The leader of the defunct National Democratic Coalition (NADECO), in Canada and the United States, Chief Ralph Obioha, in this interview goes down memory lane to recall the struggle for the actualization of June 12 1993 election which sent him to exile.
Obioha lost a bank, a brewery, a cement bagging company among others in the cause of the struggle for the agitation of the June 12 mandate won by Abiola.
This interview was conducted before President Buhari’s declaration of June 12 as public holiday and promised conferment of the country’s highest national honours on Abiola and others.
However, Obioha who was a second republic member of the House of Representatives and former national chairman of the Justice Party insists that Nigeria has not gotten the messiah and is still searching. Excerpts:
By Chioma Gabriel, Editor Special Features
Looking back, how do you feel about the whole thing of June 12?
It’s a pity that the struggle claimed several lives. Besides Abiola and his wife, Kudirat, many Nigerians also died in the crisis. There was also Alfred Rewane who was murdered in cold blood for democracy.
A lot of people would ask if the democracy we have today is what NADECO fought for.
I can answer that question by saying that democracy is an evolving experience. A lot of advanced democracies went through a lot of teething problems over decades and over hundreds of years to get to where they are. So, I will say that in the last 22 years, we have made some strides.
We have been able to have an election where a sitting president was defeated by an opponent and there was a smooth and peaceful handover. But a lot of people are wondering if Buhari would do the same thing if he contested and is defeated. I have always wondered why not. It has happened before and could happen again. I keep telling people not to be so pessimistic and go to the electorate and present their manifestoes and programmes. I believe there could be a change in 2019.
The SDP ticket was a Muslim-Muslim ticket but nobody considered that because Nigerians wanted the military out…
I was a central figure in persuading Abiola to proceed with it. Dan Suleiman was the assured candidate to run with Abiola but when pressures mounted that Kingibe must be on the ticket, there a lot of consideration and questions whether it could be accepted in Nigeria but it was. I was a lone voice in the crowd of 30 party leaders that encouraged Abiola to go for Kingibe as long as what we are fighting for was to enthrone democracy.
In 1992, Nigerians were totally for democracy and I assured Abiola that it was the number one candidate that is important and not the running mate. I told him that if you ask Nigerians who was the Vice-President few years after, that they might not remember. I said my mother in the village would vote for Abiola and not Kingibe.
Recently, there have been talk about Buhari considering to take Bola Tinubu as a running mate and I tell the opposition party in Nigeria that if that happens, then, there should also be a first Christian- Christian ticket to be presented to the Nigerian electorate. I can predict that there could be a huge surprise if that happens. I’m not one of those who are sticklers to balancing a Muslim/Christian ticket in Nigeria. I’m a stickler to getting the people who can deliver, people who can really work and bring a change.
Nigeria is deficient in energy which is the prima donna of whether we should advance or not. Nigeria is deficient in the institutions of the state, our police is malfunctional, our judiciary is nothing to write home about. All the other institutions of the state are lacking in one thing or the other.
What Nigerians should concern themselves about really seriously is to find out who will bring the performance forward because moving Nigerian forward will involve a person who will have a vision, a programme, who will say, my target in my first year in office is to increase the power generation of this country from 4,000 megawatts to maybe, 10,000 megawatts.
If you go to China, the whole thing about China is production. So, we want a Nigerian president who will not work for eight hours but for 25 hrs a day, in order to tackle things that have held us back. The mantra of the Buhari regime is anti-corruption and he has failed even in that area. There must be somebody that will emerge from somewhere like Abiola did in 1991 and gave Nigerians the mantra of hope and defeated the Muslim/Christian ticket even when the Vice-President slot was given to the South-East. That was democracy on the march.
In other words, that vacuum is still there?
Of course Nigeria is still in search of a visionary leader who will translate the known problems in Nigeria. Everybody knows the problem in Nigeria, everybody knows our problem is lack of job
opportunities, everybody knows Nigeria is lacking in institutions of good education, good healthcare system, good transportation. Everybody know that and yet, we have not found that leader that can emerge in so many societies around the world. We have the resources, both manpower and natural. It is to translate them.
Nigeria has one of the most vibrant economy in the world in terms of purchasing powers of the average Nigerian and yet, it is how to articulate it that is our problem. We produce oranges in a season and in that season, it will be so abundant that a quarter of it will perish. When it comes to corn, we produce it at a season but all over the world, corn is available in the supermarkets all the year round. It is not a seasonal product anymore because there are things that bring about preservation for it to continually be in the market.
That means that democratically, where we were in 1993 when Abiola won that election is still where we are?
I believe that physically Nigeria has made quite some strides but lacking in many. If you look at the area of housing, most of Nigeria’s funds have been invested in houses without policy. Nigeria has no housing policy. In this Ikoyi where you are interviewing me, about 60% of the houses are empty all the time. Nigerians keep building and building and nobody occupies because nobody can afford the rent.
Emphasis was laid on building high-income houses without thinking about the low-income housing policy. I’ve lived around the world, the government takes it upon itself for an equalisation policy of housing for all by tackling the low-income housing pattern because investors will always want to build where they get the most return. Social equilibrium is maintained by government by laying emphasis on the low-income housing but that is not the case with Nigeria. What is the result?
You never participated in politics since 1999?
Well, I have tried to present myself for an election in Nigeria but it wasn’t successful. Now, I try to conduct a very quiet life. You will remember that before NADECO, I was a very successful businessman but in the course of the struggle, I lost a bank, a commercial bank, First African Trust Bank; I lost a brewery, Safari Brewery, that was brewing Hercules beer; I lost a cement bagging plant in Port-Harcourt, Castle Cement, and a vegetable oil company.
I was employing at least 2,700 Nigerians and about 17 expatriates in my factory. Most of us who went on exile lost everything we had here. So, I laid back because you know we were out for about five years and I had to face the challenges of having a very young family but I will never regret being part of the struggle. It was a wider sphere of experience for me.
I had to leave all these to go on exile over June 12. I was the head of NADECO in Canada and the United States.
Then, the agitation was to get the military out of power and enthrone democracy?
Would Abiola’s government have been different?
With hindsight, nobody could tell how Abiola’s administration would have gone. But I still believe that a great injustice was done to him and his family up till today. I could not believe that Nigeria had not at least recognised him and compensated his family for their loss. And this is a tragedy that would discourage other people who may want to go and really be fearless. The cleavages in Nigeria are so many; even one person in his own region has not thought it fit to honour him and yet they are all enjoying the fruits of democracy.
In the South-West, June 12 is still Democracy Day?
It would have been interesting if governors in the north, the south-east and south-south had shown nationalism by saying yes, this man sacrificed his life and that of his wife to make it possible for us to be democrats but that is not the case. That is injustice.
All his businesses are gone
Well, my people have a saying that when a man dies, his things die. And that has been the case here.
What do you think about everything now?
What I think is that Nigerians must understand that the path they are following are quick fixes and it is not sustainable anymore. You did mention that we have a president that keeps silent in the face of wanton killings in Nigeria, who even makes appointments that is so obvious that its so one-sided and sectional in a country when the constituency should be the whole Nigeria.
Nigerians should understand that we can only progress when we change our thinking culture and work-habit, our general attitude to the mundane, tribalism which is so big, that they must try to look for the best in the society and allow the best to lead. And this idea of always talking about the Yorubas as the best or the Igbos as the best is not good. There are very brilliant northerners and experts, there are many outstanding Middle-Beltans.
There are people all over Nigeria that have excellence in them. It’s not a thing of one side or the other. And then, Nigeria should actually look out for such people wherever they may be; whether they are Kanuris, Efiks, Ijaws, Yorubas or Igbos and allow them like every other society in the world would allow their brightest to emerge and lead. That is the challenge facing Nigeria today and if they continue believing that it must be my tribesman that would be in this position, then, we are not going anywhere.
The greatest challenge that we have not been able to find solution to is the one that will make us rise and bloom and excel which is energy. It is still the lack of energy that is holding Nigeria down. The problem of unemployment in Nigeria will be solved with vibrant power supply. A city given enough mega-watts of electricity will be bubbling 24 hrs.