The past caught up with me last weekend when I was the keynote speaker at the Annual General Conference of the Committee for the Defence of Human Rights, popularly called CDHR. I was its founding secretary- general and that was close to 30 years ago.
Since then, I have been philosophically an ally but I have not brandished its emblem to wallow and fight in the trenches. I was asked to give a talk on a burning national issue: The concept of the rule of law and the notion of justice in the survival of the Nigerian state.
I was impressed to see the body has bloomed from its infancy of a few rebels to a massive umbrella with branches across the country. Beko Ransome-Kuti, soft-spoken, doe-eyed, slight-built stormy petrel was the president. Another prominent member is the diminutive lodestar and the best legal mind of his generation, Femi Falana (SAN).
It was the era of IBB and the closure of media houses, the hunting of radicals, the time of fear and trembling among our spineless elite who knew they had to steal enough and betray enough to belong.
IBB ousted Buhari, whose reign was notorious for its barbarous strong arm and imposition of decrees two and four, the tenebrous detention rooms, the promise to rev our factories back to work that never materialised, the humiliation of two major monarchs in the Southwest and North, the interminable queues in bus terminals, the termination of the rail project in Lagos, etc. PMB rule was marked by the unsmiling visage of his deputy, the late Brigadier-General Idiagbon, the phrase, “The press, I will tamper with it,” the allegations of selectiveness in the arrests of politicians like Shagari and Ekwueme, the occlusion of a return to democracy.
IBB promised to bring fresh air to the political space. He lambasted Buhari for his clampdown. He abolished decree four, but left in place decree two, which guaranteed his fangs of tyranny. It was like killing a baby tiger but preserving its mama with all its snarls and paws. He was extravagant with his gap teeth, adorned TV screens with his smile, his mellow voice sang early to the Nigerian ear. He knew every journalist and junior officer by name, displayed a plebeian force by staying rain-soaked on a parade field with fellow soldiers during a national day, befriended the implacable Awo until the sage saw through him, and some say he never saw through him, waxed poetic with the refrain “Nigeria is our country and we must salvage it together.”
He earned the name Maradona from his circuitous transition programme to civil rule. With decoy, flattery, military hammer, state funds, he coaxed virtually every man of honour into his beguiling nest and released them to their shame and public obloquy. He invited many to that party, only few decided not to be chosen. It was an era of elite burlesque where everyone was believed to have a prize. Wole Soyinka, against whom no ill was found, would later regret praising the affectionate fiend.
Naira began its awful descent, the era of ‘Andrews’ was born, Fela sang Second tier in savage homage to a failing economic programme. We had an IMF debate that looked as farcical as Luigi Pirandello’s play, Six Characters in Search of an Author. The author, IBB, already knew he was taking the loan, but many did not know he had.
The IBB era led to the birth of many civil rights groups, some of them for opportunistic purposes, but the savage times were real. It was in that context that the CDHR was born and I became its chief scribe.
I noted that, in the early days of the CDHR, we were less interested in the rule of law than we were in justice. It is a testament to our progress that, today, we have laws we can embrace and a government we can hold to account, despite its fascination with occasional acts of impunity. The laws in the IBB days wove around decree two, and to ask for the rule of law was to ask for blood and death. We wanted justice, and that made us lawless. It meant arrests. Falana, who was the chairman of the conference at the weekend, recalled a meeting that was stormed by IBB’s SSS. As soon as the members knew of their coming, it became a church service. Everyone started singing a church song, and the visitors were perplexed.
My lecture could not escape the subject of the judges’ arrests. I stated that the arrests were according to law, as against Mike Ozekhome’s unenlightened point. G.T. Ogunye educated him on the status of the law today. The issue of the law as the last arbiter came again to my mind. The DSS ought to understand that while nailing the judges is important, it must bow to the same judges who have, in their lack of good judgment, weighed in on the side of their fellow bench men. Popularity has nothing to do with justice. The Nazis were popular. So is Trump today in the United States, Putin in Russia, Duterte in the Philippines, Erdogan in Turkey, etc. It is the kind of danger that Nobel Laureate Elias Canetti highlighted in his opus, Crowds and Power.
Falana noted a point. Some Nigerians were appalled that some of the arrested politicians and judges were arrested at night, handcuffed and rough-handled. He noted that even if this was wrong, this happens all the time to the common man and no one has raised hell. The rule of law asks us to do same to all.
The other issue of note was the $29 billion loan the government is seeking. But, Falana said, we have the money only if we look. Four million dollars was loaned to the banks in the Sanusi era and six billion during the Soludo era. The oil firms loaned about 20 billion. Banks and oil majors announce staggering profits every quarter. If we get this money back, we will have more than the $29 billion for which we are about to mortgage our future. This led to the intervention of the bearded orator and long-time critic, Femi Aborishade. He asked why we don’t know how much we have extracted from the looters. He called for transparency and a special trust fund for the recovered money. This point was adopted by the human rights body as a campaign issue.
Delegates attended from the North, East, Southwest and Southsouth. I was glad that the CDHR, whose meeting decades ago was no more than five or six members, some of them reporters, has now morphed from a mustard seed into a big tree. We could not register it because it was not registrable. The President, Malachy Ugwummadu, announced it was registered two weeks ago.
Like Fela, like Dylan
Eventually, Bob Dylan accepted the Nobel Prize for literature. I had thought his was going the Jean Paul Sartre path who rejected it. Sartre said it was like giving a drowning man a floater after he had already found the shore. Critics say, however, Sartre rejected because they gave his foe, Albert Camus, before him.
Dylan said he was speechless. I had thought that the Nobel Committee chose Dylan to stick it the American literary elite who had pined over being routinely ignored for the prize. It gave it to a musician. This is not to downplay Dylan’s talent. He deserved it. If you read his works, they amount to some of the best lines in a century, appropriated by politicians, justices, businessmen, cultural heroes. Fela was no less important. The problem though is that Fela used an informal medium, the broken English so-called. But it is another language, just like Mark Twain.
Lines like “dead body get accident,” “dem go start to yab demselves harlem,” “44 sitting, 99 standing, suffering and smiling,” etc. Fela, like Dylan, was a social conscience. The Nobel committee compared Dylan to Homer and Sapho, who read and chanted their works. None of them was arrested like Fela was because he spoke truth to power.