By Owei Lakemfa
CHIEF Ayo Adebanjo, a thread that links our problematic unitary system to our enviable past as a viable federation, will be 90 tomorrow, April 10. He is the thread in our needle that can lead us back to the days when Nigeria strived as a federation to build a self-sufficient country with each region developing at its pace and engaging in healthy competition amongst themselves. This is in contrast to the mist that has enveloped the country since 1966 when military rule abolished the federal system and nurtured in its place, parasitic unitary politics where every region and state is unhappy with the polity and all cry about being marginalised.
Adebanjo is a fighter who believes in principles and justice. His brand of politics saw his being charged on November 2, 1962 along with 30 other persons for treason. He was charged with the intention to levy war against the country with the intent of overthrowing the government. The accusations against him included the alleged importation of arms and ammunition from Ghana and the unlawful purchase of explosives. The prosecution claimed he travelled to Ghana for military training under the radical Kwame Nkrumah Government. One of the prosecution witnesses, Patrick. M. Dokotri claimed that Adebanjo offered him a hundred pounds in May, 1962 to travel to Ghana for military training. But Adebanjo could not be apprehended. He was yet to be tried when on January 15, 1966, the military overthrew the Alhaji Abubakar Tafawa-Balewa administration.
He continued his political activism over the years, but I did not get close to him until the annulment of the June 12, 1993 presidential election by the military junta. To many of us, it was an affront, a challenge that must be met. I had been part of the leaders of the Campaign for Democracy, CD, which led street protests leading to the forced exit of military strongman, General Ibrahim Babangida in 1993. But soon after the overthrow of the Interim Government contraption, the country was faced with the fascist Abacha regime. There was need for a broader alliance to tackle this regime. Dr. Beko Ransome-Kuti and I represented the Civil Society Movement in this alliance which held its meetings at the 100, Oduduwa Crescent, GRA, Ikeja residence of veteran nationalist, Pa Alfred Ogbeywa Rewane who also chaired. It was at these meetings I got close to Pa Adebanjo; we seemed to share the same position on a number of issues. These meetings for me, were also like learning at the feet of the masters. Apart from a few like Chief Cornelius Adebayo, many of those at the meetings were veterans of independence struggles. It was not lost on me that some of them like Rewane, his deputy, Chief Anthony Enahoro and Adebanjo were defenders at the 1962 Treason Trial while Senator Abraham Adesanya was part of the defence team.
Then in the morning of Friday, October 6, 1995, three gunmen entered the house and shot Pa Rewane dead. A few of our meetings in a broader form then shifted to the house of detained Chief Moshood Kashimawo Abiola. They were hosted by his highly perceptive wife, Mrs. Kudirat Abiola. Enahoro who had taken up the reins of leadership after Rewane was assassinated, presided. A major achievement at these latter meetings was drawing up and campaigning for an alternative Transition Programme to that of the Abacha regime.
Nine months after Rewane’s murder, the assassination squad of the regime caught up with Mrs. Kudirat Abiola and shot her dead. Our meetings were shifted from the Abiola residence. Things were tough and many of the resistance leaders like Dr. Ransome-Kuti were in jail and some, including Enahoro, went into exile. It was the second time Enahoro had to flee the country; the first time was the period leading to the 1962 Treason trial.
Meanwhile, Pa Adebanjo remained in the country, fighting the junta, not even the 1997 assassination attempt on his close comrade, Senator Adesanya by the regime’s killer squad could frighten him. We continued our joint meetings and struggles, bringing in personalities like Chief Gani Fawehinmi.
Then suddenly on June 8, 1998, Abacha died, political prisoners were freed, exiles returned and the remnants of the politician-generals, agreed to hand-over power peacefully. Adebanjo and the Afenifere group led by Adesanya decided to go into politics entering into alliance with some of the associations they had allied with to fight the military junta. Some, like the Eastern Mandate Union led by the fearless intellectual, Dr. Arthur Nwankwo joined the Adebanjo group to found the Alliance for Democracy, AD, while the rest of us opted to stay out. The AD swept the West. In a particular case, there was almost a stalemate on the candidate of the party for the Lagos State gubernatorial elections. The choice was between Mr. Funso Williams who had served in the military junta and Senator Bola Tinubu, one of the pro-democracy leaders who had returned from exile. Not wanting to leave anything to chance, Tinubu approached us in the Civil Society to talk to Adebanjo and the Afenifere leadership to swing the ticket in his favour. Dr. Ransome-Kuti and I intervened in his favour and Tinubu went on to become the Lagos State Governor, a step which has seen him rise to become the leader of the ruling APC party.
At 90, Adebanjo remains in a combative mood, insisting correctly, that Nigeria must be restructured into a federation as it was when the country achieved independence in 1960, and became a Republic in 1963. On April 3, he launched his autobiography appropriately titled Telling It As It Is which is reflective of his character. At the launch, he told it as it is as regards former President, Olusegun Obasanjo: “The man who carried on as if he was all-in-all, failed woefully on all counts as President. His eight-year tenure (1999-2007) was a tragedy. His scorecard was nothing to write home about. What did he do in eight years? Before he came, we were buying fuel for N20 per litre, and crude oil was $23 per barrel. In 2007, under his regime, we were buying fuel at N75 per litre, and crude oil was between $65 and $75 per barrel. In the worst days of Abacha, one dollar was over N120 …when a real government of the people comes into power, they would take Obasanjo’s Presidential Library Complex in Abeokuta.”
Adebanjo continues to point to us, the path of federalism our fathers took at independence and nudges us to return to that path rather than live in the delusion that we can continue to impose an unjust unitary system on the diverse and freedom-loving Nigerian people.