Chief Frank Kokori, the renowned labour unionist and elder statesman, has recalled the sacrifices made to end dictatorship in Nigeria.
He also assesses the regime of the President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.), in upholding democratic tenets, in this interview with TOBI AWORINDE.
It’s been 22 years since Nigeria returned to democracy. What are your thoughts on the level of progress since then?
The progress is that there is free speech and people can go to court. Before then, you could not go to court. You would just be arrested and locked up and I was a classic example. I was locked up for four years without being taken to the court in a prison in faraway Bama (Borno State), when I was the head of all unions in Nigeria. Many newspaper and broadcasting houses were shut down, but now, you can write anything, you have freedom of speech and we can go to court.
Apart from that, some of us have been disillusioned because Nigeria is not moving forward. We are not progressing, but we are retrogressing. Our leaders have failed the masses. Our struggle was almost in vain. Some of us, instead of lifting our young people, are inflicting more hardship than what they had in the 1970s. So, it’s a shame. Nigeria, India, Brazil and Malaysia were all on the same levels in those days. Nigeria was even higher than them.
We had the municipal buses, which we now call the Bus Rapid Transit. But there was no okada (commercial motorcycle). But when I went to places like China and Vietnam, I saw people riding bicycles and I was saying, ‘Look at these people, you are so backwards.’ But today, they are 10 times better than us, fully employed and even living better lives than we are. So, things have been bad and most of our leaders are not listening to the poor and the youths. There is mass unemployment. These are the things that have some of us disillusioned about Nigerian leaders. Nigeria is now good for those who are close to the presidency and those who are close to state governors; they are all enjoying (the commonwealth). Also, those who are close to big government functionaries like ministers and people in strategic positions, agencies like the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation and the Nigerian Ports Authority. The families are enjoying their lives and that is less than one per cent of Nigerians. With that one per cent of government (enjoying), about 50 per cent are living under the poverty line, so the nation is becoming a failed state. The security situation is unheard of in this country. Before, I would drive safely from Lagos to my home state of Delta. These days, I wouldn’t dare. I must always go by air anywhere I am going. So, I don’t enjoy the countryside any longer. But now, I am happy I stay in my village in Delta State, where I’m safe. I can enjoy my country home in Delta after almost 50 years in Lagos.
Since the return to democracy, former military heads of state have spent 14 years in power, while civilians have only spent eight. Does this have any bearing on the state of Nigeria’s democracy?
No. Most of the leaders in the early days of America were ex-generals. The military is a disciplined institution. When they take over power in a coup and they turn the country to a dictatorship, it is then you say the military is bad. The military is one of the noblest institutions in any country because they defend the country. There are great leaders in the military. (Former President Olusegun) Obasanjo was a good leader but he is selfish, so that disqualifies him. He is conceited, but when it comes to anything that benefits him, he will work hard. But he doesn’t want anybody to outshine him, that’s the only fault he has. But he ran the country better than the way the present people are running the country. But it’s a shame that the country is not doing well at all. We have bad leaders.
We had so much hope in (former President) Goodluck Jonathan because he is from the minorities like us in Delta. He let the country down. We expected a vibrant democracy from him, but he could not deliver. That’s the shame of this country and it’s unfortunate because the system does not allow good people to reign. The presidential system we run is a very expensive type of democratic system. It’s only those who have money that can do it. So, when you see all these young people talking of smaller political parties, they can’t survive. It’s only two political parties you have in Nigeria—you’re either in the All Progressives Congress or the Peoples Democratic Party. If you join any other party, there is no money, so you can’t survive.
When we started democracy in 1999, we had a lot of young governors, people like Donald Duke, James Ibori and Lucky Igbinedion; there were so many of them. Most of them were in their 30s and 40s, but most of the young governors did not do well.
I don’t know whether it is a godforsaken country, but good people are not privileged because they don’t have money.
I was one of those young men who grew up thinking I would be able to salvage my country; I would be a leader, president, and everything I could in my time. But I could not, though I did one thing which I am satisfied with: I fought for democracy in this country and without me, there would have been no democracy. God gave me the oil unions, which I led for 16 years before the struggle and we forced the military out of power. But a lot of us paid the price. The military was always changing the goalposts. They said they would leave in 1968, they moved it to 1970, then 1975 and 1980s. They allowed us to elect (Shehu) Shagari in 1979. Shagari could not run the government because there were a lot of corrupt people. But then we should have learnt but the military came in (in 1983) and truncated that era.
With that, they took over again for almost another 10 years till 1993 when we went for an election and we (Social Democratic Party) were democratically elected. That was one of the finest elections; (the late Chief Moshood) Abiola won and that was the beginning of that struggle. Nigeria came together and said enough is enough. It was a beautiful struggle, due to the progressives in Nigeria, including the militant press, the civil society, and of course labour, who were the arrowheads of that struggle. If you demonstrate with placards in the United Kingdom, France, or Washington (United States), it’s okay. But when you do the same in African dictatorships, you will be mowed down. But we thank God for the Nigeria Union of Petroleum and Natural Gas Workers and the oil unions that led the struggle. Those of us that God placed at the head of the trade and oil unions at that time were able to fight that battle for Nigerians. Finally, the military had to go.
What was the atmosphere in the country on June 12, 1993?
Everything in Nigeria moves with petrol and petroleum products, so once there was no petrol, Nigeria was shut down. That was the strategy we used and we were controlling the rigs. Though I was a leader in the Nigeria Labour Congress at that time, the NLC betrayed us, so I had to use my industrial union, NUPENG, which had trust in me, and the Petroleum and Natural Gas Senior Staff Association of Nigeria, the white-collar union. We had to mobilise because we controlled the whole system. The Nigerian refineries were working at that time full-blown. We were in control of the terminals that were exporting oil, the refineries, tanker drivers, everything in the downstream, upstream, midstream, so we shut down the country. There was infighting in the military and they forced (military dictator) Gen Ibrahim Babangida to step aside. Later, (the late military dictator, Gen Sani) Abacha took over.
Ironically, I was the National Financial Secretary of the SDP and General Secretary of NUPENG, so I was holding two big positions at that time, while I was leading the African oil union. Some newspapers and news magazines fought with us; they were shutting them down and they would come out in some other way. But now, we have about three or four powerful civil society organisations like the Campaign for Democracy, the Civil Liberties Organisation and the Committee for the Defence of Human Rights. (The late) Gani (Fawehinmi) was always there to rescue people in court. Even though Gani would fight for you, they wouldn’t grant you bail, like I was locked up for four years in solitary confinement at a Bama prison. That is a desert prison in the North-East, far out of Maiduguri.
(The late Nelson) Mandela and (the late) Pope John Paul came but Abacha treated them with contempt. It was an evil time but God caught up with Abacha. Abacha died and the week after his death, I was released alongside Obasanjo and some other people. From there, we had elections. Thank God Gen Abdulsalami Abubakar (retd.) wasn’t greedy, he was there for only 11 months. People said he should continue but he refused. He handed over power and he left, so we thought it was a great thing.
In the first four years of Obasanjo, things were moving good, but after four years, things started sliding back, especially when he had his ambition to do a third term. Bribery and corruption came into the government and things started moving backwards, and since then, it has been like that. Things are getting worse every day.
Even today, there is so much mass unemployment among the youths. It’s a shame and frustrating for a young man to leave school, get a degree or diploma, and still not get a job. You would think nurses would have jobs but no. Even people with BSc Mathematics and MSc Chemistry don’t have jobs. Is it not strange? The schools are short on teachers but they still won’t employ people. The system is suffocating and you don’t blame the Presidency alone; the governors and the National Assembly can rescue this country but none of them is ready to rescue the country because everybody is fighting for his pocket. We have a very terrible situation.
Regarding the June 12 election, what was the secret to Abiola’s national appeal?
MKO Abiola was a rich man. At one stage, he was the richest black man on earth. When he entered politics, he came in late. Like I told you, I was a national officer of the party (SDP). Apart from labour, I knew everything about the party. I was a high-ranking member of the party and the labour movement, so I was the spirit of the June 12 struggle. That was why immediately they arrested me, the whole thing ended. I was abducted in the middle of the night and that was how the struggle ended. Abiola was going to court, but immediately Kokori was arrested, Abacha felt so happy and they took me to the far end of the country in Bama. So, they broke the resistance and they were guarding me for 24 hours daily in solitary confinement.
I lost access to my powerful Motorola phone, which I had while I was underground. That was the first thing the military police took away from me. That was what I used to coordinate all my workers across the country, in the creeks, off-shore and on-shore. My union could only stand after I had left; there was no real leader. They resisted for about 10 days after I had been captured but they could not go further anymore after that. The entire resistance was eight to 10 weeks. That is what you call a real resistance where we held the country. I was underground, so I was coordinating. But they got me through tricks and certain other things at midnight and they stopped bringing Abiola to court, so there was no more resistance. Abacha had his way.
It’s one of those periods where Nigerians, both Muslims and Christians, were united in a struggle to fight a battle. There was nothing like ethnic or religious division in that election. It’s one of those great moments in Nigerian history and I am proud to have been part of it.
What would Nigeria be like today if Abiola had been allowed to assume office?
Babagana Kingibe was the greatest loser because he should have become the president after Abiola. He was the vice presidential candidate. Nigeria should have gone smoothly. We would have had two great parties like the Republicans and the Democrats in America. But Kingibe betrayed the struggle; after some time, he abandoned Abiola and me in prison and he jumped ship to join the junta. So, when Kingibe betrayed Abiola and Abiola had been captured, there was no resistance. If not for intervention by God, Abacha would have still been there for a long time.
But somehow, Abacha slept on July 7, 1998 and he never woke up. He died and was buried; that was the end. And Nigeria has its freedom. Then Abdulsalami, being a good man, brought the endless transition to an end, because Babangida’s transition was endless. That was why they called him Maradona; he was always giving date after date. But when Abdulsalami came, 11 months was 11 months, and Nigeria moved to democracy. It was smooth but since 1999, it’s our leaders of today that we have to blame for the suffering of this country. Abacha’s time is gone with the military, so we have no excuse to accuse the military. We have now had 22 years of democracy, so we should be able to put our house in order. Our leaders have failed the young generation.
In 2018, the President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd), made June 12 the official national day of democracy but the act was met with mixed reactions. In hindsight, do you think those who were sceptical about the President’s motives may have been vindicated?
Not much. We are happy that he finally recognised it. We expected that from Obasanjo but he did not do it. That is one of the great things Buhari did. It was a masterstroke but he used it for a reason. I was surprised too. That day (June 12, 2018), I spoke on behalf of labour and the civil society, and I told him (Buhari) that ‘this is coming from the most unexpected quarters.’ We expected that, in the eight years of Obasanjo, he would have immortalised Abiola, but he did not do it and Jonathan did not do it. Nobody expected it from Buhari so Buhari exploited it at that time.
People like Prof Wole Soyinka and me were there and we were all happy. The Gani Fawehinmi family was so happy for the GCON (Grand Commander of the Order of the Niger). The Abiola family was so happy, everybody was happy. We thought things would go on fine. After that day, the man (Buhari) forgot June 12; he does not even remember us anymore. After all the promises he made, he did not remember any of them. He has used it to score a cheap political point, but we are happy that, at least, what they call June 12 is now Democracy Day, instead of Obasanjo’s May 29.
But I don’t blame Buhari so much; Buhari has a limitation and that is age. I think that is one of his problems and those people around him—those we call the Presidency, the cabal or the mafia—are exploiting it. They do anything on his behalf and they would write ‘The Presidency says so.’ They dispel positions, like when I was made the chairman of the Nigerian Social Insurance Trust Fund by the then acting president, Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo, when Buhari went abroad. When he came back, they felt that Kokori would be too strong in that position because that is where the workers’ pensions are warehoused and it’s a goldmine for corrupt people. In fact, at the last moment, they sold the position to their stooges and you know that struggle.
The entirety of Nigerian workers and even the media were backing me, but (the late Chief of Staff) Abba Kyari was in charge. They took the job from me, even though Buhari told me on June 12 that year that ‘you will resume at the end of the week.’ He had signed it and told (Minister of Labour) Senator Chris Ngige to go ahead and inaugurate me. He did everything, but for the cabal. And you can’t reach Buhari anymore; that is one of his weak points. He is one of the most inaccessible presidents in the history of this country. Without his cabal, we don’t get to see him—except for his ministers who see him during the Federal Executive Council meetings. He does not come out, so you can’t see him.
When elder statesmen like us can’t meet him one-on-one, is that the president of the people? You will say you want to see him, an appointment will be fixed, but they will not allow you to see him. They will ask you to go and see the Secretary to the Government of the Federation. I’ve never seen a man like that. I have seen every Nigerian president I have wanted to see since I was a young man in NUPENG. Even after I left NUPENG, I could see any president I wanted to see. But I can’t see Buhari up till today, apart from when people were campaigning for him in Delta State, he would come to meet us and we would take him round. After that, he would forget everybody.
So, he does not take advice from people who can give him good advice, elder statesmen like us. It is a situation where he has sycophants, bootlickers and his ministers who can’t talk to him. He’s like the headmaster and they are pupils. And they have sidelined the Vice President who has brains but cannot use his powers. He has no powers even, he can only have powers when the President gives him powers. It’s the cabal that runs the country; the cabal is more powerful than the Vice President. In other words, it is a situation where the Chief of Staff is more powerful than the Vice President and the SSG. Once you are in the cabal, you are more powerful than the Vice President and it’s a shame.
Do you think Buhari has lived up to Abiola’s legacy in terms of his aspirations for the masses?
Abiola would have been a president for the masses. Buhari is not a president for the masses because you can’t see him. Buhari does not leave Aso Rock for any place, unless he is going on international trips, so he does not meet people. But I don’t blame him so much these days because the National Assembly, which is the legislative arm of government, and the 36 governors in this country could make an impact; they can change a lot of things in this government but they are not living up to expectation. So, we should leave Buhari at this time. I think the governors have a lot of possibilities which they are not using. You don’t expect Buhari to come to protect a village school but they can do that. They don’t have to wait for state police.
People don’t even know. How come the Fulani have become so powerful? They are powerful because they have guns. Did they license their guns? The governors should have had strong vigilantes, so they know how to get vigilantes properly armed and protected so they can defend their people. So, you don’t blame the President for everything. What of the governors? What do they do with their security votes? Also, the National Assembly can whip any president into line all over the world, in real democracies.
Don’t you see the American democracy? Don’t you see the institutions, how strong they are? If not, (former US President Donald) Trump should have turned America into a banana republic. But the institutions were so strong, so he could not. He threatened judges but he could not shake them. If you threaten Nigerian judges, they obey the President. If you threaten Nigerian security agencies, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, the Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission, they comply. But an American president cannot overturn the policy of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, for instance. So, Nigeria is not practising real democracy. It’s just that we have some freedom of speech, that’s all. From military rule to ‘African democracy.’
There have been calls for restructuring. Do you see the current structure of the country as a threat to democracy?
When you say ‘restructuring,’ it is devolution of power, not that they are going to be sovereign entities. The Federal Government will still be there, but you will now allocate some powers from the Exclusive List and the Concurrent List to the governors or the regions. But we should try now to hold our governors responsible more. The local governments should be empowered, but they don’t empower the local governments, so the local governments are just there. The governors just collect their local government allocations, pay their salaries and share the rest of the money among themselves. We are not really practising the kind of democracy we fought for.
We fought for the real European and American democracy. At that stage, I was reading a lot, so I had my eyes open. We were not fighting for this type of dictatorial democracy. We don’t have powerful institutions. They did this intentionally, so the presidents, from Obasanjo, weakened the institutions. Every president that comes weakens Nigerian institutions and now, there are no strong institutions like the American and Western European institutions to protect democracy and the people.