Not too long ago, a picture over twenty years old went viral on the Internet. It was shot in Dodan Barracks, Lagos, in 1994, and in it, a usurper military dictator, the late General Sani Abacha, in his military attire – though not uncommonly un-bereted yet quite unusually unspectacled – welcomes to the famous seat of power, the late Chief MKO Abiola, who is clad resplendently in his usual embroidered agbada, buba and sokoto, with his long famous cap to match. For one who had just won the freest and fairest election in the political history of Nigeria, the irony is more than cruelly etched in the loudly-silent question: “who between the de facto despot and the demure democrat should be the welcomer to the seat of power and who should be the guest to it?”
Yet, it is clear that whereas one was an opportunistic upstart crow beautified with the feathers of our democratic martyrs, the other was a selfless visioner prepared to sacrifice his all to reclaim the stolen mandate of his people.
Right behind this fiercely contrasting duo in this frozen past, no less laden with the history of days gone and the prophecy of things yet to come, are two of the most trusted personal aides of the usurper-despot and the unyielding democrat: one is the notorious man of infamy, the Chief Security Officer to the late Abacha, Major Hamza Al-Mustapha – the de-facto to the de-facto – walking behind Chief MKO; and the other, a young, unassuming, bespectacled Bola Ahmed Tinubu, majestically walking behind Abacha as if to tactfully close-mark the untrustworthy General the way Al-Mustapha digs the heels of his innocent principal.
Whoever posted this picture on the internet has saved himself a thousand words because the picture is its own thousand words; it speaks loudly of our not-too distant political past, even as it eloquently foreshadows a future we never had the gift of prophecy to apprehend: that the man trusted by the late MKO Abiola to watch his back when he went to the lions’ den to insist on his mandate is, after all, our democracy’s future avenging angel, the sword of Damocles one day to fall on the fattened vultures of our captive political aspirations.
Who would also have thought that in the little obscure, unassumingly harmless character, Major Hamza Al-Mustapha, tucked behind Abiola in the picture, would be the most notorious “butcher of Aguda House”, the de facto Head of State who would torture, maim and kill to keep an aberrant junta in place.
This is the picture that speaks a thousand words; the picture that proves both time and history are the greatest conspirators, as they both have a way of playing on the psyche of the short sighted man. We are optically illusioned always to look one way, but the blurred and the dimly lit objects that time and history choose not to magnify are often the veritable mustard seeds of a future full of marvel. Look again in the picture as a younger Tinubu walks behind Abacha with the solemnity of a golden child that has an uncanny foreknowledge of his future role, both as the man chosen to right political wrongs yet in the womb of time, and as the anointed angel to give final rest to the troubled political spirit of his fallen liege and godfather.
Tinubu has proven himself a worthy son of his proud political lineage. He had been with MKO long before the days of the National Party of Nigeria (NPN) and he was there when the Aare Ona Kakanfo threw his hat into the political ring at the Jos convention of the Social Democratic Party (SDP). He was one of the brains behind the famous Epe declaration, after which he fled abroad to avoid Abacha’s murderous rage.
Tinubu, with the late Enahoro, Wole Soyinka, General Alani Akinrinade (Rtd.), Dr. Kayode Fayemi and others, sustained the National Democratic Coalition (NADECO) abroad after its virtual demise at home under the asphyxiating disposition of Abacha’s junta. He, with Kokori and others, led the oil-workers strike that crippled Lagos to keep the spirit of June 12 alive. Tinubu was the first person MKO would ask for from me when he had his first day in court on the charge of treason. Tinubu, ironically, was also the first person to call me from London when he heard Abiola was assassinated.
I remember even in the heat of the pandemonium of MKO’s sudden death, Tinubu still had the equanimity of mind to instruct that I tell Kola Abiola and MKO’s physician, Ore Falomo, to insist on a UN-backed post-mortem to confirm the alleged poisoning of his late political mentor; nor did he, thereafter, leave to stray uncatered for the biological and political orphans of the late MKO – he has nurtured many to the abundant.
Now that the prophesy has come to pass and the son has, at last, exacted the political pound of flesh to avenge the spirit of his late father, let the son proceed to do the other needful; namely, restore late Chief MKO Abiola to his rightful place in the political history of Nigeria. Let June 12 as a date be recognised as a veritable political watershed in the democratic learning process of this country; let the late icon have to his name an enduring monument of history as his memorial, and let the corrective regime of Muhammadu Buhari elevate Abiola post-humously to the highest honour in the land, i.e. the Grand Commander of the Federal Republic (GCFR). He deserves it!
The journey depicted in this picture of a thousand words may have ended tragically – justifiably for the usurper-despot and undeservedly for the ill-fated, heroic democrat, nonetheless, they both have their distinctive places in history; whereas Abacha’s name lives in infamy, Abiola’s lives in the memory of lovers of duty, honour and country.
Thus away from the thousand words that this picture manifestly evokes are yet many more that only those who saw it all and have a sense of history can give flesh to. Even as society seems to move and carry on as if nothing momentous happened years ago, history appears to tap us on the shoulder, urging that we do not forget “it” so that “it” too – when our due season comes – will not forget us. Let us lift the memory of our forebears who selflessly gave their yesterday so that we would have this promising today.
Let the last few syllables of the one thousand words contained in this picture be given their full vent. Let Abiola take his rightful place in the history of our democratic odyssey. Tinubu alone was in the right spot in that history; only he can write it.
Lisa Olu Akerele, a veteran journalist and former Political Assistant to the late MKO Abiola, is the Atunwase of Ijesaland.