Chief Kenny Martins in this interview with CHIDI OBINECHE reveals the undercurrents and untold role of the Saudi Arabia government, and other Nigerians in the June 12, 1993 presidential election saga, presumed to have been won by the late M.K.O Abiola, and the role of other prominent Nigerians to de- annul it and free Abiola from detention.
Nigeria has of recent been facing very difficult times. While the hardship in the land subsists, some men whose names rang bells in the hey days of military rule and pro- democracy struggles went the way of all mortals. I know you did relate with some of them. How do you feel over these sad incidents?
In the last few days, I have lost two great men. I met them as I embarked on my journey or quest to see how I can contribute to the betterment of this nation. In that journey, I met these two men who were also major actors. They were very positive major actors, and two of them made impact along the line. Those two men were Dr. Ore Falomo and Chief Alex Akinyele. I have known Chief Alex Akinyele since the 70s, and I knew him more closely in the 80s. I remember then he used to live in Ilasa. I don’t know whether most people know the story of his closeness with IBB, the former military president you know, he served in the government of IBB as minister of information. I don’t know what IBB will say because some of the nieces and nephews of Chief Akinyele were my friends then, and I practically passed his house every night. There were times that Mr. President then came to his house in the night under the cover of anonymity. He would sneak in without aides, security or convoy and drove himself, and I used to wonder. Mr. President will come all the way from Doddan Barracks to this man’s house in that part of the town. I didn’t have any closeness with IBB then. But I reasoned that no wonder this man always got to know what was happening in Nigeria ahead. He will come with minimum protocol and security officers. I am sure that if I see him (Babangida) , I will also commiserate with him and also ask him what he used to come and do at Akinyele’s house that time? So, while I am writing my memoirs, my book, about some of the things that happened in my life and some of the things that happened in this country, what I believe would have been done right and what should be done right to get the nation to achieve its destiny, I will also review some of these recollections. And I remember these two men. I feel sad over the loss of these men.
What particularly were their contributions to the June 12 debacle beyond Ore Falomo being Abiola’s personal physician and the closeness of Akinyele to IBB?
I would have wanted to meet them, refresh their memories and their contributions, which ultimately will substantially be part of the book we are putting together. When Chief Abiola was jailed, I remember reading an interview by Kola Abiola, Abiola’s son and the other by another key insider of the June 12 struggle and all of them alluded to the fact that it was an epoch in the life of this country. When MKO was in jail, you see, I have this gift of seeing things and hearing things as in the mold of a prophet. For almost one year, the family couldn’t see him. And one day, I will talk on the June 12 saga, how June 12 became a huge problem, how they arrested Abiola, and all the struggles throughout June 12, how he was jailed, Shonekan, Abdullasalm and all the efforts to get OBJ( Obasanjo) to get Abiola out of jail. OBJ himself was also all over the place seeking to find ways to lower the tension in the land. Things were not normal. Abacha was in power. Most of these issues were not necessary and completely avoidable, and they were raising the political temperature, both nationally and globally. There were a lot of things that were not done right. There were fireworks here and there and no one was sure of where the country was heading to without normalcy. It was under this situation that I went to meet Justice Mamman Nasir, Galadima of Malumfashi when that judgment came.
Which judgment are you referring to?
Have you forgotten about the judgment that stiffened the struggle? I went to meet him in his house at Katsina . He asked me to come in, and he said I hope no problems. I said no problem sir. It is just that I am close to Kola and the family, and I have been talking to them, and I know that they have not been able to see their father for over a year. The important thing was to do something about the Abiola issue urgently. “What can we do to get the man out of there? If we don’t do that, he will die and that will be of great consequence to the country. We need to find a way to break this deadlock that has seized the country by the throat”. He pondered and said, ‘but what do we do?’. I said I had to do something. I sold some ideas which I believed could be helpful, provided the government and the late Gen Abacha will also agree and follow that route, and I believe we can involve some of the leaders. You know how Ernest Shoneken came? We used him and others to work, so that all those who were in prison can come out. You remember how Shonekan came, and after a few days in power, we also used him to bring back all those who were in exile, asking him to make a pronouncement so that all the exiles will come back from exile. If these people could be released, we reasoned, the tension in the land will be lowered and the government can function better without the distractions of protests, defiance and cold war. We also prevailed on Obasanjo not to relent on the pressure he was mounting for the release of the prisoners of conscience, particularly Abiola.
But there is widespread information that Obasanjo worked against June 12?
Those stories are not correct. When my book is out, Nigerians will know about who did what or who did not. That is all I can say on that. Back to what I was saying, the pressure to release Abiola by Obasanjo and others gave a lot of international attention to Nigeria. Justice Nasir, asked, “What are you doing?” I said, myself, I have gotten this idea to the Saudi government about Abacha. I told him that I told the Saudi authorities that General Abacha was always complaining about them, that they were not giving him same treatment and accord that they gave General Babangida. When Babangida was in power, he was their blue- eyed prince. But since Abacha had been here as Nigeria’s military ruler, they would not deal with him and he is a Muslim too. He was wondering why they were behaving like that to him. There was this hostility by the Saudi authorities to Abacha’s government.
Apart from Abacha and Abiola being Muslims, what other undercurrents were responsible for the attitude of Saudi Arabia to Abacha, Abiola and June 12?
This dampness of relationship between the two governments was at the root of some of the troubles that we needed to remove in order to get Abiola out of detention and reclaim his mandate. I told him that was the reason and suggested that we optimize the approaching Hajj in that respect. As we were speaking, the Hajj was quite close. The Saudi government had already pronounced that because of isolated cases of meningitis in Nigeria, that Nigerians had been banned from coming to Mecca. And that had created serious problems for the government of Abacha. There must be a way to find a win- win situation between the two governments. The Saudi government said they didn’t have anything against the Abacha government, but he can’t be there holding this true Muslim(Abiola) like him in captivity and everybody was pleading and appealing to him, and he was not allowing the man to go. Why should he do that to a fellow Muslim? Then why do we pray and what is everybody doing to get justice and facilitate the release of the man from prison since he was innocent? They said that if that is what goes on in Nigeria, then, it is bad. So, I didn’t know how close Chief Abiola was to them, and so many efforts were just flying in the air. It became apparent that, this tango was why we were suffering. He would have agreed with them and explore the possibility to take Abiola into their country since they were the ones who supported him in his ITT business. It was their own majority in the business that gave him the position of Chairman, Africa/ Middle East, which helped him to become what he became. I remember Chief Akinloye told me the story of that business and how it boiled down to except Nigeria signed or President Shagari signed, they were not going to give it to Abiola. And they were not going to give it to Abiola because people were prevailing on Shagari not to do it. Akinloye was the chairman of the ruling party, NPN. That was when democracy was democracy, when democracy was a culture, when chairman of the party had regular weekly meetings, twice or so with the president. Actually, the president was subjected to the supremacy of the party, not now when governors and local government chairmen are the ones controlling the party. We have lost democratic culture in this country, and that is behind some of the problems we are having, and why the country is not developing. That’s by the way. So, Akinloye told me how he then prevailed on President Shagari to sign that paper, because except Nigeria endorsed that paper for Abiola, he won’t be awarded that contract. They must approve of you and recommend you if the job must be actualized. That was how it worked then, and it worked in Abiola’s favour despite the party primaries between Shagari and Abiola. Abiola contributed N1.2 billion preparing for the election under SDP where he emerged the party’s presidential candidate. It was about 60%, of the budget. Then, Yar Adua contributed 25%, and others contributed the rest. Some of us drew up the budget, the first budget in Nigeria, where you had everybody catered for- the security, the media and so on, so that there can be peace. And that was one of the reasons why we had the freest and fairest election. SDP, through Abiola facilitated and ensured that everybody was properly mobilized not only to win, but to protect the results. And that was why it still remains the freest and fairest election. So the idea was taken. And as for (National Democratic Coalition) NADECO, and those who were to give problems, you know they had a way of engaging them. Their visa was an issue. It was easy for them if the reasons were real and good to get them in. It was agreed based on the suggestions I made to Justice Nasir, that they could then sit down together and then create a platform so that Abiola and Abacha could discuss. And on top of that, if Abacha agreed, our pilgrims could go to Mecca within the few weeks left. I was optimistic about that and canvassed the possibility of still going to Mecca within the few weeks left. It was an open window to exploit, I reasoned. Justice Nasir said, is that true? I said yes sir. Well, he told me some personal constraints as to why he could not be able to get the president immediately. I was unrelenting. I said sir; this is what you can do. Forget about those who might be blocking you. I said the president will be willing to do business with you. The president will listen and reach you. Between man and God, within five minutes of our discussion, a call came from the villa; it was the Sultan of Sokoto, who I had just mentioned to Justice Nasir. He said “ ah Galadima, the president wants to see us next tomorrow, he will send a plane to pick us tomorrow and we have six leaders and six Emirs on our list. He turned to me and said, ah, you just said it and now I am being invited. I said to him, sir, when you get there, after the northern leaders meeting that they are calling you, call him aside and tell him what you have to tell him. I am sure that he will accede. Number one, the country is at a standstill, Abiola in jail, this one in jail, that one in jail, everybody in jail. He listened to me in rapt attention. The third day, he returned to Kaduna and called me. He said Kenny, where are you? I said I was in Lagos and he said come. I took the next flight to go to him. When I got there, he was in a meeting. He was chairing the meeting. He excused himself and came to me. He said, “come”. Your prayers are good. Abiola can go on bail. He said, it was a done deal but that the problem all along was Abiola’s lawyer, G.O.K Ajayi, who was making it complicated for Abiola to be released on bail for the reason I told you before. They were the ones opposed to the bail, telling Abiola not to accept it. I don’t want to go into details. I told you before, that I don’t want to say these things now. We agreed to change his lawyer, Abiola will get his visa, and he will be released. We will sit down, call a meeting, Nigerians will go on pilgrimage, and we will dot the I’s and cross the T’s. He, the president and I will monitor the changes. The Sultan, Justice Nasir will work to establish a platform that will broker peace. I will witness it. Let’s pronounce a transition and let’s go forward.