By Dele Sobowale
“Democracy substitutes election by the incompetent many for appointment by the corrupt few.”
George Bernard Shaw, 1856-1950.
“If there is one political good that democracies deliver more consistently than authoritarian regimes, it is freedom. Democracies are about freedom.”
Walter Carrington, US Ambassador to Nigeria, at a dinner party for NADECO members at Surulere, Lagos, 1996.
(VANGUARD BOOK OF QUOTATIONS, p37).
At a time when most Nigerians were covering before the brutal regime of General Sani Abacha, a few brave souls were fighting, what to most of our fellow countrymen, a lost cause. To those brave souls, we owe this day. I was also busy on this page writing columns in defence of freedom, which one of my old friends, Ayo Olagunjoye, former Managing Director of National Bank, called suicidal.
And, indeed, reading some of those columns today, it was probably true that I was operating on the lunatic fringe. Nobody, in his right senses, confronts a deadly African dictator on the open pages of a newspaper as Alhaji Kola Animashaun, Chief Pini Jason, Obi Nwakamma, Nnanna Ochereome and I did on these pages without first of all, consciously or unconsciously, having agreed to “a rendeavouz with death” as Ken Jones informed us in 1998.
(VANGUARD BOOK OF QUOTATIONS, p36). I was invited to the party on the day that Ambassador Carrington, a black American but married to a Nigerian, delivered the address from which the statement above was lifted. But, by the time I fought off my wife, who correctly predicted that Abacha’s henchmen will be there, the party had been disrupted by the SSS and a detachment of MOPOL. Oddly enough, many of the young “Gestapo” officials who disrupted that private meeting are alive today enjoying the freedom Abacha would have denied all of us – including themselves. Two years ago, I met one of my tormentors at one of the interrogation centres, now in private life and a politician, and, asked if he would prefer for another Abacha to come to power. “Certainly not,” he answered. That day, I knew my colleagues and I did not labour in vain.
Today, I feel fulfilled. I was deeply involved in the street battles aimed at getting black Americans to be allowed to vote – even when most black people themselves were skeptical that it could be done. I remember one night at a strategy meeting, in Roxbury, a black ghetto in Boston, attended by Stokely Carmichael (a Jamaican-born American) and Maria Makeba (South African and global African “lady of songs”), the two later got briefly married and moved to Africa.
Makeba had asked the question, “Will any of us ever see the day a black man will be President of America?” Our answer to her was, “let us take the first step, get black Americans the vote and we shall see what happens next.” Now, in my life, a black person, of African origin, is President of America! I have a scar under my arm from a gun-shot wound which I wear like my own personal badge of courage from those struggles on the streets of Boston.
It never occurred to me that I would be fighting for the rights of Nigerians, back in those adventurous days in America. But, there we were in 1993, after the annulled election of June 12, 1993, and after long years of military rule, fighting for our rights to elect our leader. I was an obscure Senior Lecturer/Consultant (Marketing and Sales) at the Nigerian Institute of Management, NIM, when that event occurred. I was already a columnist for Vanguard writing the column Marketfact which appeared on Mondays. I was contented to remain unknown – until 1994. By 1994, Abacha had taken control, apparently for a “short while.” But, it was clear to me that the former military ruler would want to stay for a long time. And, to buy time to consolidate, he instituted a conference to draw up another Nigerian Constitution. To me, there was nothing fundamentally defective about the constitution Babangida had bequeathed to us. It was just as plain that Abacha had decided to stay for a long time. But, what could be done?
Fate took a hand. One afternoon, in 1994, I was at Vanguard, which I had joined, hoping to stay for “a short time,” Uncle Sam, the publisher, walked into my office. First, he just greeted me and closed the door. Almost immediately, he reopened the door and said, “Dele, I want you to write a column for us for Sunday.” And, he re-closed the door before I could react. My first thought was to quietly disappear. What have I got to say that would interest anybody; surely, this man was trying to make a fool of me.
On second thoughts, I remembered that Abacha had just inaugurated the body, which the media called Confab and which he said would produce the constitution. In his address to the Confab, Abacha had declared that the new constitution was the first step in a series of steps designed to lead to a new election. He also made two declarations. First, the military would not stay a day longer than necessary; and two, the new electoral process was going to be one in which “we ourselves will not be participants.”
Most Nigerians must have believed him because the North, the South-East and the South-South sent in their best representatives. The South-West was not fully persuaded. Even, then there were people in the South-West who wanted to “give Abacha a chance.”. I was not. Growing up at Campos Square, Lagos, had equipped me with area boys’ street wisdom making it intuitively possible to discover a “scam in progress.” This was one.
First, I quickly wrote and called the “Confab” a “Ship of fools.” To understand how sacrilegious that was, you need to remember that among the participants were Dr. Alex Ekwueme and Dim Emeka Ojukwu as well as people of the calibre from other zones. Second, I openly dismissed Abacha’s promise of impartiality by telling Nigerians that “if you believe that you will believe anything.”
So, my very first two columns set me on a collision course, not only with the politicians attending the Confab but Abacha himself. In effect, I was calling Abacha a liar. History would record that I was right on both counts. I have long learnt that, “The truth shall make you free, but, first it shall make you miserable,” (VANGUARD BOOK OF QUOTATIONS p 253). I hope to live long enough to recount my personal ordeals in the hands of Abacha and his “Gestapo.”
Today, I want to congratulate President and President-elect Goodluck Jonathan on his election. I did not vote for him; and, if the elections are repeated, I still will not vote for him – as long as he remains the candidate of PDP. But, I believe he won the election. If I doubt it, nothing would prevent me from saying so. That is the sort of freedom for which I have been fighting since 1965. Jonathan’s election will not change that position. Nothing will ever change that position. In fact, if the rest of the registered voters in Nigeria had voted for Jonathan I would have been proud to cast the only vote against him….