By Bartholomew Madukwe
Chief Mike Ozekhome is a lawyer and human rights activist. Prior to earning his LL.M., he was posted to the Ministry of Justice, Yola as a member of the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) and then to the Federal Ministry of Justice, Lagos State. From there, he served as state counsel for the National Provident Fund (now Nigerian Social Insurance and Trust Fund (NSITF).
He then joined the chambers of the activist human rights lawyer and social crusader, the late Chief Gani Fawehinmi, where he gradually rose to become the Deputy Head of Chambers, a position he held till 1985. He founded his own multi-office firm, Mike Ozekhome’s Chambers, in 1986. In 2010, he was one of 19 senior legal practitioners conferred with the rank of Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN).
In this interview with Diplomatic Watch, Ozekhome speaks on Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari declaration of June 12 as the nation’s Democracy Day and honouring the winner of the annulled June 12, 1993 presidential election, Chief Moshood Kashimawo Abiola and late Fawehinmi with the highest and second highest honours in Nigeria (Grand Commander of the Federal Republic- GCFR and Grand Commander of the Niger- GCON).
President Muhammadu Buhari has directed that June 12 should be marked as the nation’s Democracy Day against the May 29, in honour to the winner of the annulled June 12, 1993 presidential election, Chief Moshood Kashimawo Abiola (aka MKO). What is your reaction to this development?
I knew the time would come. When the gestation period is over for a pregnant woman, she must surely deliver. It does not matter how, whether through normal delivery or caesarian operation. June was all along like the pregnant woman.
On June 12, 2014, I moved a motion at the National Conference that not only should June 12 be declared a national holiday and the real Democracy day, but that Chief M.K.O. Abiola and all the souls of the faithful departed of those who gallantly lost their lives fighting for the realization of June 12, be remembered and immortalized. I demanded for one minute’s silence for those heroes. The leadership of the Conference led by Justice Idris Legbo Kutigi agreed with me and a minute silence was accordingly observed. The details of this can be found at pages 185 – 192 of my latest book, “Nigeria, We Hail Thee”.
To me, it is not the right argument that PMB, did it for political reasons. Yes, he may very well have done it to shore up his battered political image and fast dwindling democratic credentials. But, the inescapable fact is that he has done the right thing for which history will remember him. This is the more reason, I believe the argument should now go, why he should retire quietly to his Daura home, having done one great thing for which he would be remembered.
When Chief Olusegun Obasanjo wrote his scathing letter to PMB in December, 2017, I applauded the letter for the import of its correct contents, even though I am not a fan of OBJ. I argued then that we should listen to the message and not look at the messenger. In the same vein here, we should look at the historical significance of PMB’s political masterstroke on the June 12 brouhaha; and not him as a person, or the ulterior motives for which he did it. I applaud him for this singular act that breathed fresh exhilarating oxygen into his tack luster performance.
Having worked at the chambers of late Chief Gani Fawehinmi, do you think he or Abiola would have accepted the awards of GCON and GCFR?
Given the prevailing atmosphere of morbid fear, executive rascality, recession of human rights, rule of law and civil liberties. The answer is a categorical “no”. though well intended, even if for political reasons by PMB, I am convinced MKO and Gani would have out rightly rejected the national honours if they were alive. I will give my reasons anon.
Can you state reasons why you think the duo would not have collected the national honours if they were alive?
On 14th December, 2008, barely 9 months before his death, Chief Gani outrightly rejected the national honour of OFR (Officer of the Federal Republic of Nigeria), bestowed on him by the then President, Umaru Musa Yar’Adua.
In rejecting the honour and giving his reasons, Gani said, inter alia:
“Today I am seventy years and 8 months old. I am struck down by lung cancer for which I have been receiving medical treatment outside my country because my country Nigeria has one of the poorest medical services in the world but one of the richest countries in the world in terms of revenue”.
The way things were then are they the same now, have things not changed?
No! Even PMB has himself been receiving medical treatment in London, outside Nigeria. Deprecating the poor socio-economic and political situation in the country, Gani was emphatic that: “whether now or in the life beyond, how can I wake up in the morning and look at the insignia of honour bestowed on me under a government that persecutes Nuhu Ribadu?” (Whom he believed did a great job on the anti-corruption fight).
Gani had continued: “A government that covertly and overtly encourages corruption has no honour in its arsenal of power to dispense honour. Consequently, I reject the dishonor of OFR termed ‘honour’ given to me by the Federal Government. I wish to reiterate that in all ramifications of human existence, the masses have found themselves in the doldrum of pain occasioned by gross mis-governance of the country. The decadent socio-economic situation does not engender the well being of ordinary people and there is no hope in sight. In view of the foregoing, I reject the award of OFR”.
Maybe the last question should be whether anything has changed for the better since 15th December, 2008, when Gani, in rejecting the Yar’Adua National honour, listed 8 critical areas the then government had failed?
I am afraid, nothing has changed. The situation has rather gotten worse. The areas Gani had listed included; the abolition of poverty from the face of the country, the unqualified need to preserve, defend and protect the fundamental human rights; the governance of our country through democratic process; the subjection of everybody and everything to and under the Rule of law; the right of the people to free and qualitative education at all levels; the right of the people to free and qualitative health services and facilities; the strengthening of our economy through sound development of infrastructures and corruption, an holistic and all embracing fighting of same, without discrimination.
Gani had ended his rejection of the national honour with a “clarion call on the suffering masses” to “unite and fight for your legitimate right to the abolition of poverty. Why should you continue to suffer while your leaders and their families continue to enjoy the best at your expense?”. Thus, Gani would have rejected the honour of GCON. But even then, I thank PMB for doing the right thing, just like Yar’Adua had done.
WHY MKO WOULD HAVE REJECTED GCFR HONOUR
As regards the matyr of democracy, Chief MKO Abiola, who paid the supreme price in his quest for genuine redemptive messiahnism, he would also have rejected the GCFR given him, except certain things were first done.
Recall that Abiola had rejected his bail which was burdened with unacceptable conditionalities. If Abiola were alive, he would demand that before he accepts the GCFR honour, the presidential elections in which he clearly emerged the winner in the freest, fairest and most credible elections ever held in Nigeria, should first be declared by the present INEC which succeeded Professor Humphrey Nwosu’s National Electoral Commission (NEC), which had conducted the election.
He would insist that he be first formally pronounced “President, Commander-In-Chief, Federal Republic of Nigeria”, before accepting same. He would insist that his campaign slogan of “farewell to poverty” be accomplished.
In your view, does the argument of what reasons prompted the Nigerian government in declaring June 12 its democracy day; and gave post-humous awards to Abiola and Gani, arise at all?
To me, the argument does not arise at all. If anything, the very acts themselves form the very prong and catalyst to hold President Buhari strictly accountable to the ideas, philosophy, and democratic credentials and convictions that drove these two great sons of Nigeria, nay, Africa.
These include socio justice, egalitarianism, respect for human rights, observance of the rule of law and due process, treatment of all Nigerians equally, wholesome and non-selective fight of corruption, good, transparent and accountable governance, respect for the will of the people through a fair, just, credible and respectable electoral process, etc.
RESTRUCTURING THE NIGERIAN FEDERATION
In endorsing and applauding President Buhari for this historic feat, let me add that he must carry out the necessary legal, constitutional and legislative requirements to bring this to fruition. For now, the pronouncement remains in the realm of executive fiat. President Buhari should also go ahead, with the necessary political will, to immediately restructure the lopsided Nigerian federation, remove the glaring nepotic and cronystic imbalances and enthrone true, fiscal federalism.
He should also ensure that the June, 1993 presidential election results are officially declared and Abiola formally pronounced the winner, and therefore president of Nigeria. His name, undoubtedly, will be inscribed in gold in Nigeria, whether or not he goes ahead to contest the 2019 presidential election.
To me, he should not, even though it is his constitutional right to do so. He should play the Nelson Mandela card. God bless Nigeria.