By Owei Lakemfa
KUNLE Ajibade who turned 60 on May 28 titled his prison memoirs: Jailed for Life. He was indeed sentenced to life imprisonment in 1995 by General Sani Abacha and his henchmen for alleged coup-plotting when all the weaponry he ever wielded was the pen. A number of our colleagues in the media; Mrs. Chris Anyanwu, Ben Charles-Obi and George Mbah received a similar treatment. Some, like Dapo Olorunyomi went abroad. One day, his wife, Ladi Olorunyomi, also a journalist, came to see me, all shaken. She informed that Gbolahan Olalemi had just been seized from his home by Military Intelligence. She reasoned that if the very quiet Lemi who is virtually unknown having spent the last few years living in London, could be picked, I was in imminent danger and advised I go into exile. I told her I will think about it, and we went to the naming ceremony of Babafemi Ojudu’s child, just a street away. The next morning, I was woken with the news that soldiers had at 1.00 am broken into the Olorunyomi’s home and taken Ladi to an undisclosed location. She was detained without trial a few more times, before she too fled the country with her children. Bayo Onanuga was also in exile.
A number of us including Onome Osifo-Whiskey, Moshood Fayemiwo and Babafemi Ojudu suffered spells of detention. Niran Malaolu miraculously survived the firing squad. But we are the lucky ones, for our colleague, Bagauda Kaltho, never returned from the gulag.
I am a proud student of the lead speaker today, Professor Wole Soyinka. He went into exile as a youth, and in old age, Abacha forced him to flee again into exile. This was also the case of Chief Anthony Enahoro. Additionally, the Abacha regime had killer squads; rather than detain people or take them to trial, they simply shot them as they did Mrs. Kudirat Abiola.
We knew General Abacha was a mindless and ruthless dictator like Augusto Pinochet in Chile and that he was so kleptocratic, that he turned the Central Bank into his private bank. Abacha’s death was a relief; at last we would be free and our country can take the path of democracy.
However, there were people who considered General Abacha a messiah without whom Nigeria would collapse. They rallied round, served him, rationalised his actions and sought to make him the sole presidential candidate of the then five political parties in the country.
It was not merely a difference in attitude; the anti-Abacha activists were the traditional progressives who from colonial times insisted on the right of every child to education and every Nigerian to medical care, shelter and employment and a secular state based on functional federalism. So the differences were, and are, ideological.
However, I concede the right of those who held contrary views. That was why when the leading lights of the Abacha behemoth Petroleum Trust Fund, PTF, and its sole consultant, Afri-Projects Consultants, APC, came into politics, joining the All Nigeria People’s Party, ANPP, I had no objections. Nor did I when they founded the Congress for Progressive Change, CPC and went on to become the senior partners in the ruling All Progressives Congress, APC.
That is also why I was not surprised when our beloved President Muhammadu Buhari swore that General Abacha did not loot public funds. To me, President Buhari insisting that Abacha did not loot Nigeria’s funds is like a man insisting that a well- known prostitute with a daily line of clients, is a virgin.
Just on Tuesday, May 22, 2018, President Buhari presented Abacha as the model leader who built infrastructure like hospitals and roads, adding: “No matter what opinion you have about Abacha, I agreed to work with him and the roads we did from PTF exist from here to Port Harcourt, to Onitsha, to Benin and so on.”
I do not have any doubt that with APC, there has been change in the country, but it is not Nigeria that has changed, it is the progressives and their heirs that have changed adopting the conservative Abacha political system. It is we the progressives who live in self- denial, rationalising conservative politics and principles. Rejecting the progressive principles and programmes of the Aminu Kanos, Raji Abdallahs, Bello Ijumus, Mokwugo Okoyes, Gambo Sawabas, Funmilayo Ransome-Kutis and Obafemi Awolowos.
As a teenager, I was told about an encounter between a young man and an elder in which the former said: “See the way the world is changing!” and the elder replied: “ No, it is not the world that is changing, it is people getting worn out like clothes.” Let me paraphrase this; It is not Nigeria that has changed, it is the progressive elements that are getting worn out like clothes.
Our history since independence has shown that the old conservative ways marked by long years of military dictatorship, and a combined 19-year post-military administration by the PDP and APC, cannot birth a new development-oriented country. It is the progressive alternative driven by ideas, that can give birth to a bright future, and the way we can get there is not through the clannish osmotic pressure of the conservatives. Around the world, we see good examples. In Cuba, legislators do not get paid or receive perks; they work like other Cubans and in addition attend parliament. So you cannot see Cubans bribing or carrying out violence in order to be elected.
A video that has gone viral, is that of Italian Prime Minister- designate, Carlo Cottarelli, arriving at the Palace in a taxi, and spending time apparently paying his fare. As progressives, we realise that we must know the amount of oil the country produces; that we must refine our oil and not pay fraudulent subsidies successive governments pay. We know the future of Nigeria depends on free, qualitative, compulsory and rounded education for all our children. We know that our future lies in transforming our country from a consumer to a producer nation. We know that rather than tag bare-faced banditry as ‘Communal clashes,’ we must wipe out the bandits. We know that for development, power supply must be available, accessible and cheap, not pumping public funds into privatised power firms and telling us tales about ‘willing sellers and willing buyers’ of a monopolised product.
In the 1950s/60s, China knew it was a big market and made it conditional that any manufacturer that wanted to sell cars in the country must manufacture in the country. That way, it learnt how to produce vehicles, and today, it is the largest truck exporter to Nigeria.
It is progressive ideas that can propel our country into the bright future; that is also how we can get there.