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Debate as class struggle

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Babangida

It was Friday, January 10, 1986. I was just about nine months old as a full-time member of the Editorial Board of The Guardian, Lagos. At the close of work that day I rushed to Oshodi Bus Stop. About three hours later I was at the University of Ibadan to spend the weekend with my spouse who was then completing her Ph.D programme. I was still in her room the following morning, Saturday, January 11, when some of her friends came in with a number of the day’s national newspapers. All the papers carried the same lead story: the appointment, by the Head of the Federal Military Government, the military president, General Ibrahim Babangida, of a 17-member Political Bureau to produce a blueprint for a future civilian – democratic order in Nigeria.

It was, however, not the news itself that brought the graduate students to my spouse’s room. What brought them was the fact that I was named a member of the bureau. They all thought I had known of the appointment and had, in fact, come down from Lagos to Ibadan for celebration – which they voted to join! None of them could be persuaded that we were learning of that announcement for the first time from the newspapers they had just brought in. We extricated ourselves by promising that they would not be left out when we would be “washing” the appointment!

According to the newspaper reports, the 17-member bureau (2 women and 15 men) was to be inaugurated in Abuja, the new federal capital city, on Monday January 13, 1986. Members were therefore asked, through the newspapers, to proceed to Abuja on Sunday, January 12. The immediate practical implication for me was that I had less than 24 hours to decide whether to accept or reject my appointment into the Political Bureau. I consulted with my wife. Her response was that we should consult our comrades. We moved out to consult comrades and friends in Ibadan. We met a limited number of them. From Ibadan we moved to Ile-Ife; and from Ife, we moved to Lagos, arriving late at night. On Sunday morning we used the phone at the Guardian to consult some comrades outside Lagos.

To cut a long story short, the result of these consultations was the decision to accept the appointment and proceed to Abuja for inauguration. The fact should be underlined that I was not “advised”, but “ordered” to accept. That was the nature of the Left tendency to which I belonged. Their mandate was that I should go into the Political Bureau and wage a class struggle along the mass line. A comrade was nominated to be my link with the Left during the assignment. Finally I consulted the Managing Director of The Guardian (then called Executive Editor) and, through him, the Publisher. The way they responded suggested they had been informed by the regime. They asked what I was still doing in Lagos!

I left Lagos by air to Kaduna in the evening of Sunday, January 12. From Kaduna I travelled by road to Abuja, arriving late at night. The Political Bureau, with all its 17 members was duly inaugurated by General Babangida on Monday, January 13, 1986. But before then, there was a mild drama at the door of the conference centre when – perhaps on account of the way I was dressed – a light brown khaki shirt on a pair of blue jeans trouser – security officers took me for an intruder and roughly blocked me. My colleagues had to come to my rescue. The class struggle had begun!

At the luncheon that followed the inauguration I chatted with some members of the Armed Forces Ruling Council (AFRC) including General Babangida himself. I also chatted with Major Abubakar Umar, Governor of Old Kaduna State (that is, Kaduna State before the creation of Katsina State). There was another mild drama, again involving me, when, at the end of the luncheon, the military VIPs were walking to their vehicles. At a point I was with General Babangida and Major Umar. Then, the general walked faster and left Umar and me. On getting to his car Babangida noticed that Umar with whom he was to ride in the same car was still with me. He came back and literally dragged Umar away while telling me to leave the “people’s governor” alone. I noted to myself that Babangida was a military populist and bonapartist that the Nigerian Left must watch and study carefully. I included this observation in my preliminary report to my comrades.

Ten members of the Political Bureau (a woman and nine men) were brilliant senior academics in Humanities and Social Sciences; the 11th member, who was named Chair of the bureau, was an experienced and well-known educationist; the 12th member was an author and film-maker; the 13th was a well-known and popular veteran journalist, columnist and media administrator; the 14th and 15th members were leading progressive trade union leaders; the 16th was the serving president of the National Council of Women’s Societies. I, the 17th, was a media practitioner and columnist. A respected commentator later described the membership of the bureau as almost covering the entire ideological spectrum – from right-of-centre to extreme Left. The man obviously located me in the “extreme Left” compartment.

The Political Bureau started work in Abuja immediately after its inauguration. At the close of the first plenary session lasting two days, we moved to Lagos which, at that time, was still the functional capital of the country. There we established our headquarters. On Tuesday, July 8, 1986, the film-maker member accused his colleagues of “political timidity” and quietly withdrew from the Bureau. Some members dismissed his accusation. They were rather of the opinion that the Bureau’s work was disrupting his business.

Although I sympathized with the “frustrated” member, I advised myself to be quiet because I was already having much more serious problems with my colleagues, especially the Chairperson and his unofficial, but influential advisers. These were five members whom, in my notes, I called the “integrationist faction”. I called them “integrationist” because I discovered that not only did they have a prior knowledge of our assignment; they also knew what the regime wanted. It was, indeed, going to be a class struggle! Although I maintained cordial and polite relationships with all my colleagues, my dealings with three particular members – Halilu Ibrahim, Okon Edet Uya and Ramatu Abdullahi – were warmer. It was when my quarrel with the mainstream of the Bureau became explosive around October/November 1986 that I decided to become a “loner”.

The Political Bureau’s mandate, that is, its terms of reference, as given by General Babangida at inauguration, were to: “review Nigeria’s political history and identify the basic problems which have led to our failure in the past and suggest ways of resolving and coping with these problems; identify a basic philosophy of government which will determine goals and serve as a guide to the activities of governments; collect relevant information and data for the government as well as identify other political problems that may arise from the debate; gather, collate and evaluate the contributions of Nigerians to the search for a viable political future and provide guidelines for the attainment of the consensus objective; and deliberate on other political problems as may be referred to it from time to time.”

To be continued tomorrow


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