When I first heard about President Muhammadu Buhari's surprise posthumous honour to Chief M. K. O. Abiola, the widely acknowledged winner of the 1993 presidential election, my instinctive thought was, "My God! How could he nerve his conscience to do that - he was a principal confidant of the Maximum Ruler who denied MKO his well deserved mandate, until the mysterious death-in-detention???" It cannot be gainsaid, even in fiction, that Buhari was the closest public figure to the Kano born general in Nigeria's darkest years. Soon after Abacha sacked Ibrahim Babangida's contraption (Shonekan's Interim Government), he decreed that all petroleum accruable monies be pooled into a Fund, the Petroleum Trust Fund, PTF. The humongous size of the envisaged pool qualified the PTF to be immediately referred to as a "parallel government"; even the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation, NNPC, had to look to it for funding. Buhari was the first and only executive chairman of the PTF. This was a measure of the unique camaraderie that the duo enjoyed when Nigeria tittered on the brink of disintegration from November 1993 until June 1998 when Abacha suddenly succumbed to death ahead of his detainee.
Ten years after, Buhari's closeness to Abacha remains palpable, going by his own utterances. For a man whose advertised integrity and purported abhorrence of injustice have lately become something of a legend, Buhari evidently didn't live up to his purported reputation between 1993 and 1998. Let us rewind to 1993 when Abacha assumed the headship of state. By that year Nigeria had been under military dictatorship for 10 unbroken years, the Shehu Shagari-led Second republic having been sacked in December 1983. Abacha's military predecessor had dribbled the civil society with an insufferably protracted, if controversies-ridden Transition-to-civil-rule programme. Perhaps unbeknownst to the fleet-footed general, the international communities had paid more than a passing attention to his deft dribbles. Consequently, in 1993 the United States of America, the indefatigable defender of democracy, declared the annulled June 12th election results a dribble too many; because, according to the US information officer who delivered his principal's verdict, Nigeria's 1993 presidential election was free, fair and credible'. It thus dawned on the self-styled evil genius that he had to "step aside".
In his stead Babangida set up a contraption that barely endured for 3 months. Therefore, it was evident to even the dim-witted that the civil society had exhausted its patience for military dictatorship when Abacha mounted the saddle in 1993. Expectedly, that fact was not lost on Abacha's Council colleagues. Specifically, Brigadier-General Chris Ali, and Rear Admiral Suleiman Sai'du, then chief of army staff and chief of naval staff respectively, reportedly insisted on a short Transition-to-civil-rule programme not exceeding 9 months. Abacha reportedly disagreed with both men and called for their immediate resignations. Abacha commenced his maximal plundering of the Nigerian state no sooner than the regrettable dual exit. Nothing, and no person, irrespective of status or antecedents was immune from the 1993 - 1998 unprecedented military recklessness. Not even the highly revered elderly statesman, Chief Anthony Enahoro, an iconic founding father of the nation who was among those whimsically arrested and thrown into detention. Others were murdered in cold blood. While many others fled the country through the famous "NADECO corridor" as Nigeria became one big killing field. As we have since learnt, all that killings proceeded hand-in-gloves with unbridled looting of the national treasury.
Details of Abacha's blood-curdling heavy handedness have since been made public by key operatives of that regime, inclusive of Abacha's chief security officer, Hamza al-Mustapha, and "Sergeant Rogers"; therefore I wouldn't task my readers with the tedium of a tale told twice. But the question that is worth asking time and again is: why did Buhari's purported integrity and incorruptibility not compel him to bear on Abacha to justly release Abacha from detention and confer on him the legitimate trophy? It was the most logical thing to do at the time, all the more so for the self-righteous. Leaders across the world had pleaded with Abacha to release Abiola to no avail. Pope John Paul, then octogenarian head of the Catholic Church, undertook a trip to Nigeria to lend his voice to the plea, yet Abacha didn't change his stance. It is therefore doubly bewildering that Buhari couldn't for a moment publically find his voice in pursuit of justice for an innocent compatriot who languished in detention, and eventually died.
Could Abacha also have been impervious to Buhari's righteous counsel in private? The man of integrity has not winked the world any hint to the answer of that very pregnant question. Neither have I chanced on a copy of John Paden's biography of Muhammadu Buhari to assuage my curiosity. In the off chance that the biography didn't address the question, then it is fair to expect that Buhari's memoirs would robustly deal with the subject; otherwise the Daura born general would forever remain a curious quantity to many.
Wouldn't it be nice to get an idea of Abiola's impression of his posthumous award? If you think it is, then consider this. I once had a firsthand impression of the great philanthropist a year or so before he entered the presidential race. Nigerian Academy of Science (NAS) was inducting him and another distinguished Nigerian at its annual dinner holding in the Ikeja Sheraton Hotel, Lagos. Abiola arrived the venue about an hour into the programme, accompanied by his bronze complexioned wife, Auntie Doyin. He had the honour to respond on behalf of the inductees. Profusely apologizing for his late arrival, Abiola informed the audience that he and his wife have had to practically tear themselves off their previous engagement to attend the prestigious NAS ceremony, as, in his words, "attendance of such ceremonies cannot be delegated... ". After the annulment of the June 12th election results, Abiola was credited with many quotable quotes, among which was a modified version of his NAS induction introductory remarks: You cannot give a man a haircut in his absence.
Surely, many couldn't have agreed more with MKO; the man would have preferred the honour of discharging the mandate, which millions of Nigerians freely handed to him; he had made a sing-song of that point during the presidential debates. It was the last wish of a materially accomplished man; but he was sadistically denied. Furthermore, we could well imagine that Buhari's contemptuous disregard for both the legislature and the judiciary, in addition to his despotic disposition to constructive criticisms in the Fourth republic would vividly rekindle Abiola's memories of the stillborn Third republic. Therefore, it is safe to conclude that Buhari's posthumous award to Nigeria's president that never was could hardly be of any consequence to the man; but an apology is desperately due. The posthumous honour is at best an opportunistic humuor to the late larger-than-life southwestern politician with an eye on 2019.
Afam Nkemdiche is engineering consultant, wrote from Abuja