OPINION: A Glorious Bribe, By Sam Omatseye
When people say that the June 12 crisis invested the country with fear, they are right. When they say, it immiserated Nigerians with hunger, they are also on the money. I am a personal testimony.
On hunger, I had it. I lost my job like many others when the soldiers shut the gates of the Concord newspaper, Abiola’s publishing firm. Almost destitute, I headed to the market in Egbeda, Lagos State, to buy some meat for a pot of soup.
At the meat section, I approached a seller, and I offered the little money left in my pocket for any slice of meat. I had not received a salary in close to a year.
“Oga, this amount no fit buy any meat,” he said, irritated.
I dipped my hands in the pocket and emptied it.
“I no get any other money for my pocket or anywhere. Yesterday, I no eat meat. I no want die of kwashiorkor,” I pleaded with facetious exaggeration.
But I looked at him, a little shamefacedly. I had struck him with my desperation. His contempt softened to affection. He flicked out his knife, and cut a huge chunk of beef on his slab, wrapped it in a green leaf. He looked up at me and handed me the piece of protein, bloodless and fatless.
He rejected my money with magnanimous disdain and asked me to go and have a good meal. That moment and that day, the butcher was my June 12 hero. That was one of several such stories I recall of my suffering. I could not forget I had to trek several miles to draw a debt because I could not afford molue. I had to walk back, weary-legged and starving, because my debtor was not in the office. Several other stories. Many Nigerians lost their lives and livelihoods because the impunity and inanity of one man’s ambition had banished food from their tables.
I also quaked with fear. I didn’t until one afternoon, in the early months of the June 12 crisis, Beko Ransome kuti and Femi Falana (SAN) had appeared at an Abuja court. After the session, I drove behind them curious where they were gaoled. A car zipped past me, someone inside wagging an ominous finger at me and warning me and asking me to return. A few days later, Abiola’s confidant, Olu Akerele, alerted me to two SSS cars that took turns trailing me about town. I was Concord’s managing editor in Abuja. I knew I had to leave town.
When Buhari finally immortalised Abiola, I lamented the frailty of life. The last time I saw him, his whole being kindled like coal fire, his smile, his stride, his brio. He was in his political element challenging IBB. I had walked into the then Nicon Noga Hilton Hotel to see a news source. But when the elevator door creaked open, who was I to see but MKO himself, beneath his cap with its signature “puncture.” A security man behind him. I stepped back in deference.
“Sam Sam,” he intoned in his guttural register. He asked me to accompany him. I was with him for hours until I retired home. He was still consulting with politicians, many of whom looked the other way later, including Abubakar Rimi. I recall him introducing me to them as “Concord’s new landlord in Abuja.” He had promised he was going to make my new assignment worth the while. That was the last time I heard or saw him.
When Buhari declared June 12 the new democracy day, it was a bulwark against the fear and trembling of those days. It was an acknowledgement of the misery of that dark hour. Most Nigerian homes were houses of hunger. Yet, when democracy came, Olusegun Obasanjo decided to push the country into wilful forgetting, a plague of amnesia.
He wanted us to forget the thousands who died on the streets when IBB’s and Abacha’s bullets flew in demoniac and fatal waves, the journalists who toiled in hiding to keep Nigerians abreast of the daily carnage of a dream. The News/Tempo heroes. The Tell heroes, the Bagauda kalthos who dropped forever into oblivion, the Niran Malaolus who lost liberty, the Kunle Ajibades who were out of sight, the Olisa Agbakobas deposited in gulag, the Kokoris whose acts growled like tiger, Wole Soyinka who was declared wanted. Kudirat Abiola, the intrepid Amazon, who earned the name of a radio station manned with such men as Kayode Fayemi. The station snarled fear into Abacha, IBB, and their men. He wanted us to forget the heroics of NADECO, their financier Alfred Rewane shot in a shrill night in his home. Or the late Ubani of the Centre for Democracy, known as “governor of Lagos” for his sit-at-home orders. Gani Fawehinmi now duly honoured. Bola Tinubu who escaped after episodes behind bars and became a nemesis of the state in London and the United States.
Obj was exhibiting what psychologists call the fear of gratitude. He did not want to thank Abiola on whose sacrifice he had become the president. As the Roman historian Tacitus wrote, “it is always easier to repay an injury than a benefit; gratitude is a burden, but revenge is a pleasure.” Obj was wrestling with Abiola, a glorious dead, with a monomaniacal zeal. Literary critic Harold Bloom, the author of the anxiety of influence, describes it as a “triumphant wrestling with the greatest of the dead.” Except that OBJ has now seen his own defeat in his lifetime. The dead woke up and gave him a pin fall. He would not let a dead Abiola be. He decided to rebury him. Now, rather than congratulate Buhari, the Owu chief accuses him of endangering his life. He needs to come out with concrete evidence. A former head of state is not expected to be flippant in such matters. Whether or not it is true, the burden of proof lies with him. Or else, he will be an agbaya who is sulking because his manufactured foe came out of his grave to laugh and party.
Obj wanted us to forget those who abandoned the mandate, including Babagana Kingibe, a shameless and moral failure, a fifth columnist ignominy and quisling of the struggle, who has the effrontery to even accept what he did not deserve. He abandoned the mandate and even poohpoohed and mocked it openly. The award to him of GCON is, in the popular cliché, like giving diamond to pigs. It’s a dishonour to those who stood firm and believed. Or those who went to bed with Abacha like Ebenezer Babatope, Lateef Jakande, Olu Onagoruwa, et al. It was a time when courage failed many a mighty man. From “On June 12 we stand,” the phrase changed to unprintables.
The evil genius IBB now officially joins Abiola in the back of beyond, even if his gap tooth still flashes the hilltop night of his Minna mansion. He and his annulment now belong to the dunghill of history. I thank Buhari for doing what Jonathan did not have the liver for. The Otuoke chieftain had shied from giving us the holiday, because he feared the northern vote. Yet, ironically, it is the northerner who now gives it. The north was afraid of June 12. With Buhari’s decision, they have banished the fear. They had seen June 12 as the Rhinoceros in Eugene Ionesco’s play of that name, when people feared a rhino had come to town even though they saw only dust whirls. Yet they took for granted the cuddly cat in their arms.
Jonathan gave a tepid Unilag offer, against due process and to the uproarious rejection of both students and faculty. The northern vote he did not get and the same southwest voted him out of power. He forgot that Abiola’s victory was Nigeria’s signal moment in unity, when even a Fulani man voted out their son for a Yoruba, and Christians saw a man, not a contest between Christ and Mohammed.
Justice Belgore wanted to be a legal killjoy, but Falana and others have silenced his lordship. Let me also teach him a law lesson. Abiola won the election, so he was in the Nigerian heart a president. The GCFR is actually a restoration of what he earned but was stolen from him while alive. So, for me, this is no post-humous award but a title he was denied of when he won the election of June 12. That is why I agree with the senate that the full result should be released. After all, Humphrey Nwosu, the umpire, had stated it categorically in his memoirs.
Some have said Buhari’s gesture was a bribe for southwest votes. This is one of those sublime gratifications for which even the taker congratulates himself. It’s a holy act disguised as sin. Just like Achebe wrote, “You may cause more trouble by refusing a bribe than by accepting it.”