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Crossing over from civil to political activism

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[FILE PHOTO] Keyamo

Many Nigerians present curious illustration of a people constantly in search of self, especially among certain category of civil society types. In no other area is this evident than among the ranks of its activist lot who claim to be fighting for social justice on behalf of the poor, hapless masses.

While at it, they go the extra mile to show the world the veracity of their claims and even manage to get the applause of a majority as they tackle government on its perceived oppression of the people. But probe beneath the surface and other things begin to emerge.

“I have been dedicated to the crusade for the promotion of social justice using the instrumentality of the law, to fight for social justice, human rights and to entrench democracy,” legal mind and Minister of State, Niger Delta Affairs, Mr. Festus Keyamo, had intoned recently while being screened by the Senate so he could be confirmed minister.

But only one man would seem to have lived his fight for social justice ideals until he breathed his last, Gani Fawehinmi of blessed memory and Mr. Festus Keyamo’s mentor, who he would later take after, but only half-way, into the thick of things. Pro-masses fighter, Tai Solarin, would take up Peoples Bank of Nigeria chairmanship job from one of Nigeria’s most brutal dictators, Ibrahim Babangida. Wole Soyinka would also take up the chairmanship job of Federal Road Safety Commission (FRSC), but he would later recant, and dig deeper into his social crusading space to redeem himself from the murk of an eagle mingling with vultures.

But Senior Advocates of the Masses (SAM), Fawehinmi, would not be so lured. He refused to apply for Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN) award, insisting that the Legal Practitioners’ Privileges Committee (LPPC) should give such award to those deserving of it without self-application. He was also uncomfortable with the tag, saying it confers legalese, recognition and privileges on members in ways that leave non-members of the inner bar deprived. Although he reluctantly accepted it later, the SANship rank beggars the question: If Nigeria borrows her democratic, presidential model from America that don’t have such undue privilege for lawyers, why is she still stuck in the equivalent of the British’s Queen Counsel (QC) mentality?

Chief Fawehinmi remains beloved in the hearts of many and a reference point years after he passed on for his forthrightness, his steadfastness!

Keyamo’s early show of promise gave hope to many that here was a young man who would easily step into the big shoes of his mentor and benefactor. He undertook some landmark cases like the murder of Chief Bola Ige. When Soyinka challenged him on his showmanship methodology, when it seemed the case had been turned into primetime circus, Keyamo would advise the Nobel laureate to stick to his ‘Twinkle twinkle little star’ poetic business. His rise in the legal profession was nothing short of meteoric and he reveled in the accolade, fame, and wealth that came with it. Who wouldn’t? The legal world was his oyster for the taking, and he took it with both arms.

For Keyamo, legal practice and activism form the twin lobes of a cola-nut that sits in one pod. He defended separatist groups like Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), as the group tried to mend the ways of the Federal Government to do what is right by the marginalised people of the oil-rich region and remediate the worsted environment. Movement for the Survival of Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB) was also among his legal briefs and Keyamo applied himself to fight for its freedom.

It seemed all too heroic; after all, he is also from a minority who are marginalized by Nigeria’s warped system that favours the big and mighty. The survival of these groups is intertwined with the survival of his own minority ethnic nation.

From his sterling legal practice, Keyamo would soon come under the radar of government. Quickly, Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) would co-opt him into its anti-corruption fight to wrestle down the high and mighty in the courts of law, men and women who have stolen Nigeria blind. That was when he would come against the rapacity of Nigeria’s class of citizens who establish one law at daytime and practice another at nighttime, yet still manage to walk away with impunity.

One such case still hands heavy on his neck: the prosecution of Mr. Godswill Akpabio for alleged graft. And the onus rests on Mr. Keyamo to prove that the former governor is guilty of corruptly enriching himself from the till of Akwa Ibom State Government and people. But while he was still mulling his facts and figures, Mr. Akpbio did the routine Nigerian political gymnastics: cross-carpeted from the ‘vilified’ platform, Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) to the ‘sanctified’ All Progressives Congress (APC) to which Mr. Keyamo had since joined, as foundation member in his native Delta State chapter, where the “first meeting was held in my house in Effurun, Warri,” according to him and as corroborated by Senate Deputy President, Ovie Omo-Agege.

But if he relied on the character of Nigeria’s ‘Mr. Integrity’ to aid him in his legal battle against Akpabio, as Keyamo claims, “Two of the strongest characters in this country have mentored me – Gani Fawehinmi and Muhammadu Buhari – for human rights and anti-corruption characters,” he did not reckon with the fact that his anti-corruption hero will do the unthinkable: appoint Akpabio to the position of a cabinet minister in a government he (Keyamo) worked so hard to get reelected in 2019. As if appointing Akpabio is not enough injury, his great anti-corruption mentor would drive daggers into Keyamo’s heart: make Akpabio his senior in the same ministry! In other words, Mr. Keyamo will report to Akpabio. How ironic the quicksand of political life must be.

If, as Keyamo publicly stated while being screened, that “Activism is not abusing people. The greatest activists are those in government and the greatest activists are people in legislature, in governance. Activism is about bringing sucour, not about burning the cars of innocent people on the road. My philosophy: I don’t want to die without making a loud statement for society and the downtrodden. I have been restless in fighting” to enthrone a just society.

Now it would seem the joke was on Mr. Keyamo. But while people of the Niger Delta were wondering how these two would work together to fix the East-West Road that has defied many a minister from the region till date and get something meaningful from the central government, Keyamo is moved to the Ministry of Labour and Productivity. Now Keyamo has been denied a chance to make a difference in the lives of his Niger Delta people who inhabit the oil-bearing communities but get nothing for the devastation they suffer.

Perhaps, Buhari has seen other uses for Keyamo, especially his combative and negotiating skills to assist Dr. Chris Ngige tackle Nigerian workers who, for receiving less due for their labour, constantly heckle government for more or commensurate pay that government is unwilling to give.

Mr. Keyamo was clear in his avowal when he took steps to join his country’s supposedly murky political waters. Having shouted himself hoarse from the outside, he did what became inevitable to many an activist: “I took a conscious decision to be part of the system. I discovered you can change your methodology in the fight for the people without changing your basic principles and your essence as a person. You can do that. That is why I decided to accept to serve despite all my antecedents. I have decided to serve, to be part of the process. I think I have a lot to prove. I think I want to make a change. What you can be screaming for 10 years to achieve from the outside as a critic, because you are brimming with ideas, you can change in 10 minutes if you are part of government and part of the political process that could get us into power. It is natural all over the world for governments to see critics as enemies.”

His first attempt in 2015 was defeat as he sought to challenge for a senate seat from Delta Central Senatorial District. But he smartly and quickly pitched his tent with his mentor in Abuja, who carved a niche for him as director of strategic communication for his reelection, where Keyamo would excel in the art of information manipulation, deploying his street-wise Warri ‘sense’ to demarket the opposition PDP and its candidate, Mr. Atiku Abubakar, to coast his boss to a ‘victory’ that is still the subject of contestation.

Now, Mr. Keyamo is in corridor of power where he believes all ‘activists’ ultimately belong, so he could change things from the inside. And as he succinctly put it, “I have asked so many questions of government, how our money has been used and misused, appropriated and misappropriated.”

Prodded on by Omo-Agege, Keyamo had overreached himself when he made a bid for the justice ministry where he believed Buhari would send him as minister to carry out far-reaching reforms. He failed to reckon with the fact that he is an outsider in the peculiar ‘Fulani’ power play that Buhari’s government is adept. And as an outsider, he does not have what an Abubakar Malami wields to steer this peculiar ship of state to the ‘ethnic course’ it is set.

Well, now that Mr. Keyamo is no longer a critic or government’s enemy, will he be able to really ask critical questions about how ‘our’ money is being ‘used’ and ‘misused’?

And so from the Ministry of Niger Delta to Labour, Keyamo would have begun to see firsthand how power could be deployed to quench the fire of activism even in a heart as fervent as his. Perhaps, he might have begun to see that cross-carpeting from activism to being “part of government and part of the political process” is just another empty, self-negating rhetoric.


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