opinionBy Ben Adam Shemang
To General Abdulsalami Abubakar, he cannot forget some days in haste. Many Nigerians also know these dates, historical ones for that matter.
Take a look: On June 8, 1998, military strong man, General Sani Abacha died. June 9th, General Abubakar became Nigeria's 11th Head of State. June 12th, Nigerians especially in the south west, were marching through the streets demanding that Chief MKO Abiola be set free from prison and sworn in as president as acclaimed winner of the election of June 12th, 1993.
Unfortunately, Abiola himself died on 7th July, 1998 before the processes of setting him free could be done. That was the period General Abdulsalami Abubakar came in, when Nigeria was in dire need of a leader to lead the country out of the turmoil - the situation where he came in as a messenger of peace, "Abdulsalam", according to his Islamic name. Added to these dates in history is the fact that the general was born on June 13th, 1942. Happy Birth sir!
I was Voice of Nigeria's State House Correspondent all through the Abacha days. I was also the State House correspondent throughout the period General Abubakar came to power to when he handed over power on 29th May, 1999. When General Olusegun Obasanjo was sworn in, I spent some months at the presidential villa before I was changed.
The essence of this piece is not to run commentary on the style of leadership I saw in a real military dictatorship of Abacha neither is it to comment on the very first early days of democracy of president Obasanjo, but to look at a gentleman general, Abdulsami Abubakar whom I want to christen "father of modern democracy in Nigeria".
Late evening after General Abacha was buried in Kano, there was a meeting in the State House by very top military officers and while the meeting was going on, correspondents were milling and nosing around speculating as to whom would be the head of state. Could it be Jerry Useni? He was the most senior military officer then as a lieutenant general. But he was a minister of the Federal Capital Territory, heading civilians not troops. We ruled him out. The General Oladipo Donald Diya option came. Could he be released from prison and head an interim government because he was Chief of General Staff, a post which by military tradition in Nigeria was like vice president. We ruled it out.
Soon the meeting ended at the state house and we saw Abdulsalami Abubakar, then a Major General and Chief of Defence Staff, Mike Okhai Ahigbe, then a Rear Admiral and Flag Officer Commanding and many other top military brass, especially General Officers Commanding, moving briskly to the Chambers at the State House. General Abubakar was steps ahead of others as they marched on, almost in an unconscious military drill. Soon, correspondents of electronic media organisations were called in for a recorded broadcast to the nation. It was Chris Ugwu for the Nigerian Television Authority, Orji Ogbonnaya Orji and Haruna Idris for Federal Radio Corporation of Nigeria and I for Voice of Nigeria, with Mohammed Labbo as floor Manager.
Lo and behold, General Abdulsalami was on the seat of the Head of State and Commander - In- Chief. He then addressed his "fellow Nigerians". And since then, what followed? The tension that existed in the country after the annulling of the June 12 presidential election needed some tact and art to handle. To give room for negotiations, he ensured Chief MKO Abiola was moved to Aguda House, the present residence of Nigeria's democratically elected Vice President.
The general announced a political transition time table as definite date for the military to return to the barracks and allow civilians to handle the life and destiny of Nigeria through the ballot box. That terminated on May 29th, 1991.
The ban on political parties and activities were lifted immediately and political parties sprang up. Political prisoners and general amnesty was granted across the country to all detainees.
People trooped into the villa to advise him, including traditional, religious, journalists, trade unions, diplomats and friends. His doors were opened and very cordial with the press.
Malam Mohammed Haruna was appointed Chief Press Secretary to succeed Chief David Attah. These two officers were never the type who rushed to stand in front of cameras and curse Nigerians on behalf of their principals and the work went on well for the general because they ensured Nigerians believed and had faith in the government of the day.
The international community especially western nations and America saw honesty in the general and accepted his transition to civil rule programme. The result was the lifting of sanctions imposed on Nigeria by the comity of nations. He embarked on a global diplomatic shuttle and explained his domestic policies. Many countries and governments indicated interest to assist in the conduct of elections. Meanwhile, the political associations had made the country so much engaged politically as Nigerians were waiting for elections with eagerness.
As his open door policy, the general never went on a trip at home or abroad without the press. The constant four were NTA, VON, FRCN and NAN. Newspaper correspondents were taken in batches because of the large number of correspondents at the villa. Many journalists snapped photographs with him.
The information office headed by Mohammed Haruna, assisted by Musa Aduwak, Austin Abuah Attah Esa and Patience Tilley-Gyado were so helpful to the press and very open.
Even in the villa right from the gates, one will smell democracy as in the offing because any correspondent who had a car would drive right into the villa and the same bodyguards who were opening the gate for the Head of state would do same for him/her.
Freely we would go to Fort Obasanjo, now Niger Barracks which served as General Abubakar's residence before he moved into the villa. This was repeated when he moved into the villa for residence and office.
Each time he was travelling on board the plane, he would go to the portion of his ministers on the entourage and greet them, the same with the press and the bodyguards.
At a point, he would ask the press what people were saying about his transition programme and what the thinking of the press was. A hand shake with the general was common. It was a common thing for some residents of Abuja to say they saw the man either in Garki or Wuse areas and even markets. Once in a while, the general would dash out in a small car with two or three bodyguards and enter town and observe people. There was no risk and he made no enemies. There was a day we were on an official trip to Minna, Niger State, where he comes from. The convoy went to the Federal Government Lodge and on reaching there, his private vehicle, a jeep, a black Navigator, was brought for him. He collected the key, opened the door and went straight to the driver's seat and started the vehicle. He simply said he was going to his private house in his private vehicle and zoomed off. But trust Nigerian officials, one by one, they went to the man's house.
He came very popular and amiable that some of us thought some fellow Nigerians would tell him to shift his transition programme the way many others had done.
During a live media chat and consultation he had with very senior journalists and publishers and TV/radio proprietors he was asked a question: "Your Excellency, your transition to civil rule programme is moving on as planned. But what do you think can make you not to hand over power as you already scheduled for May 29th"? "That date is not negotiable. It is sacrosanct I am handing over", the General replied. There was applause and he there and then invited that correspondent who asked the question to the swearing in ceremony of the would-be elected president. Always soft spoken and straight to the point!
Today, the elections have come and gone and May 29th is celebrated as Democracy Day in Nigeria.
One would have thought that he would retire to his farm; but as the saying goes, no hiding place for a gold fish! The international community has always found jobs for him, outside his farming to provide security.
This is why at a point, he was appointed at various times, to leadership positions in the Liberian Comprehensive Peace Agreement, Commonwealth Observer team to Zimbabwean elections, Fact Finding Mission in Niger republic. In short, he is well sought for as a diplomat, builder, peace and conflict resolution expert by the Economic Community of West African States, The United Nations, The European Union, the African Union, and back home, the now white bearded general is remains a symbol of hope and respect to the delight of many young Nigerians. After handing over power, A Voice of Nigeria team led by the then Director General, Taiwo Allimi and Ben Egbuna, went for an interview, he said one of his hobbies was listening to radio and informed us that he heard of the coup that removed then and only Prime Minister, Tafawa Balewa from Voice of Nigeria, when he, as a young military officer was on course in Moscow, Russia. He even directed the VON team to ensure the radio station was hooked to world space and that he was written a memo in his hand over note to the incoming administration to that effect.
Sir, you still have many jobs ahead for humanity. Keep on waxing stronger and stronger. We Nigerians salute the General at 70, the father of the country's modern democracy.