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Fight for democracy not about Abiola – Fayemi

I have worked actively in the democracy and anti-military dictatorship movements. I helped to found and manage the radio station that was used for that…

I have worked actively in the democracy and anti-military dictatorship movements. I helped to found and manage the radio station that was used for that purpose. I was also an official diplomat in the exile movement. I returned to the country in 2000. Outside my prodemocracy work, I was also a lecturer, a UN consultant and journalist with Guardian newspaper.

What I found most interesting in all this time was the importance of value, integrity, character development, community service and compassion for people, which are the basic duties of a catholic. These were most important to my father and he passed them down to us. For me, everything I have done in activism and politics are in themselves extensions of these.

That’s why when people ask me why I am subjecting myself to this kind of torturous journey when I could be doing something academic wise or enjoying cosy appointments, I say, ‘If you had the benefit of my upbringing, then you would not be asking me this.’ It is not about me really, but commitment to people.

How did your education impact on and mould you?

I have always said my secondary education in Christ College, Ado-Ekiti, made the most impact on and moulded my character. There, it wasn’t just bookwork but also moral development, character building and discipline. The friends I have kept the most in my life are those I made from there. Of course, I have made other dear friends along the way, but that was the pivot of my life. It is not a surprise that the school has produced some of the best Nigerians that I know (laughing).

How was your time as an anti-military activist and the radio station?

Radio Kudirat was one of the works that we did in exile. The major print media outlets like Punch and Guardian newspapers had been shut down at the time and so there was no other vehicle. People were forced to listen to NTA, Radio Nigeria or Ray Power, which couldn’t do much at the time. It was based on this that we decided to set up the station if only to let Nigerians know that the spirit of democracy was still alive and that we would not succumb to the intimidation and harassment of the military.

It started with limited and risky coverage as Freedom Radio in Nigeria. We then got a short wave station through the instrumentalities of our friends in 1996. We broadcast in about 15 local languages. No station has been able to break that record in Nigeria. Our names were all over, threatening fire and brimstone, saying we were CIA and MI5 agents, not knowing one of theirs,’ Tajudeen, (the late Tajudeen Abdulraheem), was an integral part of us as a Hausa broadcaster. Selfish courage and our conviction for a new and better Nigeria saw us through.  

It was not about Abiola. We didn’t even like him, because we thought he was too closely associated with the military. Our struggle was not about position. It was about reconstructing Nigeria and ensuring that we had a basis to really reorganise the state in a manner that would serve the people.

Unfortunately, we went for election rather than reconstruction and we are seeing part of the challenges of that with us now. Many of us who really were the actors were not the ones who inherited the democratic mantle. In fact, 80% of those who went into politics in 1999 were the Abacha politicians of a leprous hand. They were not the people who knew what it meant to be a democracy and that’s why we ended up with a democracy without democrats and we are still confronted with the challenges of living in a democracy without democrats.

We also did a lot of diplomatic work and I wrote a book about it and have gotten tremendous responses on the issues that I talked about there. The most interesting work we did, for me, was breaking down the offence of the Abacha administration in Africa particularly. We had successes with the international community, the UN, the EU and some of the major countries in the world.

Our major success was being able to get a foot in the door through direct encounters. It was the main pillar of Tajudeen who was the driver of our diplomatic shuttle in our meetings with the Mandelas, Musevenis, Nkafas and others. We were challenged because Nigeria is a big and very influential country in Africa. So the fact that these people were willing to meet with us and discuss our agenda for transformation was very significant and it influenced some of the activities they embarked on. The day will come when we will talk about how we used to travel around and which passports we had to use around Africa.

We pushed the Obasanjo administration to take on the human rights violation and for the setting-up of the Oputa Commission. We also were able to use the contacts we had made then in bringing the likes of Arch-Bishop Desmond Tutu (of South Africa) down here to come and work with us, along with many others who have been involved in truth commissions around the world. I was one of the first people Fr. Kukah asked for help with the process as in South Africa and others I had had access to. I became their main technical person along with my institution, Centre for Democracy and Development (CDD).  

I think a lot of people mistook Radio Kudirat for an Abiola faithful because of the name…

Its first name was Radio Freedom, then Radio Democracy International. It was when Kudirat Abiola was killed on June 4, 1996 and we were going to have a commemoration of June 12 the following week that we felt we needed something to raise the profile of this courageous woman; that’s why the name changed.

What kind of a family person are you?

(Laughing) It’s an interesting irony for people who don’t know me personally. I’m a very shy, private and family-oriented person even though politics has taken me away from home a lot. That’s difficult to contend with. I love my own company which is not very interesting for a politician.

I have been married for twenty years to a soul mate that is also active in the feminist movement. She heads the African Women Development Fund, which is one very unique fund dedicated to supporting women’s activism across Africa. We have a 14-year-old son.

What are your literary and music preferences?

I am an atheist child. I have had cause to cry over MJ because I grew up on a diet of MJ, Cool & the Gang, Lionel Ritchie and co. I don’t understand the music of these days. I guess every generation says that about the generation after them. But what is particularly gulling to me and which I always get into arguments with my child over is the noise! You can listen to Cool & the Gang and understand what they are saying. I don’t understand the bulk of what is happening these days — the Eminems…

I know you’ll say he sings sense, but I don’t understand what he says. Maybe it’s the way he says it. I would hate to think I’m an old person but to my 14-year-old, he thinks I’m too far away. He says, ‘Oh, don’t disgrace me dad. How can you say that? You mean you don’t know them?’ (Still laughing)

As I grew older, I’ve enjoyed reflective music. Jazz and the Infinity group lift me up when I feel low. I also love Pan African music — Kwaito, and jazz from South Africa — Brenda Fassie and Angelique Kidjo (of Benin Republic).

I grew up on (Hadley) Chase and Milton. Now, I read more nonfiction — political biographies, military history (which should not surprise you) and the likes. I am presently reading the ‘Anatomist,’ a biography of the respected journalist Anthony Samson. I like Chimamanda’s books.

Are there any compelling issues that drew you into politics?

With my dad and newspapers always available at home, I think I naturally gravitated towards knowing a lot about my environment. My nickname in secondary school was ‘Current Affairs,’ because I could easily tell you about any subject on Nigeria. I wouldn’t go as far as saying it was genetic because my siblings can’t stand politics. I became an activist because I always wanted to do something about my environment. I was curious about the fact that Nigeria was on this drift and what we could do to bring it back to a much more serious and organised set-up.

Surprisingly, I don’t think I should have been part of the anti-military politics. I had close contact with them. I interviewed Sani Abacha as Defence Chief and most key players for my PhD thesis. I used to teach in NIPSS and served on the security sector committee under Obasanjo.  But I knew that once you drag the military into politics, a fundamental damage is done to its professional integrity. It’s almost a zero sum game. The military in politics cannot be a battle-ready military. That’s why when there was this talk of the military being involved in Ekiti, I raised an alarm. Once you begin to involve the military in civilian-related activities, you never know where it is going to end.  

Did you see a futility in politics that activism could solve?

I saw a bit of a futility in activism that I felt politics could resolve. That trajectory was from the radical revolutionary politician, the ‘we-no-go-gree type’ that we used to do in university. I was always on the barricade. In the UK, Tajudeen and I along with like minds spent a lot of time in front of the South African, Kenyan embassies protesting the lack of democracy there. It was not just about Nigeria, we went all over. It was important that we sent a message to the world and people were listening.

At the time we were doing all the things I was talking about, there were all sorts of accusations flying around that we had abandoned confrontation and that we had sold out to government because we were engaging government, because it was also difficult for many of our colleagues in activism to switch gear in the immediate aftermath of Abacha’s demise. We were used to a particular way of functioning and people were supporting us.

But once there was a government that was deemed legitimate, even support for civil society shifted to that government and to governmental institutions. This created its own tension between the actors in civil society and the ones in government. We also exaggerated some of the roles and impact that we thought we were having as activists in the civil society.

In some cases, we saw ourselves as alternative government and expected the diplomatic missions to treat us the same way they would a government that they are in a bilateral relationship with; without recognising the complexities and contradictions of the state and the market. As attractive as the concept of civil society has become, it is still very nebulous. Politics was my way of resolving this.

I do not think I should go into politics and lose my values, because for me, my politics is nothing if not an extension of my activism. And once I lose the values that took me into activism, then I actually have no business being in politics. For me, democracy is not an abstract concept. If it does not affect the fundamental lives of ordinary people, it is a sham. And there was no way I could affect people directly with my civil society activities. I could affect the values and norms of people. I can’t do with activism as much as I would love to.

How much of your life has politics eaten into and how are you able to strike a balance?

So much of it. I don’t have privacy like I used to. I have lost the phenomenon of enjoying my own company for good. Even though I try to resist it, I still get to work around with all sorts of people. Unfortunately, that’s the reality of politics, especially in a terrain as dangerous as ours. The simplicity, candour and humility that also come with the teaching of an average home setting in Nigeria, if you want to maintain them, take a lot of figuring out the best mechanism to achieve that without losing yourself in the process. Fundamentally, I have gained a lot in the process.

How would you ensure that their votes count if and when you eventually get there?

The lessons of this torturous journey have immensely impacted on my personality; I can’t forget them in a hurry. I’m just a vehicle rather than the object or subject of the struggle of the people. My politics is not ambitious; I was asked to come and run. I sit down with the people… I mean it comes with all sorts of challenges. They have come to recognise that this guy will not to desert us. I think it is the most critical thing that has kept them going because they have seen politicians before me and even those that contested with me jump ship immediately after the contest.

They know of the advances made to me to have my election expenses written off and all that. Ekiti is the only state where leaders in the political parties were defecting to a party that was not in power. This must count for something.  We didn’t buy anybody. It was more to do with what they saw. We have an agenda to serve those people. But much more importantly, we all retain innate dictatorial tendencies, which we have to caution.