The assassins who are still with us
THE ember months were the special period for Chief Bola Ige, the first elected governor of old Oyo State, poet, historian, orator of a special class, polyglot and hero of our struggle for democracy. Uncle Bola loved to celebrate his birthdays on September 13 in low key, but not the yuletide which must meet him in Esa-Oke, the hilly town which holds the bones of his ancestors. At Christmas time, Esa Oke would be covered with the dry, dusty and cold harmattan haze. This was the time Ige plays out his role as the Asiwaju of Esa Oke, Osun State, with generous gusto.
On Boxing Day of every year, the people of Esa Oke and Ige’s friends and political associates from far and wide, would troop to the Iges expansive compound in front of The Polytechnics for the yearly feast. The three Ige brothers made exceptional marks in their lifetime. The eldest was George, the bureaucrat who retired as a federal permanent secretary. Bola Ige was the second. Sir Dele Ige, extraordinary entrepreneur, occasional politician and lawyer, was the last of the three boys. They were giants.
The last time Ige hosted the yearly feast was 2000. By the following year, he was dead, killed in the sanctuary of his home at Bodija in Ibadan on December 23, 2001. At that time, he was the Attorney-General of the Federation and Minister of Justice in the cabinet of President Olusegun Obasanjo. Both of them had been friends since 1967 when Obasanjo was the Commander of the Ibadan Garrison Organisation and Ige a commissioner in the cabinet of Colonel Adeyinka Adebayo, then the military governor of Western State (Nigeria was a Federation of 12 states then). Since Ige was assassinated, efforts to bring his killers to justice have been visited with failure. This is a bitter irony for a man who lived his life seeking and fighting for justice for his country, his community and his fellowmen.
Since Obasanjo left power in 2007, both President Umar Musa Yar’Adua and his successor, President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan did not pay any particular attention to the assassination of Bola Ige. Now it is President Muhammadu Buhari’s turn. I think he has a duty to order a revisit. Those who are familiar with the case would tell you that it suffered tardy investigations and shoddy prosecution. A man who had contributed so much to the health and wellbeing of the republic deserves better.
Bola Ige was an extraordinary man. He was brave and sagacious. He was never afraid of dying for his belief or in the defence of his country and his nation. His devotion to Nigeria was total, his belief in democracy and the Rule of Law was absolute. He loved the good life, but he was prepared to give everything away in the defence of the Republic and his fellowmen and he led us with pride and panache. He was educated, knowledgeable, and gifted with a flaming tongue that recruited many foes for him and won him too millions of admirers. We were prepared to follow him into battle.
In early July 1998, I had gone to meet him in Ibadan in the company of many of our colleagues including Tokunbo Ajasin, Kunle Famoriyo, Akin Onigbinde, Ademola Oyinlola, and Dokun Abolarin (now our royal father, the Orangun of Oke-Ila, Osun State). He had just been released from Makurdi Prisons where he had been detained by the General Sani Abacha dictatorship. Abacha had died suddenly and his successor, General Abdulsalami Abubakar had decided to travel on a different route. He freed many political prisoners including Ige, his friend, General Obasanjo, the human right activist, Dr Beko Ransome-Kuti, and the journalist, Mrs Chris Anyanwu. Ige was in high spirit as he regaled us with his experience in Makurdi.
“Makurdi Prison is one of the worst in this country,” Ige said. “But I had a good time there. I met Kunle Ajibade, your colleague. He was an excellent company.”
Ajibade, the scholarly director of The News magazine, was one of the people convicted over the fake coup plot of 1995. In his set were the likes of Obasanjo, the late General Shehu Musa Yar’Adua, Beko Ransome-Kuti, Mrs Anyanwu (who lately served with distinction as a Senator of the Republic) and many soldiers including Colonel Lawan Gwadabbe, Colonel Gabriel Ajayi and former Major Akinloye Akinyemi.
But Chief Moshood Abiola, the winner of the June 12, 1993 presidential elections, was still in detention. Uncle Bola said the leadership of Afenifere was in touch with General Abdulsalami and he was sure Abiola would soon be released. He and Senator Abraham Adesanya were especially happy that Major-General Leo Ajiborisa, who served with credit as the first military administrator of Osun State, was one of the pillars of Abdulsalami’s government. But Abiola never made it. The military government brought him home in a body bag.
After the death of Abiola, Uncle Bola wanted to be President of Nigeria. It was a hectic period. He did not have the full support of his colleagues in the leadership of Afenifere, the mainstream Yoruba political and cultural movement that dominated the National Democratic Coalition, NADECO, during the battle against Abacha dictatorship. Afenifere leader, Senator Abraham Adesanya, a ponderous philosopher and an intrepid commander in the war against dictatorship, was not prepared to take side. Ige, who was his deputy, felt if Adesanya did not want to take a shot at the Presidency, then he should support him, his deputy. Some of Afenifere leaders, notably Otunba Solanke Onasanya, argued that Afenifere had earlier endorsed Chief Olu Falae, a high-flying public accountant and former Minister of Finance, for the Presidency. That was the era when General Ibrahim Babangida banned old breed politicians from contesting.
To Ige, however, that was not a valid story. After the death of Chief Adekunle Ajasin in 1996, there was the possibility of a likely split in the movement. The leadership of Idile Oodua had met both Adesanya and Ige to ensure the unity of the movement. Adesanya had acted as deputy to Ajasin after the death of Senator Jonathan Odebiyi. Engineer Bayo Adenekan, Kayode Anwo, Paschal Adeleke Idowu and some of our other colleagues met with Ige at his office in Danmole Street, Victoria Island in Lagos to discuss the impending contest for the leadership of Afenifere. It was at that meeting that Ige made a pledge: “If Senator Adesanya is interested in leading Afenifere, I will not spar with him.”
Now he expected Adesanya to back him to be President. Adesanya would not oblige. The Afenifere leader preferred to provide what he called “a level playing field.”
By 2001, the field of play had changed. Obasanjo was in power, Bola Ige was in trouble in his home base of Osun and Afenifere was fighting for its soul, dissipating its energy on curtailing a rebellion from its governors and maintaining a semblance of unity among its ageing leadership. A day after Ige was assaulted by supporters of Iyiola Omisore in Ile-Ife at the palace of the Ooni, I met him in the company of Odia Ofeimu, Nigeria’s pre-eminent poet, at the Ikoyi official residence of his wife, Justice (Mrs) Atinuke Ige who was then serving at the Appeal Court. Omisore, before he was impeached, was the deputy-governor to Chief Bisi Akande of Osun State. We were in Ile-Ife on the invitation of Kabiyesi, Oba Okunade Sijuwade, Olubuse II who was honouring Stella, Obasanjo’s wife and Nigerian glamorous First Lady, with a chieftaincy title.
Ige knew he was fighting the battle of his life, though he tried to make light of it. Ranged against him were his old colleagues of Afenifere leadership who portrayed his acceptance to serve in the government of Obasanjo as an act of betrayal. The governors too, who were originally in Ige supporters, were enjoying the roforofo fight among the elders. On the political front, Ige was facing a formidable coalition that was moving in to support the rebellion of Omisore and the rebel flank of Ige’s Alliance for Democracy, AD. These were mostly chieftains of the Peoples Democratic Party, especially Chief Lamidi Adedibu of Ibadan and Chief Sunday Afolabi, Ige’s former deputy governor in old Oyo State who was now his colleague in the Federal cabinet as Minister of Internal Affairs. Less than three weeks after our meeting in Ikoyi, Ige was assassinated.
At the tumultuous lying in state of Ige at the Liberty Stadium, Ibadan, Prof. Wole Soyinka, first African Nobel laureate for literature, declared during his funeral oration January 11, 2002, that the “murderers are among us.” They are still with us today. The Oyo State government did charge some suspects to court for the assassination of Ige. However, the suspects were treated like royalties inside Agodi Prisons in Ibadan. No one was surprised that at the end of the day, considering the highly polluted political atmosphere that attended the trial, that Ige was declared to have been a victim of the unknown assassins. One of the suspects later won a seat into the Nigerian Senate. Another became a minister of the Federal Republic.
I believe Ige was a victim actually of the convoluted events that attended the closing chapters of his remarkable life. The truth about his assassination may be found in these closing chapters. President Buhari should order new investigations into this cruel murder. It is time that Nigeria finally gives justice to the late Minister of Justice.
Sometimes in 1996, we were returning from a meeting at the home of Chief Ajasin in Owo, Ondo State and Uncle Bola decided to ride with us. His driver was bringing his car behind us. My colleague, Ademola Oyinlola, who was driving his Nissan Laurel, was rather speeding on the Owo-Akure road and we narrowly escaped an accident with a wood carrying truck (agbegilodo).
“Demola, be careful, don’t do Abacha’s work for him,” Uncle Bola pleaded.
Who could have predicted then that Nigeria beyond the era of the Abacha killer squad would still be a dangerous place for the like of Bola Ige? Fourteen years after he was buried in Esa Oke, Ige’s ghost is still abroad. We need to give him justice so that the dead can rest in peace.