On the streets of Ibadan, there is an Aisha Suleiman from Kano State begging for alms. The about-22-year-old lady suffered a sudden divorce and everything around her collapsed. The only option she could thereafter think of was to move down south in search of hope – to do street begging. At a spot along the Ring Road in Ibadan, she sat helpless and confused, her vacant, teary eyes looking into the emptiness of today and the nothingness of tomorrow. “He divorced me for no reason; I guess my time in his house came to an end, that was why…But if my husband wants to take me back and he pays my bride price all over again and plans a wedding, then I will go back,” she told Saturday Tribune last month. Helplessness is her situation; surrender is the sole solution she could think of.
You could call her stupid – or even idiotic. But how is your own situation better than that of the worn-out lady on the street? Your leader warms up to you during every election. You vote him in and he pays you almost immediately with ejection. You cry and shed bitter tears. The next erection makes him search for you again; and you fall into his arms and the beat goes on. So much has happened since 1999 – enough to make you and I lose hope in everything democracy- but, you know, there is really no other choice. We must always go back to our husbands for them to continue to toy with us. Stories that would make the stone-hearted cry in other lands merely collect furtive glances from us. We grumble and shrug and move on to invent excuses for betrayal and failure.
You heard what Vice President Kashim Shettima said in Abuja on Saturday about the poor in the country being angry with government officials and the elite in general: “All of us here belong to a tiny segment of the Nigerian population. And you don’t need a soothsayer to tell you that the poor are angry with us. Go to the slums and mingle with the poor. I am a native of Maiduguri. Anytime a rich man brought a new car to his house, it (the house) used to be a place of pilgrimage. People (used to) go and see not out of anger, but out of admiration. But now, as we cruise around in our bulletproof cars, one will see contempt in the eyes of the poor. We have to improve the quality of governance. And what we have is a tiny window of not more than 10 to 20 years. Let’s improve the quality of governance.” On poverty and banditry in the North, Shettima said: “They (the poor) are the most neglected segment of our society. You can hardly differentiate between them and their animals. Even the animals they rear belong to those in the city.” Very deep reading of what is happening. It was so nice the words came from the number two man in this government. If they had come from Tribune columnists or from Arise News’ ‘The Morning Show’ people, unappointed defenders of this government would have dubbed us haters of the president and his team.
“But, wait. How did we get here?” my friend asked me after listening to Shettima and watching two other trending video clips; one, an unpretentious street-show of wealth on wheels by the ‘Rich Kids of Abuja.’ The second is of celebratory potentates being worshipped by hungry men and women – because they own this democracy.
“Why did we face the bullets of Sani Abacha at Adamasingba?”
In a flash of recollection, my friend raised her voice. “You remember? Imagine! We could have lost our lives there and no one would remember we ever lived.”
She was right. We almost became casualties of June 12. Some others did.
“What really fueled our audacity that time?” My friend asked again.
“We were dreamers. We thought we were fighting for a future that would be better. That future is now.”
How terribly wrong we were!
My friend now lives in the US. She had so much faith in Nigeria and would insist that nothing would make her jump ship. I took over from her as Nigerian Tribune’s news editor in June 1999. One bad day the previous year (15 April, 1998), the two of us and our immediate boss faced the combined fires of the military and the police at the Lekan Salami Stadium, Adamasingba, Ibadan, venue of an Abacha-for-President rally. The rally held inside the main bowl of the stadium but right outside the stadium was what was called Abacha-Must-Go rally, a counter movement of the masses. The street locked the stadium against the state and its supporters. We were right there; we forgot we were journalists – or rather, we were participant-observers, bullets flying over our heads. People died; it never crossed our minds that we were not bullet-proof, that we could be among the dead or that we could be maimed or arrested and jailed without trial. Then there was the May 1, 1998 epochal climax described by The Journal (15 May, 1998) as the “largest demonstration against military rule since 1994”; and by the BBC (1 May, 1998) as “the biggest anti-government rallies in recent years.” At least seven persons were shot dead that day. We literally walked through those valleys of death. What if we had got shot like the dead and the wounded?
“Our children would not have had any idea what parents we could be. They would have been at the mercy of those who safely watched the war miles away.” And there were many like that. They stayed safe to inherit the land.
“Of course, ‘coward lives long to show brave man’s children where their father was buried.'”
“That is Achebe, right?”
“It is an Igbo proverb. We can check if Achebe invented it but I know he says in ‘Arrow of God’ that ‘we often stand in the compound of a coward to point at the ruins where a brave man used to live.'”
“Very true. We have a saying here that the brave who donates his head for breaking coconuts does not live to get his share.” We did that.
Hundreds did that, fighting the military, fighting for democracy and thinking that after the storms of that era, calm would reign. One of them was a man called Frank Ovie Kokori. He died on the dot of his 80th birthday last week. He was a labour leader who commanded the people’s army against Abacha’s. He brought the military with their tanks to their knees. But he and his comrades were wrong; they won the battle but lost the war. People who fought at the home front that time lost out completely. Kokori led a suicidal strike onslaught against Abacha and spent four years in detention for democracy. Twenty-four years after the birth of that democracy, the man died sad. He ran his career fighting for justice; he ended his career fighting desperately for his life.
Last month, on his hospital bed, Kokori told the world that he was dying and abandoned. He told some journalists: “Please do your best. Flash it. I can come alive again but I just want the world to know that if I survive, I will shame the leaders of this country. Shame to them. How can Kokori be in a third class hospital? I’m dying.” His hospital switched off the AC because there was no electricity and, (ironically) because diesel was too expensive. Kokori, the quintessential oil man of 1994, was, because of cost of diesel, denied use of air conditioner in 2023, a month before his death! It didn’t appear anyone heard Kokori’s last cries. Even the inheritors of the widow which Kokori forced the military to drop turned their deceased ear to what he was saying. And he died, broken. Even in death, how many of his ‘colleagues’ have you read mourning him? May his great soul rest in peace.
But it appears that Kokori’s is not the only death in the air. Businesses are dying; smart ones who have the swiftness of the eagle, are flying out while midwives of disaster wring their hands. Why would multinationals not leave? Sensible people learn survival from creations and entities gifted with the sixth sense. A report speaks of “worms that flee rising groundwater; sharks that flee to deeper water just before a big hurricane arrives; birds that hunker down before a big storm.” Companies are bailing out of Nigeria because they do not just look, they see. They think they owe themselves that duty of care.
“You know P&G?”
“Yes. Procter & Gamble.” ‘Improving Everyday Life; Force for Growth; Force for Good.’ Those words welcome visitors to their website. They make pampers; they make Ariel, they make Oral B toothpaste. They employed hundreds of Nigerians, directly and indirectly. Last week, the company announced its exit from Nigeria. Before P&G, there was Sanofi-Aventis, a French pharmaceutical company; there was GlaxoSmithKline (GSK); there were others. They all held tight to their ears and ran out of Nigeria’s volcanic field. It is both tragic and ghastly.
What do you call a land that kills oaks and their acorns with relish? P&G commenced operations in Nigeria in 1992; GSK came into Nigeria on July 1, 1972. These multinational companies came in when there was no democracy; democracy has chased them out. P&G said Nigeria is a difficult place for businesses to operate – the same reason others gave for their exit. The environment is toxic. They downgraded Nigeria to a dump site for their goods made abroad. Procter & Gamble has one of the biggest factories in Ibadan. I won’t speak about the employees – they are the beard of the burnt cleric. But you should ask what will happen to that vast compound now? It is in an industrial estate but directly opposite the factory is the biggest church in Ibadan. The factory can wither and die, the church won’t. It may, in fact, not mind extending its protective foliage over that site. The prayer industry booms. As P&G was announcing its closure of business in Nigeria, the House on the Rock was holding its crowd-pulling Experience; Winners Chapel its Shiloh, the RCCG its Holy Ghost Congress. We are a praying nation of very hungry people.
What has this democracy done for Nigeria? Everyone outside government asks that question. Journalists of the 1990s did more than journalism and suffered more than what journalists normally suffer. Kunle Ajibade, Niran Malaolu and Chris Anyanwu were arrested, tried and sentenced for the military offence of coup making. Femi Adeoti of Sunday Tribune was in Agodi Prisons for reporting what government found offensive. They were lucky; some others died. Everyone paid so heavily that Nigeria could have a government of the people for the people. They suffered for nothing. On 20 June, 1998, three Nigerian Tribune journalists (Modupe Olubanjo, Adelowo Oladipo and Alaba Igbaroola) tasted the stuff the then strongman of Ibadan politics, Alhaji Lamidi Adedibu, was made of. He was Abacha’s main man in Yorubaland. The journalists were in Adedibu’s house to interview him on the political situation in the country but they asked the ‘wrong’ questions and suffered for it. They were assaulted; their recording gadget was snatched from them and the cassette in it removed. Adedibu advised the journalists to “forget (about) that cassette. I will give you money. How much does your cassette cost? I will give you.” The journalists replied, “No, it is not the money that matters now, but the cassette which is very important in order for people to hear your views as you stated them.” Enforcers got them roughened, then chased them out (see the Nigeria Media Monitor of 6 July, 1998).
There is a man called Ayo Opadokun. He was the Secretary-General and spokesman of NADECO who was seized and jailed by Abacha for talking too much. If you thought it was impossible to live solely on tea and banana for one month, you’ve not listened to Opadokun: “I was the only one they took to a cell, bare floor, no window. There was an opening that mosquitoes flew from to feast on me. I decided not to eat any food. The officers asked (me to tell them) whatever I thought I needed and that they would buy for me. Some of them who appeared to be friendly, I asked them to buy me banana and Lipton tea. That was what I took once a day for 33 days…”, Ayo Opadokun told the Nigerian Tribune some years ago. He is old now. His heroic deeds, just like Kokori’s, no one remembers.
Yam seeds must rot for us to get new yams. That is what our fathers told us – and we believed them. But the Nigerian harvest feeds only the powerful. If you understand Yoruba and pidgin English, pause and listen to Saheed Osupa’s 2009 song: ‘Nigeria Go Better.’ As a child, the Fuji icon heard ‘Nigeria e go better’. Now that he is a father, what he hears is still ‘Nigeria e go better’. “Is it when I become grandfather that Nigeria will be better?” he asks. That album was waxed 14 years ago, ten years into this democracy. Sixty-four years after independence and 24 years of this democracy; it is still ‘Nigeria go better.’ Our banana is progressively rotting; it is not ripening. The hungry are hungrier; the sick are sicker; the greedy greedier, the satanic more satanic and audacious.
“Osupa should be a grandpa now; what sequel to that song will he sing?” My friend asked again. I thought that was a challenge for the gifted musician to take. Then, to my friend I turned:
“You know what we ran into in the name of democracy?”