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The rich and the fearless

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Chief Michael Ade-Ojo

One is still reeling from the euphoria of the June 12 celebration, the day proclaimed as Democracy Day by President Muhammadu Buhari.

June 12, 1993, the presidential election day, was a great day for Nigeria.

Though it was in the middle of the rainy season, no rain fell throughout the country.

Chief Moshood Abiola, the candidate of the Social Democratic Party, SDP, won the election and his victory was later voided by the dictator, General Ibrahim Babangida.

The attendant crisis after the annulment is known to history as the June 12 crisis.

Abiola was the symbol and hero of June 12, for he was the one we elected our President.

Abiola was not an eager politician. It took some efforts to persuade him to participate in the 1993 presidential elections.

One day, late in 1992, he had visited Babangida at the new Aso Presidential Villa, Abuja.

After the failed but bloody coup attempt of April 22, 1990, the dictator realised the vulnerability of the narrow precinct of the old Doddan Barracks which was the State House since 1967.

Babangida therefore set up a task force, headed by veteran journalist and Nigerian longest running columnist, Chief Tola Adeniyi, to coordinate the movement of the Federal Capital from Lagos to Abuja.

By the time Abiola was meeting Babangida at the Villa, the Adeniyi Committee had virtually completed its assignment and the dictator was ensconced in his lair.

Babangida took his friend of many years on a tour of the Villa.

The tour finally ended in the presidential office, with its array of the service flags, the presidential ensigns and the secret buttons.

“This would be your office Bashorun,” he told Abiola. “Nigerians are waiting for you.”

With the assurance that he was ready to vacate office come August 27, 1993 as he had publicly promised so many times, Abiola fell for the bait. He contested. He won. Then Babangida refused to relinquish power.

The dictator eventually left, pushed out by the protest on the streets and the political maneuvering of some of the members of the political and military class led by the triumvirate of General Olusegun Obasanjo, Major-General Shehu Musa Yar’Adua and General Sani Abacha.

Chief Ernest Shonekan, board room impresario, who had been put forward to head an interim government, was soon shoved aside by Abacha who re-imposed full-blown military government.

Abiola was arrested and dumped into detention after declaring himself president based on the people’s mandate given to him. The June 12 crisis had entered a decisive stage.

Many organisations and groups, entered into the breach on behalf of the Nigerian people, including the National Democratic Coalition, NADECO, Afenifere, the mainstream Yoruba political and cultural movement, the Eastern Mandate Union, Middle-Belt Forum, Committee for the Defence of Human Rights, Campaign For Democracy, Oodua Peoples Congress, Idile Oodua, Concerned Professionals and many others.

The labour unions led by the National Union of Petroleum and Natural Gas, NUPENG, under the leadership of the redoubtable Chief Ovie Kokori, joined the fray. It was an interesting and perilous period to be alive.

Many Nigerians, including leaders of the Nigerian Press, were willing to be involved in the struggle against military rule.

One class of Nigerians that was not eager to join the struggle was the rich class.

The rich were prepared to walk on tip toes so as not to disturb the military in their feast.

The rich were afraid for their wealth and for this, most of them who got involved, got involved on the side of Abacha.

During one rally in Ibadan in support of Abacha to stay in power, some of the richest Yoruba men and women were present.

They bankrolled the event and confronted their own people.

But there were few rich people ready to bankroll the activities of NADECO, Afenifere and other groups.

Senator Abraham Adesanya, who succeeded Chief Adekunle Ajasin as the leader of Afenifere, once made contact with a very wealthy chief resident in Lagos, asking him to come and assist in the struggle.

Thenceforth, the chief would not pick Adesanya’s phone calls. One day Adesanya met him at a church service. The man fled before the end of the service.

However, there were the valiant few who were ready to stick out their necks despite the terrorism of the Abacha goons and the brutal assassination of Chief Alfred Rewane, the titan regarded as the financial backbone of NADECO.

Three men were especially outstanding: Chief Oladeinde Fernandez, Chief Harry Akande and Chief Michael Ade-Ojo. While both Fernandez and Akande were living abroad, Ade-Ojo was in Nigeria throughout the struggle and but for the grace of God, could easily have been picked up by Abacha security agents like a giant snail on a cocoa farm.

I cannot understand what may have been responsible for Ade-Ojo’s exceptional courage.

He had been a businessman throughout his working life, starting the Elizade Motors few years after graduating from the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, emerging as Nigeria’s most successful automobile salesman, carrying afloat the flag of the Japanese auto giant, Toyota.

In early 1992, my colleagues at TELL magazine insisted I must see Chief Ade-Ojo at his Elizade Plaza headquarters on Ikorodu Road, Lagos.

I met him to complain that Elizade had not been giving us the Toyota adverts. He placed a call to his agency and put it on speaker.

The man on the other end explained that TELL was a radical publication considered hostile by the ruling junta.

Patronizing such a magazine might hurt Elizade and the Toyota brand, he explained further.

Ade-Ojo listened attentively and at the end, gave a curt directive: “Give them!”

Throughout the remaining Babangida years and the subsequent Abacha years and beyond, TELL got all the Toyota adverts.

Maybe it is not entirely correct that I don’t know where he got his courage.

Shortly after Chief Adekunle Ajasin returned from prisons in 1985, he acquired a brand new Mercedes-Benz car.

Ajasin was an ascetic and not one to spend money lavishly.

He was governor for four years and three months and after the military toppled the Second Republic, he had no functioning car. Now a Benz suddenly surfaced in his compound.

He told the story of how one of his old students happened to be at the scene when Ajasin’s old car broke down on the Third Mainland Bridge in Lagos.

It was that old student who sent him the Benz. That student was Ade-Ojo.

He was one of the students of Imade College, Owo, when Ajasin was the pioneering principal.

Therefore, probably ruminating on the risks and the twists and turns of his life adventures, Ade-Ojo danced with gusto when he marked his 80th birthday on Thursday, June 14 at the Archbishop Vining Memorial Church Cathedral, Ikeja.

He had not only survived, he had thrived, building an empire that begirded the country and emerging as one of the most successful automobile salesmen in the world.

His life has affected, for the better, the lives of millions of his countrymen and transformed the sleepy town of Ilaramokin, Ondo State, where he was born in 1938, into a hob of development.

He has given to that community many institutions, including a world class university, Elizade University and the Smoking-Hill Golf Course.

And Ade-Ojo is part of our June 12 story. The story of June 12 cannot be fully told without the contributions of the few rich like Chief Ade-Ojo, Akande and Fernandez, who put their resources for the procurement of liberty and the end of military rule.

Ade-Ojo may not have joined us on the street, but indeed, he took enormous risk and wagered with his business empire.

He won. He was never afraid.


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