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How IBB recruited Nzeribe for ‘hidden agenda’, ABN chief Abimbola Davis opens up ~ Prestige News
Almost 30 years after the events, ABN chief, Abimbola Davis, narrates how recently deceased Arthur Nzeribe was recruited into the hidden agenda to perpetuate Mr Babangida in power and how they set the stage for the annulment of the June 12, 1993, presidential election and the chaos that followed.
When Arthur Nzeribe died on May 5 at the age of 83, tributes appeared in many newspapers recalling momentous events in the colourful life of the politician.
The most notable of these events was the pivotal role he played through the Associations for Better Nigeria (ABN) in contriving the political impasse of 1993.
Nigeria did not recover from that impasse until the eventual chief beneficiary, General Sani Abacha, died in June 1998 and his successor instituted the Fourth Republic 11 months later.
Almost 30 years after the events, Mr Nzeribe’s chief lieutenant in the ABN, Abimbola Davis, has narrated how the Oguta, Imo State-born maverick politician was recruited into the hidden agenda of Mr Babangida and how they set the stage for the annulment of the June 12, 1993, presidential election and the chaos that followed.
Mr Davis also narrated how he advised the winner of the election, Moshood Abiola, on how to stop the court injunction of June 10, 1993, and how Mr Abiola waved aside his advice, because of his trust in his friendship with Mr Babangida.
The election was to be the final step in the long transition programme that had already produced state governors and legislators at the federal and state levels. But two days before the poll, the ABN got an injunction from the Abuja High Court of Justice Bassey Ikpeme restraining the electoral commission from conducting it.
Perhaps momentarily ruffled by the condemnation of the injunction, especially by the international community, Mr Babangida allowed the election to hold but annulled it 11 days later, after forcing the electoral commission to suspend the final tallying of the returns.
According to Mr Davis, the seed of that confusion was sowed months earlier when Mr Babangida got Mr Nzeribe to work for him on his “hidden agenda.”
Recall that a prominent political activist and lawyer, Gani Fawehinmi, and other critics had long before then accused Mr Babangida of nursing a “hidden agenda” to perpetuate himself in office, but the military regime had sternly denied the charge.
Mr Davis, at the time a young military apologist who had graduated from Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria a few years before becoming the head of the ABN, said the regime indeed had such an agenda.
In an exclusive interview with PREMIUM TIMES, he said it all began after the regime detained some prominent politicians for allegedly interfering in the political parties.
The politicians, part of the group dubbed the “old breed” by the regime, had been banned from participating in the transition programme after the military government established the Social Democratic Party (SDP) and National Republican Convention (NRC) as the two official parties.
The so-called “Epe-13” who were detained in the Lagos town, include late General Shehu Musa Yar’Adua, Olusola Saraki, Lamidi Adedibu and Mr Nzeribe.
According to Mr Davis: “Now, after they were released, Nzeribe went back to Oguta. While he was in Oguta, a helicopter landed right inside his Heaven of Peace compound and he was told they were from Abuja. He thought he was being arrested again, so he left with them.
“But when they landed in Abuja, he was taken to the Villa in a CVU. Babangida is alive today, he can confirm this. When he got to the Villa, he was waiting in the sitting room. Anybody that knows Arthur will tell you he liked taking Black Label (wine). A Black Label was brought to him, so, he was wondering, who knew him that much that he was being offered a Black Label?
“Then he heard a voice, ‘Hello, Champion.’ If you remember his adverts when he was contesting for the presidential election, he used the word ‘Champion’. So they called him ‘Champion, Champion’. When he turned back, he realised it was the president! And the first question the president asked was, ‘How was your holiday in Epe?’ And he asked again, ‘Why didn’t Yar’adua get you out of that place?’
“Arthur told me that was the moment he realised that power actually belonged to this man and he knew how to use it.
“Now, he said he later got to know that why he (Mr Babagida) asked that was because he (Mr Nzeribe) was a member of the Peoples Front and they saw Yar’adua as the godfather that had had unparalleled access to the president, the power that they needed. He said any time he was with Yar’adua, the president would call, Yar’adua would talk to the president and when he ended the call, he would say ‘The president said I should greet you.’ So he (Mr Nzeribe) believed that there was nothing they couldn’t do.
“But Babangida had just said (to Nzeribe) ‘Who arrested Yar’adua and you?’ Then he knew where the power was. That was when he wrote his favourite book, I forget the title now, where he said: ‘I know the president who is smart and cab outsmart, who is foxy and Maradonic. That man is IBB.’ He was the first person to call IBB Maradona.
“So that was basically how he was brought into the system. He was aware that the election was not going to be held, they were expecting him (Babangida) to contest election.”
After the encounter, Mr Nzeribe quickly enrolled in Mr Babangida’s scheme. However, Mr Davis believes Mr Nzeribe did not intend for the president to hold onto power indefinitely.
“How would Arthur, a politician, have wanted a military president in perpetuity? No. He realised at a stage that the best thing would be to have a National Assembly in place, and with the selfish interest of the president, if I may put it that way, to have the president’s term elongated.”
He said many people had also wanted Mr Babangida to carry on because they were benefitting from his government.
“There is no doubt that individual interests also came into play at that time. But I don’t think that was the focus.
“There were a lot of things happening in the country then that if you could see, you knew the way the system was being put together was not right. So, what is the essence of wasting your time when you know that something is not right and you cannot correct it?”
How ABN was formed
Mr Davis narrated how they formed the ABN to work for the hidden agenda of the government.
“Well, people always think that ABN was one association. No. It was called Associations for Better Nigeria, so there were a lot of associations involved. For instance, I actually headed a particular one called Committee of Compatriots.
“Remember, we used to have a Committee of Patriots that Gani Fawehinmi and all of them started using in fighting the government, which Alhaji Shehu Musa of blessed memory headed then. We later had the Committee of Compatriots, which I headed. I think the late Chief Anthony Enahoro and the former president, General Obasanjo, had another one which they were using to attack the president then (Babangida), practically calling him a failure, that he had not done anything.
“I think I used to reply to them that even if you are blind not to see anything, haven’t you seen the Third Mainland Bridge, then the longest bridge in Africa? I used to tell the youths the story in those days. So many of them like that. So that was how it began. But because most of us were working from different angles, we now decided that the best thing to do was to actually merge.
“So a meeting was held at the Sheraton Hotel and Tower in Ikeja, which Arthur Nzeribe chaired and a proper organisation was formed, which I later headed. The whole organisation was formed in 1992.”
Despite Mr Abiola being the major victim of its shenanigans, Mr Davis stressed that he was not the target of the ABN.
“The thing was not just about Abiola, because Abiola was not even contesting as at that time (when ABN was formed). If you would recall, when the first primaries of all those parties were cancelled, late Chief Abiola was the first person to go to France and said Babangida was doing well. He told (Francois) Mitterrand, the then President of France, that Babangida was doing well and I remember late Gani Fawehinmi and Femi Falana attacked him saying that he was talking rubbish.
“So when people start saying they denied Abiola ta ta ta ta ta, the point is that we always forget the facts of history. Abiola was not in that race. The core problem Abiola had that time, why he supported the cancellation of the primaries, sorry I may not be too sure of that, was the problem between himself and the late General Shehu Musa Yar’adua because of this Africa Ocean Lines issue with (Raymond) Dokpesi, Abiola and I think Bamanga Tukur.”
Babangida and Abiola
Mr Davis also believed that despite their work, Mr Babangida would still have handed over to Mr Abiola.
“There are certain things in my book that I won’t like to mention now. But I can tell you that, left to Babangida, he would have actually gone and declared Abiola as the president. I can tell you this for a fact. Yes.
“Babangida already said the election must be held, and the election was held. And no doubt Abiola had already won. But there were issues before then between both parties and even Abiola and the government, which you cannot ignore.
“The major reason why Abiola was asked to go and contest, personally I think, was because he was a friend to Babangida and they all believed in him. But after he had won (the SDP primary) and had to pick the vice president, that was when the real issues started. Because they wanted Paschal Bafyau (NLC President). The government wanted him.
“And Abiola would’ve gone with Bafyau, sincerely speaking. That was the main plan. That, okay, put Bafyau there. But the party rejected it. So they (the government) believed that Abiola was not strong enough to be the president that would keep the promise he made to them in that regard. That was the major factor that let the whole system into line.”
But Mr Davis apparently mixed up some facts here in his narration.
Choosing Abiola’s running mate
The SDP presidential primary was a three-horse race between Mr Abiola, Babagana Kingibe, who had stepped down as the party’s national chairman after the first primary was cancelled; and Atiku Abubakar, who was the candidate of the Yar’adua group.
Mr Yar’adua had felt betrayed by Mr Kingibe over the cancellation of the first primary, which Mr Yar’adua won. To lock him out in the new primary, the group had an agreement with Mr Abiola in which their delegates would vote for him and Mr Abubakar as their first and second choices. Evidently, some of Mr Abiola’s candidates did not vote for Mr Abubakar as their second choice, which allowed Mr Kingibe to sneak in as the runner up behind Mr Abiola.
When the final round of voting came, the Yar’adua group insisted that Mr Abiola pick Mr Abubakar as his running mate as its condition for continuing to back him. The group did not want any deal with Mr Kingibe. However, the state governors, who had become connected to Mr Kingibe from when he was party chairman, asked Mr Abiola to pick him while the government also asked him to pick Mr Bafyau, leaving the new flag bearer in a pickle.
In any case, Mr Davis said other factors complicated the matter for Mr Abiola, especially after the annulment of the election on June 23, 1993.
“There are a lot of other factors. Even when the election was annulled, you will not tell me that at one time or the other that you saw Yar’adua fighting for Abiola? It was like a payback period.
“So when they were saying this person did not support him and that, what about those that came to visit him and they were against him?
“What about those in the Southwest that were saying he set up the Concord press to fight the Nigerian Tribune, was that a lie? I think, recently, someone said that he (Mr Abiola) later went to apologise to the Awolowos (family of the late Yoruba leader, Chief Obafemi). Are you saying the Awolowos were supporting him as at that period?
“He got major support from the North. All this thing that the North didn’t want him was a lie. Of course, some of them had to back out because of the approach.
“And that is why when they were saying ‘Yoruba Nation’, Yoruba Nation’, I said people that will support you when it comes to sovereign national conference or restructuring, you have labelled them. It shouldn’t be like that. That was really what happened.”
Falling out with IBB and Nzeribe
Mr Davis said he and others in the ABN were disappointed with Mr Babangida for allowing the election to hold on June 12 despite the court order they had obtained two days earlier.
“The main thing was that you went to court and then before you knew what was happening, the president said the election must still be held. And behold, or whichever way, the election was still held. That was the clarity for me and a real upset. Because I had to now go in and ask, ‘Why did you guys allow us to go to court at the first instance and then you the president and are now saying we should not do this? And he said you shouldn’t do this. He said don’t worry, just go’.”
That court order was issued despite an ouster clause in the decree that set up the then National Electoral Commission, which barred any court from entertaining any case challenging the commission or its activities. Mr Davis explained why they felt confident to go to court, regardless.
“The truth is that there were a lot of things that really happened during that period. The truth is that they were not normal. You grow up and realise that certain things were not right. I think I later did a press conference where I actually made an apology about those things.”
After the election was annulled, Mr Davis changed camp. But he admitted that he had been double-dealing even before the election and its annulment.
“Before the election, we went to Abiola, myself and five others. We tried to convince him that he should take these things seriously. But he would not listen. He said you can’t know my friend more than I do, because we knew the relationship between him and his friend (Babangida). We already knew what was happening and the idea was to just tell this man so that he could set things straight.
“Deji Adeleke, Davido’s father, is still alive. Because people don’t know what happened. A meeting was set up by one of our friends, SB, we call him SB One, who is very close to Deji. We are all friends with Deji’s senior brother, Adeleke. We were all very close. So the meeting was arranged at the liaison office in Cotonou.
“We told them what and what to do. That this is the way to stop this and if you fail to stop it, I am the one going to be in court in three days’ time. We can do this so that I won’t show up and so, so and so things can happen, that’s the way we have been doing it.
“But the way they handled it was very uncertain. I walked out in annoyance. Quote me verbatim: they offered me money but I told him that even if you offer me $1 million here, I know who I can call to pay $5 million to this table now. What you need to do is xyz. It is not about that. They thought that nothing could happen, or whatever.
“They later appreciated me and till today they (the Abiola children) still respect me as a senior brother. Demola was aware of that meeting – Ademola Adeleke the senator. And they didn’t do what I asked them to do. So I said just go and drop me back. They were the ones who brought their vehicle to my house in Maryland to take me to Apapa road and I said you have to return me back to my house. At the end of the day, they didn’t do it.”
On the run
After the press conference in which Mr Davis made his confession and apology, the ABN chief went underground to escape the wrath of the military government.
“Taking that risk, without negotiating for money from Abiola. I could as well have made more money staying with Babangida now, what are we talking about. He was still in government. That was the period I would have made hell of money, get properties in Abuja. There is nothing I had wanted that I would not have gotten. Supporting Abiola at that stage meant risking everything and risking my family’s lives.
“So many of Abiola’s children know me. They know the role I played later. I didn’t meet Abiola in the backyard, but right in his private sitting room. Whenever I called, I was always in the bedroom of Alhaja Kudirat. The role I played for Abiola, if you put together 75 per cent of all these NADECO by mouth people, only a few of them were genuine, the role I played was much deadlier than they played. We supported Abiola.”
Now, almost 30 years later, how does Mr Davis feel about his role in the crisis and the missed opportunities it caused for Nigeria?
“I didn’t miss any opportunity, I am just the guy that never missed an opportunity, no matter how small it is.”
But the nation missed opportunities…?
“What did the nation miss? Abiola being the president? You cannot say any president will perform until he has been the president. You can’t. So, I don’t know what the nation missed other than the fact that people were not happy that the election was annulled.”
Since after those events, Mr Davis has stayed out of public affairs, despite being well known in his native Ibadan.
“I am an author, I have authored six books. I am the chairman of some companies. I am a descendant of the Mosobalaje family of Ibadan and my father was a high chief in Ibadan. I am the Akinrogun of Ibadanland, I was given that title by the late Oba Adeyemo. I am married with children. No second wife yet but not sure if I will have another wife or not. I am a golfer and a member of the Ibadan Golf Club.”
So, why is he not in politics?
“I choose not to do politics for personal reasons. Not for fear of anything, I do what I have to do. And I can tell you if I declare for governorship of Oyo State today, despite the fact that Seyi (Oyo State Governor Makinde) is my junior brother, he will know there is a problem already. Any of them that are contesting, they know that mo ma nta tan ni, I will go all out. But Seyi is my brother, will I be contesting against him? It gets to a stage in life that you ask yourself, must I live to be in positions?”
But one can participate in politics without contesting elections?
“No. I am a supporter of individuals, that’s what I do. If I believe in you, like I believe in President Buhari, I will support you. When the problem with this government began I was sending warnings but people were not listening to me. It is not like the government itself is bad but they got it wrong from the beginning.
“The problem that we have today started with Tinubu and Bukola Saraki. The party was divided at that stage and it divided the government. They were not using the precious time that they had at that time to do things for the people. It was the issue of the Senate, it was the issue of arresting Saraki, it was the issue of Tinubu being stubborn. Why are we shying away from the truth?
“The problem of Nigeria is Tinubu, Tinubu and Tinubu.
The problem with Nigeria is Saraki, Saraki and Saraki. The two of them. If they had not fought, I can tell you, when it comes to assembling people, working with projects, achieving them, you can’t run Asiwaju out. If they had had that cooperation from the beginning it would’ve been a different story entirely, you know.
“But that singular issue, that problem, they were not able to solve it. You know, the Senate was divided along Tinubu, Saraki line. And when we have powerful horses fighting like that, who will suffer for it? That’s to me the problem that we have.
“So for me, you know I can’t lie. So when it comes to elections, I won’t like somebody saying that thing I said yesterday I was lying. I would rather not join them. You have to lie to be a politician. You have to be a master liar. That is the truth. Politicians, they are very deceitful.”
The Nzeribe I know
Although they quickly fell out after the election annulment and never made up, Mr Davis has fond memories of Mr Nzeribe.
“Let me tell you what I know about Arthur Nzeribe. When ABN started, the first meeting was at a house in Opebi Road. The house belonged to Arthur Nzeribe. I think Arthur Eze had a house at the back of that road because we went there on a few occasions.
“Now, Arthur, even before ABN, showed his dexterity in politics. While all the presidential candidates withdrew their vehicles, Yar’adua, all of them took back the vehicles they gave to their state coordinators after the primaries, Arthur did not take back his vehicles.
“These vehicles became useful during the ABN period. And that brought total loyalty to him because he was the only one that was still feeding his people, the coordinators. He didn’t let them go at any time so they were ready. I remember when I was to appoint state coordinators for ABN, we used almost all his troops, except that I disagreed with him on a few of them.
“That is just one man I know when it comes to strategy. I didn’t like many things about Arthur like many people don’t like many things about me. Arthur was a politician, he knew what he wanted and cared less what he saw when he was getting it. I think that is a very big lesson.
“There was a time Arthur told me, and I will quote it any day. He said: Arthur first, his family second, Oguta third, Imo State fourth and Nigeria fifth. I said how can it be that way when we were all talking about Nigeria? He said when you wake up in the morning, what do you first think about? I said what to eat. He said and then what? I said what my family would eat. He said that is the reality of life.
“When you love yourself, you love your household, then naturally, you will love your city. A man that does not love his city can never love his country. If you want to contest for governorship, I want to see your family house in Ibadan. I want to see what you have contributed to your village. There is no Ibadan man that does not have a village. So what have you done there? It is not because you have money and you come to the city, drop a small thing and everybody is saying you are super.
“That is one of the few lessons I learnt from Arthur. He liked to be recognised and appreciated. Like every other human being, he had his faults. Everybody is talking about Buhari today but after he is gone, the people that he has helped will always remember him while those who did not benefit will always hate him. It has always been the system in this country. A leader must not care about those things.
“So for me, it was a privilege really working with Arthur Nzeribe, getting to know him. He changed my focus in life, my thinking and personality. There is no way I will write my history without mentioning his name for good and bad, even though we had to fight.”
– Premium Times
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