But for this day, Dr. Alex Ifeanyichukwu Ekwueme would have become the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.
The day was Thursday, August 13 1998. The setting was a meeting of the nascent People’s Democratic Party, PDP, just metamorphosed from the activist G-34 in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital city. The agenda was to decide on the policy of the emergent party, especially on power-sharing and rotation of the presidency.
The buildup long started with Dr. Nelson Mandela of South Africa’s second visit to Nigeria to meet with Gen. Abacha, after his 1995 release from prison. He was here to advise Gen Abacha to loosen his tight grip on Nigeria and allow some air of democratic freedom to flow in. His Holiness, Pope John Paul II had earlier undertaken a similar mission, albeit with no success. Mandela had specifically called for the release of the likes of Chief M. K. O. Abiola, General Olusegun Obasanjo, General Shehu Yar’Adua, Ken Sarowiwa and his Ogoni colleagues. But Abacha was adamant to Nelson Mandela’s entreaties. Even though his trip to Nigeria produced negative results, Dr. Nelson Mandela, the world acclaimed doyen of revolutionary struggles in Africa was prepared. He did not relent, he had a Plan B. Mandela turned his attention to Nigeria’s pro-democracy groups to come to the rescue. He invited them to South Africa, hoping to inspire them to take to militant opposition.
The South African authorities made auspicious arrangement to assist the visiting Nigerian pro-democracy groups and individuals to discuss among themselves. Occasionally, Nelson would sit in during their discussions. As a tested fighter, he weighed what he was hearing from the ongoing discussions among these delegates. All he heard were mainly rhetoric and empty radical phraseologies. Disappointed, the real problem Nigeria had dawned on him, he shrugged his shoulders and shook his head. At the end of their talkshop, Mandela, had, sadly, concluded that the main problem was Nigeria’s pro-democracy community’s manifest inability to unseat General Sani Abacha. He politely addressed his guests, thanked them for coming and told them of the arrangements for their return to Nigeria. He diplomatically indicated he might invite them again to South Africa, but in reality, he was done with them.
Then came one auspicious early morning, and that was in 1998, we heard on the BBC a statement credited to Dr. Nelson Mandela, following the departure of his Nigerian pro-democracy guests. The BBC had quoted Dr. Mandela as having said that “the tragedy of the Nigerian situation is that there is no alternative to Abacha”. The statement came like a big bang, like a thunderbolt. The challenge Mandela posed in that historic statement was obvious to any strategic thinker, namely: the liberation of the country from Gen Abacha’s iron grip depended on the existence of an alternative political power to him. Sadly, Mandela knew that the emergence of that alternative was, of course, something nobody can do but Nigerians themselves. The promise he thought was in the pro-democracy community just grew wings right in his face!
The challenge boiled practically down tor the question: how do we create or set up or evolve this missing alternative to Abacha which Nelson Mandela discovered did not exist then?
The National Democratic Coalition (NADECO), though a big thorn on the flesh of Abacha’s regime, did not constitute a comprehensive threat nor a viable alternative to him. It was just proven in South Africa, and Mandela noticed it. Mandela’s statement turned something in my bowels, I could not rest, there just had to be a way out! That same day, I left Nsukka for Enugu to meet Dr. Alex Ekwueme to discuss this critical challenge which Mandela had posed.
By this time, some politically active individuals, who had met ourselves at the 1994-5 Counstitutional Conference in Abuja had set up the Institute of Civil Society (ICS). It had Dr Alex Ekwueme as chairman and Prof Jerry Gana as secretary. I was to take leave from my teaching job at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka to become the Director-General of the Institute. Membership of the Institute of Civil Society consisted mainly of our colleagues from different parts of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, most of whom were at that 1994-5 Abuja National Constitutional Conference. At the end of that Conference, we had formed a number of political parties on which platforms we had sought to pursue the vision of that Conference and the implementation of some of its key decisions. Among these parties were the Social Democratic Party (SDP), the All Nigeria Congress (ANC), the Peoples’ National Forum (PNF), the Peoples’ Democratic Movement (PDM) and the Peoples’ Consultative Forum (PCF).
Abacha’s electoral body denied these groups registration as political parties. In response, we, the promoters of these unregistered political parties refused to participate in his transition politics and, instead, organized ourselves under the Institute of Civil Society.
What did Ekwueme and I discuss on the Nelson Mandela challenge? We agreed with Nelson Mandela that only Nigerians can liberate Nigeria. For this to happen, there has to be an alternative political force on ground. The question then was how do we setup a nucleus for this alternative force to emerge. Unlike the activists who were in Pretoria on Mandela’s invitation, we did not believe that the alternative can emerge mechanically, whether through grammar or isolated acts of terror, but rather through the process of some strategic praxis!
Dr. Ekwueme and I concluded that membership of the Institute of Civil Society, ICS, can constitute the needed nucleus that would launch the struggle ahead. All we needed to do was for the group to stand boldly and publicly against Gen. Sani Abacha’s infamous self-mutation scheme. Abacha had concluded plans to transform himself from a military head of state into a civilian President, via a stage-managed process of democratic election.
We agreed that I should go to Abuja and discuss this plan with the ICS Secretary, Prof. Jerry Gana. To make the journey, I left Nsukka about 6.00 pm, got to the 9th Mile Corner and joined one of those market women and goods carrying molue buses heading to Abuja on a night journey. We got to Dumez, then a major motor park in Abuja, in the early hours of the morning and I headed straight to Prof Jerry Gana’s house in town. I remember vividly. When Prof. Jerry Gana opened the door to receive me, my greeting to him was, “Jerry is there no man in this land!?” The same words came out of his mouth instantaneously “Doctor, is there no man in this land!?”
He ushered me in, we sat down and discussed my mission. He was highly elated. We agreed that a meeting of the members of the Institute of Civil Society should be convened forthwith in Kaduna. Meanwhile, the tempo of organized campaign to declare Gen Abacha as the unopposed, consensus President of Nigeria was in full gear. The five parties (the respected Chief Bola Ige referred to them as “five leprosy hands”) had earlier held their separate stage-managed conventions with each declaring Gen Abacha as their unanimous Presidential candidate. Massive demonstrations were taking place all over the Federation.
The first party to adopt him was the Grassroots Democratic Party (GDM). All the other four registered parties – United Nigerian Congress Party (UNCP), the Congress of National Consensus (CNC), the Democratic Party of Nigerian (DPN) and the National Congress Party of Nigeria (NCPN) followed suite. Series of demonstrations and rallies were organized with largely hired crowds to support Abacha’s self-succession bid. The 2-million march was the climax of this. It was organized in Abuja to orchestrate such massive support for Abacha. Some leading politicians were cajoled, bribed or intimidated into attending and addressing the rally and thereby lending support to the movement for Abacha’s self-succession. With this and other rallies populated by rented crowds, the stage was set for Abacha’s formal acceptance of his so-called nomination to run as sole candidate for President.
The National Electoral Commission of Nigeria (NECON) and his legal advisers busied themselves with working out the modalities for Abacha’s self-transmutation from military Head of State to civilian President without a formal election. Meanwhile, October 1, 1998, the proposed date for the handover and swearing-in-ceremony, was fast approaching. The nation awaited helplessly as the ominous cloud continued thickening over her political horizon.
The meeting of the ICS was called for Kaduna on February 18th 1998. I was unable to attend the meeting but I gave my Memo to Dr. Ekwueme at Obollo Afor on his way to Kaduna. At the meeting it was decided that the first step in the public reaction of ICS was to get its Northern members to speak out first against Abacha’s plans. This was to strategically establish the overwhelming northern support of the ICS position. The northern outrage was to be followed by a collective statement by the entire ICS group. One critical propaganda weapon which Abacha exploited was to portray opposition to his plans as a purely Southern phenomenon. Beyond that, his strategists tried to link every semblance of opposition against him as NADECO-inspired. Leaders of NADECO were mainly from the west and east of Nigeria.
To neutralize this propaganda and to demonstrate that Northern patriots and democrats were not supportive but rather were vehemently opposed to Abacha’s self-succession plan as well as his fascist government, the decision to have the Northern wing of the ICS, made up of patriots and democrats, to make their position pubic first became very compelling. The famous G-18 letter was, therefore, written and signed by 18 members of ICS Northern wing, under the joint-leadership of Malam Adamu Ciroma, Chief Solomon D. Lar and Alhaji Abubakar Rimi. The Statement came out with a big bang and became known as the G-18 Statement. It had eighteen signatories.
Following this development, members of this group began to publicly voice their opposition to the regime. Alhaji Abubukar Rimi and Alhaji Sule Lamido were detained for their principled public stand. Down in the South, both Chief Bola Ige and Chief Olu Falae were detained for different fabricated reasons. Chief Basil Nnanna Ukegbu was hounded in and out of the court for sedition. National and international reactions to the G- 18 document were overwhelmingly favourable and inspiring. It was the first public demonstration that a national consensus was emerging in opposition to Gen Sani Abacha. What is more, it was an evidence that an alternative political leadership to Abacha’s infamous regime was crystallizing, something Dr. Nelson Mandela saw was previously absent. The nation’s hope began to rise as she now perceived a strong, twinkling, star-lit silver-lining in her gloomy political horizon. It then appeared that it was possible to overcome Abacha without provoking a civil strife. If it was possible to deny Abacha the opportunity of using one section of the country against another; then the threat of war was mitigated. History has demonstrated again and again that once the entire populace was geopolitically united in any struggle, the resistance against tyranny, the latter’s weapon of repression and domination becomes considerably weakened.
After this, Dr. Ekwueme and I met and agreed that a national meeting of the entire group should be summoned immediately. The ICS had to demonstrate the reality of a national consensus. On the eve of April 27th, 1998. I spent the night with Chief Ekwueme in his Enugu residence. After dinner with Beatie, his beautiful wife, we drank chilled palm wine, sat down and perused the documents we had assembled to prepare the statement to be discussed the next day in Lagos. I woke up by 2.00 am and prepared a draft of the letter. By 6 am Chief Ekwueme and I went through the daft and made necessary changes. We then ate and left for the airport en-route to Lagos for the meeting at the Mainland Hotel, Ebute Metta. The meeting was presided over by Chief Ekwueme, the Chairman of the ICS. Only 18 people, from both the north and south, had the courage to attend the meeting.
After reading the draft we came with, a member urged that we should tone down the language so that Abacha could read it. I told our colleagues that, even though the letter was addressed to Abacha, that it was not really meant for him. That it would be unrealistic to expect that Abacha would unwind because of our letter. I argued that the letter was meant first and foremost for our countrymen and women who have lost any hope of any intervention from any man or group in Nigeria. Secondly, that the letter was meant for the international community that had doubts over the emergence of any alternative political force under the prevailing circumstances in Nigeria, as was ably espoused by Dr. Nelson Mandela.
Mallam Adamu Ciroma quickly got up to support my argument. He queried how do we expect that Abacha would care to read the letter, let alone respond to it – a man who does not listen to the voice of the international community, or even to the voice of God. He emphasized that the letter was meant for the people of Nigeria to signal that there are men of honor and integrity ready to sacrifice anything to save the people of Nigeria from the grip of a mindless dictator. The Chairman and other members concurred with our submission. Then we set up a Committee of five (Alex Ekwueme, Jerry Gana, Uzodinma Nwala, Senator Onyeabor Obi and Senator Iyorchia Ayu) to update the draft in the light of the agreements in the meeting and mandated the former Vice President of Nigeria, Chief Alex Ekwueme, to formally forward it to General Abacha.
We discussed the signatories to the letter. Our colleagues from the North informd us that out of the eighteen persons that signed the G-18 letter, one person had developed cold feet. However, the rest, including Abubakar Rimi and Sule Lamido who were in detention asked that we include their names in whatever we had agreed. That gave us seventeen (17) signatories from the north. To even things out, we then had to look for another seventeen (17) signatories from the South. This was how we arrived at the name of the famous G-34.
This brings us to the very incident that gives us the title of this historical reminiscence – But for This Day, Dr. Alex Ifeanyichukwu Ekwueme Would Have Become the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.
That day was August 13, 1998 at a meeting of the G-34 in Abuja. The main agenda was the Manifesto of the emergent new political party, the Peoples’ Democratic Party (PDP) especially with respect to Power-sharing and Rotation of the Presidency. These were some of the most contentious issues at the 1994-5 Abuja Constitutional Conference. Although the Conference decided in favor of zoning and rotation, the decision was based on a vote in which the Southern delegates and their northern allies had won.
As soon as the issue of zoning and rotation came up, the Chairman of the Contact and Mobilization Committee, Alhaji Lawal Kaita, stood up and said “Gentlemen, we shall adopt the policy of zoning and rotation. To begin with, we shall zone the Presidency to the South, and not only to the South, but personally to Chief Ekwueme.
As soon as he finished speaking, many hands were up. And the few who had opportunity to speak, spoke in favour of Lawal Kaita’s position. But the Chairman, Chief Ekwueme, interrupted the discussion and said, “Gentlemen, we can decide that the Presidency should be zoned to the South, but it is not a personal matter. It cannot be zoned to anyone person”.
As soon the Chairman ruled, I was one of those who rolled their eyes and even shook their heads. For us it was the loss of a great historical opportunity for the right man in our midst to be invested with the awesome power to lead the emergence of the civilian democracy in Nigeria, nay the emergence of a new era in the political history of Nigeria.
Chief Ekwueme’s action was that of a gentleman, a democrat, so to say, a man anxious to hold the fragile post-military society together. But it was the action of an honest puritan political actor; yes, it was not the voice of real politics! Someone else in Chief Ekwueme’s position at that moment, guided by the realities of raw political struggle as has always been the case in Nigeria, would have allowed the debate ignited by Alhaji Lawal Kaita’s proposition to run its full course. At the end he would have simply called for a formal motion and then a vote.
The outcome of the vote would have been unanimously in favour. The political environment at that point in time was that the civilian politicians in control of the G-34 had become not only the singular political power. In fact, there was no ALTERNATIVE TO THEM AS THE LEADING POLITIAL POWER IN NIGERIA AT THAT POINT IN THE POLITICAL HISTORY OF THE COUNTRY. Every member of the G-34 was anxious for a transition that would have handed political power to them.
The main power brokers, the military hierarchy, were bruzed and dazed by the turn of events, following the annulment of June 12 election, and the majority of their members were anxious to leave the political scene. Abacha was gone, Abiola was gone. No one would have accused Chief Ekwueme and those rooting for him as leader of the G-34 of any political misstep. After all, the G-34 and Chief Ekwueme had called for the release of Chief Abiola and to have him installed as President, having convincingly won the presidential election of June 12, 1993. Once that opportunity was lost, the ailing military power-brokers were politically revived immediately. They quickly sprang into action, shopped for their candidate, rallied round their local agents, sent their foot soldiers to reach out to the Emirs and other political forces in the North. And finally they reached out to their interrnational political and business partners, who helped them to reach out to the international community. And by all these, they had seized the leadership from the G-34 and, ipso facto, set up their own nucleus, THE ALTERNATIVE TO ABACHA, which in fact was no alternative but the continuation of the game as usual.
The then sitting military Head of State, General Abdulsalam Abubakar, who was beholden to the G-34 and preparing to hand over to them, was immediately wised up to the fact that the political equation had changed. Shortly at a meeting he held with the leadership of the G-34, he now mockingly asked the leaders of the G.34 “do you have a leader who will take over if we have to go”. The answer was obvious. The answer was utter silence! They had taken the rug out of the feet of the G-34. the democratic pocess! It was a coup against the G-34, nay another annulment and abortion of the democratic pocess! They now proceeded to anoint their candidate.
Ekwueme’s chance of becoming the post-military civilian President of Nigeria was lost on August 13, 1998. And that was because he was a gentleman and an idealist in politics.
PROF T. UZODINMA NWALA
Political Philosopher and Statesman.
Enugu, December 5, 2017.