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Adesanya and his unfinished business

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Papa Abraham Aderibigbe Adesanya cherished his role as the leader of the Yoruba. He knew it meant danger and sacrifice but he embraced his assignment with enthusiasm. Now that he has been with the ancestors for a decade, it is fitting to ponder on his ministry and the main assignments that dominated the final years of his crowded and productive life. Papa Adesanya was trained as a lawyer and pursued a career in politics, but his real vocation was leadership.

Adesanya was one of main leaders of Afenifere, the mainstream political and cultural movement of the Yoruba people which came into existence after the demise of Chief Obafemi Awolowo, the first Premier of the defunct Western Region and leader of the Yoruba nation. In the roaring 1950s, Awolowo became the first leader to govern almost the entire Yoruba country since the time the princes departed from Ile-Ife at the dawn of time. He made efforts to bring the Yoruba of the North, then in what was called the Ilorin and Kabba Provinces, (now Kogi and Kwara states) into the West. His effort was frustrated by the combined forces of the Northern Peoples Congress, NPC, and the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroun, NCNC. At the London Constitutional Conference of 1958, both the NPC and the NCNC preferred that the issues of new regions and the adjustment of regional boundaries be deferred till independence.

For the past 60 years, attempts have been made to solve this issue, what Nigerians called the Nationality Question, but not to the satisfaction of most Nigerians. Instead of three regions we had in 1960, we now have 36 states. Instead of the tax payers paying only three premiers, we now have 36 governors on our payroll. Whether this has led to better and improved governance is a matter for debate. However, it has certainly led to geometrical increase in spending on public officials.

When Papa Adesanya succeeded Chief Michael Adekunle Ajasin, first elected governor of old Ondo State, as the leader of Afenifere in 1997, it was at the height of the struggle against the dictatorship of General Sani Abacha. Adesanya survived an assassination attempt on the street of Lagos and endured many harassment but he was a man of great personal courage who could not be bought not be intimidated.

When Abacha died suddenly in 1998, it created another opportunity to renew our struggle for constitutional reforms. The Afenifere and other leaders of the opposition National Democratic Coalition, NADECO, believe that the injustice of the June 12 annulment was made possible because of the flawed nature of the Nigerian Federation. The death of Abacha was therefore seen as providing a window of opportunity to renew the call for constitutional reforms. The new military ruler, General Abdulsalami Abubakar soon extended a hand of friendship to our leaders. He ordered the release of many of our leaders who were kept in prisons by the Abacha junta. Soon, Adesanya’s deputy, Chief Bola Ige, came home from Makurdi Prisons. Other Prisoners of War: Beko Ransome-Kuti, General Olusegun Obasanjo, Otunba Olabiyi Durojaiye, Alhaji Lam Adesina, Nosa Igiebor, Kunle Ajibade, Chris Anyanwu, George Mba, Ayo Opadokun and many others soon regained their freedom. But not the hero of June 12, Chief Moshood Abiola!

Soon Abdulsalami reached Adesanya and the Afenifere leadership was invited to Abuja. The go-between was General Leo Ajiborisa, first military governor of Osun State. For the first time, our leaders were pleasantly received at the Aso-Rock Villa, once the lair of Abacha. As expected, Adesanya demanded for the release of Abiola. He also presented other Afenifere demands to Abubakar, the most important of which was that Abiola must head a Government of National Unity which would prepare an acceptable Constitution for the Nigerian people. Adesanya wanted Abiola released immediately. Abubakar fussed over the demands. He was polite and solicitous but would not give any definite promise on when Abiola would regain freedom.

Soon after his return from Makurdi Prisons, members of our group, the Idile Oodua, met with Ige in Ibadan. He was confident that Abiola would soon be released. He said once Abiola was out, discussion would commence on how to form a Government of National Unity that would superintend an acceptable Constitution. For us, an acceptable Constitution would be one that would put all Yoruba people in Nigeria under one regional government. That was what Awolowo wanted in 1958. That was what we wanted in 1998. With such a government, Ige enthused, we would be able to built our own power stations, our own rail and create a true Commonwealth of freedom for all and life more abundance.

Then on the morning of July 7, 1998, Papa Adesanya and some of his colleagues were to travel to Abuja to meet with General Abubakar who had promised that they would now be allowed to see Abiola. They were still at the Murtala Muhammed Airport, Lagos, when news broke that Abiola had died suddenly in the very presence of international visitors including the new Secretary General of the United Nations, the Ghanaian, Kofi Annan. That day they brought Abiola home to us in a body bag. He was free.

But the country remained in chain to the Constitution that Abacha gave us. Adesanya believe we could use the instrument of democracy to change that Constitution and replace it with one of our choice. Adesanya led his team to form the Alliance for Democracy, AD, which contested the presidential election of 1999 in alliance with the All Peoples Party, APP. The joint-presidential candidate was Chief Olu Falae, a public sector economist, bureaucrat, former Secretary to the Government of the Federation and former Minister of Finance. He lost to the candidate of the conservative Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, Chief Olusegun Obasanjo.

Obasanjo, a retired general who was a divisional commander during the Nigerian Civil War, believed that the fissiparous tendencies of Nigeria could only be put at bay by a strong centre. He was sympathetic to Afenifere’s call for Constitutional reform, but was reluctant to lift a finger. However, his right hand man was Chief Bola Ige, deputy-leader of Afenifere, who served initially as Minister of Power before he was re-assigned as the Attorney-General of the Federation and Minister of Justice. Obasanjo, through Ige, provided a window of opportunity for Afenifere when Chief Ayo Adebanjo was appointed to head a committee on the review of the Constitution. I cannot remember now whether the report of the Adebanjo Committee ever saw the light of day. The game was to change dramatically after Ige was assassinated December 23, 2001.

When Adesanya led the Afenifere Leadership to collaborate with Obasanjo for the 2003 elections, the terms were not clear. The meetings at Obasanjo Farm House in Otta, involved mainly members of the Leadership and the governors. Some of the members who were interested in keeping the old AD and APP alliance for the purpose of the 2003 elections, were brushed aside. One of our leaders, Chief Harry Akande, a billionaire businessman and philanthropist, was interested in using the joint-platform to run for the presidency in 203. The Leadership shut the door against him. The AD, following the insistence of Afenifere, refused to field any presidential candidate for 2003.

Obasanjo won his re-election in 2003 and his party swept the AD governors out of their peacock thrones in the South-West. The only survivor was the governor of Lagos State, the street-wise Senator Bola Ahmed Tinubu. Apart from keeping the governors on their seat, it was not clear what else the Leadership agreed upon with Obasanjo. Since then, none of the parties, not even the aggrieved governors, has been able to reveal anything to us.

Since Adesanya’s death 10 years ago, the Afenifere has been struggling to restore its soul. Adesanya was a lion-hearted leader and intellectual who dominated the movement with his charisma and personal magnetism. He spent his time, his energy and his resources for the struggle and invested the movement with his halo of majesty and ecclesiastical essence. He led at a difficult time and tried with yeoman courage to control the rough-riders who came on board the Afenifere ship once the battle for freedom from military rule was over. They wanted to be part of the feast.

It is true that the unimpeachable patriarch, Chief Reuben Fasonranti is holding fort now as the Leader of Afenifere. His years of struggle with the enduring Senator Ayo Fasanmi seem to be over. However, it is time to re-energize the movement for the next phase of the struggle. Break-away groups like the Afenifere Renewal Group and others should be encouraged to come back to the fold.

Moreover, it is time to focus on the goal. If we could not get it in 1958 and 1998, there is no reason, why we must not work harder on the road-map in 2018. I believe that were he to be around, the struggle for restructuring is the kind of battle that Adesanya would relish. After all, it was his unfinished business.


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