Poverty of Heroes
Dr. Aliyu Tilde
Expectedly, 1983 national elections attracted a lot of criticisms and condemnations, though the rigging that took place then was nowhere close to the astronomical scale of 4-19. “It was more of a conquest than victory,” said Chief MKO Abiola. Dele Giwa, writing in Abiola’s Sunday Concord of September 25, 1983, said: “To say the elections which took place in Nigeria were rigged is to be guilty of inadequacy of apt language. The truth is that the word has not yet been coined to give expression to what has happened to the democratic process in Nigeria.”
Soyinka was not satisfied with the campaign at the home front. “He went to Europe and America,” reported Sunday Concord of September 18, 1983, “to decry the elections and accuse the NPN administration of trying to cause civil war in Nigeria through rigged elections.” (I wonder what the Professor is now telling them over 4-19)
The Minister of Transport in Shagari’s cabinet, perhaps in response to the mounting opposition, threatened that his party will during its second tenure deal with people he called “enemies of the country.” With the presence of Sunday Adewusi and his newly equipped police force, Dikko’s comments must have made some people uncomfortable. Dele Giwa was quick to say that he did not want to be anybody’s hero, a statement he further explained in an article titled Season of Fear. He said: “When I said that I did not want to be anybody’s hero, by which I meant that I did not want to open my eyes and run into executioners, I did not mean that I was afraid of death. I was merely saying that Nigeria is evidently rotten and that I could not possibly imagine a sensible man offering his life for a rotten cause.”
Yet, against his wishes, Dele Giwa did not die a natural death. The irony is that he died in the hands of a regime that made freedom of speech its raison d’etre. Investigations commenced – as usual – and went on until a critical point was reached where it was stopped by executive fiat. However, in spite of the high profile of the case, the first of its type in the country, we did not learn more than a strong general speculation that he was assassinated by agents of the regime.
One and a half decade later, we celebrated the return of democracy in the hands of a man that nursed its transition in 1978. Given the human rights abuses that the country went through during the previous fifteen years, our hope for justice was not shorter than the Everest. Matching this mountain of expectation was the hard promise – as hard as the surface of Everest – which Obasanjo gave Nigerians that indeed justice will be done. “No Sacred Cows,” was his message coming from the megaphones mounted on Eagle Square on his swearing-in day. Giwa’s case was top on our list, given the abundance of evidence and the readiness of a living police commissioner – Abubakar Tsav – who investigated the matter initially to give testimony.
However, the first term of Obasanjo passed and nothing was added to our general knowledge on the case. More disturbing now is the discovery, after his failure to pursue any such cases and fight corruption throughout his first term, that Obasanjo was simply exploiting our sentiments. He staged a panel popularly called ‘Oputa’ that was not more than entertainment show. Evidently, Dele Giwa was at the bottom of the President’s list of priorities.
What happened to the name of Dele Giwa, his family and his thoughts does not seem to bother Nigerians anymore. Nobody is pressing the President to do anything about bringing the culprits to book. Nobody. Has his name been immortalized in various ways available to the government? Have I ever heard Jerry Gana, the former minister of information say a word as tribute to him? Government aside, what have other journalists done to preserve his works and celebrate his name? Why the silence over the fate of such a hero? Could it be that Dele knew this sad attitude in us before his death that made him to declare that he did not want to die our hero?
Chief MKO Abiola was another victim of our short memory. He once dreamt of serving his country as its President. What else could be the goal of an accomplished businessman like him? He contested the famous June 12 1993 elections. It was largely believed that he won the election which the regime annulled.
After the failure of an arrangement with the Abacha regime and in light of an evident arrest, Abiola left the country and went on exile to England. When asked why he fled, he recalled a word of wisdom from Yoruba oral tradition that says, “A bird seeing an approaching stone does not stay to inform another bird sitting by its side on the same branch.” Pro-democracy groups dismissed such traditions as “proverbs of cowardice.” Under pressure from such groups, Abiola made the fatal mistake of returning and declaring himself President. This earned him prompt arrest until he died of ‘natural causes’ in 1998.
Many people have fed fat on June 12 since. The greatest beneficiary is Obasanjo. In fact without Abiola, Obasanjo – and now by extension the Yoruba ‘nation’ – would have found it difficult to capture the Presidency in 1999.
But how much of Abiola is remembered today? Last week saw his ten-year anniversary whose attendance was terribly poor even in Lagos, with only few dozens answering the June 12 trumpet. Thanks to the few journalists that had the conscience of spending some hours and pages to write covers about his struggle last week. However, their stories were greatly handicapped by lack of pictures that could convince us that the hero of June 12 still enjoys impressive support.
The question here is where are members of NADECO and other pro-democracy groups that pushed Abiola-the bird to return to the same branch from which it fled, and get pelted to death in the name of democracy? Where is the Yoruba ‘nation’ which thoroughly exploited June 12 to fulfil its ambition of capturing the centre? It is clear that with its cardinal ambition fulfilled, that nation has consigned Abiola to the archives.
Abiola sacrificed his personal freedom, wealth, his life and that of his wife – Kudirat in pursuit of democracy. I doubt if Obasanjo has ever mentioned Abiola and the sacrifice he made in any of his speeches since he assumed power in 1999, not even on Democracy Day. How many streets and monuments were named after Abiola in Abuja and Lagos? I have seen a centre built for Yar’adua, where is the one we could call “June 12 House”?
With the benefit of hindsight, like Dele Giwa, perhaps Abiola would not have rescinded his decision to quit politics forever in 1983. He would not have capitulated to the demands of democracy activists to tussle with Abacha over power. Heroism is not for Nigerians, as Dele Giwa would put it.
Then late Chief Bola Ige. His case however is more intriguing than the earlier two. He was not just a journalist, like Giwa, though he kept a column with Tribune for decades. He was also not a businessman like Abiola simply interested in self-actualisation after amassing wealth. He had pursued the cause of Yoruba supremacy for over half a century. He was also one of the most influential ministers in Obasanjo’s cabinet. He died as the Attorney General of the federation and its Minister of Justice.
He did not die through a parcel bomb or while in detention. He was murdered by assassins in what today is generally alleged to be a carefully orchestrated murder involving top government functionaries and the ruling PDP. Will his fate among Nigerians be different from that of Giwa and Abiola?
Again, the president promised to investigate the murder and bring the culprits to book. The former deputy governor of Osun State is among principal suspects. While still in custody, he was honoured with a senatorial ticket of the PDP and now its seat that covers Chief Bola Ige’s hometown. There are no fingerprints taken and all witnesses, except the junior brother of Bola Ige, have recanted their testimonies. What is clearly ahead of us is “case discharged” for lack of enough evidence or, more blatantly, as a result of a nolle proseque that the PDP government in Oyo State would likely enter.
Ige in the grave must be asking these questions: Where is his president friend – Obasanjo – to pursue his cause and console his family? Where is the “fire for fire” Inspector General of Police, Alhaji Tafa Balogun, to track his killers? Where is the justice ministry he once headed to diligently prosecute them? Where are his SAN colleagues and other members of the Nigerian Bar Asssociation to protest the complacent attitude of government? Where are Afenifere, the Alliance for Democracy and the entire Yoruba ‘nation’ for whom he spent his talent and resources elevating above other ‘nations’ in country? Where are the justices of the judiciary, colleagues of late Atinuke, who preferred to follow her dead husband instead of staying behind in a society predicated on corruption, hypocrisy and endless conspiracy?
Nigeria has witnessed many heroes before who we tell our children sacrificed their lives in its cause. During the First Republic we have seen the brutal murder of Balewa and Sardauna. In 1976 the nation witnessed the death of Murtala Mohammed. During the Second Republic reactionary agents of Kano aristocracy burnt alive the radical intellectual Bala Mohammed. But our memories of these heroes appear short-lived. No one wants to tread their path anymore. No one is interested in digging into the causes of their deaths. For many of them the days of their commemoration come and pass without noticeable update of their contributions except for memorial lectures in Kaduna or Kano. Even on this scale, Dele Giwa, Abiola and Bola Ige have received lesser value for their blood.
Can Nigeria grow into a great nation without heroes, people who will sacrifice their lives willingly for its cause? No. “The tree of principle grows from the blood of its martyrs,” once wrote Sayyid Qutb – the famous Brotherhood ideologue in Egypt. Nigeria cannot be an exception.
The problem with our heroes and their countrymen is either they do not believe in the “tree of Nigerian principle” as it stands today or the heroes were fighting for something less valuable than its cause. Yet, while it could be true that some of them died promoting ethnic parochialism, some had valid reasons for rejecting the status of Nigerian hero. An example is Dele Giwa when he said: “Nigeria is evidently rotten and that I could not possibly imagine a sensible man offering his life for a rotten cause.”
With the kind of rot going on today in Nigeria, which supersedes the one ever witnessed by Dele Giwa, there is little argument over why the nation considers the idea of a hero wasteful. However, with the prospects of this colonial contraption restructured into a federation in which social justice and rule of law will reign supreme, we remain hopeful that one day the nation will have people who will believe in it and who will be sensible enough to fight its cause. It can then bid farewell to poverty of heroes.