In this interview, former Foreign Affairs Minister, Professor Bolaji Akinyemi insists that President Muhammadu Buhari’s gesture to Nigerians and the MKO Abiola family on the vexed issue of June 12, 1993 presidential election annulment is a welcome development. Akinyemi, who was the co-Chair of the 2014 Constitutional Conference, explains that Buhari’s courage in de-anulling the election must be appreciated.
But while reminiscing on the June 12 struggle, Akinyemi, who had also served as the Director General, Nigeria Institute for International Affairs, NIIA, looked back with nostalgia on some dark days.
For instance, he was lucky that his house was not bombed the same day that of General Alani Akinrinade. You will find the interview interesting. Excerpts
As the 1993 election crisis raged, people were moving out of the country because anti-June 12 forces were baring their fangs. And people knew you were very close to General Akinrinade because you were moving around together. Can you give an instance when you were moving through the ‘NADECO Route’ to actualise June 12?
Our movement in and out of the country actually persuaded me to believe that it was a mistake to think that all northerners were supporters of Abacha or all northerners were anti-NADECO. I give two examples. The day I was leaving the country, I was smuggled across the border but I supposed there were still some things the smuggler still had to do; like some people needed to be settled.
You were not smuggled, you were being trafficked…
Okay, I was being trafficked because it was for a fee. So I was sitting out in a vehicle, across the border, all alone in the car.
And, suddenly, this tall man walked from Nigeria’s side wearing what we called the Shagari cap – obviously an Hausa man. He came, he looked inside the car, he didn’t put on torchlight as the place was well lit and he could see inside the car. Then, he turned round and walked away.
I was actually expecting him to come back with people carrying guns, but he didn’t come back. Instead, it was my trafficker who came, jumped into the car and we zoomed off to Cotonou. Obviously the man who came wearing Shagari cap knew who I was. It was whether he was indifferent as long as he was paid or good luck.
Were you ever arrested during one of those
There was a time General Akinrinade and I were arrested in Cotonou, in the hotel.
You were in the hotel when they came to arrest you?
Yes. The people of French speaking African countries are very good. When you check into a hotel, you leave your passport, and the hotel people must then report to security forces that ‘we have foreigners, here are their documents and so on are here’.
I think there was one form that we were supposed to have filled but which we didn’t fill. The following morning, some security agents came and said we should follow them.
To be more accurate, they said the General should follow them, because he was the one that didn’t fill the form, I filled the form.
And I said no, “he is not going anywhere I am going with him”. They said they were not asking me. I said it did not matter, we were together, “where he (Akinrinade) goes, I go”. So we went.
We got to their headquarters and they took us to the office of a junior officer because the director hadn’t come by then. They now asked us to go and sit on a bench in the corridor. There we sat. And I was thinking to myself, a former chief of defence staff and a former foreign minister, here, sitting on a bench in the corridor of a security organization. Then I wanted to use the wash room. I told them that I wanted to go back to the hotel because the one they showed me was not good enough. So the young officer said I could not go. I asked why? First of all, the car that brought us there was still there. I said I was not going and leave general, that I was going to come back. He said why could I not use the one they had there? I said no. While we were arguing, a senior officer came out and asked what is the problem? I told him. And he said to the young officer, “You said you didn’t arrest this one, that it is the other man you arrested, and he said he wants to go to the hotel to use the wash room there, let him go”.
So they allowed me to go and I went. I returned and by the time I returned, the director had come. So they marched us in. They had briefed him; he looked at our passports and he asked what we were up to. We explained to him. He said he didn’t believe us, that we must be trafficking in something, that he didn’t believe the general was a general and that I didn’t look like a former minister. We were still having this argument at a time we were supposed to be having an appointment for lunch with a very important person, a very senior person in government in Cotonou. I thought this thing was getting out of hand; and that these guys may go and lock us in one cell infested with mosquitoes and you start wishing you were not born.
I then asked the director if I could use his phone. He thought that was the funniest thing he ever heard – an accused person asking to use the phone of a security director. He said I must have been watching too much of Hollywood films. He laughed. And he said, in any case, who do I want to call? When I mentioned the person’s name, he sat up. He said “do you know him?” I said he is my uncle. “What! And you didn’t say this all along?”
I said “but you didn’t ask. You can only answer to a question you are asked”. I said I just wanted to tell him that we won’t be able to come for the lunch he had invited us to because we had been arrested.
He asked “by who?” I said “of course sir, by you”.
He said no, he never arrested anybody. He said “this has been all a misunderstanding”. He looked at his officers and dressed them down, thoroughly, saying that “they asked you to go and arrest criminals, look at the people you brought, gentlemen like this you called criminals”. He then handed our passports back to us and allowed us to go.
But it is public record that Sergeant Rogers, in his testimony at the court, said he was sent to go and kill Akinrinade and myself, again, in our hotel rooms in Cotonou. When he (Rogers) and his team got there, we had left few minutes before he arrived.
On another occasion, they actually met us in the hotel.
You must have been lucky. Because General Akinrinade’s house is just a stone throw from here but his house was bombed by Abacha’s people but yours was spared?
I was lucky. They were supposed to bomb my house too that night that they bombed General Akinrinade’s house. When they took the list to Al-Mustapha, there was a major who was there at that time and he told Mustafa that with all the troubles the government was having with some other countries, it would not be nice to add the Americans to the list. That this house (Akinyemi’s) had already been bought and paid for by the Americans.
Mustapha was said to have asked how he got to know. And the Major told Mustafa that the cook steward to me (Akinyemi) was a brother to his own wife; and that the cook steward was merely waiting to hand over the house to the Americans.
We were told that all combustible items in the house should be removed henceforth.
That was how this place was saved.
But you were known to be a friend of Abacha.
Yes. He had my telephone numbers and I had his. We had been friends long before the June 12 issue came up.
So, how come you had to run away and why would they want to bomb your house?
Well, when the NADECO struggle started, he called me and asked why I was in NADECO.
I told him it was natural for me to be in NADECO because from the part of the country where I am from, I could not have been in any other pace than to fight for justice for the country. In fact, what would people say of me, were I not to be part of NADECO.
What was his response?
He was frank. You know we cannot now be discussing details of what we said on phone but he said should I persist in the NADECO engagement would mean that I wanted to put myself in danger and in harm’s way.
He said that?
Yes! In fact, shortly after we got word that I needed to leave Nigeria within 24hours.
So, that night it was arranged and I had to leave this house that night because the danger was becoming clear and present. I was, to use your word again, trafficked out of the country very late that night.
By the following morning, men of the SSS stormed this house to arrest me but I was gone. They met my cook who told them that I was not around. They ransacked the whole house and afterwards, posted sentry at the entrance. It was after I granted my first interview outside Nigeria the following day – I think BBC aired the interview – and I think they heard that I was speaking from abroad, that was when they left. Those were very dark days. Many people lost things, Some are yet to recover from the health challenges that developed as a result of living in exile.
So, those just talking today about June 12 and why it is a Greek Gift, do not understand what people went through. This is a first step so we take it.
Fast-forward to June 6, 2018: President Muhammadu Buhari shocked Nigerians. When you heard about the decision that June 12 was actually Democracy Day and the statement was from the President, what were your first thoughts?
I didn’t believe it. I thought it was fake news because there is a lot of such fake news on the internet. So I did my own cross checking and found out that it was true. Well, you have to believe in miracles, that it was possible for Saul to become Paul. I was blown out of my chair with excitement. I became happy. I was happy for the Abiola family. I was happy for NADECO because, to me, yesterday, June 6, 2018, was a day of fulfilment of the NADECO dream. I was happy for Nigeria. This is a great step forward. This is not to say that we won’t take three steps backwards again, and one step forward; we are very fond of doing that in this country. We get to a junction, and, instead of taking the route to progress, we take the route not taken. Yes, sometimes the route not taken can lead to paradise, but, more often than not in Nigeria’s political history, it has not led to paradise. It led to perdition. I have no problems accepting the gift from him (Buhari). This is what we have been fighting for. This is what we have been advocating. And I can bring some personal experience into this. During the 2014 National Conference, we tried to tackle this issue of June 12 versus May 29. It divided the conference down the middle that we had to abandon it.
What was the problem? Critics claimed it was sectional?
Yes. That it was a sectional dream and demand. Don’t let us spoil the bazaar by bringing the kind of argument that people were raising in the past. Buhari has done it. As a social scientist, this is what I would call the mixing China syndrome. It took Nixon (late US President), a rabid anti-communist who could not stick the label of pro-communist put on him, to go to China and recognise China which had been the enemy of the United States since the Second World War. And nobody could say a word against it. Kennedy (another former US President) could not have done that. Johnson (another former US President) could not have done that. It took a Nixon to do. It is the same thing with this one. In fairness to all the former Presidents, it took a Buhari to do and get enough to be quiet that it was done in good faith.
You did say once that the only person the North could trust was Buhari?
There you are. They may not be happy about it. But they believe he did it in good faith. To me, the motivation behind it becomes irrelevant. A good thing done even in bad faith is still a good thing. So whether he did it for a political reason, well, this is election time; people are writing letters for political reasons, people are holding meetings for political reasons and he has done something good for the country for political reason. If all he did was to do something so he could reap the benefits of it, so what? June 12 has become Democracy Day by executive fiat. Do remember that this National Assembly tried even to address this issue and there was confusion.
Buhari removed May 29 which meant nothing to anybody from our national calendar. Remember you asked me what June 12 symbolised and I said it symbolised the birth of a new nation at that time. This is a gift to the whole nation, not minding the attempt to sectionalize June 12. June 12 has never been an actualization of the Yoruba dream. June 12 was the actualization of a Nigerian nation and Nigerian dream. So this is a gift not to the Yoruba but a gift to the whole nation.
The honors that have been conferred, I hope people will know that somebody has to confer the honors. If it had been conferred by a Yoruba man, people will say he did so because Abiola was his kinsman. And it would have diminished the honor because you allow people to sectionalize it. These honors are coming from Buhari, to the Abiola family, to the Gani Fawehunmi family, nobody could doubt the man’s (Buhari) integrity and commitment. I am really glad with the response of Hafsat Abiola. For somebody like Hafsat, who lost both parents, to say that her soul has been lifted, shows the significance of what Buhari has done. I was also a victim. Due to this our NADECO struggle, they arrested my brother, Major Akinyemi and part of his problem was that he was my brother, a military man, but he got arrested for allegedly trying to plot a coup. How can somebody who doesn’t have troops plot a coup? He is dead now but we all knew what he suffered. You cannot be more Catholic than the pope.
For Hafsat to have come out to say what she said, I welcome her view. It strikes a chord in my heart.
A former Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Alfa Belgore, said the honors are not post humously awarded. What do you say to that?
Uncle Chief Justice, that is what I call him, we are very close. He practically grew up in my parents’ house in Ilesha Grammar School when he was a student and my father was Principal there. I disagree with him. This is an issue that goes beyond strict legal interpretations. It is not a legal matter. You have got to be flexible without embracing illegality. My take on this issue is that Abiola was elected President in 1993, and that is when he acquired GCFR which is only for Presidents or anybody the president wants to honor like Shagari honoured the late Chief Awolowo. That was when he acquired it. The election was annulled. And it was the annulment that was de-annulled yesterday.
So, it was not a dead body that was elected President. It would not have been a dead body that would have acquired the GCFR if the processes had been completed in 1993. If you are doing justice to law, don’t go and interpret under narrow precinct. There is another person who said it could also be justified on the basis of equity, that equity is restoring what should have been done at the time it was not done. I hope nobody goes to court because there are usually some of our lawyers who are just waiting to pounce on the opportunity to make noise for themselves and name for themselves. If they do, I am so sure that there would be strong SANs who will ensure that justice is done according to law; law should not be antagonistic. The purpose of law is justice.
Since President Buhari can do this which appears right and proper to the delight of most Nigerians, what would you want to tell him to do about good governance, because when you look at herdsmen attacks, adherence to the rule of law and also the need to be seen as being equitable in the sharing of offices in the country…
You have identified them. They say the journey of a thousand miles starts with a first step away from home. Let us take several more steps before 2019. One would be to issue instructions publicly to security forces disarm herdsmen. The Inspector General of Police has said civilians carrying guns should be disarmed. Herdsmen fall under that rubric. Make it more specific. Disarm herdsmen. Two, I wouldn’t advise that his government should be more inclusive between now and February next year, that would look too much like a gimmick. But tell the nation your second coming, if it materialises, would be more inclusive.
You promise the nation that you will practise a more inclusive government. Three, on the question of corruption, I don’t really blame him for what looks like tardiness in the prosecution of the anti – corruption crusade. I think the judiciary has its own share of the blame. Look at one governor who has just been convicted. The case started in 2007, 11 years. You don’t blame the executive for that.
There is something wrong with the judicial system that takes 11 years, and that is the court of first instance. It is still going to the Court of Appeal and then Supreme Court. Something has to be done. The judiciary itself is violating its own ACJA which I think is about procedure to fast track the judicial process. I know that under the EFCC Act, interlocutory appeals are banned, and yet it takes place. A judge gives judgment on an application, you are going to the Court of Appeal, and yet that is specifically banned in ACJA.
And the Supreme Court has held that the Act is constitutional, so why does the judiciary continue to allow lawyers to file this interlocutory papers. As the case starts, you are supposed to do it today, if you have any disagreement with the judge, let it be part of the grounds of your appeal against the decision; instead, the judge gives a decision, immediately you are going to the Court of Appeal; this has to stop.