Chief Ebenezer Babatope (a.k.a. Ebino Topsi) was the Director of Organization of the Unity Party of Nigeria in the Second Republic. He was Minister of Transport in the late General Sani Abacha’s military regime. In this interview, the 76-year-old politician fields questions on the late Abiola and Abacha, June 12 and its recognition by Buhari’s government, Obasanjo, Tinubu, Islamization/Fulanization of Nigeria, APC regime, among other national issues. He spoke to CHIDI OBINECHE.
I would like to have your view on the renaming of the National Stadium Abuja to MKO Abiola Stadium to honour him. Would you have expected anything better?
Anything that can be done to immortalize the memory of the late MKO Abiola is most welcome by me. The renaming of the National Stadium Abuja to MKO Abiola National Stadium is commensurate with the level of contributions of MKO Abiola to the development of Nigeria. When he was alive, he spent a lot in the development of Nigeria. Apart from his political involvement, I think that naming the National Stadium after him is good, and if there is anything more that will keep his memory alive in the minds of Nigerians, it is good. If there is any other thing, they should go ahead and do it. What they have done is to demonstrate appreciation to a man who contributed immensely, with his wealth and other resources to national development and even paid the supreme prize for democracy. Ironically, we have not experienced this before.
During the struggle for the actualization of the June 12 mandate, what were the things that happened that you didn’t like on the way things went at the time?
I participated in it. I was very active in the electoral campaign, seeking for votes for my party, Social Democratic Party, SDP. At that time, I belonged to the Babagana Kingibe group within the SDP. When the whole thing collapsed, and the election was annulled, Babagana Kingibe and the MKO Abiola groups came together to fight for the disannulment. The two groups coalesced into one; a formidable SDP entity for a common purpose. The coordination was watertight and it eventually led to so many things. We were optimistic that the government was going to fall under the pressure to uphold the election. We held several meetings and mapped out strategies. We sought audience with those we felt that would help in bringing pressure on the government to change its mind.
Looking back now, there were allegations of so many betrayals, which affected the fight as it were; beginning from Babagana Kingibe who abandoned the struggle to join the late Abacha government. Why did it happen that way?
I don’t know what you mean by betrayals. The annulment came, it was a national accident, and we responded to it promptly. It is unfair for anybody to think that anybody betrayed the cause of the annulment whether it was Babagana Kingibe or any other person by joining the Abacha government. No, I don’t think that way. The annulment came on June 12, after it was clear that Abiola won the election; the SDP won the election. Later, the Interim National Government, ING was declared unconstitutional and illegal by Justice Akinsanya of the Lagos High Court. Then later, the army led by Abacha had to take over to form a government. That was what happened.
But one of the sons, Kola recently alleged in an interview that the abandonment of the June 12 annulment struggle by some of you including Kingibe who was Abiola’s running mate weakened the struggle. Is that true?
Well, I don’t see it that way. That is the way he looks at it. I don’t see it that way. You can contact Alhaji Jakande to hear from him. He is quite old now and I wish he can talk. Before somebody like me joined the Abacha government, the late Obafemi Awolowo Action Group in the SDP met and took a decision on the way forward following the impasse. Myself, Wole Oyelese, and the late Dr Olu Onagoruwa were given clearance to join the government. That notwithstanding, everyone involved had the support and spirit of the struggle in focus. The annulment had been done on June 12, 1993, before all these formations came.
You were the Minister of Transport and Aviation in Abacha’s government and yet a critical voice in the struggle against the annulment. What actually propelled you into this dual role?
I said I was a part of a group. I was the director of organization of the Unity Party of Nigeria, UPN led by immortal Papa Awolowo and the group met, deliberated and endorsed our joining the Abacha government. We met in the late Papa Alfred Rewane’s house in Ikeja and it was agreed that they should go ahead and announce our names for ministerial appointments – Lateef Jakande, Wole Oyelese, late Olu Onagoruwa and myself. That was exactly what happened. I don’t want to start bragging now that this was what we did when we were in government. It was a very difficult time in Nigeria because many people were not aware about how we joined the government. But let me say that when the struggle was on, I was getting feelers from every local government in the country. We made moves through the Ghanaian ambassador in Nigeria to the then president of Ghana Jerry Rawlings to ensure that nothing happened to Abiola. We were positive that he would not be touched in any way. That was done. I can tell you that.
Abiola has finally been honoured, 25 years after, and some people believe that the saga has been brought to a close. Do you share that sentiment? What else do you suggest should be done to honour him?
People have commended Buhari for the gesture. What I will say is that if they feel that Abiola deserves more, it is still incumbent on them to unfold more schemes to immortalize him. They have declared June 12 as the national Democracy Day in Nigeria and he has been honoured with a GCFR ( Grand Commander of the Federal Republic). As far as I know, only Baba Awolowo, Shagari, Obasanjo had been conferred with the GCFR title.
What about Goodluck Jonathan?
That is alright. He was a former head of state. That is the highest honour in the land. So Abiola has joined the league of those with the highest honour in the land. It was thoughtful and reassuring that in the end, at least he got a well deserved recognition. What is important in this decision is that it gives weight to democracy as the right of the people to vote for a person of their choice. It is tacitly telling the world that Nigeria has submitted itself to the tenets of democracy and should be seen as a country that has fully embraced it. Today, no matter how the world sees Nigeria, the fact remains that the nation understands the rudiments of democracy and has gone ahead to accord honour to someone who died in its case. The message is clear that there is no substitute to the government of the people, and by the people, and for the people. And for those who died in the struggle for democracy, who died fighting to get upturned the annulment of June 12, whatever can be done to get their names and honour them also should be done. It will not be complete to honour only Abiola who, without doubt, is the scion and torchbearer alone. Those who died fighting alongside in their beliefs should equally be honoured. An area should be earmarked for those who died in this cause and their names engraved there. This is to ensure that democracy has meaning in Nigeria and it will encourage the teeming masses of the people to see democracy as an essential part of leadership at all levels.
There are about three great icons in Yorubaland that have politically impacted on the people. They are Awolowo, Abiola, and perhaps, Tinubu. Among these three, who do you think approximates to the undisputable Yoruba leader?
It is not for me to decide. As far as I know; as far as I am concerned, Abiola has made a name for himself in terms of his contributions to the point of becoming a hero of democracy. We can never in our lifetime denigrate the status of papa Awolowo, Nnamdi Azikiwe and the Sardauna of Sokoto. You can have people like Herbert Macaulay in that league. These were the people who fought for the independence of Nigeria and did their utmost in nation building before the chaos and military intervention took place. I don’t think comparing them is normal. It is improper. At different times, they made their impacts within a context. But whichever way you evaluate their impact, whichever period they held sway, one name must tower above the rest. This is why I say it is incomparable. Awolowo was one of the founders of the Nigerian nation. I have mentioned people like Herbert Macaulay. Awolowo’s place in Nigerian history is assured as a pacesetter. And don’t forget that it was Awolowo who in fact, gave Abiola scholarship to read accountancy in London which was a good thing to happen to him. So, we have Awolowo in a class of his own. His achievements as premier of the Western Region are legendary. His philosophy of thought, his vision, and his intellectual works have stood the test of time till today. Abiola is no less regarded. He paid the supreme sacrifice for democracy and that is no mean feat. He was a philanthropist of note and made his contributions towards the development of the nation.
What about Tinubu whose political following in the west is monumental?
Tinubu? I don’t hate him. We don’t belong to the same political party. He belongs to the All Progressives Congress, APC, and I belong to the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP. He may have followership within his party just like others and I do not diminish his strength in that. But as far as I am concerned, he can aspire to the moon. I have said my own. Let him aspire to the moon, but as far as I am concerned, in the history of Nigerian nation, Awolowo towers head and shoulders above all of them. Then, Abiola paid the supreme sacrifice and fought for democracy in Nigeria. Tinubu is a young man. I am older than him. Let me tell you, when I got married in 1972, Bola Tinubu contributed 10 pounds at that time towards the bachelor’s eve. I have no grouse against him at all. He can aspire to the moon. He can even aspire beyond the moon. His supporters are there, and I know they see him in a light, a certain light far beyond what history has thrust upon him. It is left to them. But for me, he is APC, and I am PDP. Awolowo remains our greatest leader. Abiola made a tremendous impact on the nation to the point that he is being honoured 25 years after his death. Nothing can detract from their pedigree and place in history. They were great in their own rights.
Many Nigerians hold the Abacha regime, which you served, in great scorn. Some say it was a wasted period in our developmental history. What, in your personal assessment ,do you see as his greatest achievement? How do you want Nigerians to remember him?
It will be wrong for me to do that to a man who has died. But what I know is that Sani Abacha, you just must be patient enough to understand him. He meant many things to many people. He was decisive in his actions. He was very meticulous and a keen observer of situations. It is not for me to say, oh, he should have done this or that. It was too short a time and the prevalent atmosphere was not too conducive for such remarkable strides. It is because he has died, that is why people are saying these things about him, focusing more on the scandals of his regime. There are other sunny aspects of his life and regime which people have chosen to ignore. Those leaders that they seemingly hold in high esteem, when they also die, people will say the same things if not worse about them. It is in the nature of human behavior. When they die and they compare what they did with what Abacha did, the story will definitely change. Honestly, when I worked with him, he was very decisive in his actions and he was a man who related with people with patience.
How did you receive the news of his death and that of Abiola which happened within a month interval?
I was not in Nigeria at that time. I travelled out of the country. I was in Mauritius when the news came. It was a very bad news that he died. I know it is the way of all mortals. It is something all of us must bow to one way or the other. As a political activist, a political scientist at the time, I took it in my stride and asked God to put us through. Abiola also died during that time. It was very ominous for Nigeria. It is part of the ominousness that we are seeing now. You have seen what is happening to Nigeria now; the style of administration from Buhari and how Nigerians have been reduced to simpletons.
What would you say was responsible for Obasanjo, who is a kinsman of Abiola to shun plans of giving him this recognition and honour when he was in power?
Honestly, I cannot give an answer. I cannot go into his mind to unravel how and why he did not do that despite several appeals by well-meaning people. Obasanjo is alive and healthy and I cannot talk on his behalf. But whatever I say, will not be very objective. Don’t forget that it was General Olusegun Obasanjo that retired me from the services of the University of Lagos in 1978 as a result of the “Ali must go” demonstrations of Nigerian students in 1978. And so, whatever I will say here will not be very objective. He didn’t even retire me, he dismissed me from service. I was accused of supporting students against the government when the late Okeowo led the students for reforms in Nigeria’s educational system. It was the Governing Council of the university that later met in November of that same year to turn my dismissal to retirement. I am still bitter. But what can I do. Nobody has paid me a single kobo after my services to the university as retirement benefits. No one has done that till date.
Have you made some protests to the University over the issue?
I have done that several times through the Governing Council then. My uncle who was the registrar then had also made some representations on my behalf but nothing came out of them. And he is dead. All the people connected to it one way or the other are all dead. It was subsumed in the arbitrariness of military dictatorship. Every effort made has come to naught. Having explained this, I just want to prove that it will be difficult for me to say anything that will be objective about him in this regard. Don’t also forget the controversies that attended the 1979 presidential elections. Many people believed that his handing over to Shagari the way he did was in bad taste. I was the director of organization of the UPN and my leader, Awolowo, together with the party was not happy with the outcome of the result and consequently challenged it at the tribunal. The controversial judgment is now history. This was what Obasanjo did to me. Obasanjo has improved himself over the years. He has been very outspoken and is still very outspoken. He is daily moulding himself into the conscience of the nation through his outspokenness on sensitive national issues. He speaks his mind and does not care about the consequences to his life. That is Obasanjo for you. Having said that, I think he should be contacted to tell Nigerians why Buhari has not gone.
Do you share in his position that there are plans in the offing to Fulanize and Islamize Nigeria?
I think that is a very hard and courageous declaration. The danger posed to this nation by the rampaging herdsmen tells it all. It is terrible. It is harrowing. People are being kidnapped daily. People are being killed daily. People are being tortured and raped daily. The outcry and the depth of the crime have not been commensurate with the response of the government and her security agencies. Another person that is vocal like that is Prof Wole Soyinka. He says it the way it is. When the Biafran war was on, I was a student at the University of Lagos. I was pro-Biafra, I was very much pro-Biafra, because I felt that Nigeria was wrong to have fought that war. Soyinka went to prison because of Biafra. When Buhari struck in 1983 and sent us to prison, I met Ojukwu in prison. I was so excited the day I saw Ojukwu occupying a cell in front of my cell. I hailed him uncontrollably. I called out ‘General’, because I used to call him ‘General’. I said , “ you have fought a good battle. You’re a hero.” What I am trying to say is that you must believe in something. Whatever you believe in, stick to it. As Soyinka used to say in those days when he was a lecturer at the University of Lagos, you must remain a progressive thinker.
When you accosted Ojukwu in prison, did he talk to you? Did he give you reasons why he fought and ran away?
He did not run away. In every warfare, there is a time for offensives and a time for tactical withdrawal. He didn’t run away. No. He didn’t want to give the adversaries the opportunity to take him in. The valiant knows when to blow hot and when to blow cold. That is how true heroes are made. He wouldn’t wait for Gowon to shock him. He had the right to withdraw. What about those warlords in history like Hitler who committed suicide instead of being caught by their victorious enemies? He promised writing the “Book”. I am not sure the “Book” is finally out or not. I guess the state of his health before he passed on may have prevented “The Book” from coming out. I believe so. We talked when we met in prison. We talked extensively about Nigeria.
Given the prevailing conditions under Buhari which people are complaining about, would you liken them to the conditions that triggered off the Civil War in the 1960s?
Ah, the democratic infractions taking place under Buhari’s rule is terrible. It is worse than the events that led to the civil war. I do pray that Buhari will change. Buhari is only one month older than me. We are 76 years old. So, when I talk about Buhari , I talk about somebody who belongs to my generation. Sometimes, I worry about the way things are going on under him and there is no conscious efforts to change things. When leaders do not have a sense of history, they are bound to commit the same mistakes of the past. My position and prayer is that things do not deteriorate beyond what we are experiencing at the moment. My prayer is that whatever is propelling the nation in the direction it is going should be halted in the tracks now. I wish him well. The fact that I served in several prisons in Nigeria (I served in Kirikiri, I served in Yola, I served in Jos ) before Babangida came and released us has opened my eyes so well to several conditions in Nigeria. It has also reinforced my attitude to injustice however it evolves. How history will judge him depends on what he makes of this opportunity to lead this nation as a civilian leader at a time like this. Will he leave the country better than he met it or will he leave it worse off? For History to be kind to him, he must be deliberately seen to be walking on the right track. The sobering influence of age in the affairs of men is crucial in every situation. Any leader that is above 70 years should be conscious of how history will report him because we are not going to be here forever. The aged man always goes for peace and must not be setting conditions that will make peace impossible. This is one of the reasons why old age is a virtue. It does not allow for the exuberance of the youth. I wish him well. The economic situation is unbelievably distressing. Hunger is biting very hard. The people are suffering while the leaders are by their actions showing no concern. Insecurity is heightening every day. The level of corruption is growing every day, while the people are suffering. On top of this is the arrogance of power which we are faced with endlessly. Something ought to be done to end the siege by the herdsmen but that help is not coming. It is gradually reaching a stage where something will snap and violence will take over the land completely. Look at what is happening before and after the elections. Impunity at the highest level. Where there is no justice that is where you see people resorting to self-help. It is possible to know that the silence that has greeted each impunity done by this administration does not mean acceptance or acquiescence. That is why I plead that we tread carefully. I am 76 years old and I have diabetes and glaucoma. In spite of this, I am worried stiff about the state of the nation.
The National Assembly leadership has just been put in place. There are some misgivings in the skewed composition of the leadership. For the first time in Nigeria, the three heads of the three arms of government –– the executive, the Judiciary, and the legislature –– are headed by people from one part of the country. How do you look at Nigeria in the near future with this kind of condition?
It is a crude thing but I don’t want to blame anybody for that. I won’t blame Buhari for this. It is the fault of the APC. APC is the party directing the affairs of this country. I don’t want to blame any individual. It is an unfortunate situation. In the First Republic, we saw how NPC tried to manage the unity of this country by going into alliance with NCNC and avoiding most of the things that threatened national unity. We saw how NPN fared in the Second Republic. Consistently, successive democratic presidents have sought to run on the thread of national unity in the sharing of appointments. I have said it before that democratic injustice under this regime is terrible. APC must be held squarely responsible if anything ugly happens to our democracy which is still fledgling. The President of the Senate is from the north, the Acting Chief Justice of the federation is from the north, the president is from the north. This, I must tell you is novel since our independence in 1960. It was done without blinking an eyelid. I won’t blame anybody who is blaming the APC. How can a party be this insensitive? Even if an individual, perhaps the president wanted it this way, it is the job of the party in any democracy to say no and make things work the right way. It is as a result of the failure of the APC to rule and its lack of capacity to understand the dynamics that make for peace, progress and prosperity. I recommend a major redemptive surgery for the party so that they do not lead us astray. They have committed something that is sacrilegious and are eager to rationalize everything under the sun. It is my hope that all the democratic injustice committed by this administration will be halted soon.
The much touted Fulanization agenda, do you think it has any part to play in this scenario and do you think that the perceived agenda will work in a heterogeneous entity like Nigeria?
Well, the Fulanization of Nigeria, if it is directed by someone, that person should hold on; that person is making a grave mistake. Certainly, it will collapse on the head of the schemer. It will not work. That person should go back to the basics and learn more. That person should interrogate the issues that made him go into this venture more intensely. That person should review his programme with more intellect and with more people, because it is very intricate and complex. The world is changing and he must move with the changing world. I say again that it will collapse on his head and put him to shame. There is a school of thought that believes that the Nigerian of whatever extraction is averagely at home with his host communities of other ethnic groups. It was Prof Akin Oyebode who said on television the other day, that in some parts of Oyo State you have what we call the Oyo–Fulani. They have been living in peace with the Yoruba there. They have extensively intermarried with the Yoruba and raised children. That is the truth. When Buhari led a delegation to my friend, the late Lam Adesina over the fate of the nomadic Fulani in Osun State, he told Buhari that the two groups were held by a binding thread of love brought about by cultural assimilation and inter-marriages and therefore there should be no cause for concern. He meant it. I think people are trying to invent and create tension and exploit it for their primordial instincts and interests. Some people indeed are living in the past. If the plan is to divide Nigeria, they should come clean with their intention. Nigeria is greater than all of us. Anybody who is thinking like that is wasting his time and is living in fool’s paradise. The attempt will only provide the canon for the disintegration of Nigeria and not Fulanisation of Nigeria. Don’t let anybody deceive you to think that any gamble can work in Nigeria in this age and time.