A Plea For Mercy By Dele Momodu
“We have come to your shrine to worship
We the sons of the land
The naked cowherd has brought
The cows safely home,
And stands silent with his bamboo flute
Wiping the rain from his brow;
As the birds brood in their nests
Awaiting the dawn with unsung melodies
The shadows crowd on the shore
Pressing their lips against the bosom of the sea;
The peasants home from their labours
Sit by their log-fires
Telling tales of long-ago.
Why should we the sons of the land
Plead unheeded before your shrine?
When our hearts are full of song
And our lips tremble with sadness?
The little firefly vies with the star,
The log-fire with the sun
The water in the calabash
With the mighty Volta,
But we have come in tattered penury
Begging at the door of a Master.”
– Kwesi Brew
Fellow Nigerians, I have that great Ghanaian Poet, Kwesi Brew to thank for helping me summarise the soul of my letter to you today. I’m not sure if the likes of this powerful African poem are still taught in our schools. But as I sat down to craft this column, the bells of Kwesi Brew’s fertile imagination kept ringing in my brains. Not much has changed in Africa since the era described by this renowned Poet. Most parts of Africa remain underdeveloped, not by Europe this time but by Africans themselves, who have become the new slave-owners after the departure of the colonialists. Majority of Africans actually live well below the poverty line. Education that could have been a possible liberator and class leveller has been deliberately murdered in order to keep the poor and impoverished in perpetual servitude. The story of our country Nigeria is much worse. It has defied logic in every sense.
I entered the then University of Ife in 1978, as a pioneer Jambite. I had worked prior to that as a Library Assistant at the Hezekiah Oluwasanmi Library of the University where I came in contact with many literary giants and their equally gigantic works. That year would be forever remembered in the annals of Nigerian history for the spectacularly volatile Ali-Must-Go demonstration that swept through many campuses. What was the grouse of the students? The Obasanjo military regime inflated our daily meals from 50kobo to N1.50k. Finito!
Lucifer must have escaped from the pits of hell! Nigerian students went on total rampage and caused unprecedented mayhem. Of course, General Olusegun Obasanjo remained predictably obstinate and the students were overpowered by military might. Even though I was an awaiting-Jambite at the time the riots broke out, I joined in the struggle and that was my baptism of fire. The reason for my support was very personal as I will explain very shortly.
The University of Ife, in those days, provided a few flats in the student hostels for new lecturers to occupy and it served a dual purpose. The first was to allow these newly recruited academics coming from abroad to have an apartment as stop-gap on arrival, after spending time in the best hotels in town at the time. The second was for those lecturers to enjoy some interaction and close affinity with the students staying in the hostels. My Brother, Oladele Ajayi, now a Professor of Physics, had been recruited by Professor Oluwasanmi as a PhD student at Stanford University. He wasted no time in returning home as soon as he completed his studies in 1975. After he left the hotels where he stayed initially in Ife, he was allocated one of those flats in Fajuyi Hall. I stayed with him hence I was caught up in the conflagration that engulfed Nigerian campuses like wild-fire.
Fajuyi Hall, in my youthful eyes, was a paradise on earth. The environment was clean and serene. The Ife of those days paraded the children of the rich and the poor, Lords and Royals and commoners, side by side. Indigent ones like us did not feel left out because we were able to squeeze ourselves into the system by following our friends to what was known then as the Cafeteria. Each Hall of Residence had one and there was a Central Cafeteria for everyone. Breakfast was ten kobo and we enjoyed full English or African menus. We had a choice of coffee or tea or hot chocolate drinks. We were allowed to bring our flasks to take away the drinks. Lunch and dinner cost only 20k apiece and the extremely rich 3 course meals could be anything like rice, beans and swallow with assorted meat, fish, and chicken and so on. Dessert was usually Ice Cream or fruit. We had best treats at weekends when we were served feasts fit for Kings and Queens. As I write, I’m wondering how we lost our paradise and ended up in this messy Gulag where most citizens have to toil in labour camps for a few people to enjoy a life best fantasised in James Bond movies.
The meat of my sermon today is that I have been a witness and participant in the struggle to take Nigeria to its rightful position in the comity of nations. I’ve served tutelage and pupillage under the Masters of the Left and the Right. Chief Abdul-Ganiyu Oyesola Fawehinmi was a child of circumstance who emerged from a prosperous home but rebelled due to certain conditions of life. On the other hand was Chief Moshood Kashimawo Olawale Abiola who was a product of the system but possessed an uncommon milk of human kindness and was eventually and unexpectedly radicalised beyond expectation. History is replete with stories of accidental heroes. There are others like them in Nigeria but let’s limit this article to them. Both Fawehinmi and Abiola fought gallantly in different ways but little or nothing has changed despite their incredible efforts. The tragedy of it is the system has remained stagnant since 1978 if we cannot say it is far worse. I will now attempt to trace the origin of our intractable woes.
When General Olusegun Obasanjo became Head of State after the cold-blooded assassination of General Murtala Mohammed in 1976, he seemed to have been in a hurry to hand over power to the civilian government for reasons unknown to us. The 1979 election was virtually inconclusive but Obasanjo still chose to go instead of spending ample time to change Nigeria to a wonderland forever. Unfortunately, his transition was hijacked by the hawks in the National Party of Nigeria. But it is not in the character of such political parties to field their best candidates. Their determination is simply to install mild-mannered leaders that they can manipulate and intimidate if need be. Strong-willed and exceptionally brilliant people like Abiola were therefore, soon kicked out of the party.
Nigeria would have been able to do what Flt Lt Jerry Rawlings later did in Ghana, but the Obasanjos of those days were not ready for such a volcanic revolution. They were content with just preserving the status quo. If they were as forward-looking as Rawlings, they would have guaranteed and streamlined a workable Constitution for Nigeria even in the short time that they gave themselves. That was the vision of Murtala Mohammed who was so sadly cut down in his prime. The Obasanjo administration should have continued with Murtala’s pace and austere style of governance by providing a tailor-made Parliamentary System of Government for the country. He should, if necessary, have manipulated the system in favour of cerebral ideologues like Chief Obafemi Awolowo, Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe, Abubakar Rimi and others who wore the progressive toga at the time. That is at least one of the benefits of dictatorship. In abandoning the country in the hands of adventurers in power, the military government laid the grand foundation for the burial-place of democracy and good governance. Though General Obasanjo received accolades for quitting power earnestly I’m sure he would continually nurse his regrets in retrospect. The story of Shagari’s government would be skipped for its vulgarity. It was only a matter of time before the recklessly profligate regime would be torpedoed by the Buhari-Idiagbon military coup.
Even if the new military government that seized power at the end of 1983 was not as corrupt as others, the guys then were too naïve to comprehend how to handle the unwholesome defecation left behind by Shagari and his band of prodigal children. Buhari promptly clamped everyone into detention instead of prioritising the crime and the punishment. Rather than go for the jugular by isolating and exterminating the hardened criminals, a lot of apparent cases of misapplication of justice and double standards came to the fore. Unknown to that much-dreaded junta, it was already digging its own grave and was soon buried by the man we all loved to call Maradona, General Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida who was more of a politician in military uniform.
Babangida was extremely deft in handling the political class. His regime was more intellectual in content and had a star-studded cabinet. Babangida would soon transfigure into a military President without conducting or contesting any election. He would probably have been applauded as the greatest of them all but his supposed interest in politics became his Achilles heel. This divided attention blurred his vision and derailed his mission. His indecision in determining the terminal date of his transition was also a major source of irritation. He succeeded in conducting the best election ever held in Nigeria but was soon hypnotised into killing his own hard work by the cult of control freaks ever jostling to be in charge of life and death of the Nigerian polity.
The 1993 election which was acclaimed to have been won by Chief Moshood Abiola was thus annulled at birth. Chief Abiola likened the act to aborting a child at full pregnancy. The resultant effect was a hurriedly packaged interim government which was headed only for several months by Chief Ernest ‘Degunle Shonekan. Of course, a house built with spittle would always collapse at the fall of the morning dew; General Sani Abacha came and scattered the contraption to the winds. The no-nonsense man arrested Abiola , incarcerated many politicians, military leaders (including his former bosses like Obasanjo and Yar’Adua), social critics, human rights activists, and forced many of us into exile. It remains unclear what killed Abacha whose death was premature and totally shocking as he had seemed larger than life.
If we thought that was the beginning of a return to sanity, we were in for an even bigger shocker. Exactly one month after the death of Abacha, Chief Abiola suddenly dropped dead in the presence of some American diplomats and under very mysterious circumstances. That was the last straw that broke the camel’s back. June 12 and the hope that it had engendered was thus permanently interred. However, the undertakers would later go beyond their brief. They soon gathered to dispose the mandate of the fallen hero and unceremoniously handed it to General Obasanjo who himself had miraculously escaped death in prison.
If we expected General Obasanjo to correct the ills that drove Nigeria to the brink, we were wrong again. The President and his supporters changed Democracy Day to May 29 in a fortuitous manner that confounded all people of good conscience. There was no reference to the martyrs of the new liberation ostensibly in an attempt to completely obliterate Abiola’s name from the records of heroism and apotheosis. Eight years after, nothing was done to immortalise those who fought for our anticipated rebirth. Instead, we started hearing and confirming the audacious move to install President Obasanjo for a record Third Term. That also fell flat on its belly and the permanent controllers of our collective destiny soon came up with yet another magic of abracadabra. Against all permutations, a fatally ailing man was foisted on the nation and a seemingly taciturn Vice President was also handpicked and fostered as a fait-accompli. We all wondered about what consideration led to such an unholy configuration for a country in dire need of her best materials with full stamina.
Our last wish is very simple. These gladiators should please have mercy on our nation by not setting the country ablaze for selfish reasons. Nigeria and Nigerians have suffered enough and it is time these political terrorists set us free from their manacles.
This is all we ask of our MASTERS in the name of almighty God.
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