Dele Momodu: A road littered with thorns

by Dele Momodu


so_many_nigeriansI’m under no illusion that any nation is governed by saints. But the greatest countries in the world are usually led by aspiring Angels, those who wish to be close to God even if they let him down occasionally like we all do.

“Have you heard how they catch monkeys in Brazil, Julie? Let me tell you. They put a nut in a bottle, and tie the bottle to a tree.
The monkey grasps the nut, but the neck of the bottle is too narrow for the monkey to withdraw its paw and the nut.

You would think the monkey would let go of the nut and escape, wouldn’t you? But it never does. It is so greedy it never releases the nut and is always captured.

Remember that story, Julie. Greed is a dangerous thing. If you give way to it, sooner or later you will be caught.”

Fellow Nigerians, the above is one of my favourite quotes and I even know it fully by hand. It is taken straight from the early pages of a James Hadley Chase novel titled THE PAW IN THE BOTTLE. I’ve quoted it in countless conversations and political discourses in particular. The reason should be obvious. It sums up the intractable problem of greed that has virtually ruined our nation. The power-grabbers of Nigeria all have one thing in common, pure and unadulterated greed.

I’m under no illusion that any nation is governed by saints. But the greatest countries in the world are usually led by aspiring Angels, those who wish to be close to God even if they let him down occasionally like we all do. The avariciousness of our leaders is uncommon as it is unsurpassed. I wish to link this to the crisis of confidence bedevilling our electoral process and democratic progression today. The linkage is simply to establish that unbridled greed is largely responsible for the way simple elections have been turned into total warfare in Nigeria. We have become one of the worst examples of Barbarians who just find it impossible to choose candidates and elect leaders in an atmosphere devoid of bitter and bitchy acrimony.

This greed didn’t start today. It has been with us since we gained independence and we started putting our own people in positions of authority. Ordinarily, leadership positions should have been an opportunity to serve and do so meritoriously. But this madness called greed must have crept in us discreetly like a thief in the night. It is very difficult to remember exactly when and how it did. All I know is that we were caught unawares until it penetrated us mercilessly. I was old enough in 1979 (19 to be precise) to vote and to understand the rudiments of politics in a country that managed to end a civil war within that decade. The period leading to that election had been preceded by military intervention that terminated the brilliant career of Head of State General Yakubu Gowon as well as a bloody coup that killed General Murtala Ramat Muhammed and his promising regime. This catapulted Olusegun Obasanjo to power.

The election of 1979 was midwifed by Generals Olusegun Obasanjo and his second in command, Shehu Musa Yar’Adua. It was a straight fight between Alhaji Shehu Shagari’s NPN, Chief Obafemi Awolowo’s  UPN And Owelle Nnamdi Azikiwe’s NPP. The controversy surrounding the manner General Obasanjo hurriedly handed power to Shagari after the hullaballoo that followed that election was nothing compared to the profligacy that NPN later perpetrated. If the 1979 election was bad that of 1983 was abysmal. The greed of the NPN apparatchik went overboard. They simply went berserk and grabbed not just money but votes from every direction.

Those critics like Wole Soyinka who challenged the on-going nonsense were easily dismissed as alarmists and prophets of doom. It was obvious even to the blind that NPN was headed in the wrong direction leading only to perdition, but the arrogant politicians of the day said nothing would happen. They were firmly in control of heaven and earth. They declared very erratic results in staccato fashion. What they did was tantamount to stealing the wind and trying to hold the atmosphere in the palm. I was 23 then and was in the middle of the conflagration that consumed the Old Ondo State. My boss then, Chief Akin Omoboriowo, had been declared winner in a contest against the iconic Pa Adekunle Ajasin. My boss was one of Chief Awolowo’s fanatical supporters. But everything scattered after the riotous UPN primaries. I witnessed as ambitious politicians gathered day and night in our Ijapo estate situation office to plot all manner of moves. My boss was a man of frugal existence but the politicians were able to persuade him to move 360 degrees from UPN to NPN.

I felt the sharp pain that went through Chief Omoboriowo’s heart and realised how easy it was to capitulate to the whims and caprices of politicians who assured us everything was under control. For example, we knew the police would readily connive with the ruling party to do whatever was needed. The NPN had invested heavily in military hardware and over-militarised the police. They rolled out ferocious armoured tanks capable of stultifying the dreams of would-be troublemakers. A most powerful Inspector General of Police, Mr Sunday Adewusi, was in charge. I doubt if any other IG would ever be that influential. The fear of Sunday Adewusi was the beginning of wisdom.

As young as I was, I knew there was going to be repercussions to this atrocious madness but I didn’t envisage the magnitude. NPN won landslide almost everywhere and at the height of its giddiness described their victory as moon-slide. It was the first time I heard that term and added it to my modest vocabulary. Barely three months after that abracadabra, the military struck and hit the reckless politicians like thunderbolt. That coup gave birth to the draconian and much-dreaded regime of Muhammadu Buhari after an announcement by a young officer who introduced himself as Sani Abacha.

It was such a miserable New Year gift on New Year’s Eve, December 31, 1983. Politicians were promptly picked up and hauled like sacks of potatoes into different cells or house arrests across the nation. They all went in without as much as a whimper. The most rambunctious amongst them, Alhaji Umaru Dikko, bolted into rarefied air and landed in the United Kingdom. One would have expected him to put up a kamikaze stunt at home by fighting Buhari and Babatunde Idiagbon like the quintessential King Kong that he was. That was when I first learnt the truism that bullies are often cowardly.

There was no doubt that the Buhari regime was tough but what they won’t tell the young generation of today is why Buhari and company struck. The NPN had practically mortgaged the future of Nigeria and Nigerians. Had Buhari not come at that time I wonder what could have happened to our country eventually. May be we would have become a country of scavengers in the hands of scoundrels. NPN was a democratically elected government without any semblance of democracy. Everything was helter-skelter.

My boss was one of the multitude arrested and he was kept in Owo prison and I laboured hard as his private secretary to visit him every other day from his house in Ijero-Ekiti which was my base. I gained so much insight into how politicians behaved and misbehaved. There was ample evidence that innocent people were punished alongside the patently guilty. But as I would learn many years later from Flight Lieutenant Jerry John Rawlings such was the nature of most revolutions. Buhari did not execute past leaders like Rawlings did in Ghana. In a marathon interview Rawlings granted Ovation International in 2004, he revealed how revolutions work. He said it was not a tea party and while the leader takes the credit for whatever success was achieved he must also take the flak for the excesses and abuse of power and privilege. He alone could not have compiled the names of those who were jailed or killed. There were instances when many officers smuggled in names of their supposed enemies.

Asked why there was so much bloodshed in Ghana, Rawlings thundered “It was an abnormal situation… “ We probed him rigorously by asking “what was the criteria used to select those you killed? Was it that people were just bringing accusations and you were acting on them?” His answer was shocking and direct: “Subsequently that was what happened. We only tried to contain and prevent any further executions, so the option was jail. As for the executions, it was easier to pick from the top… It was not that I wanted to kill but that was what the nation needed at the time… I was trying to calm things down but the situation as I said was such that there was no command structure. Everything had broken down… We were governing human rage, justifiable rage… “

According to Jerry Rawlings, the government of the day had perfected the art of divide and rule: “I didn’t know that some people were experts in divide and rule tactics. I saw it work and it was brilliant during Liman’s regime… They had poisoned the atmosphere. In those days, it was believed that the government could not lie, so they were telling all kinds of lies against me… And the troops were like, ha, this is our great hero who is being so demonised…”

Just like the case of Buhari, Jerry Rawlings remains the most feared and the most popular Ghanaian leader alive today. He’s treated like a rock star everywhere he goes. While the elites may harbour ill feelings towards him, the poor see him as their saviour, the reason they called him Junior Jesus while the elites called him Junior Judas. There is a big lesson for Nigeria in all of this. We have suffered for too long as a people and this is attributable to our politicians’ greed and inability to learn from past mistakes. The next time we conducted an election after 1983 was ten years after in 1993. As good as that election was, politicians made sure it was truncated again.

No military would have been able to annul that election if the politicians had bonded together to defend the mandate which was freely given by Nigerians to Chief Moshood Abiola. The main weapon used on this occasion was not an automatic rifle but ethnicity. Politicians deliberately reduced the June 12 victory to a South West affair and therefore not worthy of being defended by non-Yoruba. They selfishly and studiously forgot all the amazing contributions of Chief Abiola in every part and cranny of Nigeria. The ubiquitous supporters of any government in Nigeria were not bothered that killing June 12 would send Nigeria backwards by several decades. The compulsive gamblers that they were, the nation can afford to move on, without Abiola anyway. And so we did.

I won’t waste too much time on the Interim government which was awkwardly packaged as alternative to June 12 but examine the last Abacha coup which finally buried June 12. From 1993-98, Abacha’s government concocted its own endless experiments as our biggest politicians fell over themselves to secure some space and place in that fiasco of a government. Abacha soon became the new idol and Nigerians marched on the streets of Abuja begging him to transform from military dictator to civilian President. It was such an interesting spectacle to behold.  The man eventually died in power on June 8, 1998 while Abiola died elsewhere in detention on July 7, 1998.

General Abdulsalami Abubakar immediately assumed power. Of course, the omnipresent friends of men of power would not hear the heresy being preached by General Abubakar who pledged to stay only one year in power. Sometimes I wonder if General Abubakar is from another planet, he actually handed over power to Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, dead on time, on May 29, 1999, as promised.

Obasanjo was in power for the next eight years but not before some smart dudes came up with the idea of an unprecedented third term for him. When that failed, Chief Obasanjo handed power to President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua and his Vice President, Dr Goodluck Jonathan who would later complete his boss’ term after the President took ill and died.

Dr Jonathan contested in 2011 for what was expected to be for one term but he later changed his mind and is set to contest again on February 14, 2015, if the INEC Chairman, Professor Attahiru Jega, can withstand the blistering heat from those desperately seeking a postponement for reasons we all know. On the surface, there would have been nothing wrong with it but the main opposition is suspicious of the move like many of us. Once again, we’ve boxed ourselves into another tight corner.

My honest advice is always to Mr President. Please, don’t listen to those saying you must win this election by force. If you’re so destined, it will surely happen. If you fail in the end kindly thank God, knowing that you have done your best. I admonish the candidates to whittle down the war of advertorials going on in order to make reconciliation much easier whenever the winner is announced. Nigerians are looking for that candidate among you who can proudly speak like Rawlings:

“You know I was an embodiment of the people’s quest for freedom and justice, so people did not toy with me. By protecting me, they were protecting their own freedom and justice. They couldn’t afford to abandon me, and I cannot afford to abandon my own principle…”



Op-ed pieces and contributions are the opinions of the writers only and do not represent the opinions of Y!/YNaija.

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