With the recent declaration by President Muhammadu Buhari to honour the acclaimed winner of June 12, 1993 presidential election, the late Chief Moshood Kashimawo Abiola, with the national honour of Grand Commander of the Federal Republic (GCFR) and recognition of the election day as Democracy Day, Chief Kenny Martins has relived the tense moments and manoeuvres of that dark era.
In this interview, he spoke about the June 12 struggle with the eyes of an insider.
You are a witness to the declaration of June 12 as Democracy Day by President Buhari and the conferment of GCFR on the late Chief MKO Abiola. What is your take on it?
I believe that for anybody who wants to talk about it, it will be impossible to outright condemn the award of honours to the late MKO Abiola for his role in helping to propagate, entrench, and establish democracy in Nigeria. Some people are reading meanings in the presidential declaration and tying it up with the politics of 2019 elections. I am not a lawyer, but Indeed, I read what a retired Chief Judge, Alfa Belgore, said. He said that the award to MKO Abiola is illegal. He said you could only give posthumous medals to military service men that die in the course of duty. He was the chairman of the National Merit Award Committee.
So, these are some of the observations and criticisms by people. Salient issues and controversies have suddenly reared their heads in what should have been a general acclaim and acceptance. That is not to say the government does not deserve commendation for it. For me, it is a hugely deserved honour. What is, however, worrisome is the timing. It is better late than never because it is a richly deserved award. He is a man who laid his life for democracy and I said he should be considered as the patron saint of democracy in Nigeria.
You said the timing is bad, but there are feelings that it may also have been geared towards spiking ex-President Obasanjo who was in power for eight years and is a kinsman of the late MKO Abiola. He failed to recognise the annulled June12 presidential election. Why did he not do it?
I cannot speak for Chief Obasanjo. That is why I said it is better late than never. That question ought to be directed to Chief Obasanjo to answer. It is a richly deserved award.
But you are close to him?
Yes, I am his friend. There is no doubt about that. But how many of his policies and programmes, when he was in government, were mine? Some of us who were not in politics got sucked in it because of the dynamics of that period. And our involvement, I believe, led to the unmaking of June 12, the freest and fairest election in the history of this country. I have had cause to recount some of my involvements in that sad episode. It was an SDP (Social Democratic Party) and NRC (National Republican Convention) contest and the nation, north and south voted overwhelmingly for the SDP and Abiola, despite the fact that it was a Muslim-Muslim ticket. Alhaji Babagana Kingibe was his deputy. Having won that election the result was suspended. This started the process of the unmaking of June12. Unfortunately, some of the greatest and largest number of votes was from the north.
Was it because it was a Muslim-Muslim ticket?
Not really. Abiola was the factor. Paschal Bafyau, a Christian, was supposed to have been the deputy to Abiola. He was so well accepted but people hardly vote for vice- presidential candidates. Abiola was the issue. Now, came the suspension and I believe it was getting near the annulment. And something happened. The antics of politicians came. The unmaking of June 12! They drafted a speech for MKO Abiola to read. Anenih was the chairman of the party. Because of the support that was overwhelmingly given by everybody in this country, including General Obasanjo, Yar’Adua, and many others of different political hue, he eventually won. The suspension and annulment were about being concluded and SDP wrote a speech. The annulment had come a day earlier. That speech was supposed to be read by Abiola. I remember that fine morning. Somebody close told us that Abiola was to read a speech in which he held the military and the north responsible for the annulment. Somebody slotted it in. That was in the night.
We searched all over frantically for Chief Obasanjo to see how he can talk to Abiola on the issue. We let him know that he needed to talk to Chief Abiola not to read that speech. He was the candidate. We wanted to see what was left of the election and leave the military in a fix. He was the one that won the election. Let the chairman of the party read the speech. Let it not be his decision. We couldn’t find him despite our efforts till 7am in the morning when we got through on the phone and he said he was in India. We decided to head straight to Abiola’s house with Kola his son. I was with my mobile phone- 090- you remember it? Abiola was on his way to the place. I called him on my mobile phone and we told him not to read that speech. We told him to leave it for the party chairman, Chief Anenih, to read. There and then he said okay. He was to read it at Eko Holiday Inn, now Eko Hotel and Suites by 1pm. He read that speech.
Some of the Emirs in the north who were involved in the strike to fight June 12 later told us that when he read that speech, in their palaces there were anger and gnashing of teeth. They said they more than anybody else were looking up to him as the saviour that was to come. The same applied to the military hierarchy. That was the beginning of the unmaking of June12. Those who wrote that speech were the engineers of the unmaking of June 12. I am making this pronouncement to be on record. Immediately that one happened, the north moved away from June 12. There was no way the leaders and Emirs could defend it. They were not responsible for the annulment. It was a function of the military that we all should have confronted together. To worsen the situation, it became a southern affair, which translated to NADECO in the south and a sprinkling in the north. At that point, it was easy for the military to wriggle out of it.
We then came to the aftermath. The aftermath was what we went through, in General Abacha’s government. There were maiming, killings, military operations, until finally God rescued us. I still hold Abiola as the foremost democratic hero; the man who shed his blood for democracy But for his tenacity, stubbornness and robustness of attitude in opposition to the annulment, maybe there would have been a second chance for him, but he was not willing to drop that one, we wouldn’t be where we are today.
You fingered some military top brass as those behind the annulment. Do you have an inkling if the current president of Nigeria knew about it?
No, no, no. I didn’t even know him to be involved in politics then. I think the gentleman was on his own then.
Who are the real characters behind it beyond what we know?
I will not tell you today.
Where does this presidential declaration leave people like the late Abiola’s wife, Kudirat and the then INEC chairman, Humphrey Nwosu, including others who played vital roles in the struggle and even lost their lives?
In life, there is this reality that not everybody’s efforts can be rewarded. Whatever you say or do for Kudi and the others, they have also emerged as heroes and heroines of the June 12 struggle. They will never be forgotten. And who are the beneficiaries of those efforts? It is their families, friends, children and all those they left behind. Nobody will be forgotten for battling to get this country from all kinds of shackles. There is a question you asked now. You slotted in Kudirat’s name. It takes me back to efforts made and these are the aftermaths of June12. Abiola was incarcerated for such a long time and nobody had access to him. The legal battles were going on and he would not drop his mandate.
Some place, somehow, somewhere, I and a few friends had some entanglements with the Saudi authorities in Nigeria, the embassy. And as at this time I am speaking, it was close to the Hajj that year. That forthcoming Hajj, the Saudi authorities had said that Nigerian pilgrims must not come to their place because it was alleged that meningitis was ravaging some parts of the country. It was such a big blow to the Muslims nationally. Then, in the course of this engagement, it came out that one of the angers or grouses of the Saudi government was that the government was having their blue eye prints, that is their favourite in General Babangida and because of that, the late Abacha had not been given the deserved support as the leader of one the influential Muslim nations. And this person in charge of affairs in Nigeria said that should not be the case. The fact is that this grouse was predicated on the fact that somebody that the Saudis believe was a Muslim icon in the person of MKO Abiola was incarcerated under his government. They did not see why he should not release him.
Actually, this policy of stopping Nigerians from coming to Mecca was part of expression of disgust over Abiola’s incarceration. There was the hunch in government quarters that if they release this man, who was holding on to his mandate, the Saudi authorities may give him visa to go to Saudi Arabia to take care of himself and take care of other things. While the issue of his mandate was under discussion with global intervention diplomatically, there were pressures all over for the man to leave detention so that he can take care of himself, take care of his business and other things will be sorted out. Even the pilgrims who were being barred would be allowed to come to Mecca. It is not that meningitis was ravaging the country; it was an expression of displeasure.
As at that time, his family had not seen him for up to 6, 7, 8 or more months. I told Kola that his father would die in that place and he won’t know what happened to him. I went to those who were close to them then, the late Sultan Maccido and the Galadima of Malumfashi, Justice Mamman Nasir. I said, Sir, the Saudi kingdom through their Ambassador said because of meningitis, our people cannot come to Mecca. They should let that one go and treat each other as brothers. Even if it means restricting visas to some people, but let this man come there. Give Abiola a reprieve. Let him go to Mecca. Let this man not die in jail. We were in Kaduna, in the house of Justice Mamman Nasir when I said this. I told the Sultan, if God wants this thing to work, the Head of State can call you by himself. His phone rang. You know that old phone that looked like a box that they used to get from Mandilas? He picked up his phone and it was Sultan Maccido on the line. He dropped the phone after the chat and was smiling. I asked why he was smiling. He said the Sultan just told him that the Head of State wanted to see six northern leaders the following day. He said they would pick him up there on their way from Sokoto. I pleaded that when they got to the Villa he should tell the head of state what I had just discussed with him. I told him that if he did that, it would give this man back his life. It will reduce the tension in the country. It can save the nation.
After their meeting, I visited Kaduna again and asked to know the outcome of their meeting with the head of state. He told me that he was asked to fetch Chief Alex Akinyele who had just been appointed the chairman of the National Reconciliation Committee. He had no office yet but that he should tell him that before he arrived Abuja, his office will be waiting for him. He was told to meet MKO Abiola, sell the issue of relinquishing his mandate to him, propose his freedom to him on that condition, let him go and meet his family. So, I came to Lagos and went to his house. It was somewhere around Isolo. When I got there, they told me he was no longer living there, that he was then at Magodo GRA. I went to Magodo and tracked him. They told him I was looking for him and he asked them to tell me to see him in his bedroom. I went to his bedroom and found the man with his leg up on something. He said he had a boil at that very bad area.
I empathised with him. He asked me why I was there. I told him I came to tell him that the Sultan and the Galadima had seen the head of state. The head of state said I should tell you to come to Abuja, that his office and everything had been set up. I told him that getting Abiola out of jail was his first assignment. I told him he had to get him accept the proposition and get the country running. I told him he would have to dialogue with all the interest groups. There was a stalemate in the country then. In that one minute, I didn’t know how his leg came down. He smiled and said, Kenny, angels don’t come with wings. They come like you; you are an angel. The boil just bust now. He said, you mean the head of state said I should come and start work? I said yes, that was the message I brought. He said Kudirat usually came to see him, but he had not been able to see Ore Falomo and Kola. These are the three people they wanted to come and seal Abiola’s bail condition that they had not seen for almost a year. I said, I would get them.
He said if you could fetch them it would be fine. I left him and got Ore Falomo and Kola and told them the situation. It was a weekend. I told them they would be required to be in Abuja on Monday. The Sultan will be there, Galadima and others will be there.
We agreed to meet and indeed met and agreed to go on Tuesday. We were going to see him for the first time at his detention camp after a very long time. Chief Abiola agreed to those terms of release and to commence negotiation for the revalidation of his mandate. We all came back. Unfortunately, Kudirat disagreed. She was all out in the next few days asking why the mandate should be dropped, and why this and that. That was why I sought to reach her when I heard about her virulent opposition. I said let us get this man out first. The day I wanted to discuss this with her, I got to her house and learnt she was on her way to the Canadian embassy. The system eliminated her at Ojota flyover. That was how we lost Kudi. In losing that opportunity, the arrangements collapsed. This culminated in the death of Abacha and Abiola.
Do you have an inside knowledge of how the two of them died?
Laughs. You should ask the Federal Government that question. They were in the custody of the Federal Government.
But you were involved in the thick of the activities? You can give your own perspective.
No , I will not give my own perspective. I will leave that for now. These things will come out in time. Just like the Kennedy assassination, these things will come out in time. If they don’t come out from me, they will come out in snippets, but eventually everything will be put down together. I want to say that we lost that wonderful opportunity to take Nigeria out of that dire space. What worries me most is that so many things are mired in conjectures. To apportion blames and criticise people when you don’t know their roles have been the in thing. When you don’t know their roles, their motives and motivations, sometimes you want to cry for this country.
Buhari’s declaration making June 12 Democracy Day had been made. Some people are reading politics into it. What do you see in it, especially as we grind towards the 2019 polls?
Definitely, those that are reading politics into it have good grounds to do so. A party in opposition that came to power on the altar of change, on the altar of restructuring and for three years they did not do it. Why won’t people think that way? Three years are enough to do these things. I always tell people that restructuring is the issue and that restructuring is the vehicle to drive to power by the opposition. After so many years of in opposition clamouring for restructuring, the Afenifere, Awolowo and NEPU elements and others have now been in power for three years and nobody has heard a word on restructuring.
Are they really in power? I mean the Awoists, Afenifere and NEPU elements? Was Afenifere not sidelined by Bola Tinubu when he was governor, for instance?
It doesn’t really matter. The Yoruba and the South West came to power under this arrangement and they are talking about government of the South West. Nobody echoed restructuring more than Ahmed Bola Tinubu. He was the champion of restructuring while in opposition, but he doesn’t talk about it anymore. At the moment, a man who is a diehard conservative, who is in PDP, is now the foremost champion of restructuring. I am talking about Atiku Abubakar. When he gets to power on its wings, you will never hear of it again in his mouth. Restructuring has become a song to sing and people dance and take you to the villa. When you get there you shut your gate and tell them to go and sit down at home.
Why I believe that this restructuring is tough nut, which nobody will be able to deliver on and I want you to quote me on it, is because unless Nigerians as a people come together to override the constitution through a referendum and suspend the constitution, put A or S team in power for the next two years and form a new constitution, put the necessary ingredients in place, it will not come through. No new constitution can come into being just by legislative meandering. It is not possible. It will entail total revamping. It is a two-tier government, constitution wise-federal and state. The state will take care of the local governments. Local government tier is defined. Even when they tried to define their numbers and areas of sphere, it can’t pass. Anybody who says he is going to restructure is lying to me and you because he will not be able to do it when he gets to power. Except there is a coup; except we resolve to suspend the constitution and suspend what we are doing, and then agree before hand on what we want, set out on a referendum and the teeth to execute it, there will be no restructuring. So let them not use restructuring to deceive us to get to power again.
If they want to get to power, let them tell us what they want to do and we will know how to back them and assess their performance. In recent times, under Obasanjo Jonathan, they would try to push that these local governments, 774 of them should get autonomy and get their allocations directly from the federal government. They passed it everywhere including the National Assembly.
When they sent the bill to the states, the emperors, 36 of them killed it. They said they must be in charge of local governments because that is the one they use that they are not accountable for. Ordinary State Assembly autonomy, the state Houses of Assembly could not approve it for themselves. And you want to do restructuring and put one state in a zone out of six states and only one person becomes governor? Where do you want to consign the remaining five? Are you going to make him a chairman or mayor and then there is no siren to blow? No budget to tinker with? No House of Assembly to cajole? You want to dis-empower the emperor in his own land? We should not lie to ourselves.
Buhari’s recognition of June 12 has come and gone. How do you think it will impact on the outcome of the general elections next year?
No impact at all. It was just a government pronouncement that got Nigerians cheering and that is all. Look, something else is going to happen tomorrow. Nigeria is what Yoruba call Oju moko wahala ko (Everyday there is a new cure). This one we are talking today, June 12, wait till tomorrow. It is like saying that Saraki is an armed robber and it will rock the nation and they move on to something else.
Just wait till tomorrow and see whether the noise will not die down. Before the election, a lot of water will flow over the bridge. We are dancing kokoma over June 12. Does it put bread on my table? Does it put power in my house? Does it repair my road? Does it pay my pension as an old man? Of what use is this June 12? Are these campaign issues? We do not know where the election is going yet. Neither PDP, nor APC. Neither General Buhari, nor General Obasanjo. Neither Atiku, nor Saraki. Nobody should be smiling yet because nothing has been determined. Nigeria is full of surprises and I want to assure you that 2019 will be full of surprises. For Buhari to win will be a major
Is it Buhari that will come up with more surprises as the days roll by?
It is not Buhari; it is Nigeria that will come up with more surprises? If Buhari has not made his pronouncement on June 12, you and I won’t be talking. I do not think you will have my time. Things will keep happening. It is the totality of these issues that will determine 2019. It is too early to determine where Nigeria is going. It is still hazy in the horizon. When they say that the cabal will return Buhari to power, where is the cabal and their power? When they say that Third Force will sweep into power, I say Third Force too? Where is their power to sweep into power? It is Nigerians that will decide in a very short while on which side of the scale they want to weigh in. When they take their decision, no power can stop them. Ask Jonathan. Ask Tafawa Balewa. Ask Obasanjo himself when it was time for him to go.
History has shown that the people and God determine where we go. The only problem is that after God and the people have determined where to go, those who take over, do they deliver? My answer is that they hardly do. If they do, Nigeria will not be the only country whose yesterday is better than today. And today is so problematic, so confusing that we are praying for tomorrow. Now we are with Buhari, are we happy? Are we saying he should continue? That means our yesterday is not as good as today. That means our today may be better than tomorrow. And if that is the case, people will soon be saying anybody but this government. It is left for this government to check itself. It is not enough to abuse Obasanjo and say he should not talk, or even abuse him. There are no limo boundaries anymore. Why are all the lines obliterated?
Justice Nasir told me that the Sarduana who he worked closely with had no boundaries. When he was going for ablution in the mosque the house where he removed his shoes was that of a Catholic priest. There was no walls separating the house and the mosque and he will finish his prayers, pick up his shoes and walk away with his entourage without tension. That was Sarduana who also was empowering Christians in the north. The first generation of military men from the north was mainly Christians- the Gowons, Danjumas etc. He was unconscious to the realities of religious divide. Look at Sunday Awoniyi, a man of profound versatility, he brought them up.
IBB, the man who annulled June 12, is alive. Do you think the pronouncement on June 12 by Buhari is indirectly aimed at him, given the long history of rivalry between them?
June12 is already history, I believe. In the context of General Ibrahim Babangida, his role has been extensively analysed, and reviewed. So I do not see how this pronouncement by Buhari on June12 has anything to do with IBB. I think the president and his advisers just exploited something that they saw as a vacuum and sealed it. A puzzle that is missing is recovered, something that they saw as a yearning is fulfilled. I think that is what they have done. Somebody told me that they are trying to woo the South West. I do not believe that. People have moved on. So I do not see any tie in it to IBB. Not at all.