September 27, 2022


Pro-democracy activist, Adeola Soetan, looks through the history lens with DARE ADEKANMBI on the essence of the June 12 struggle for the current political system in the country, why Nigerians must distinguish between pro-pocket entrepreneurs parading as human right activists, reflects on the #ENDSARS protest, among others.
 
It is 29 after the June 12 struggle. Do you think the struggle still has any significance in terms of our socio-political history, particularly with what obtains in the political sphere today?
Well, when you look at the June 12 struggle, certain things are basic. One, it was an anti-military struggle aimed at getting the military off our neck and now this should continue even till today. No matter what our democracy or civil rule is going through, we must insist that the military should not come back. Of course, when you also look at the June 12 election, it was the first election that ethnic and religious contamination, in the way people reason and vote for leaders, was totally jettisoned. So, we had what you can call unity across board for MKO Abiola of blessed memory. Bashir Tofa lost to Abiola in Kano State and that was very significant. Of course, Abiola scored voted across states and what that means is that when you have leaders that are relatively credible and campaign on programmes that rally the poor and working class together, then the issue of ethno-religious consideration would be secondary as it was in the case of Abiola.
But unfortunately now, because President Muhammadu Buhari has been so provincial in terms of profiling the Fulani as spoilt children of his government, everybody has decided to go back to their ethnic enclaves. If you have children at home and you are, maybe by error of omission or commission, giving other children the impression that you like one more than others, you are definitely going to set them up to start thinking that they are not loved by you and that is not good for the house. When we had June 12, nobody was thinking of anything like that. Unfortunately, the relevance of June 12 has been lost to our democracy now because we had leaders re-enacted that forgone ethnic and religious battles towards ascendancy to the throne. When you also look at June 12, for the first time, we had the struggle of the people over the years determining and demanding that June 12 must be actualised. Apart from the #ENDSARS protest which was unplanned by what I will call the traditional human rights activists, done by the youths across the country, June 12 became second. But in terms of the length of time and others, June 12 became higher.
I left Lagos to go and organise with other comrades in Abeokuta. The first meeting we had was at Ijeja and there was not organised protest in Abeokuta. People would only gather at the vendors’ stands discussing and venting their anger. When we got there, we had a meeting and we thought that the protest should start 72 hours after so as to mobilise and compel student unions and others to take part. I went back to my house at Lantoro. I was trying to eat when I heard protest songs on the street. I was in my knickers and a short. On getting outside, I saw a mammoth crowd shouting and protesting against the annulment of June 12. I had to join them and did not return home until about 7pm. So, people saw the mandate beyond Abiola himself. Do not forget that Abiola was never a perfect person. He was generally loved because of his economic ideology. He did not allow his poor background to leave him. So, across the lines, he was able to galvanise people across the country preaching farewell to poverty. Today, we can’t even pick any of our past leaders who has campaigned effectively on farewell to poverty, beyond their platitudinous rigmarole of saying nothing and of course pretending to be saying something. I attended Abiola’s rally in Abeokuta and I saw the man and I pitied him. The rally was to be around 12pm, but he did not come until around 6pm. He was heavily weighed down by the campaign stress, his eyeballs were swollen. He was coming from three states where he had gone to campaign. He was emphasizing the theme of his campaign ‘farewell to poverty’, even though if he had been sworn in, perhaps we would have gone back to the barricade because he was going to implement neo-liberal economic policy, except he tried to change his thoughts and policy using his poor background as a guide. And of course, it is also part of why I feel that they did not want to give him the mandate with the mass protest. If you allow a member of a capitalist class to come to power on the basis of mass pressure, mass protest from below, he might dance to the tunes of the masses. Abiola campaigned based on what he wanted to do and was not abusing anybody. I had interviews with him on two or four occasions. He was not only brilliant, he also had the drive and would tell you a lot of things.
Today, what do we have? Politicians will invite fuji and hip pop artistes to campaign grounds and everybody will dance and dance and the candidate will not even talk. They will be mouthing different slogans. What happens next? Everybody goes home. So, that has been lost on us, particularly the youths. The first political rally I attended was that of Chief Obafemi Awolowo. I trekked from Igbore to Ake to listen to Papa Awo in 1982. By the time he was talking about the four cardinal programmes of free education and others, after leaving the campaign ground, I began to visualize how he was going to run free education because he was telling us how many students they were expecting, how many teachers would be required, how many schools would be built. He had data and was prepared for it. The party and the candidate had done their homework very well. The same thing almost applied to MKO’s campaign.
But today, this has been lost on us. So, the relevance of June 12 now is for us as the electors to start looking beyond the rudimentary issues that divide us and give advantage to those in the ruling class who are always united to loot, united in election rigging but when it comes to votes, they use divide and rule tactic. Yes, we have Yoruba, Igbo, Hausa, Fulani and others. But the reality is that poverty, hunger and unemployment does not know any ethnic or religious group. The Yoruba man will be hungry is the same way the Hausa man or an Igbo and others will be hungry.
To own the process as we did on June 12, own the process of asking questions, voting and defending your votes, and insisting the right thing must be done as we have been doing over the years, I think, to me, that should be the relevance of June 12, not the political shenanigans of people who sit, stand and eat on June 12. I think the lesson is more than that.
 
There are supporters of this administration who say Buhari deserves some accolades for the national recognition given to June 12, which was perceived to be a South-West struggle in other parts of the country. Do you agree with that view?

I commend President Buhari on this, no doubt, because it is the ruling class that destroyed the national identity of June 12. The ruling class across North and East, and of course, some of our ruling class members in the South-West also destroyed the national identity of June 12. How can you say June 12 is a Yoruba thing when Abiola defeated Tofa in Kano? You know the ruling class, what they do is to look for power at all costs. Don’t forget, [Babagana] Kingibe and of course the Late former national chairman of SDP then, Chief Tony Anenih, started the tribalisation of June 12 because if Kingibe, the running mate to Abiola, had stood firm and not collected one useless appointment, of course, everybody would know the man was still around with the mandate. The national award Buhari gave to Kingibe, to me, is a stain on the commendable effort he has done on June 12 by making sure it is now a public holiday. You don’t give an award to somebody who has abandoned the mandate because of bread and butter in the presidency. Abiola too would have died like just any other person, despite his wealth and generosity. What made Abiola a remembered person today was because at least he stood for the mandate of the people given to him and that should be a lesson to us. Before, we were talking of Da Rocha and other multibillionaires, but we don’t talk about them again. Money does not define humans; money does not define history. It is what you stand for. We talk of Awolowo till now, why? I was at one of his farm settlements, Oke Rago or something like that in Ondo State. I saluted the courage of those leaders led by Awolowo. How can a leader of that type be thinking of this? Go there and see. Two-bedroom flats, as of the 50s, backyard poultry farm allocated to every settler and all these things are still there till today. I’m still wondering. How can people be thinking this brilliantly in the 50s? Today, we now see leaders that are not even thinking or they are thinking negatively.
 
A very significant aspect of the June 12 struggle, is the fact that it is still being regarded today as the freest and fairest election in the history of the country. How can we have that replicated in the 2023 elections? Do you have any optimism that that can happen?
I don’t share such optimism. One, when delegates become human properties and dollars are shared openly, you don’t expect the election not to be a do-or-die affair. When the language of the campaign has become so violent in terms of what message is being passed out, what will the real election now look like? I gave a presentation sometime ago at Lagos State Electoral Commission and I said the violence at elections does not start on the day of election. It starts with the thoughts and messages people are passing out to the electorate and to their members. Already, we have started having languages like ‘betrayal’ as if to contest against anybody is a sin. They have started giving orders to commissioners, ministers, saying ‘go and deliver your state or ward’ as if those people have more than one vote each.
So, I am not thinking that we are going to have such an election as we did on June 1993, except we the people take ownership of that election and look at programmes more than anything. If you are a commissioner and the governor says go and deliver your local government, you know what that means. That is a matching order to go to war. If you say ‘go and campaign for people to give us votes in your local government,’ to me this is civil. I think in Kano, sometime ago, a governor told them point blank, ‘you want to come back to my cabinet, deliver your local government. Won’t such a person go and look for money, guns and thugs to make sure that his local government is delivered so that he can return to office at the expense of the people’s blood?
As I said, I don’t always like to advise politicians, because you don’t advise bandits to change their banditry ways, or armed robbers to change their robbery way. You don’t advise somebody who feels that he can get money and profit from his investment. I am not saying Abiola was going to be a saviour, but you can see the way he talked and marshalled his points.
Today, politicians have over-monetised politics. I believe politics to be the fastest-growing industry in Nigeria with the highest rate of returns and lower risk. So, in that wise, politics and leadership have shifted from sacrifice to business and in that wise, it may be difficult. So, let’s just through the media, focus on voter education more than giving attention to politicians. Many of them will not change. They have spent so much money. They showed one guy who was a delegate and spent about N6.5 million in his community. I know Nigerians before you can spend N6.5 million, maybe he got close to N20 million. So, if somebody bribes his way to become the candidate of the party and has spent such a huge amount, don’t expect him to lie low and not rig the election at all costs by killing and causing a lot of trouble. Even Father Christmas that we used to know is no more doing anything for free. They have started making profit. When you take your child there with N1,000 gate fee and get something worth something worth N200. When they get home, they will say this Father Christmas is a thief. Father Christmas is no longer the one we used to know, they have become businessmen nowadays, the same with politics in Nigeria today.
So, we should focus on the voters and of course the managers of the election. You see the way INEC extended the deadline for primaries. It is obvious that it was because of APC. So, if the electoral managers and security operatives have become biased openly or by perception, then there is a problem. So, I think we should be able to tell ourselves the whole truth. No matter what INEC is doing, if they are not seen to be free, fair and unbiased, then there is crisis of legitimacy of the election and of course, which June 12 also suffered from. If that man [Humphrey Nwosu] had stayed and said ‘look, this election is not going to be annulled,’ nothing would happen.
 
Those of you who are activists, pro-democracy campaigners and all that have been accused of double standard. People say during the Goodluck Jonathan years, you were very active. But since Buhari came, you have gone to sleep. Buhari has increased the pump price five times without resistance. There was a particular instance that the labour leaders had mobilised Nigerians that they were going to shut down the economy, only for them to issue a statement after a marathon meeting with government representatives to call off the strike…
Well, you are partly right and partly wrong. You forgot to take cognisance of the fact that we have activists and we also have what I call pro-democracy and human rights entrepreneurs, whose understanding of activism is not pro-peace, but pro-pockets, pro-leaders who they work for and that has been the cause of this nonsense. Don’t forget, even during Jonathan’s tenure, there were so-called activists, the human rights entrepreneurs  that were also going against our protest, saying what Jonathan did was right because perhaps they were being paid or because they lacked what I would call ideological understanding of what social activism is all about. You are right on this because Lagos/South has been the centre-point for most activism. But the moment Buhari came in, of course, with the support of Amaechi-Tinubu machinery, many activists who did not know that social activism is a marathon and not a hundred-metre race, decided to end their race and become what I will call ‘abobaku’ [opportunists] of the government, saving, and defending the government, even when the government was going against its own promises too. It is so surprising, you see activists supporting Buhari who said he was not going to increase pump prices of petroleum products, increased the prices and people were saying ‘yes, it is part of restructuring the economy’. This man said that he would not devalue the naira, not travel in super jet or whatever, all he promised, he has failed to deliver.
But to some, their activism stands and ends up in some people’s mansions. So, they have become what I will also call mercenaries and that is why people see it as they are not protesting the way they used to do. They won’t! And this is where ideology comes in. You can’t compare people like that with those of us who have clear-cut class ideology. Activism itself cannot be owned by a few people. I told people that one of the happiest days in my life is the #ENDSARS spontaneous protest by the youths. When I was talking to some of my colleagues about 24 hours after it started, that was the first time we were not involved. It was the first time I did not know either at the initial stage or at planning stage of a protest in Nigeria for close to 30 something years now and I was happy, because it means nature abhors vacuum. If some activists are degenerating, the contradiction of the neo-liberal capitalist system will bring out new activists. To what extent those ones also go, will be determined by their class consciousness. I am a socialist. You don’t expect me now to start defending neo-liberalism, even if anybody I like or my friends are in government. That is where the problem is. The media generalise everybody as being activists. Then you ask yourself, you ask them, I want a social revolution. I want the working class and the masses controlling the commanding heights of the economy. So, I could not have come out and start defending a government that is going totally pro-market and anti-masses. But some of these activists are just, maybe because they have access to their laptops or phones and of course, unemployment and they are angry normally and legitimately, but they got some politicians to arrange them, pro-democracy whatever, but their emptiness shows with their responses to national issues and economic protests. I always tell people that to be an activist is not a traditional chieftaincy title. What I mean is that you can’t say you are a social activist when you are swimming with government, going against people’s needs. If you say you are an activist, the moment you stop doing what is expected of an activist, you are no longer an activist. But people have taken it as a permanent title. Anybody now that abuses his own state government is an activists and he is now commending current state government which is doing worse than the one he was condemning, then you know that guy is not an activist. He is just a free-flow human rights entrepreneur that is looking for where to get money and just be doing mercenary job. Activism is not a permanent chieftaincy title. If you say you are a Muslim, many people expect you not to eat pork. If you eat pork or you are not even going to mosque, then you are not a Muslim. The same thing applies to Christians. If you say you are a Christian and you are not going to church or praying, then you are not a Christian. You say you are an activist and all you are doing is to justify established anti-masses, anti-poor government, you are not an activist. But then, I also throw the question to the masses that ‘look, don’t see anybody as a born activist.’  Look at the youths during #ENDSARS, though the state made it violent later by attacking peaceful protesters, they were not ideologically clear as to what is next. But to me, it is a step higher. Even when I went to address them at Ring Road in Ibadan, they initially refused me because they mistakenly thought anybody that is not with the youths is with the system because they thought we condoned the system too much. But when I brought out my phone and I showed them the protest against the removal of fuel subsidy, when Buhari hiked the fuel price again, in which participated at Ojuelegba [Lagos], they allowed me to address them. Some of us will still continue to protest whether they like it or not, because we know they cannot bribe all human beings. You cannot bribe all activists, and when you bribe some, they lose their credibility. It is as simple as ABC.
 

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