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Nigerians at the lowest ebb since Fourth Republic, Kokori laments



Frank Ovie Kokori, former Secretary-General, National Union of Petroleum and Natural Gas Workers, (NUPENG) and member, Board of Trustees of the All Progressives Congress (APC) party, told CHIDO OKAFOR that the June 12 struggle was a historic watershed for democracy in Nigeria, but that the absence of good governance has stunted the aspirations of the ordinary Nigerian

What does June 12 mean to you?
June 12 is a symbolic name for the struggle for democracy and freedom in the country after the military had held sway uninterrupted for 20 to 30 years of our country. So, June 12 was to tell the military that enough was enough: go back to the barracks, especially as an election had been held and someone had won the election. So, we went through that battle and those of us who were the arrowhead of that struggle suffered some deprivation; some paid the supreme sacrifice. I was actually the arrowhead of the struggle because I used the powerful oil unions to fight the military. And at that time it was the only alternative because we didn’t have a stock of freedom fighters in this country like what the African National Congress (ANC) of South Africa and Mozambique Liberation Front (FRELIMO), and South West Africa People’s Organization (SWAPO) of Namibia; we didn’t have them in Nigeria.

What Nigeria had were just student union people, radical press, and civil society groups. There was nothing like a crop of freedom fighters, and NUPENG and the oil unions played that role at that time. When I was going through all these deprivations in my lonely cell at Bama prisons, I would say thank God that after this time Nigeria would have been liberated from the military. You just can’t lock me up for four years without taking me to court and disregarding Habeas corpus. Pope John Paul of blessed memory came here; my name was the second person on his list. MKO Abiola was number one and there were names like Olusegun Obasanjo and others. Mandela came with the same list, but Abacha treated them with contempt; he never released anybody. But I believed when I was in prison that the Nigeria I would meet when I come out is Nigeria that is free of military dictatorship.


But unfortunately we came out and Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) government that took over gave us more problem than the military. Corruption was massive than what the military did. For years I was just watching what was happening; it was deteriorating and we became one of the fantastically corrupt countries in this world. I believed at that time that with all my struggles and the struggle of the civil society groups at that time that when Nigeria came back that there is no way that innocent people will be pushed into cells. But what did we experience? All the institutions in this country were destroyed: the judiciary, labour movement, labour , civil society, student unionism were all destroyed – under the watchful eyes of the PDP government. Not like the days of Dadi Onyema, Udo Udoma, Justice Eso – you don’t have those type of judges again in this country. Judges becoming billionaires and owning big plazas in Abuja and Lagos – this was what the PDP brought to this country. People like Obasanjo who were normal people when they became head of state at the end of the day built a big presidential library costing several billions. He built Bell University and he followed the footsteps of Babangida and Abacha.

So June 12 is a watershed and it remains forever. June 12 was supposed to be Democracy Day but for the selfishness of Obasanjo who doesn’t want any Yoruba man to rise more than him, he treated June 12 with disdain and he never one day commended people like Abiola and those of us who fought for the enthronement of democracy in this country.

Are you happy now that your party APC has declared June 12 Democracy Day?
I am very happy. That was my happiest day last year when it was proclaimed. I spoke on behalf of labour and the civil societies. It was my happiest day because that was the day we had June 12 struggle and we all know what happened that period after the June 12 election was annulled. We have always said that May 29 does not mean much to the people; it was a military creation. And what was June 12? It was a struggle to remove the military; so, we can’t honour the military again by allowing them dictate a day for us. So, after 19 or so years, June 12 was proclaimed as democracy day; that was my happiest day.

So, what is the next step towards making June 12 nationally acceptable as Democracy Day?
What do you mean next step? Am in government? They should send a bill to the National Assembly and amend May 29 and enact a law. Instead of celebrating two public holidays, you just make it only one, that is June 12; that is all.

Does June 12 declaration answer the national question for you as an advocate of restructuring Nigeria?
How can proclaiming only a day answer the whole question of Nigeria’s democracy? No; it can’t answer that. There are a lot of things to be done on the constitution and bringing a better life to Nigerians. Actually, Nigerians are at the lowest ebb of their living since this Fourth Republic. I cannot be happy. Actually, I’m disillusioned. There is no alternative to democracy but I have been disillusioned with the type of democracy that we have been practicing for 20 years. I’m personally disillusioned, but there is no alternative to democracy; so, we have to go ahead with it. I’m an advocate of democracy and I have spent a better part of my life fighting for freedom and democracy. I want a good government for my people. Right from when I was young, I don’t want injustice; I want egalitarian living for my people – not the kind of thing I have been seeing since independence in my country. But that is a discussion for another day. If you want to know whether I’m happy if Nigeria is working we are going to write a book on it.

Do you think we have gotten to the point when the country needs to be restructured?
It depends on what you mean by restructuring. I need to know what they mean by restructuring but I want Nigeria to run properly. It is a federating unit; it should work like a federation. There are many things people talk about that they don’t even understand. If we are a federation, we should work like a federation – we should not be copycat. People should come together again and talk about how we’ll run the country. Actually, the Nigerian constitution is a good constitution; there are a lot of things in it. If it’s a federation, let us practice real federation. If you talk about real federation you talk of what is apportioned to the Federal Government and what is apportioned to the federating units. These areas should be looked into. We are in a democracy and the National Assembly can look into these issues and if they can’t they should convoke any other avenue to discuss it.

Should the electoral umpire be asked to declare June 12 result as a form of closure for those who suffered like you?
I think they have done that. Nwosu has declared the results so many years ago. I thought he did not declare it at the right time but they’ve declared it. And it was declared from the least quarter we expected, by Buhari, and we were all happy that day. Those of us who were advocates of June 12 were very happy. And we all poured encomium on Buhari but that is the much I can say. But on the issue of governance in the country, I’m disillusioned.

Apart from the fear of the marginalization of the Niger Delta and other regions, the fear of Islamization has also been added. What do you make of it?
How can you Islamize Nigeria? Nobody is Islamizing Nigeria. Can you come and Islamize me in my Ovu, Ethiope East hometown? That is just diversion. We are talking about serious things like giving to the states what the states deserve, what the federating units deserve, and you’re telling me about Islamizing Nigeria. The issue is that the Fulani bandits or any Nigerian bandits should be taken care of. I’m an Urhobo man. Can you come to my place and Islamize me or can you go to Owerri and Islamize the Igbo man there? Those are not the issues that matter in Nigeria. Nigerians have always been treated like that. When I was in prison in Bama, I knew anybody there in Bama was a Muslim because they were born there, as Muslims and that is what they knew. I was born in Warri; I was born into a Christian family. There is no way you can change my own religious ideology.

Nigerians want good governance anywhere it is; it is good governance; that is it. That is why the Scandinavian countries are doing well and a lot of other countries in Western Europe and North America are doing well because they are good people. Black people are not good people; they don’t know how to govern themselves; that is the problem we have. When you have a good leader you have good governance. A good leader is one who detests oppression, victimization; he supports equity and justice – that is what they call good leadership. Then everybody will be happy; you don’t cheat the people. That is what good leadership is all about, not using different clichés and different things to mislead the people. If I see good leadership I know what it is. We expected thorough good leadership from Buhari. Maybe, he came at a time, like he said, when there were a lot of challenges. So, he couldn’t do a lot of things.


I expected good governance from Obasanjo, but selfishness would not allow him do what he was expected to do. Africa has been unfortunate to have bad leaders. And at my age, when I see African people migrating all over the world and going through slavery, torture, going through the Sahara desert and through the Mediterranean, I shed tears. Even when we were growing up under the colonial government, we didn’t have this type of humiliation. Now all over the world, African people are seen as unserious people. I remember many years ago when I was in Zimbabwe in the early 1980s after their independence. At that time, the white people were still there. When I was in the Business District of Harare, I thought I was in the Business District of London, but that is not how it is today after Africans took over. Two Zimbabwean dollars then was equivalent to one US dollar. There was the good life, but look at what Zimbabwe has become today, a banana republic.


Many bad people are in leadership than good people in Nigeria today. We now worship materialism and we forget our people, the less fortunate Nigerians. A country is not run that way; there should be a safety valve for the vulnerable people in any country but we don’t have that. Most African countries don’t have it, and that is why we are having this humiliation every day.

Buhari has said that Nigeria needs true federalism and he is also considering making state police possible. Do you have confidence the president will pull them off?
I used to be a strong advocate against state police because I know it will be misused in Africa, especially Nigeria. But with what is happening in Nigeria today, I now support state policing but there should be proper guidelines so that the governors don’t use it as a political weapon to oppress their opponents. There should be dos and don’ts; it should be properly planned with guidelines so that you know where your authority stops just like the American federal and state police.

We will support that because the security problem in the country is avoidable; we don’t deserve it. That is why people are talking about Fulanization and Islamization. The security issues can be handled properly if we are not corrupt. Even the security people are corrupt, not all of them; there are corrupt ones who make money out of security issues. That was why we wanted strong leadership and that was why I was pro-Buhari because I felt he should shine his eyes and let Nigeria move forward.


In this article:
Frank Ovie-Kokori
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