A former Secretary-General of the National Union of Petroleum and Natural Gas Workers and a leader of the June 12 movement, Chief Frank Kokori, speaks about the decision of the Federal Government to declare June 12 Democracy Day and other issues, with ENIOLA AKINKUOTU
did you ever believe that a day would come when the Federal Government would honour Chief MKO Abiola and declare June 12 as democracy day?
We all thought it would happen immediately we were released from prison or detention. At that time, the civil society groups were very strong and we had a militant press. NADECO, Afenifere, NUPENG and others pressurised the government at the time. We thought Abiola would be released and declared winner but when he died, we started the struggle for democracy day. Then, Olusegun Obasanjo became President and then unilaterally declared May 29 as democracy day. So, since then, the battle has been on and we believed Obasanjo should have been able to do it in those eight years but we did not know that Obasanjo had this pathological hatred for people who he felt would be his rivals. He did not want anybody to shine like him. He had that phobia which I call inferiority complex. Obasanjo behaved that way to even smaller people like us who went to prison with him. He made many promises which he never fulfilled. We were totally disappointed in him. So, it came as a big news, a shock to us when we heard the news about June 12. It came from nowhere, it came from someone we least expected to do it. I least expected Buhari to do it. I thought maybe President Yar’Adua or Goodluck Jonathan would do it but not Buhari; we thought he was never interested in the June 12 struggle because I have never really seen him talk much about it. I didn’t know he was being calculative. No matter what you say about it, he has done something great and heroic for the country. Thursday (when he made the announcement) was my happiest day.
PDP has described this move as a desperate act by a President seeking re-election. The party also wondered why Buhari who served under the Abacha dictatorship and never spoke up for those persecuted would act now.
That is the PDP’s opinion and they are entitled to their opinion. I have never been in the PDP and I never did politics with them. I was a leader of the SDP and now I am a leader of the APC in Delta State and a member of the Board of Trustees. The PDP was never a serious party but a corrupt group. I am not surprised they could speak in such a manner. For 16 years, why didn’t they declare June 12 as democracy day to boost their popularity? Why didn’t Obasanjo do it when he was desperate to get a third term in office? He should have done it. What they could not do in 16 years, a man has done in only three years and they have the guts to talk? The PDP doesn’t deserve a response.
How did you feel when Obasanjo said MKO was not the messiah?
It was a shame. And at that time, we were in the midst of the struggle. He said it in Zimbabwe at the time and he said it in bad faith. I was close to Obasanjo at a time. There was no head of state I wasn’t close to as the secretary-general of NUPENG. Obasanjo was a man we wanted to work with and he showed that side to me. When he got out of prison, he called me and we discussed many things but Obasanjo never fulfilled one promise he made. As small as I was to him, he was worried that maybe my name would continue to gain more attention. He didn’t want anyone to share the limelight with him. That was why he did what he did to Abiola. It was not that he had any serious grievances against him. That is just Obasanjo’s nature. He has phobia for popular people who can rival him especially people from his Yoruba ethnic group.
Some of Obasanjo’s supporters say he failed to honour MKO because he did not want to appear to be pursuing a Yoruba agenda. How would you react to that?
Is that why he would say MKO is not the messiah? If you read my book, you would know the kind of person Obasanjo is.
What were the experiences you had with Obasanjo during the days in detention?
When I was in Bama prison, I was in solitary confinement for four years. At a stage, Kingibe came to Bama prison as the Minister of Internal Affairs under Abacha. He met me in a very bad condition and I think he was embarrassed by certain remarks I made about him. He was almost shedding tears and I was almost shedding tears but I continued to look at him and let him see my condition. So, the gift I got from Kingibe was that since he could not pressure Abacha to release many of us on condition, he transferred me to another cell. Bama Prison was not meant for political prisoners. It was Maiduguri prison that was actually meant for political prisoners. They had no place to keep me in Bama Prison; so, they kept me in a dungeon which they referred to as a kitchen store. In that kitchen, they used gas and not firewood. It had wooden doors. It was a very primitive prison. In those days, it was those they really wanted to punish that they sent to Bama and Gashua Prisons. Since they didn’t have a VIP section, they put me in the store to the kitchen with prison bars. So after Kingibe left, I suddenly saw contractors building some new cells. By then, I had already spent two years in prison. The controller of the prisons then told me that Obasanjo would be coming to our prison from Yola. He said the two new cells would be for Obasanjo and me but for unknown reasons, they never brought Obasanjo again. Rather, they brought one director from a maritime agency to take the cell that Obasanjo should have occupied. When we got out of prison, Obasanjo and I use to joke about how wicked the prison warders were.
Kingibe has been given the GCON awarde. Do you think he deserves it given the fact that he served in Abacha’s cabinet?
Kingibe in 1993 worked with us and was part of the struggle all through the election. It was later on, in 1994, that he fell out. So, he is qualified.
But he is among those many refer to as a traitor for abandoning the June 12 cause.
I don’t think we should dwell on that because we all struggled together during the early days of the fight for the actualisation of the June 12 mandate in 1993. He was with us when we pressured IBB to step aside. He is my friend and we always moved together. Myself, Kingibe and MKO always sat together to discuss June 12. We were insiders and we were all in the SDP. The mandate was on a joint ticket with MKO as Presidential candidate and Kingibe as his running mate. If MKO won, then so did Kingibe. There is no way the government would validate MKO’s mandate and leave out Kingibe. He was the Vice-President-elect and MKO was the President-elect. So, I don’t buy that idea of him being called a traitor. In any case, many people became traitors at the end. It is not only Kingibe that was described in such a manner but to me, he deserves the honours.
Is it true that MKO gave some of his people the permission to serve in Abacha’s government as some have claimed?
I have heard this claim before but I don’t believe it because I know what MKO told me but I don’t want to reveal our discussion in this interview. This is not the time for such. I think I mentioned a bit of it in my book. I am not ready to go into such details but Abiola would not have been so stupid as to tell his people to join the Abacha government. I know he did not do it because we were close. I didn’t know MKO until the events leading up to June 12 brought us together. I was also close to Kudirat because she trusted me and my union.
Is it true that Buhari decided to honour MKO in order to gain votes from the South-West?
That means Buhari is a smart guy. It means Obasanjo wasn’t smart for someone who wanted a third term. Why is it that with all the pressure Obasanjo got to honour his fellow Egba man, despite all the pressure from NADECO and Afenifere, labour unions and others on Obasanjo to declare June 12 as democracy day, Obasanjo refused. Also, June 12 is not about the South-West. It is about an election a man won clearly. He even won in Kano State; he defeated Tofa in his own ward. And that election should have made Nigeria united because there was no third party. You were either SDP or NRC. Nigerians voted for a Muslim/Muslim ticket. Nigerians at that time were not this divided. Can you try this in Nigeria of today? Can you make two southerners or two persons of the same religion a candidate and a running mate today? Nigerians were good people in those days. It was the corrupt people that introduced division among us. So, I don’t buy that reasoning.
Do you believe the June 12 declaration was done by Buhari to spite Obasanjo and Babangida who both criticised Buhari recently?
(Laughs) Where do you hear all these gossips from? I fear you media people. If that is what happened, then I think it is good. We want more of such. I love such political strategies. If Buhari has that kind of mind, then it is a classic political strategy, a kind of coup. If that is the reason why Buhari did it, then I am alright with it. It is not my business what Buhari’s intentions were. We are happy. NUPENG is happy. Those who were laughing at us ruled for 16 years and didn’t remember the freedom fighters. Abiola suffered but did not have physical pains like me. I was kept in a cell, in solitary confinement and I was exposed to intense heat. Abiola was in Abuja in detention. I was kept in a hole in Bama prisons. Even the real prisoners were better than me because they were living in hostels where you have about 50 beds in a room. They had toilets. For two years, I did not have a toilet. I was using a bucket inside a small dungeon which they referred to a as a kitchen store. During the struggle, everyone was relying on me and NUPENG because every other person could only carry placards. Gani Fawehinmi, Beko Ransome-Kuti, Wole Soyinka and even Tai Solarin at a stage, would come out to protest but they were chased away. My training made me transform my union to a freedom-fighting group such that even when the NLC betrayed me and NUPENG, we refused to be cowed. Now Buhari has honoured the memory of June 12.
Afenifere has called on the government to go the extra mile by honouring other actors in the June 12 struggle like Kudirat Abiola. Do you agree?
I share this view and I listed all the people who should be honoured in my book.
Buhari has, in recent times, praised Abacha, the dictator who imprisoned many of you. How does this make you feel?
Buhari and Abacha were both military men and so must have had a history together. But that does not mean they are the same. Abacha was not a good person. We who suffered in his hands know the kind of person he was. But Buhari and Abacha are different people. Buhari is not corrupt like Abacha.
What do you have to say to Ibrahim Babangida who annulled the election?
IBB is my friend and I don’t hate him. He was loved by many Nigerians until June 12. We agreed on many things until June 12 happened. I am sure he is regretting it every day. He may pretend to be fine but he is not. I am sure he is regretting his decision.