By Bolanle Bolawole
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As I lay me on my bed one morning reflecting on happenings around the world, with particular reference to Nigeria, I could not but recall the official flagging off of the All Progressives Congress presidential candidate, Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu’s campaign in Jos, the capital of Plateau state, on Tuesday, November 15, 2022, 30 years after another Yoruba son and icon, MKO Abiola, had dramatically also flagged off his own campaign for the country’s top job on the platform of his party, the Social Democratic Party (SDP), in the same tin city. Abiola ran a very popular and robust campaign and it was no surprise that he won by a landslide in all parts of Nigeria, except in Igbo land, whose people voted for Abiola’s opponent, Bashir Tofa from Kano State but whose running mate, Sylvester Ugoh, was Igbo from Imo state. True, then, is the saying that blood is thicker than water! That most unfortunate tribalism of the Igbo, however, took no shine off Abiola’s triumph as the 1993 presidential election remains a watershed, as historians would call it, in the history of elections in Nigeria. It was the freest and fairest as well as the most peaceful ever. Abiola’s mandate was pan-Nigerian in that, even in Igboland, he met the constitutional requirement of at least 25 percent of the lawful votes cast in most, if not all, of the eastern states. Abiola’s election was also unique in the sense that it was a Muslim-Muslim (MM) ticket; his running mate, Babagana Kingibe, from Borno State, being also a Muslim. Notwithstanding, Abiola won handsomely in many Christian-dominated areas.
Abiola’s campaign headline was “Hope ‘93” and his battle cry was “Farewell to Poverty” His campaign was lively and it resonated well with all and sundry, the sound bites were especially spectacular! One of his campaign songs was especially captivating: “On the march again/Waiting for Mr. President/MKO is our man o!” I still remember it as if it was yesterday! Nothing we have seen today – or ever since 1993 – comes close to it. Abiola won the election but the announcement of the results were abandoned halfway while the entire election was subsequently annulled by the military junta of the self-acclaimed evil genius, Gen. Ibrahim Babangida, now retired. Abiola fought tooth-and-nail to reclaim his mandate but died doing so. His blood – and that of the other martyrs of the June 12 struggle, as it came to be known – eventually watered the tree of liberty, leading to the retreat of the military from the political arena and the enthronement of democracy in 1999. The icing on the cake came in 2018 when the incumbent president, retired Major-General Muhammadu Buhari, declared June 12 as Nigeria’s Democracy Day (as opposed to the May 29 date imposed by the retreating military) and Abiola himself was given the posthumous award of Grand Commander of the Federal Republic (GCFR), the highest national award in the land.
Tinubu himself was no stranger to Abiola, being, as it has been rumoured, one of his advisers and strategists as well as one of June 12 struggle’s financiers. He was a very important member of the Nigerians-in-exile group that became the moving spirit behind the June 12 struggle. Those who claim to know have said it was Tinubu’s role in the June 12 struggle that gave him an edge over Funsho Williams in the tussle for the Lagos state governorship seat when the then Gen. Abdulsalami Abubakar’s junta signalled the return to democratic rule and the military’s return to the barracks in 1999. Is it a sentimental attachment to MKO that has made Tinubu to have copiously borrowed materials from Abiola’s campaign? Or is it the success of Abiola’s campaign, despite his MM ticket, that Tinubu seeks to replicate with his own MM ticket? Aare Dele Momodu, spokesperson of the PDP presidential campaign, has even accused Tinubu of plagiarising Abiola!
What pivotal role did Tinubu play in the scripting and formulation of Abiola’s “Farewell to Poverty” manifesto? With the failure of Abiola to reclaim his mandate and rule over Nigeria, it has remained in the realm of conjecture whether, truly, he could have banished poverty from the land. Would he or would he not have been able to achieve his tall dream of berthing a new Nigeria? Tinubu’s “Renewed Hope” suggests a link with Abiola’s “Hope ’93” which was lost with the annulment of the June 12, 1993 election. Renewed hope or hope renewed must then be interpreted to mean realising with the 2023 election what was not allowed to happen in 1993 – a space of 30 years interval. And it brings to mind John Milton’s “Paradise Lost” and “Paradise Regained” Shall we regain in 2023 what was lost or was denied in 1993? If MKO was not the much-needed messiah in 1993, to quote retired Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo, is Tinubu the desperately needed messiah in 2023?
So far, the similarities between 1993/MKO Abiola and 2023/Tinubu are striking enough. Both are Yoruba sons. Both are liberal Muslims. Both are rich and generous. Both search for talents and know how to deploy them to achieve results as well as promote their own personal interest or agenda thereby. Both have deliberately built bridges all over the country, not minding, in doing so, to even offend their own Yoruba people. Both have had, one time or the other, problems with the mainstream leaders of their own people. Both are as passionately hated as they are affectionately loved. Having achieved everything there is to be achieved, the presidency of the country has remained the only ambition worthy of their desire and struggle. Should Tinubu succeed where MKO failed, he would also have succeeded where the greatest Yoruba leader ever, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, failed. As many times as Awo contested election to lead Nigeria, he had been stopped by rigging, by gang-up, and by all manner of manipulations and shenanigans only for him, at his death, to be described as “the best President Nigeria never had”! Who prevented him? The same people who turned up to shed crocodile tears on his grave!
What they alleged that Awo failed to do, MKO did but, still, he was not allowed to rule. They said Awo didn’t build bridges across Nigeria; MKO did and Tinubu has also done. They said Awo was a Christian; MKO was Muslim and Tinubu is a Muslim. They said Awo was unbending and would not play ball; both MKO and Tinubu are masters in Nigeria’s political game of Russian roulette. Will Tinubu succeed where Awo and MKO failed? What will Tinubu do differently? One grave mistake MKO was alleged to have made was that he revealed his strategies for wiping away poverty from Nigeria too early. In one of the interviews he granted, he was reported as saying that once he got hold of the Central Bank of Nigeria and the NNPC, everything else and everyone would respond to his stimulus and he would thereby whip the economy into line. Tinubu has been careful, in fact over-careful to some, not to repeat MKO’s mistake in this regard. It is a pity he finds himself boxed into a corner: He cannot criticise Buhari or distance himself from his failures. Yet, everyone knows that Tinubu is a total stranger in Buhari’s government. Trust politicians, they have rubbed it in ad infinitum and ad nauseam! When they pillory the APC/Buhari administration and ask Nigerians to vote it out of power, I am sure they know that Tinubu’s contribution is not any more than that he helped to bring Buhari into power. Tinubu himself has been a victim of the cabals around Buhari as anyone else!
Perhaps, the most successful Yoruba – well, Yoruba – leader of all time is Obasanjo, both as a military leader and elected civilian president. Obasanjo has never supported a Yoruba person to be president of this country. He did not support Awo. Indeed, ahead of his handing over power to a civilian government in 1979, he prepared the minds of Nigerians for things to come by quipping that the best candidate might not win the election. Not many will say that inference was not directed at Awo. Obasanjo eventually handed over power to Shehu Shagari, perhaps the most inept elected leader, save Buhari, that this country has had. While Abiola was fighting to reclaim his annulled mandate, Obasanjo, in far-away South Africa, poured cold water on everyone’s enthusiasm and spirit by declaring that MKO was not the messiah Nigeria needed. If history is to judge, we should not expect Obasanjo in Tinubu’s corner. And if his truculent disposition towards his erstwhile deputy, Atiku Abubakar, is anything to go by, the Turakin Adamawa cannot be Obasanjo’s candidate, which leaves us with the Labour Party’s Peter Gregory Obi, in all respect a political upstart when compared with his more illustrious competitors.
My suspicion is that political apathy will be on the high scale in 2023, especially among the upper and middle class. Frustration, disillusionment and despondency run high in the polity. So much work still has to be done by all the candidates to bring out the votes. The candidates are not exciting – not yet! For instance, there is no MKO Abiola among them yet. Although Kola, Abiola’s first son, is among the contestants, he is a far cry from his more illustrious father. The campaign so far is drab. When shall we witness, again, the kind of vigorous campaigns the likes of which Awo ran, criss-crossing the length and breadth of the country and discussing ideas? Bereft of ideas and lacking in energy and panache, today’s campaigns have been reduced to mudslinging and raking up of past scandals and opening up of cans of worms.
To be sure, it is worrisome that probity is fast receding in the public space – and this is not limited to Nigeria alone. In saner times, how could Donald Trump have become the president of the United States of America? Even Joe Biden, his successor, has his own skeletons struggling to pop out of the cupboard. The poster boy, Barack Obama, reportedly has a past of drug use. How on earth did Macron become the president of France and still riding high? Can you imagine that Charles is king in England! Where has our morality gone? What has become of our values?
We may not have known it yet but the problem that we face is deeper than isolated or pervasive cases of corruption, of drug use and what-have-you; as peoples and nations, the debasement spares no one. Consider: Those who steal resources meant for development, thereby condemning millions of their fellow human beings to degrading existence; those who manipulate themselves into political office, thereby preventing more qualified and competent people from having the opportunity to make a difference; and those who sell their own soul to the devil in the name of freedom and rights that allow men to marry men and women to marry women; human beings have now moved from willing their inheritance to their pets into marrying such pets (animals) and, as we speak, siblings can now legally marry siblings in some climes, parents can marry their sons and daughters and vice-versa! Who, then, does not know where we are heading? Even places of worship provide no succour these days. The shenanigans of churches and mosques rival or even surpass those of the political arena? Where, then, lies our redemption?
** Former Editor of PUNCH newspapers, Chairman of its Editorial Board and Deputy Editor-in-chief, BOLAWOLE was also the Managing Director Editor-in-chief of THE WESTERNER newsmagazine. He writes the ON THE LORD’S DAY column in the Sunday Tribune and TREASURES column in New Telegraph newspaper. He is also a public affairs analyst on radio and television.