Today is Democracy Day, set aside to mark the annulment of June 12, 1993 presidential election, won by the late Chief MKO Abiola. One of those in the trenches to actualize the mandate then was Asiwaju Bola Tinubu of the National Democratic Coalition (NADECO). He is now the President. Tinubu would have lost his life in Cotonou because of the struggles, but his generosity and love for amala saved his life.
That time, the late General Sani Abacha who usurped power after the annulment, went gaga! Abacha paraded many assassins sans borders! He sent his assassins after pro-democracy activists. Many lost their lives in the process. Abacha sent his killers to the Republic of Benin in one of those expeditions
In an interview with TheNEWS, Tinubu narrated what happened: “I didn’t have a passport and couldn’t have been able to travel. At a stage, they discovered our routes, because they had spies all over, including Benin Republic. Twice I was caught and I fortuitously escaped. They traced me to one dingy hotel I was hiding.
The day they came for me at the hotel, I had gone out on an Okada to buy amala at a market, where Yorubas are dominant. I was also to meet Akinrinade and the rest of them. The spies went to the hotel and as I was approaching, I saw two people wearing tajia (skull caps) at the front desk, asking questions. The man attending to them at the reception (I had been very nice to the receptionist) winked to me and I turned back. I contacted a friend in Benin Republic, who was an architect, and had very strong sympathy for us. Professor Wole Soyinka and Alani Akinrinade, who lodged in a better hotel, were fortunate to have escaped that night, too. The people on their trail pursued them to the hotel, but fortunately missed them.”
There is no paean without pains. After going through such rough patch, fighting for democracy, Tinubu is now President and Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. He now belongs to the group of freedom fighters who ended up governing their countries: Lesh Walesa of Poland; Jomo Kenyata of the Mau Mau Struggle in Kenya; Yuweri Museveni, a freedom fighter in Uganda (though a sit-tight leader now); Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, who later turned to a different thing; Keneth Kaunda and Patrick Chiluba of Zambia; Aung San Suu Kyi of Myanmar; Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of Brazil; and, of course, Nelson Mandela of South Africa.
I disguised with a huge turban and babanriga and escaped into Benin Republic on a motorbike. My old Hausa friend gave the clothes to me. In fact, when I appeared to Kudirat Abiola, she didn’t know that I was the one! I gave her some information and some briefing. I left at 1 a.m. While in Benin Republic, I was still coming to Badagry to ferry people, organise and coordinate the struggle with others on ground. We put a group together, ferrying NADECO people across. It was a very challenging time. I can’t forget people like Segun Maiyegun and other young guys in the struggle. I would come from Benin to hold meetings with them and sneak back. The military created a whole lot of momentum around me. They took over my house, guest house and carted away all my vehicles and property to Alagbon. That is why today, I don’t have old photographs. They took eight of my cars away.
My wife and my two toddlers were dropped in a bush; nowhere to go. Beko and the diplomatic missions came to our aid and ferried my wife and kids to the United States. I was still in Benin Republic. Besides, I didn’t have a passport and couldn’t have been able to travel. At a stage, they discovered our routes, because they had spies all over, including Benin Republic. Twice I was caught and I fortuitously escaped. They traced me to one dingy hotel I was hiding.
The day they came for me at the hotel, I had gone out on an Okada to buy amala at a market, where Yorubas are dominant. I was also to meet Akinrinade and the rest of them. The spies went to the hotel and as I was approaching, I saw two people wearing tajia (skull caps) at the front desk, asking questions. The man attending to them at the reception (I had been very nice to the receptionist) winked to me and I turned back. I contacted a friend in Benin Republic, who was an architect, and had very strong sympathy for us. Professor Wole Soyinka and Alani Akinrinade, who lodged in a better hotel, were fortunate to have escaped that night, too. The people on their trail pursued them to the hotel, but fortunately missed them.
Then the British High Commission got proper information through the Consular-General that my life was in danger. He stamped a visa on a sheet of paper and did a letter, authorising the airline to pick me from Benin Republic to any port of entry in Britain. I didn’t know how they got to me. A lady just walked up to me and handed me an envelope. She said I had been granted an entry into the United Kingdom. She said I could be killed if I failed to leave in the next 48 hours. It was Air Afrique that took me from Benin Republic to London. Meanwhile, my wife was still in the United States. I landed in Britain and worked my way back to Benin Republic. I picked up my passport from somewhere. I went to an African country and through their connections, they gave me a diplomatic passport as a cultural ambassador.
What country was that?
No, please! The African country that helped us with the diplomatic passport was showing gratitude for the help Abiola had done to its president before. So, you can make your deduction. Then, I was shuffling and coordinating our activities in the UK, Benin Republic and Cote d’Ivoire. I used the passport to travel to Cote d’Ivoire to hold meetings at the Hotel Continental, because we were planning to make another broadcast that would be aired in Nigeria. By the time I returned to the hotel, the military assailants had broken into my hotel room and taken away my briefcase and diplomatic passport. They dropped a note, saying: ‘You cannot be twice lucky.’ I was taken over by panic. Fortunately, in my back pocket, I had the photocopy of the sheet of paper on which the British had stamped a visa for me to travel out of Benin previously. I took that to the British High Commission in Abidjan. They listened to my story and asked me to come back at night. They did all their verification and found my story to be true. I returned to them and they gave me another sheet of paper and wrote the number of the flight that would take me out of that country.
But I had no money. Somebody suddenly drove in. The person is a well-known name I don’t want to mention. I met him and explained my condition. He had a traveller’s cheque, but the money was not enough. I went back to the British High Commission and the woman said she could assist me with her own personal money to bridge the shortfall in cash.
We founded and coordinated Radio Kudirat and Radio Freedom and we continued to organise. I didn’t see my family for two good years. They were in America. Bayo Onanuga, who also was part of the struggle, joined us there in December 1997. The law of political asylum stipulates that your first country of landing and acceptance is the safe haven, so it’s not transferable. That was how Cornelius Adebayo was stuck in a United Nations camp. My wife had to invoke a family clause that exists in America to fight for her husband to join her before they granted me a special privilege to leave UK to join my family in the United States.
Where were you on 8 June 1998 when Abacha died?
I was shuttling between the United States and UK. We were working really hard as NADECO. We went to our NADECO meeting in the UK to finalise the second leg of the strategy to make a broadcast and enforce certain actions. Before then I was reading Jubril Aminu’s interview in The Punch, where he said Nigerians should not worry about Abacha’s transmutation into a civilian president; but they should be worried about what followed. We were persuaded during a brainstorming session that we should get nearer to Nigeria to do something about it. It was agreed that we should stop him, even if we would have to start guerrilla warfare to achieve that.
Tunde Olowu had been with me in my flat for a couple of weeks and on the night Abacha died, we were just eating when a phone call came through that Abacha had died. We could not believe it until we saw on TV his body being taken out in a van. And that changed the texture of the struggle. Suddenly, there was this news, announcing General Abdulsalami Abubakar as the head of state. We started analysing General Abubakar.
I wish to state that out of all the military generals I met through Abiola while he was lobbying for the restoration of his mandate, Abubakar was the most sincere and straightforward. He pointedly told Abiola that no military officer would want to help him to realise his mandate, unless the military general wanted to get himself into trouble. While other generals we had met lied, Abdusalami was different. He simply said: ‘Look, I am a professional soldier and I want to retire a general. I don’t want to be involved in politics. I cannot help you. I don’t want to be involved.’
When we heard that he was the head of state, I challenged the rest of us to interrogate Abubakar’s sincerity. Good enough, he was straight-forward. When we met him, he told us that he wasn’t going to spend more than nine months because he was not interested. He promised he was going to pardon us and urged us to return to the country. That was the situation of things before the death of Abiola.