By Babafemi Ojudu

Let me start my reflections on the sanctity of electoral mandates with a personal experience of the burdens of the violation of the sovereignty of the people, as was experienced under Nigeria’s semi-criminal soldiers-in-power. In November 1997, I was in Kenya attending a conference organised by the US-based Freedom Forum. I had slipped out of Nigeria through the “NADECO Route” because myself and my colleague at TheNEWS and TEMPO magazines, Bayo Onanuga, had just been alerted that General Sani Abacha’s agents were looking for us on the orders of the maximum ruler. At this point, another of my colleagues, Kunle Ajibade, the executive editor of TheNEWS, had been jailed by the Abacha regime for “complicity” in a phantom coup plot. While I was in Kenya, I was informed that Onome Osifo-Whiskey, the managing editor of TELL magazine, had been “captured” by Abacha’s security officers. The situation in Nigeria was getting more desperate, as General Sani Abacha was also getting more impulsive and murderous. The desperate situation in the country and the large prison yard that the military regime turned Nigeria into, let us remind ourselves, were the outcomes of the diabolical annulment of the June 12 1993 presidential election by Ibrahim Babangida, ably supported by Sani Abacha, who later seized power through the backdoor after his partner-in-crime had been chased out of office. What Abacha faced was literally the situation that, in the wisdom of our elders in Yorubaland is called, “ara o ro okun, ara o r’adiye”. Abacha’s junta, like the proverbial chicken was literally on the ropes. He was in morbid fear of the terrible fate that awaited him, and his fear became the instrument of state terror.

In Nairobi, my hosts, the Freedom Forum officials, tried to persuade me not to return to Nigeria because it was certain that I would be arrested and detained upon return. They wanted me to go with them to the US from where they could arrange a job for me in South-East Asia until Abacha left power. Who knew when Abacha was going to be defeated by Nigeria? More important, how could I abandon my colleagues and friends in Nigeria, and the mass of our people who needed more voices to speak up for them and more courageous people to stand up to defend the mandate that they freely gave to Basorun Abiola? I rejected the offer and decided to return to Nigeria. I was sure that once I was able to slip into Nigeria through the “NADECO Route” I would find a way of avoiding Abacha’s agents within Nigeria.

Early one November morning, I made my way from Ghana to Togo and then from Togo to the Republic of Benin. Due to a number of vehicular mishaps on the road, I arrived very late in the night in Cotonou. I couldn’t consider sleeping in a hotel in Cotonou because the city was crawling with Abacha agents. Only a few weeks before I arrived, they had kidnapped Moshood Fayemiwo, the editor of Razor, and dumped him in an underground cell at the Directorate of Military Intelligence in Lagos. He didn’t see the sunlight for many months after that. It was also too late for me to go through the “NADECO Route”. So, I took the risk of driving across the border into Nigeria. At the first checkpoint, a security officer stopped the vehicle, saying, “You are Mr. Ojudu. We have been waiting for you.” This was around ten in the night. I was arrested and driven to the Shangisha office of the State Security Service, SSS. The next day they took me to their notorious detention centre in Ikoyi. They not only took my photographs, they also filmed me to be able to show their bosses in Abuja that I had been arrested. I was arrested on 17 November 1997. I never saw the sunlight again until Abacha died – and even many weeks after. At a point, I had to drink my own urine when I faced the risk of dying of dehydration in the cell. I was also made to wear the same clothes for eight months. I was not allowed to brush my mouth for six months.

You can then imagine my incredulity and eventual happiness when someday I heard some women in an adjoining cell singing praises and shouting “Hallelujah” one June morning in 1998. At first, I was wondering why the women were celebrating. Later, one of the SSS agents keeping watch over us told me that “Abacha don die!” When I came round to believing that the most murderous dictator in Nigeria’s history was dead, I looked forward to freedom, not only for myself, but for several others who were in detention, including the winner of the June 12, 1993 presidential election, the man who was truly the symbol of our struggle for democracy and nation-building, Basorun Abiola.  However, the first week went by without any news about my release. Then another week, then another…. Then one day, as my health deteriorated, a lady doctor was brought into my cell to treat me. After examining me, the doctor started crying. I was so scared because I thought she had discovered that I was going to die soon. She said I had a low blood count, typhoid, and other diseases I didn’t even know about. The woman not only recommended some drugs for me, she promised to buy the drugs herself. At that point, I was convinced that I was going to die in detention. I begged one of the agents for paper and pen to write my will which I smuggled out to my wife. My wife took the will to Mr. Olisa Agbakoba, the lawyer and head of the Civil Liberties Organisation, CLO. When Agbakoba got my will, he called a press conference to announce that, contrary to the claims by the new regime headed by General Abdusalami Abubakar that all political detainees had been released, I was dying in detention.

We learnt later that agents of the Abacha regime had lied in a list they sent to the Pope when he visited Nigeria that I was one of the political prisoners released as a “gesture of goodwill” to the Pope. Therefore, when Abdusalami Abubakar ordered the release of detainees, I was not on the list because I had been “released” on paper by the Abacha regime. It was the press conference by Agbakoba that brought my fate to the attention of the new regime. The SSS then got an order to release me. After eight months in solitary confinement, I was a shadow of my old self. When I knocked at the gates of my house in the night, my landlord could not recognise me. He asked who I was and when I mentioned my name, he didn’t believe me. To confirm, he asked me for his own name and I told him what we called him. Still unsure, he grabbed a cutlass as he approached the gate. By the time he looked closely at me and saw that beyond the bushy beard that I had grown in detention and my frail body, I was who I claimed to be, the man dropped the cutlass and burst into tears. Even my kids didn’t believe it was me. I later collapsed after trying to eat my first good meal in eight months and had to be rushed to the hospital… I have told you this story not to show my own personal heroism. It is a story that is meant to show only a small fraction of the enormous sacrifices that many Nigerians had to make after the cruel annulment of the June 12 election. Some even paid the supreme price for the democracy that we enjoy today. From the unnamed protesters on the streets who were mowed down by Abacha’s tanks to the symbol of the struggle, Basorun Abiola, his wife, Kudirat Abiola, and that most committed and magnanimous fighter for just causes, Chief Alfred Rewane, many lives were lost in the struggle for justice and freedom.  It is significant here to remember that, in a letter he wrote to Abacha, Abiola foresaw what might happen to some of the major dramatis personae in the crisis of June 12. He told Abacha that both of them should meet to “sort out” the problem of June 12 before the problem “sorted” them all out. This was precisely what happened. Abacha died in strange circumstances. But before he died, he made sure that Major General Shehu Yar’Adua too was killed in detention. Also, he almost killed General Olusegun Obasanjo in prison. The man has now forgotten about his experience as he goes about creating one crisis after another to ensure that Nigeria will never be a country about which we all can be proud. He spent eight years in power and did nothing to deepen democracy or widen the space for the remaking of Nigeria.

Instead, he was busy trying to perpetuate himself in power. Such embarrassing figures from our past and present history are the ones who are most responsible for lack of sanctity of electoral mandates. The man who constantly exhibits a messianic complex said that Abiola was not the messiah. But we told him then that we did not elect a messiah, we elected a man to lead our effort to salvage the country. When he had the same opportunity later, Obasanjo converted elections to a “do-or-die affair”, as he described it, and helped in destroying the sanctity of elections and the fundamental sovereignty of the people expressive in, and expressed through, elections. The legacy of the Obasanjo years of electoral robbery, serial violation of democratic rule, subversion of the principle of separation of powers and check and balances, and his sabotage of the tenets and principles of federalism, is what we are living with today.

In our own part of the country, under Obasanjo’s leadership, we witnessed an unprecedented level of electoral theft. He led the brigade of vote-rogues who stole the mandate of our people in broad daylight by imposing all sorts of political tramps on the Yoruba states. A people who had, since the 1950s, been used to the best form of democratic governance with the associated benefits of good governance, development, social services, including free and qualitative education, health services, and social welfare, were forced to experience the worst form of criminality in the name of state governments in south-western Nigeria. From Ogun, Oyo to Ondo, Ekiti and Osun states, political vagrants seized the space of our region of the country. And for almost eight years, and for full eight years in some cases, with the exception of Lagos State, Yoruba people ate the terrible fruits of bad governance. When the progressives seized our heritage back from the political tramps, starting from Ekiti State and followed by Osun State and later Ogun and Oyo states, we announced to the world that we were back on the path of good governance. Anyone who goes to all these states today will agree with me that “igba otun ti de pada n’ile Yoruba”. We are back on the back of progress and good governance.

It is not a surprise therefore that those who stood with Abiola to the end have in recent times also displayed a similar belief in the sanctity of the ballot while refusing to surrender their “sacred mandate …freely given”. In Ekiti State, Governor Kayode Fayemi displayed a similar resolve, although under different circumstances. For almost four years, he never gave up in pursuing his sacred mandate. He eventually kept his date with history. The same is true of Governor Rauf Aregbesola of Osun State. Through thick and thin, in rain and in shine, through harassments and even arrests, he refused to surrender his mandate until he was able to reclaim it. What this kind of leaders show us is that some important lessons have been learned from the June 12 debacle.

However, we still have many rivers to cross. There are several other lessons to be learned from the June 12 debacle, especially with the benefits of hindsight and based on our experiences in the last two decades. There were many issues that surrounded the June 12 election and the annulment. These include some of the issues I have just mentioned, such as the possibility of nation-building in a fractious multi-ethnic polity such as Nigeria, the sovereign rights of Nigerians to elect their leaders, the transparency of elections, the emergence of popular and competent leaders, civilian control of the military,etc., etc. At the bedrock of all of these issues is that of thesanctity of elections.

One of the lessons we have learned since the annulment of the June 12 election is that when people who are not validly elected take over power and when an unpopular government is in power, the people will suffer terribly. With the exception of a few state governments, particularly in our part of the country, between 1999 and 2003, and since 2010 when we recovered some states, and 2011 when we won the remaining states in addition to Lagos that was uninterrupted since 1999, most so-called democratic governments in Nigeria have only multiplied the suffering of Nigerians. The worst culprit, of course, is the PDP Federal Government from 1999 to the present.

One other key lesson we learned from the June debacle is the centrality of political parties in the consolidation of democratic rule. The collusion of the National Republican Convention, NRC, and even Abiola’s party, the Social Democratic Party, SDP, with the military, was part of the reasons why the annulment was possible and sustainable. One of the saddest stories of the collapse of the Third Republic and the annulment of the June 12 elections is the role of the existing political parties in these tragedies. Political party  leaders were like the agents of the military. That experience reminds us of the importance of solid political party organisation. We have to go back to the First and Second Republics to learn important lessons about how to build solid political parties. Fortunately, we have a good heritage in our own part of Nigeria. From the Action Group to the Unity Party of Nigeria, party supremacy was a culture that was rigidly observed.

Another important lesson that we have learned since 1999 is the pivotal role of civil society in Nigeria. Without an energetic, activist and committed civil society, we would never have had democracy in Nigeria. Reflecting on the outstanding vision of our past leaders in the Western Region and our experiences in the last two decades, particularly also since 1999, and taking into consideration the experiences of under the progressive governors in south-western Nigeria, the issue of regional integration has become an important template for ensuring social and economic development.

What we hope to achieve is to re-create an egalitarian, democratic and economically self-sufficient region of Nigeria, one which can again become an exemplar, not only for other regions of the country, but for the rest of the continent. There are specific goals that the DAWN document pushes us to accomplish. These include global competitiveness, food sovereignty and nutrition, full and productive employment for our people, fiscal autonomy as constituent parts of Nigeria, first class social and physical infrastructure, and well-mobilised and committed citizenry.

•Excerpts of a lecture delivered by Senator Ojudu on 12 June 2013 at a programme organised by Afenifere Renewal Group, Ondo State Chapter