Olawale Oshun, the Chief Whip of the Third Republic House of Representatives is very passionate about Nigeria. A writer, politician, an economist and an industrialist, Oshun is former Secretary-General of the National Democratic Coalition (NADECO) and the National Chairman, Afenifere Renewal Group (ARG). In this interview with EMMANUEL OLADESU and RAYMOND MORDI, Oshun, who will clock 70 this month, speaks on his foray into politics, what went wrong during the Third Republic and how the country has been going downhill since the return to civil rule in 1999.
You were the Chief Whip of the House of Representatives in the Third Republic. Why did that dispensation collapse?
It collapsed because General Ibrahim Babangida was bent on self-succession. He was already military president; he had started as head of state but later turned himself into a military president. If you recall the way he handled the then Chief of Staff Commodore Ebitu Ukiwe, when there was an altercation between him and the then Chief of Army Staff Gen. Sani Abacha, you could see the exercise of power in an absolute form. It was obvious that Babangida would have loved to continue in office, but it was the pressure of the civil society, the pressure of Nigerians generally that he should return the country to democracy that led him into all the experiments, such as the formation of two parties, which were described as ‘a little to the right and a little to the left’ and to be funded by no one but the government, which is an aberration itself, when you talk of democratic dealings. But I think it is his own love of power and the need to cling to power without being questioned by anyone that laid the foundation for the collapse of the Third Republic. If you take a cursory look at my book, Clapping With One Hand, you will see a trajectory there; he tried as much as possible to get the National Assembly to pass a resolution, asking him not to handover or not to conduct an election at a particular time. We frustrated that. If he had got that resolution, it would have been a perfect opportunity for him to say that, well, after all, we are talking of democracy and the democratic institution on the ground has asked him not to handover. But, all that did not take place because we organised ourselves in such a way that, at the end of the day, he had to ‘step aside’ for the interim government. This brought confusion because that was an interim government that was not elected. In fact, the interim government had within military structures that could still engineer final decisions. One other interesting calculation was that he (Babangida) had always thought that it was an easy cake and that he would get the resolution he was looking for. But when he couldn’t get that resolution and Abacha in fact was already stoking a fire under him, for Abacha himself was interested in power. Of course, Abacha is dead now. Babangida who is alive has not written any book. But we understand that when he managed to survive the Gideon Orkar coup and the role Abacha played was so significant that they had an unwritten understanding that he (Abacha) would be the one to succeed him (Babangida). He is alive, he can a lie to that. So, when things were not going smoothly, Abacha started stoking fire under him and of course, we in the House led the onslaught that he must organise an election to fill the position of the president. After the June 12 election, which again he annulled, we were certain in our minds that the thing to do was to reinstate that election. Nevertheless, the National Assembly itself was also susceptible to manipulation because he (Babangida) was influencing it to jettison that election. A section of the National Assembly, however, was insisting that the election must be upheld. Today, we must look back and appreciate the vital role of certain individuals in ensuring that we could stand up to the military at that time. These are people like Iyorchia Ayu, Senator Bola Tinubu, the Speaker Aniekwe, his deputy Rabiu Kwankwaso. So, in a way, we were able to put a structure that was not easily accessible to being pushed to take a decision to allow self-succession by Babangida. But the House itself was worked upon on a continual basis and weakened. That was why when we get to meetings, you will find all sorts of positions; there were people who wanted us to allow him (Babangida) to continue in office. But, having said that, Abacha was himself very desperate to take over power and he was also working through all the structures. Up to Abacha’s coup, in November 1993, was deliberate; it was planned. I mean once Babangida had left and handed over to Ernest Shonekan, it was more of a contraption. Shonekan lacked the gut, lacked the spine to stand up to the military. Other than Col. Abubakar Umar and maybe a few other officers, all the other officers like David Mark had their own agenda as well. They didn’t want an Abacha, but they would have loved the continuation of military rule. Umar and a few of his friends were the ones insistent that the democratic process had started and should never be aborted. Eventually, they paid the price because you could see that they were retired prematurely.
Do you regret not serving as deputy governor of Ogun State?
No, I was never offered that position. Nobody contests for the position of deputy governor; you’re picked by a governorship candidate to run on a joint ticket. I was never offered, so I can’t be talking of any regret. Though when I was invited to Ogun from Lagos by my constituents, it was on the basis that there were discussions with a candidate who is likely to come Ogun Central and the deputy position has been zoned to Ogun East and in Ogun East, it has been decided that the position would go to my own constituency. Of course, we worked on the primary together for the emergence of the candidate, but the truth was that I was never at any time asked by the candidate to be his deputy. No!
In retrospect, would you say the political class, particularly the leadership of the SDP, made the right decision in supporting Abacha?
You cannot speak of the leadership of the SDP because it was a perfidious section of that leadership. At the time of Abacha’s palace coup, the SDP had its own internal problems. At the time, Abiola had emerged as the president-elect and for the first time, there was a prospect that that position would be taken up by somebody that is not of northern origin. Abiola could not have become the president-elect without the support of people like the former governor of Kano, Abubakar Rimi, Balarabe Musa and others; they were strong hands in the campaign. But the moment that election was annulled by Babangida, they were compelled to buy the idea that it was the Lord’s making, let him (Abiola) accept it. If those who had backed him for the presidency in the north had maintained their support, it would have been much more difficult for the annulment to succeed. Of course, the military would do whatever it had to do, but it could fail. And, don’t forget that Shehu Yar’Adua was an interested party. He wanted to be president, but the same Babangida thwarted the bid, by cancelling all the primaries that were held. When that failed, Yar’Adua wanted Atiku (Abubakar) badly to become the vice president. For one reason or the other, Abiola reneged because the SDP governors at that time preferred to have a (Babagana) Kingibe. They were insistent and Abiola had the task of selecting Atiku, based on a previous understanding between the two parties. This would have meant displeasing all the SDP governors — many of them are still alive – who backed Kingibe. The governors wanted to be relevant. They knew that if the agreement between Abiola and Yar’Adua eventually sailed through, they would become irrelevant in the scheme of things. But, fundamentally, I believe that Yar’Adua and Anthony Anenih played a very perfidious role. I was at the meeting in Sheraton Hotel, where the two parties were brought together and more or less told to accept the formation of the interim government. Kwankwaso and I sat next to each other and we shared notes that night. But I remember that the former governor of Jigawa State Sule Lamido who was then secretary of the party (SDP) was so vehement that the structure that met did not authorise them to go and sell out Abiola’s victory. Kwankwaso and I kept exchanging notes and also passing notes to Sule Lamido. But Shehu Yar’Adua and Tony Anenih were so overwhelming in stating that they were in support of that move. In fact, it got to a point in which Nwodo – I don’t remember one among them – was so rude to Lamido, by saying: your party leaders are here and you are talking. The NRC knew they have lost the election and didn’t mind an interim government, because of Babangida’s promise that there would be another election. That night we left Sheraton Hotel in amazement, wondering who authorized Yar’Adua and Anenih to negotiate away our victory.
Supporters of Abiola heard beforehand that the man would be killed. Why did they not act to avert the doom?
You can’t say that nothing was done; maybe it was done unsuccessfully. I think he was killed on July 8. A week before he was killed, Makin Soyinka and I were the last persons to leave Radio Kudirat Studio that day. All of a sudden, the fax machine came alive, with a message from an unknown person in Nigeria, stating that Abiola would be killed, that the killing of Abiola was to settle Abacha’s death or something like that. We were taken aback. Immediately, we recalled Radio Kudirat operatives, because they had closed for the day. We also called Makin’s father, Professor Wole Soyinka, who immediately called the then United Nations Secretary-General, Kofi Annan. It was Annan who externalized it. May be the only lapse on our side was that Radio Kudirat did not start making a big noise out of it. What happened, I wouldn’t know; everybody was tired. May be we didn’t believe that it was a possibility. But, I do know that Prof. Soyinka made an issue of it. It was more of a big consternation when it eventually took place.
Aremo Olusegun Osoba said you didn’t capture his involvement very well and that he is not happy…
Prof. Akinyemi in the preface to one of my books said recorders of history only record what they have seen. So, I have recorded what I saw regarding all the people I mentioned in my book. If there is anybody who feels he is under-reported, he can do the reporting himself. But, the truth is that history will always be history; actual events will always be actual events, but interpretation may vary. What I try to do in my writings is to look at the facts. Most times, I just present the facts and let people draw their own interpretations. When you are compiling history, you are given the right to interpret.
When you reflect, as a member of Afenifere and NADECO, doesn’t it appear as if your efforts were in vain?
Looking at the struggle, with the benefit of hindsight, Nigeria has been going down the drain. A country measures its development by economic growth, economic development, by the measure of security that is available – because these are things you can see or perceive. Of course, you cannot speak of economic growth and development without talking of employment. So, if you take all of these in its context, have Nigerians been better off? I think an observer, a participant, a Nigerian himself would tell you that it could be better. We have not got there at all; we still have a lot of work to do. The employment rate is not at the level where it should be; that you can see from the high level of unemployment. Then, look at education, health, social infrastructure: are we where we should be? If I want to play politics, I will you that we are trying and we would get there. But, the simple truth is that looking at the number of children out of school, unemployment, coupled with the level of insecurity; it is obvious we are not there at all. Everybody is talking about insecurity today. The president recently owned up that he didn’t know that it was this bad. In my view, nobody should be entitled to police escort in Nigeria, except the president and the governors. Maybe if we get to that level, everybody that has the power to do something will start doing something. If the speaker knows that he can be picked up like any other person, he is likely to be more responsive in his office. Most times, you see them going about with police escort, so how can they be concerned about insecurity.
How does it feel to be 70?
I feel very happy that I am turning 70 in good health, in good grace and I am thankful to the Lord for His grace. I feel as I have always felt, even as a younger person. I thank God for giving me good health at this age. I feel good; that’s the word.
You’re from Ogun State. How come Lagos Mainland has become your political base?
If you look at the trajectory of any upwardly mobile Yoruba man, whether in terms of sourcing of education, in terms of birth, in terms of the diverse education – whether secondary, university or whatever – you will find a lot of movement in between. My grandfather was known in our community in Ijebu as Baba Eko; meaning the Baba from Lagos. He did well for himself; he was a wealthy man, by the standard of their days. My father also lived a substantial part of his life in Lagos; aside from the days he spent in Ilorin, Ibadan and I think Enugu during his working life. So, I grew up studying in Ijebu and Ibadan. My primary school days were in Ijebu and my secondary and university education was in Ibadan. Of course, there was a small stint at Ijebu Ode Grammar School, for six months, when I went for my ‘A’ Levels, before I was admitted for prelim at the University of Ibadan. So, for my working life, right from day one, I have been in Lagos; because my parents were living and working in Lagos. I had lived with them in Thomas Street, in Lagos Island, but when they moved to their own house in Abule Ijesha, in 1968, we all moved. I have lived in Abule Ijesha ever since and that is the heart of Lagos Mainland. But, interestingly, after leaving the service, I went into private life; I also decided to go into politics. At that time, there were no parties, because Nigeria was an experimental ground at that time in the hands of the military. My first contestation for office was for the position of Lagos Mainland Council chairman in 1987. But the breakthrough came in 1988 when I won my first election, into the Constituent Assembly to represent Lagos Mainland. This is to say that I’ve been here practically all the time. If you observe any Ijebu person who has a pedigree and has done well for himself, they rarely leave their homestead. So, I’m equally visible in Ogun.