrastructure had stopped being built and improved upon. Idika Kalu worked at the World Bank.

He brought in the idea of SAP.  SAP was developed by an academic group of scholars in the US called ‘The Washington Consensus’. The basic strategy was to devalue the local currency, liberalise the importation of goods, encourage the government to move away from economy, and to balance the budget by withdrawing from social infrastructures, like subsidising health care and education.

The strategy was to run a lean government that would spur private sector to stand up and develop the economy by establishing factories and businesses which in turn would create jobs. What they failed to take into consideration are these: continuous investment in social amenities, difficulties in implementation of the policies completely.

Tell us the strategy you said your team mapped out to challenge the military.

Mobilization of the youths, market women,  labour unions, those he banned, alongside their political parties, and those against his military rule.

The bigwigs in the banned  parties, were they your group’s sponsors?

No, they were not. They were just people who identified with our course. We just wanted the military to give way for democracy. Well, it might be that they banned political bigwigs  who had it in mind to contest election.

Did Tempo play its part in the actualisation of democracy?

It enjoyed popularity despite not having enough advertis. At least, we were making money from it to make posters against the military government.

Explain your strategy used against military rule.

The media was only one leg to end military rule. We identified some politicians who had run out of favour with IBB. Knowing that politicians like power, I’m not saying they were good or bad, and that they were sponsoring us. We only reached an understanding with them, which was for us to work together as a team to end IBB’s regime.

They too took risks by granting us interviews, people like Alhaji Lateef Jakande, Balarabe Musa, Ebenezer Babatope etc. We travelled at nights to conduct these anywhere in the country. Some of them were confident with us in releasing information.

They did?

Yes, we recognized that some of the IBB boys were hungry for power, knowing that IBB had lost it with the people. People like Major Gen. John Shagaya, Madaki Gwadabe, were educated enough with a lot of charisma. So, they felt it was there turn to rule.

They saw Abacha as poorly educated and not popular in the scheme of things in the military. They didn’t give him any chance at all. But he only gained entrance by  stopping  the Gideon Orka coup. So, things didn’t work out well the way they planned.

How did Abacha topple the govt?

They underestimated him. When IBB stepped down and Shonekan came in, there were uprisings still in the air. There were disputes in the polity, saying Shonekan’s interim government was illegitimate. Nobody expected that another coup will take place.

The genius of Abacha was that he read the political landscape well. He cut a deal with certain political and human right figures, that after a while he would hand over to MKO Abiola. This deal didn’t work out well. This made them struggle to remove him from power.

The struggle in the military can be exemplified by an interview granted to us (The News) by Brig. Gen. David Mark shortly after Abacha struck. All eyes were not on Abacha. It was on David Mark, John Shagaya, Lawal Gwadabe and their group, that among them would emerge a successor.

Nobody gave him a chance. So, when he struck, there was bitterness amongst them. Mark in that interview  said that Abacha was a dictator and was not planning to leave power sooner than we thought. After the interview, he left for London.

When did you leave the country?

I left in May 1995. I had an  offer since 1992 to study abroad. So, I went to the British High Commission. I was in Cambridge for about a year. Then I joined Tokunbo Afikuyomi, Bola Tinubu and Dan Suleiman in London to open a new page of my life in NADECO. My job was to publish NADECO’s news letters called ‘Nigerian Liberation’. I worked on that with  Afikunyomi.

Kudirat Abiola was a separate organ in the radio broadcasting but it was headed by Dr. Kayode Fayemi,   now the AC governorship candidate in  Ekiti State. I also worked with MOSOP, under the Ogoni people. After the death of Ken Saro-Wiwa, we continued the struggled for determination. So, I felt like documenting the story of Ken Saro-Wiwa. The issue in Africa is that we don’t document our story. 95% of books about African countries and history are written by whites.

That attitude of our story wasn’t told well or the way we wanted it is not the best, that’s why we must endeavour to write our stories and appreciate them when written by fellow African.

The Ogoni story, is a long story of marginalization, the Ijaw were the first to embrace education. The Ogoni people are surrounded by the Ijaw on the one side and the Igbos on the other side. Because the Ogoni people were in the hinterland, western education didn’t get to them early.

They didn’t produced teachers and service men that can represent them like the Igbos and the Ijaws. So, this led to them being marginalized. Historically, it was only in 1951 that the Ogoni people actually produced their own university.

When Ken Saro-Wiwa started agitating for the Ogoni people, I enrolled at the University of Oxford for a doctorate in politics and then wrote a doctoral dissertation on the Ogoni people. It encompassed the whole Ogoni story for 100 years, from 1895 to date. This is the book that will be published at the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs, NIIA, on April 27th 2010.

How do you see the Niger Delta now and the Polity?

The greatest Gold that the present Acting President can give the Niger Delta, is to see that proper democracy is restored. He can do this by doing two things immediately; Ally with the National Assembly and adopt the report of the Justice Uwaize committee; INEC must be independent financially and the appointment of its chairman must be removed from the presidency, to the National Judicial Counsel.

If he take this steps, changes will not come immediately, but in the next 5 years we will not see them. In 1999, the PDP mobilized thugs from the core Niger Delta States (Delta, Rivers, and Bayelsa), gave them money and were use effectively to rig election in those state, especially Bayelsa.

After the elections, the Governors of these three states abandoned them, now because they were armed, they form a vigilante groups, terrorizing markets places for money between December 1999 and March 2000.

Oil bunkery is an old story in these areas because retired military officers from these places bunker oil. But these young men moved into bunkery with full force and their youthful exuberant and their guns. While before 1999, the political struggle in that part of the Niger Delta, was led by Oronto Douglas, Isaac Sales, people with intelligence, always articulating the point , but the advent of these young jobless boys created by the PDP, led to unnecessary unrest in the Delta which the region have never recovered from till today.

The people Of Niger Delta says they want to control their resources, that is fair but the context with which they want to do this, is the issue. It is economical or political? If you have unelected Government in position, they will embezzled all the funds. This means that, on paper you may have resource control, but in reality, you have massive poverty and lack of social infrastructures. I say this that, the problem in the Delta is the challenge of the ordinary persons to get a say in the Government of the area and then the issue if resource control will come into place.

What achievement can you say Nigeria has gotten since 1999?

We have achieve one thing, which is stable civilian rule that has kept the Military out, but we can’t say it is democratic because of the level with which election are rigged. I believe so much in the fact that we will get to the level where our political and socioeconomic challenges will be elevated by a thorough democratic election and rule.


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