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June 12: Was Abiola’s death avoidable?

As far as Abiola was concerned, the new military ruler, Gen. Sani Abacha that toppled the fragile Interim National Government, headed by Chief Ernest Shonekan,…

As far as Abiola was concerned, the new military ruler, Gen. Sani Abacha that toppled the fragile Interim National Government, headed by Chief Ernest Shonekan, was a usurper who should not reap where he didn’t sow. Defiant as ever, the late Abiola rejected the repeated appeals by the police authorities not to go ahead with the idea of declaring himself President when another government was exercising effective authority in the country.

Chief Abiola was eventually arrested and detained after going ahead with the declaration. And that was the beginning of his journey into prison until he died suddenly and tragically on July 7, 1997. His sudden death led to fresh debates whether Abiola should indeed have declared himself President in the first place. This concern became even more intense after the United States and European Union governments failed to accord him diplomatic recognition following his declaration of himself as President.

Opinions on the declaration were divided; June 12 advocates, especially the leaders of the defunct National Democratic Coalition (NADECO), fully supported the public declaration. However, other Nigerian leaders, including some Yoruba moderates, believed that the declaration was ill-advised and ill-timed.

For examples, it was argued by some analysts whether it was logical to issue a specific quit notice to a military government when those doing so had no troops to enforce the ultimatum. Those in this school of thought would have preferred subtle and silent negotiation to get the soldiers out of office.

In fact, the June 12 anniversary also raised new questions whether the late Gen. Sani Abacha had deliberately wanted Abiola dead while in jail. Recently, the former Military Administrator of Lagos State, Brigadier General Olagunsanya Oyinlola (retd), referred to efforts Yoruba officers made to secure a bail for Abiola and Gen. Abacha’s readiness to accept the bail bond, which could ultimately have led to a political solution instead of wasting time on legalistic academic exercise on the wisdom or folly of Abiola’s decision to declare himself President.

Defending his role in getting Abiola out of jail, Brigadier General Oyinlola recalled how they even made a plane available at the airport to receive the late SDP Presidential candidate into the warm embrace of his family, friends and associates. He however, regretted that NADECO leaders had frustrated the well-meaning efforts by advising Abiola to reject the July 1995 bail offer by the Abacha regime.

In fact, even Abiola’s eldest son, Kola, was so bitter at NADECO’s unwise decision to reject the bail offer, which was a window of opportunity to save Abiola from death in detention. Clearly, worried about his father’s health, future and businesses, Kola told Abiola’s lawyer, G.O.K. Ajayi to hands off the case. It was apparent that Kola didn’t want his father to die as a result of academic legal exercise when political negotiation was a viable option.

Abiola’s legal representation tore Kola and the late Kudirat Abiola apart; the late Kudirat insisted on the right to keep the services of Ajayi while Kola saw his academic approach to the case as a threat to his father’s welfare. The issue even compelled Kola to drag the late Kudirat to court, challenging the right of Ajayi to continue the legal representation of his father.

In their own accounts, former Governor of Lagos State, Alhaji Lateef Jakande and the former Director of Organization of the disbanded Unity Party of Nigeria (UPN), Chief Ebenezer Babatope, had earlier corroborated the version of events explained by Brigadier Oyinlola. The two Yoruba leaders, who had served as Ministers under Abacha, admitted in various press interviews that the late Gen. Abacha had no intention to detain Abiola indefinitely.

Other observers believed that NADECO leaders rejected the bail offer because they wanted to use Abiola as a platform for collecting huge donations from European Union governments in the name of funds for democracy advocacy in Nigeria. In fact, while Abiola was languishing in jail, the European Union leaders created a special budget for the promotion of democracy in Nigeria. It was alleged that the NADECO leaders were not comfortable with Abiola’s freedom because of the fear that it might make them irrelevant, thereby losing the chance to receive huge European Union donations.

No rational man will opt for death for its own sake. It is disappointing however, that rather than taking responsibility for the fatal consequences of their wrong advice to Abiola at the wrong time, the former NADECO leaders are still parading themselves as the voices for democracy.

Their sustained efforts to crucify the late Gen. Sani Abahca are a red-herring to deceive Nigerians about their own private agenda of using Abiola’s detention for personal political glory and gain. With the emerging revelations about Abiola’s detention and his avoidable death, the real culprits behind his cruel demise will ultimately be exposed.

Ebere writes from the Dept of Civil Engineering, Fed. Polytechnic, Nassarawa