Human rights lawyer and one of the pro-democracy activists in the post-June 12, 1993, political struggle, Mr. Femi Falana, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, tells LEKE BAIYEWU about the political events between the infamous annulment of the election and now
Where do you stand on the debate on whether May 29 or June 12 is the appropriate date to celebrate democracy in Nigeria?
No one has ever made a case for the celebration of May 29 as Democracy Day. It was meant to spite those who celebrate June 12 by the Olusegun Obasanjo-led administration. No serious person ever celebrates the day that he was attacked by armed robbers; you always want to put it behind you. Military rulers behaved like armed robbers; they raped and robbed the country. One cannot account for $12bn. His comrade-in-arms made away with $5bn. No serious democratic country in the world ever sets aside a day to mark the exit of military dictators. Holidays are declared to mark significant events and individuals who have contributed positively to the development of societies. When Martin Luther King was assassinated, it was unthinkable to honour him with a public holiday. But several years later, a public holiday was set aside to honour him by the United States’ government, which appreciated his audacity to challenge racism and contribution to political plurality.
Do you think Nigeria would have been better than its current state if the late Chief MKO Abiola had been allowed to be president in 1993?
For sure, the ‘June 12’ crisis would have been averted. By now, we would have largely consolidated the fragile democratic process. We would have been celebrating 23 years of uninterrupted civil rule. M.K.O Abiola’s programme of ‘Welfare of Poverty,’ which was a bold welfare package for the country, would have been implemented in the overall interest of the masses. With his campaign for reparation for slave trade and colonialism in Africa, an Abiola-led government would have been forced to lead Africa to confront imperialism.
Some conspiracy theorists believe the death of Abiola and the late Gen. Sani Abacha was to ‘settle’ both sides when the polity had become tensed?
I was busier at the Oputa Commission than any lawyer in Nigeria. I represented numerous victims of human rights abuse at what was supposed to be our equivalent of the truth and reconciliation commission. During the proceedings of the commission, it was proved beyond any shadow of doubt that both Gen. Sani Abacha and Chief M.K.O. Abiola were eliminated by poison to pave way for the resolution of the political crisis caused by Gen. Ibrahim Babangida after he annulled the June 12, 1993, presidential election won by Abiola. The elimination was planned and executed by the Gen. Abdulsalami Abubakar junta with the aid of the so-called international community, which needed a peaceful Nigeria to facilitate their continued exploitation.
Seventeen years after the return of democracy, do you think the ‘injury’ caused by the annulment of the June 12, 1993, election has been healed?
Until justice is done to the victims of the political crisis, one cannot talk of healing the wounds. The Oputa Panel was meant to achieve that purpose but the report and the recommendations were ignored by the Obasanjo-led administration which set it up. Of course, the judiciary assisted the government in rubbishing that aspect of our history when the Supreme Court ruled that the trio of Generals Mohammadu Buhari, Babangida and Abubakar could not be forced by subpoena ad testificandum to appear before the panel to defend the gross human rights abuse perpetrated by the military regimes headed by them.
Will Nigerians, especially those in the South-West, ever forgive IBB on the annulment of the much revered election?
The annulment of June 12, 1993, presidential election was pan-Nigerian, mandate; it was not a South-West affair. That is why the entire people of Nigeria have refused to forgive IBB. Unlike Gen. Buhari whose personal integrity eventually won him the presidency (in 2015), Gen. Babangida was forced to withdraw from the presidential race when he found to his eternal regret that the Nigerian people would never forgive him for the subversion of democracy, egregious human rights abuse and the adoption of corruption as a directive principle of state policy.
Several politicians in the country today often openly make claims of their participation in the struggle for democracy in the post-June 12 era. Can you recollect the names of those at the forefront of the battle against the military and the roles they played?
When the authentic history of the struggle for the restoration of democracy is chronicled, everyone would be put in their place. Mind you, the struggle for democracy did not start and end with the annulment of the June 12 election. As soon as the military adventurers returned to power on December 31, 1983, the tribe of genuine progressive forces began to mobilise the people to chase them out of power. The Nigerian Medical Association and the Nigerian Resident Doctors Association were proscribed; the Nigerian Labour Congress, National Union of Petroleum and Natural Gas Workers and the Petroleum and Gas Senior Staff Association were proscribed; the Academic Staff Union of Universities and the National Association of Nigerian Students were proscribed. Dele Giwa and Bagauda Kaltho were bombed out of existence. A number of journalists were detained without trial, while newspaper houses were proscribed. Even the Nigeria Bar Association was taken over because of the Alao Aka-Bashorun challenge, when he led the lawyers’ body.
The late Dr. Beko Ransome-Kuti, the late Chima Ubani, Shehu Sanni (now a senator) and leading journalists were jailed. The late Chief Gani Fawehinmi and some of us were regularly detained and charged to court. There was a time that Gen. Babangida charged five of us with conspiracy and treasonable felony. Without any scintilla of evidence, he alleged that we were planning to overthrow him. Gani (as Fawehinmi was fondly called) never smoked but he died of cancer of the lungs. The strange death was traceable to his travails under the murderous military regimes. Prof. Wole Soyinka and others were driven into exile. In my own case, Gen. Buhari detained me and left me in prison in 1985; IBB released me and left me in prison in 1993. It was the Interim National Government of Chief Ernest Shonekan that released me from IBB’s custody. The struggle for democracy has a record of many other unsung heroes. Some of us are only lucky to be alive.
Whoever remembers that (the then Secretary-General of NUPENG) Frank Kokori was detained without trial for four years? What of Julius Ihonvbere who was a leading broadcaster in the Radio Kudirat? Was it not Chief Tony Enahoro who led NADECO abroad? When Gani, Beko and I were held in Kuje Prison in 1992 and 1993, Olisa Agbakoba and Clement Nwankwo led the human rights community to keep up the struggle. Some of the details are well documented in Kayode Fayemi’s book entitled, ‘Out of the Shadows: Exile and the Struggle for Freedom and Democracy in Nigeria.’ The role played by Comrades Balarabe Musa, the late Bala Usman, the late Emma Ezeazu, Ralph Obioha, Commodore Dan Suleiman, Ndubuisi Kanu and others from outside the South-West region is deliberately downplayed to give the misleading impression that it was a struggle of the Yoruba people.
Even in the South-West, it was our comrade lecturers in the campuses, together with the late Bamidele Aturu, the late Chima Ubani, Abiodun Aremu, Olaitan Oyerinde, Femi Aborisade, Abdul Oroh, Joe Okei-Odumakin, Glory Kilanko and many other young men and women, who made the country ungovernable for the dictators. The guerilla journalists were Dapo Olorunyomi, Kunle Ajibade, Babafemi Ojudu, while Bayo Onanuga and Nosa Igiebor were forced to go on exile. But the ruling class has a way of twisting the history of the struggle. The National Democratic Coalition, which was established on May 31, 1994, is given all the credit of the collective struggle of the Nigerian people which began in January 1984. I am not saying this to insult the NADECO people because I have my profound admiration for those of them who later joined us in the battlefront. I am only trying to correct certain historical inaccuracies.
What significant roles did you play in the battle, which have remained unforgettable for you?
There was nothing personal in my role in the struggle. Essentially, I teamed up with other comrades to retrieve the soul of our country from the soiled hands of military dictators of the most reactionary genre. In the process, I sacrificed my liberty and put my life at great risk. Indeed, I am only lucky to be alive as others were killed during the struggle. My young family was subjected to denials and deprivations. The most unforgettable episode for me was when, upon my release from a detention that had kept me away from home for over nine months, my son, Folarin Falz (now popular artiste known as FalzThaBadGuy) asked his mother if I was a criminal because the teacher had taught him in the elementary school that only criminals were put in prison by the government. As he was barely six years old at the time, I was not sure if his mother was able to convince him that the prison was also peopled by political activists and revolutionary politicians.
Some Nigerians believe the case of June 12 is dead and buried and should be forgotten. Do you share this belief?
Like many other aspects of the struggle, June 12 cannot be forgotten. President Goodluck Jonathan described it as a watershed in the history of democracy in Nigeria. He attempted to name the University of Lagos after Abiola but it was rejected by the students, the alumni and alumnae of the school for pure sentimental reasons. The June 12 phenomenon transcends the individuality of Abiola. Although he was a symbol of the struggle, the election itself was a clear demonstration of the resolve of the people to shake off the yoke of unending military dictatorship. The IBB regime engaged in the reckless manipulation and sabotage of its own political transition agenda. Politicians were banned and unbanned. Political parties were proscribed, while official ones were set up like parastatals.
A court order was procured by the junta through a shadowy body called Association for Better Nigeria to stop the election. There were counter orders that the election should proceed as scheduled. So, the Nigerian people trooped out to vote. The junta could not disrupt the democratic process. There were no allegations of electoral malpractice. In desperation, another order was secured to stop further announcement of the results. As the Court of Appeal, then led by Justice Mustapha Akanbi, could not be manipulated to affirm the illegal orders of the FCT High Court, the junta announced a decree which ousted the jurisdiction of the (appellate) court to hear any suit pertaining to the criminal annulment of the election. From that moment, we took the struggle to the streets. It was a crisis which chased IBB out of power.
The ING hurriedly installed by him was declared illegal by the Lagos High Court. That was the moment Abiola ought to have declared himself elected President. He could not have been charged with treason because Shonekan’s had been declared illegal. But he was tricked by Generals Abacha and Oladipo Diya to give them time to purge the military of all anti-June 12 elements. Of course, they consolidated their hold on the military and proceeded to sack the Shonekan-led regime and installed themselves in power. Betrayed by the duo of the military power mongers, Abiola belatedly declared himself President six months later and was arrested and charged with treason. When he stood his ground and refused to renounce his claim to the mandate, he was killed in a military custody four years later.
Is it true that the majority of those who really fought for democracy have been sidelined by those referred to as opportunists in the running of the affairs of the country?
I don’t share the view. It is a reductionist view of political power. It is not the opportunists but the dangerously corrupt political system that has sidelined activists from accessing power. If we had wanted to be opportunistic, we would have compromised our principles to be made ministers and legislators. In 1998, the pro-democracy and human right activists decided not to participate in the manipulated political transition programme, as it was not programmed to lead the country to genuine and stable democracy. There was no constitution. For us, it was like traveling without a compass. We wanted a Sovereign National Conference to prepare the country for popular democracy, as opposed to a rickety civil rule. President Nelson Mandela wanted us to participate. He asked his deputy, Thambo Mbeki, to meet with us. He met us at the Murtala Mohammed Airport in Ikeja, Lagos. We were not persuaded to change our position, as the military wing of the ruling class had designed a programme that would turn the people into mere onlookers in the democratic process and consolidate Nigeria as a satellite of imperialism. Painfully, we have been proved right. Because there was no solid foundation, Nigeria is today a leading nation in the areas of illiteracy, infant and maternal mortality, corruption, unemployment, insecurity and infrastructural decay.
At what time did the democrats and political activists who fought for democracy lose it to the so-called opportunists running the affairs of the country today?
The people you refer to as opportunists grabbed power from the military dictators and have largely retained it for members of their class. The progressive forces never contested the elections in 1998 (and 1999). But they have to step forward to mobilise the people to free our people from the shackles of imperialism and its local lackeys. It is not about being sidelined. You don’t form a government with your class enemies or those who may chase you out of power.
Does Nigeria still have true democrats?
For sure, there are a few serious-minded democrats in the system who believe in popular democracy, transparent elections, rule of law, human rights and accountability. Such people have to join other progressive forces to form new political parties with manifestoes, programmes and vision that will question the politics of exclusion and the economic system that promotes poverty in the midst of plenty. It is not true that the All Progressives Congress and the Peoples Democratic Party have no ideologies; the basic ideology of both parties is to sustain the policies of private-sector-driven economy, a dolarised financial system, a deregulated economy of currency devaluation, trade liberalisation, privatisation and commercilaisation without any economic planning. A political party that subscribes to such neo-liberal, neo-colonial, peripheral capitalism cannot be said to lack ideological commitment.
With the high spate of impunity, large-scale corruption and human rights abuse in the polity, do you think Nigerians have learnt from their sufferings under the successive military dictators who ruled the country?
Once a war is concluded in any country, the soldiers have to be disarmed and demobilised. Otherwise, they will continue to breach the peace of a society. If some of them contest and win elections, they will want to administer a country with military tendencies; that has been our experience since 1999 because there was no honest transition from military dictatorship to democracy. Many of the politicians are not better because they are products of military rule. In one of the states in the South-East geopolitical zone, a governor usually led armed policemen, soldiers and thugs to demolish the houses of suspected kidnappers. I challenged him when we met at a conference in Abuja. He said he embraced jungle justice because the judicial system was too slow. Another governor in the South-West region has just directed people to kill herdsmen instead of ensuring that those who attacked and killed unarmed farmers are arrested and prosecuted. That is his barbaric way of protecting farmers from reckless attacks. The other day, the secretary to the government of one of the states in the North-West zone disclosed before a judicial commission of inquiry that the dead bodies of 347 people who were massacred by soldiers had been buried secretly in a mass grave provided by the state government. Unfortunately, these security forces have failed to call these highly-placed public officers to order.
Do you agree with those who believe that there are still military tendencies in the polity, especially on the side of political officer holders and security agents?
It is not correct to say that a large number of ex-military officers have dominated the political scene since 1999. The number is negligible but their influence has been overwhelming. The saddest aspect of it is that a number of the civilian politicians are much more undemocratic than the retired military officers in politics. Instead of isolating military officers in politics, we should ensure the deepening of the democratic process and ensure that the society is fully democratised.
The late Dr. Tunji Braithwaite once posited that ex-coup plotters should not be allowed to run the affairs of the state or regarded as elder statesmen. Former President Olusegun Obasanjo and President Muhammadu Buhari and several others fall in this category. Do you agree with him?
With respect to the late Dr. Tunji Braithwaite, it is undemocratic to ban coup plotters from political participation. Unlike in some Latin American countries where they were put on trial at the end of military rule, the former military dictators in Nigeria have been exceptionally lucky. Even though the military in Africa produced the likes of Mobotu Sese Seko of the DRC, Idi Amin of Uganda, Sani Abacha of Nigeria and Jean Bokassa of Central Africa Republic, it also produced the likes of Thomas Sankara and Murtala Mohammed.
Can those who plotted coups in this country still be tried?
No, they cannot be tried under the penal statutes. The law says that if a charge of treason is not filed within three years, it is statute barred. However, the victims of human rights abuse can take advantage of the doctrine of universal jurisdiction to file cases against them abroad for crimes against humanity committed while they were in power. That was what happened to the late Augusto Pinochet of Chile. An order was issued by a Spanish magistrate for his arrest. He was to be arrested in the United Kingdom but the (Margaret) Thatcher regime frustrated the arrest. Since the fellow had lost his case up to the House of Lords, he had to be deported. But he was made to face trial in Santiago and the trial was in progress when he died. He was a nonagenarian but the victims of his murderous dictatorship insisted that justice be done. The same fate has befallen Hasne Habre, a brutal dictator who killed over 5,000 people in Chad from 1982 to 1990. Upon the issuance of a warrant for his arrest by a Belgian magistrate, the African Union resisted his deportation but decided to have him tried in Dakar, Senegal. The trial has been concluded in Dakar, Senegal, and judgment will be delivered on May 31, 2016. If he loses the case, he may end up in prison even though he is well over 70 now. With the successful prosecution of Charles Taylor of Liberia and Hasne Habre of Chad, other dictators are worried that nemesis may catch up with them. Hence, they are threatening to pull Africa out of the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court. But the human right community in Africa is seriously mobilising against the dangerous move, as it is designed to promote impunity in the continent.
Several socio-cultural and political leaders often consult with Obasanjo on public affairs. Do you think the retired general still has anything to offer the country?
Those who consult the former military ruler and former elected president are perfectly in order. History has recorded him as the longest serving ruler in Nigeria. He is also the greatest defender of the status quo. His latest call is that the Nigeria National Petroleum Corporation, the Nigeria Maritime Administration and Safety Authority, the Nigeria Port Authority, etc, be sold to members of the ruling class. That is a conscious ideological stand. He speaks for both military and civilian wings of the bourgeoisie. He is not happy with President Muhammadu Buhari for opposing the outright sale of the country’s common assets through dubious privatisation. Hence, he has condemned Buhari’s economic and foreign policies.
If you were to advise Buhari, what mistakes do you think his predecessors made that he should correct or avoid?
In the fight against corruption, President Buhari should carry the Nigerian people along. He should consult with mass-based organisations with respect to policy formulation and implementation. In the area of the economy, he should shun and resist the pressure to privatise public assets and devalue the currency. Higher duties should be imposed on all the goods which are produced in the country. On the weekly sale of dollars to banks for the importation of electricity metres, suitcases, textile materials and shoes, why should the economy collapse due to non-availability of dollars to import consumer goods for the elite? Notwithstanding the opposition of Western financial institutions, the Buhari-led administration should urgently conclude the currency swap with China. Some of the Western countries, including the United Kingdom, have a similar arrangement with China.
Do you think Buhari has changed from a military dictator into a true democrat, especially when he is under criticism for the unconditional detention of some Nigerians despite that courts have ordered their release?
From the information at my disposal, President Buhari is making conscious efforts to metamorphose from a military dictator into a civilian President. Having undertaken to end impunity and operate under the rule of law, the President ought to call overzealous security personnel to order. In particular, he has to sanction those who engage in disobedience to court orders, illegal arrests and detention of innocent citizens, extra judicial killing of unarmed people and other violations of human rights. Right now, the United States’ Congress is under pressure not to sell 12 war planes to Nigeria to fight Boko Haram insurgents on the ground that President Buhari has failed to stop human rights abuse in the country.