• The forgotten heroes of democracy

    The forgotten heroes of democracy - nigeria newspapers online
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    While it is almost impossible to chronicle all the people who played one role or the other in Nigeria’s quest for a return to democratic governance from June 12, 1993, until May 29, 1999, some names missed out in President Bola Ahmed Tinubu’s Democracy Day speech have been tagged as too significant to be left out.

    In his speech on June 12, the president listed 32 names as heroes of democracy, starting with the late Chief MKO Abiola, the presumed winner of Nigeria’s arguably freest election in 1993, to Chief Ayo Opadokun, the Secretary-General of the National Democratic Coalition (NADECO), an association of several pro-democracy and activist groups that championed the call for the military to exit the stage and hand over to Abiola.

    Referencing the sacrifices made by the coalition, the president said, “The precious gift brought about by their selfless devotion can neither be repaid nor forgotten.”

    However, many Nigerians observed that though the president noted that the list was not exhaustive, as several names who also played critical roles, some with their lives, were not mentioned.

    Some of the names said to have been worth mentioning include Walter Carrington, Frederick Fasehun, Col Dangiwa Umar, Bagauda Kaltho, Joe Igbokwe, Mohammed Adamu, Dr Junaidu Mohammed, Alhaji Bukar Zarma, Nosa Igiebor, Bayo Onanuga, Sunday Dare, Gambo Sawaba, Mike Ozekhome, Clement Nwankwo and Alao Aka-Bashorun.

    ‘Proper planning would’ve ensured significant names weren’t omitted’

    The immediate past Managing Director and Editor-in-Chief of The Guardian, Martins Oloja, in an interview with Daily Trust Saturday, said, “Immortalising people and doing all this thing on June 12, is a very good cause, but since the president decided to name some people as heroes of democracy, I believe they omitted some significant names and only remembered the prominent figures.”

    Using Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven Life to differentiate between significance and prominence, Oloja, who was the editor of the Abuja Newsday that was shut down during the period, said that being a reporter and editor during the period of Nigeria’s democratic struggle he knew several persons not on the list read out by the president but that played significant roles in the struggle and thus deserved to be recognised as heroes of “our” democracy.

    He noted that people like the late former Vice President, Alex Ekwueme, with his organisation of political groups; the late Justice Dolapo Akinsanya, who declared the Interim National Government of Chief Ernest Shonekan illegal, were left out.

    Meanwhile, President Tinubu had before then described the late Justice Akinsanya as “one of the heroines of the present democracy in Nigeria for the courageous judgement she delivered against the legality of the Interim National Government in November, 1993.”

    Oloja added that the names of people like Joe Igbokwe, with his constant letters to editors for the actualisation of democracy; and Dr Kayode Fayemi, a former Ekiti State governor, who was generally described as the brain behind Radio Kudirat – the indispensable voice of the June 12, struggle that was broadcasting not only to Nigeria, denouncing the military dictators, but also sensitising the international community on the struggle to end military dictatorship in the country, were also not on the list.

    He further said, “Even for the media, the president just mentioned some media establishments but didn’t mention some of the people who suffered specifically. For instance, Bayo Onanuga, the current president’s media adviser, who resigned from his job as the Editor of Concord as a result of the struggle. He resigned when it came to apologising to the military about a story. He refused and left.”

    He also highlighted the roles of Ray Ekpu, Yakubu Mohammed and Dan Agbese, all of Newswatch, who were arrested on the same day for publishing an interview with David Mark on the intrigues that led to the cancellation of the June 12, 1993, presidential election.

    He added that even among the activists, it was a great oversight to ignore names like Mike Ozekhome, Clement Nwankwo, Alao Aka-Bashorun and Chief Amos Akingba, especially as the president decided to include the names of their contemporaries like Olisa Agbakoba, Femi Falana, Abdul Oroh, Senator Shehu Sani and Governor Uba Sani.

    Oloja noted that while it was impossible to have an exhaustive list, proper planning of an event of that nature would have ensured that some significant names that readily came to mind were not subsumed under “among others” as the president did in his speech.

    Walter Carrington

    For instance, the late Carrington, a former US Ambassador to Nigeria, was so interested in Nigeria’s struggle for a return to democracy that his position was erroneously interpreted by the then military regime as the intention of the United States (US) to kick out the General Sani Abacha regime.

    In his condolence message, former President Muhammadu Buhari described Carrington as a “long-time friend of Nigeria and an astute and courageous diplomat,” adding that the story of “Nigeria’s democracy under the Fourth Republic will not be complete without a mention of the heroic roles of the likes of Ambassador Carrington.”

    Carrington remains arguably the most popular US ambassador to Nigeria even after his death in 2020. The road where the US Consulate and several other countries’ consulates are situated is named after him in Lagos.

    Alao Aka-Bashorun

    Similarly, Aka-Bashorun, a former President of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), was another name believed to be too important to the democratic struggle to have been excluded.

    One of his children, Dipo H Aka-Bashorun, in an opinion article to respond to the absence of his father’s name during the president’s June 12, dinner speech, said June 12, like with so many notable Nigerians, was inextricably connected to his name.

    He wrote, “Where to start? His conviction of G.O.K. Ajayi (SAN) to join him and mount the legal defence of Chief MKO Abiola, the widely acclaimed winner of June 12, at his trial for treason. How about his years in exile; having had to leave Nigeria with a passport issued by the United Nations after the People’s Chambers (his law office) had been raided, sealed off, and his Nigerian passport seized? His role as a leading member of the human rights movement to take the case of Nigeria’s human rights abuses to the United Kingdom and the United States.

    “His unwavering support of Mrs Kudirat Abiola’s resolve, commitment and determination to see the actualisation of her husband’s mandate? On June 4, 1996, Alao Aka-Bashorun was one of the first people to see Kudirat Abiola’s bullet-ridden body at the hospital. She had been on her way to pick him up for a meeting. The shock was too much to bear and he broke down at the scene and would never fully recover his memory again. Such was his price to pay for democracy in our beloved country, Nigeria.”

    The younger Aka-Bashorun added: “The omission of his name at a dinner speech notwithstanding, history has been kind to his legacy. Associations like the Ikeja branch of the Nigerian Bar Association, which have held a widely acclaimed annual lecture since April 29, 2010, in his name as a bar leader and incomparable activist, have lived up to the creed that ‘the labour of our heroes past shall never be in vain’ and are doing their part so that his name and achievements are not overlooked at the dinner table.”

    Another of Aka-Bashorun’s children, Morayo Afolabi-Brown, said she was not surprised when her father’s name was omitted in the president’s speech “because when June 12, was officially made our Democracy Day and there was quite a bit of attention on the heroes of that day, my dad wasn’t mentioned. People were given post-humous awards, but he wasn’t recognised. As a family, we chose not to make a fuss.”

    Morayo, who is the MD of TVC Entertainment, further said while their father had not gotten the recognition his role in Nigeria’s democratic struggle earned him, “A few people in government and well-meaning Nigerians have acknowledged to me privately the role my father played, but none of these has been publicly or officially stated by the government in power or others before them.”

    Frederick Fasehun

    The leadership of the Oodua People’s Congress (OPC) also described President Tinubu’s failure to acknowledge its founder, Dr Frederick Fasehun, in the list of the June 12, heroes as a mark of ingratitude.

    The President of the Yoruba socio-political organisation, Otunba Wasiu Afolabi, said that it took the family and estate of Dr Fasehun to blow their father’s June 12, trumpet for the younger generation to know and acknowledge him as one of the heroes of Nigeria’s democratic struggle.

    Afolabi recalled that the medical doctor-turned activist sacrificed his livelihood and liberty to fight for the disannulment of Abiola’s mandate and the restoration of democracy through the OPC and NADECO.

    He said, “Baba was jailed several times. Hundreds of innocent OPC members were killed. Some were arrested, jailed, maimed for life and extra-judicially killed.”

    Bukar Zarma

    Also recollecting the years of the struggle to install democracy, veteran editor of the then New Nigeria and publisher of Abuja Newsday, Alhaji Bukar Zarma, told Daily Trust Saturday that there was no hard feeling about not being recognised in the president’s speech because, looking back, “We can say the struggle was worth it. What is important is that the work was done; it does not matter who gets the credit. If they give one credit, fine; if they don’t, you should be happy that the work was done.”

    Alhaji Zarma, who is now the Coordinating Secretary of the Leadership Selection Committee of the Arewa Consultative Forum (ACF), recalled that, “At one point when New Nigeria was the only newspaper in Northern Nigeria and I was the daily editor, all of us (editors) were in detention. I was detained at the NSO office in Lagos, and my roommates were Femi Falana; then Editor of Tribune, Folu Olamiti; and late elder statesman, Alhaji Sule Katagum, a former Chairman of the Federal Civil Service Commission.

    “Even for Abuja Newsday, as small as it was, I, as the publisher, and the editors were always arrested and detained. The paper was proscribed alongside others, but unlike others, it never recovered. All these only illustrate the crisis that befell the media during the struggle for democracy. I don’t think there is any group of professionals that paid the price journalists paid. Of course, there were the agitators who were often arrested and detained, but journalists were walking corpses because they picked you on the streets, in your houses and all others, and nobody can go to court to secure your release.”

    Mohammed Adamu

    Also sharing his experience during the struggle, Mohammed Adamu, a former editor of African Concord, who himself was identified as worthy of recognition, recalled in one of his writings on the struggle that: “For nine months I was in the dungeon of what we knew then as the SSS – bearded to the navel – and in just about four months I was beginning to dreadlock as I was hemmed daily between two giant air-conditioning power machines that supplied the entire building.”

    His offence was the writing of an expose with the title: “El-Mustapha: The ruthless iron man behind Abacha’s junta”, which he said was “about the first ever to unravel and deconstruct – if you will – the once shadowy Chief Security Officer (CSO) who initially loomed large behind the throne even though he enjoyed de facto privileges to the subjugation or capitulation of all armed and unarmed forces in the country.

    “By the sixth month in detention, TELL’s Osifor Whisky Onome was brought in to join me, and together we were now told that we had our hands in the Diya coup attempt, an event that ironically happened six long months after I had been taken in and three months after Onome had been. And to show how serious they really were, some of the civilian suspects in that coup attempt were moved to our tiny cell as a combined team of military police, the SSS and others began to interrogate us, preparatory, they said, to our being moved soon to Jos where the tribunal would sit.”

    But after failing to establish a case against them, Adamu recalled that he and Onome were informed that they “were culpable because our writings, over time, having damagingly denigrated the junta, had, wittingly or unwittingly, motivated the coupists to act and also prepared fertile ground for the public to welcome the coup – had it succeeded.”

    Joe Igbokwe

    Also speaking with Daily Trust Saturday, Joe Igbokwe, a chieftain of the All Progressives Congress (APC) in Lagos State, said he was recognised as he was invited to the anniversary dinner.

    He said, “I was in that hall. He (President Tinubu) could not mention all the names. We thought he would mention all the names, but he did not mention all the names. I was there.

    “You know, those of them that occupied power after the June 12, crisis in 1999 never knew anything about the struggle for democracy. Obasanjo came and hijacked Abiola’s position. After that, Yar’Adua came, Jonathan came and then Buhari. These are not the heroes of democracy. It’s now that we have heroes of democracy in power.

    “I feel elated. Being remembered is the most important thing. If Asiwaju had not been elected, nobody would remember us.”

    Nosa Igiebor

    The co-founder and president of Tell Communications, publishers of Tell Magazine, Nosa Igiebor (72), told Daily Trust Saturday that he did not feel anything personal with his name not being mentioned among the heroes of June 12, and democracy.

    Igiebor was arrested and imprisoned because of the June 12, struggle before he later went into exile.

    He said, “June 12, has come and gone. I didn’t feel anything personal about not being mentioned, as there are many others left out, maybe inadvertently. I didn’t feel much celebrating June 12, as we have not fared better after 25 years, and we are even worse off than when we were fighting to end military rule and enthrone democracy.

    “What matters to me is that Nigerians should be better off than they are. June 12, and democracy would have meaning and be appreciated by Nigerians if their lives are better with democracy and they are assured that there is hope and a future for their children.

    “When the leaders were celebrating June 12, millions of other Nigerians were unfulfilled that the democracy they laboured for and expected dividends were not forthcoming.”

    President will acknowledge all in due course – Presidency

    Reacting to the concerns of many Nigerians, the presidency said the president would in due course acknowledge all the men and women who fought for the democracy currently being enjoyed.

    The Special Adviser to the President on Information and Strategy, Bayo Onanuga, noted that the omission of some names was not an indication that the president snubbed them.

    Onanuga said, “Even some of the names you mentioned here are not exhaustive. The fact that the president did not mention some names does not suggest he snubbed them or didn’t remember them. Indeed, while reading his speech, the president twice added, ‘among others’, because he realised the names were merely representative of the whole.

    “The president, in due course, will acknowledge all the men and women who fought for the democracy we are enjoying today.”

    Morayo Afolabi-Brown, said she was not surprised when her father’s name was omitted in the president’s speech “because when June 12, was officially made our Democracy Day and there was quite a bit of attention on the heroes of that day, my dad wasn’t mentioned. People were given post-humous awards, but he wasn’t recognised. As a family, we chose not to make a fuss.”

    Morayo, who is the MD of TVC Entertainment, further said while their father had not gotten the recognition his role in Nigeria’s democratic struggle earned him, “A few people in government and well-meaning Nigerians have acknowledged to me privately the role my father played, but none of these has been publicly or officially stated by the government in power or others before them.”

     

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