By Bisi Lawrence
Chief M.K.O. Abiola’s political career suffered the agony of a bitter irony. The architect of its magnificence was also to be its destroyer at its finest hour.
Ibrahim Babangida, our former military president, is usually mentioned more as the man who annulled the election which Abiola actually won—usually described as the best and fairest in our history, a very arguable assertion — than the man who designed the platform by which it attained that height.
The two-party system, which IBB promulgated with vigour and seemingly robust patriotism, was able to almost obliterate the ethnic, religious and other rabid positions that created divisions among the people up till that moment of truth.
General Sani Abacha eventually welcomed MKO back from a “withdrawal” abroad, after President Adegunle Sonekan had refused to support his return. Abiola and Sonekan, shared the same ethnic origin and his stand was not popular.
How could he do that to an Egba man like himself? That was the question on the lips of a lot of people. But subsequent events suggested that the Interim President’s judgment might have been intended for Abiola ‘s well-being. Abacha later had Abiola arrested for treason and kept him in duress vile pending a trial that was never to come. By the time the final page of Abiola ‘s life was turned by the hand of fate, Abacha had himself ceased to be among the living.
In control then was a man who had never been anything but a soldier… an out-and-out military person. Abdulsalam Abubakar had never until then been inserted into any political or administrative position, nor had he promoted any known views about politics.
His emergence at the end of a rapid chain of successions —Shagari, Buhari, Babangida, Sonekan, and then Abacha —had left the populace somewhat sober. In the background was the theatre of the invention of a new Constitution, but the predicament of Abiola could not be kept far from the front burner. It was at a time when rumours about his release were flying and being denied all around. But mainly, people pleaded for his release which they felt would only be fair.
I got involved at that stage, actually, because I had discovered a vivid patriotic streak in MKO through my interaction with him, though I was one of his consistent critics though, at the same time, an admirer. So, I made the contribution reproduced below on April 10, 1995.
One of the pet phrases of Chief MKO Abiola used to be, “The Nigerian Spirit” …. or rather, “The Spirit of Nigeria”. I have to correct myself quickly there because an appreciation of the difference between those two phrases should bring us close to the meaning of the latter— that is, “The Spirit of Nigeria” .
That is what we have dealings with. Chief Abiola referred to it as though it were an object of supplication, perhaps even a lesser deity. That was in the days when he was an unofficial arm
of government: the leader of economic missions; the chief launcher at the occasions of endowment funds; or development funds; improvement funds; the fond source of all manner of funds. At many functions, he would not only donate generously, he would also support whatever effort it was with the prayer that “The Spirit of Nigeria” would be with the project.
It always had a good ring to it, but I have often wondered what it meant. It is easy to identify The Nigerian Spirit” with “The Nigerian Factor”. However, “The Spirit of Nigeria” conjures forms through the depths of the abstract to the metaphysical.
“Spirit” is a very intricate subject. It is sometimes confused with “soul”. Its religious connotation conflicts sharply with its significance in philosophy. And so it may be held that it has to do with the “persona”, that is, what makes you, you” It is also grasped in another context as “the ennobling factor” of a particular existence.
In the latter sense, it is operative in the good wishes expressed by the Ekiti people when they say, “Ori aba ria a gbe 0”. (May the head —or spirit— of our ancestors support you,) That must be the sense in which MKO used the word. Only that usage fits it into the role of an object of supplication in a genuine setting.
In that case, it would be interesting and worthwhile to know what this “Spirit of Nigeria” comprises, or what it actually stands for. There is no parallel that I have been able to think of in relation to other countries. I have no ready reference to a notion that encapsulates in a phrase like, “The Spirit of America”. However, I believe that something like “the stiff upper lip” would be making the same statement, but in a more explicit tone for England. For the United States, I am attracted by an even more expressive, or expensive phrase, “The American Way of Life”.
What fascinates me in “The American Way of Life” is Abraham Lincoln’s statement that is “dedicated to a proposition”. That proposition which I would characterize rather as a set of affirmations is enshrined in that time-honoured document of freedom, “The American Declaration of Independence.”
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed BY THEIR CREATOR (caps mine) with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness… That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed …. “
There you have the cornerstone of democracy, the fountain-head of freedom, and the basis of free enterprises. There you have the “ennobling factor” of the American principle.
“The Spirit of Nigeria” moves in a concentric orbit to that, without any doubt. We all clamour for liberty, crave for the freedom that guarantees “the pursuit of happiness”, safeguarded by a government that derives its “just powers from the consent of the governed.”
The revelry in Abuja, a so-called “Constitutional Conference”, that shows little regard for its own constituted authority might have been able to present a less disrespectable front if it has taken some time off its front squabbles to articulate some of these yearnings.
“The Spirit of Nigeria” is also dedicated in its own way to a proposition:that of a single political entity known as Nigeria, The Abuja gabfest has succeeded like no other agency before it to delineate the difference between the North and the South.
There is now a distinct bloc of delegates from, and for, the North counterpoised against a distinct bloc of candidates from, and for the South—who in their turn distinguish themselves into a distinct bloc of delegates from the West, apart from a distinct bloc of candidates from the East. This conference has never given off the sweet odours of unity; it reeks rather of division and sectionalism from every pore.This is not “The Spirit of Nigeria” .
We have had several opportunities to re-appraise and re-order the “ennobling factors” of our existence with no appreciable success. We have always found it convenient to blame our failures and inadequacies on the government which did not “derive its just powers from the consent of the governed”. And yet we continue to leave enough room for them to slip back into power’
Time may be running out.. We must now begin to confront the evils of divisive factors with a common front. This is the time to discover and appreciate the proposition to which”The Spirit of Nigeria” was dedicated by its protagonist, Chief M.K.O.Abiola. And in that spirit, this is the time to set him free.
That was submitted in 1995, over 18 years ago and, of course, Abdulsalami did not release him. The unity of purpose which was evinced in the result of “Abiola’s election” began to be eroded from the inception of the “Constitutional Conference” (which I described as the “Abuja gabfest”) was Virtually stillborn.
It only made the ethnic groups more aware of their differences which have continued to engender the spirit of separateness till today. It is apparent in the division among the State Governors through the forums they have created among themselves, and which is fast going down the line among their supporters — that is, the hapless people of their States, Nigerians like you and me.
I still find it rather curious that among the three principal players in the Abiola tragedy— Babangida, Abacha and Abdulsalami, the one who might have been in the leading role among them is usually hardly mentioned.