Air Date: March 31, 1998||
Jumoke Ogunkeyede, Chairman, United Committee to Save Nigeria
Mike Fleshman, Africa Fund
(This text has been professionally transcribed. However, for timely
distribution, it has not been edited or proofread against the tape.)
MIKE FLESHMAN: When hundreds of thousands of Nigerians turned out into the streets to defend the
integrity of that vote and to be sure that the military did finally step down and return Nigeria to
civilian government, they responded with massive force. Killed hundreds of people; perhaps thousands of
people died in the streets in the face of repression. And yet the resistance continued.
KEITH PORTER: This week on Common Ground, Nigeria’s struggle for human rights and democracy.
FLESHMAN: To look at the World Health Organization’s statistics on infant mortality and malnutrition
in Nigeria, in a country that earns somewhere between ten and fourteen billion U.S. dollars per year in oil
sales, mostly to the United States; malnutrition among Nigerian children stands at 40%.
PORTER: Common Ground is a program on world affairs and the people who shape events. It’s produced
by the Stanley Foundation. I’m Keith Porter. Nigeria, independent since 1960, has rarely had a moment of
national peace. A string of military dictators and only a few ill-fated attempts at democracy have left the
country, by most accounts, one of the most corruption-rich and human rights-poor places on earth.
PORTER: (with background sounds of heavy traffic) You’re hearing the intersection of 44th Street and 2nd
Avenue in New York City. The northeast corner of this intersection is significant to the Nigeria story for two
reasons. First, it is the site of Nigeria’s mission to the United Nations and their New York consulate. Second,
the New York City Council has renamed this corner Kudirat Abiola Corner. To understand the significance of Kudirat
Abiola we have to go back to 1993, the last time Nigeria experimented with democracy. Kudirat’s husband, Mushad
Abioloa, ran for President. (more background sounds of heavy traffic)
FLESHMAN: The 1993 Presidential elections came after the better part of a decade of military dictatorship
and only came about because of the opposition of the Nigerian people to continued dictatorship.
PORTER: This is Mike Fleshman, Human Rights Coordinator at the Africa Fund, an American organization.
FLESHMAN: The then head of government, a general named Babangita, who’s second-in-command was a general named
Abacha, under tremendous pressure agreed to elections. Elections designed to restore civilian elected government in
Nigeria and to return Nigeria to constitutional rule, the Constitution having been suspended. And by all
accounts—accounts of Nigerian election observers and the very large international team of observers invited in to
observe the process by the Nigerian military government, it was the freest and fairest election in Nigerian history.
The clear winner that emerged after the polls had closed and as the tallies began to roll in was Mushad Abiola, a
prominent and very successful Nigerian businessman who basically ran on bread and butter issues. After so long, after
so many years of dictatorship and ruinous economic mismanagement and amazing level of corruption centered around the
theft of Nigeria’s vast oil revenues, quality of life and conditions of life for ordinary Nigerians was terrible. Income
plummeted from a high of nearly $1,300 per capita in 1983, to less than $250 per capita at the time of the election.
And it of course has gone down since then. So Mr. Abiola ran on, you know, “Vote for me and I’ll give you jobs, schools,
housing.” Bread and butter issues. And he’s an interesting person in terms of the sort of ethnic politics that have
dominated Nigeria since independence, because while he’s a Yorba-speaking man from the western part of Nigeria, which
is a predominantly Christian area, he in fact is not just a practitioner of the Islamic faith, he is a leader of the
Islamic faith in the country, and a very generous patron of the church. And because of that and because of his very
successful campaign and his extremely effective co-campaigner, his wife Kudirat, really for the first time you saw a,
pretty much a breakdown in the, in the sectional pattern of voting in Nigeria in the past. The kind of amazing thing
about Mr. Abiola’s campaign is that as a Yorba, from the West, he was not supposed to do very well in the northern Muslim
Hausa/Fulani Areas. And in fact he swept the northern states, beating the Muslim person from that area who the military
thought was going to take that part of the country.
PORTER: Let me stop you for just a minute, Mike. You called the elections free and fair.
PORTER: We’re talking about international monitoring and. .
FLESHMAN: And Nigerian, non-governmental Nigerian monitoring.
PORTER: All right.
FLESHMAN: And there was virtually no ballot stuffing, virtually no vote rigging, amazingly little violence was abroad.
It was a restricted process because the military which controlled that election simply decreed that there would only be two parties
allowed to participate. Their argument for this, rightly or wrongly, was this was going to make it more difficult for there to be
ethnic, sectional parties that contested on that basis. But the upshot was that by all accounts that this was a free and fair vote.
There was a clear winner emerged after the polls had closed, after the elections were done and the military was very surprised to see
Mr. Abiola emerging as the clear winner. Nearly 60% of the popular vote. And this so disturbed the military that they simply announced
that the, actually the election was now going to be canceled. Annulled I think as they called it. And when hundreds of thousands of Nigerians
turned out into the streets to defend the integrity of that vote and to be sure that the military did finally step down and return Nigeria to
civilian government, they responded with massive force. Killed hundreds of people; perhaps thousands of people died in the streets in the face
of repression. And yet the resistance continued. And finally in November of that year, after installing an absolutely helpless so-called interim
civilian government, one of their stooges, Abacha, who was second in command of the previous military government, simply instructed the interim
government to step inside and he seized power in another coup. And has, and then launched an absolutely unprecedented crackdown on the Nigerian
people. Done things that no other previous military government in the long history of military governments in Nigeria ever dared to do.
Stripping the Nigerian people completely of any human or civil right.. Dismissing not hundreds of local elected officials but 30,000 state and
municipal elected officials were simply tossed out of office and replaced with officers. And in 1995 the brutality and the justice of the regime
came to world view with the execution of the environmentalist, Ken Saro-Wiwa, campaigning against the environmental destruction of his Ogoni homeland
by the Shell Oil Company. That put the question of human rights in Nigeria on the world map. And unfortunately, despite the pronouncements of world
leaders at that time and some very minor and so far ineffective diplomatic sanctions by the United States and other western countries, the repression
has simply gotten worse.
PORTER: We’re also joined here by the Chairman of the United Committee to Save Nigeria, Jumoke Ogunkeyede. Could you tell us what happened to
Mr. Abiola, following the elections?
JUMOKE OGUNKEYEDE: Following the elections Mr. Abiola thought that everything would be fine. He sort of met with the military government to
see if things could be worked out. And they still insisted that the election would remain annulled. At that time Abiola came overseas, trying to talk
to both international community and Nigerians abroad. He sojourned abroad briefly for many months. Finally decided to return to Nigeria. Actually he
had made some arrangements, spoke with Abacha that he would be coming and Abacha sent some people to meet him at the airport.
PORTER: And this is General Abacha, who is.
OGUNKEYEDE: This is General Abacha
PORTER: currently the head of state.
OGUNKEYEDE: the worst dictator Africa has ever had. Then Abiola got to Nigeria. He was met at the airport by over 50,000 people with the belief
that Abacha regime would hand over to him. Actually at that time there was supposed to have been some massive protests and marches and demonstrations.
Abiola himself was telling people, “Can you please, let’s see what they will do because they promised that they would hand over.” Soon days started to
run into weeks and weeks into months. Nothing happened. And finally at the anniversary of, the first year after the election was annulled, Abiola decided
to take the people’s mandate. And arranged to announce that he is now officially the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. Dwelling on the people’s
mandate. They were looking for him. Shortly after that he was picked up and has been in jail since then.
PORTER: Do we know anything about his condition right now?
OGUNKEYEDE: He is safe. He has now been moved to Abuja we are told. Given a one-bedroom apartment in a bungalow, where he has a television in a
living room and the television may now be torn down, unless it’s been supervised by the military government. We heard that Abacha was good to him about
a year ago. He sent him about a pack of razor shaving blades. And that’s the only thing that he’s been able to do for him. What else does he do? He
sent him a newspaper caption saying that his wife had been killed. Other than that we heard most recently that they are talking to him. What they are
saying to him we don’t know. He’s in jail with about 7,000 others.
PORTER: Mike, we just heard Jumoke mention the fact that his wife had been killed. Tell us about Mr. Abiola’s family since the elections.
FLESHMAN: Try to imagine what’s happened to that family. They were at one time one of the wealthiest and most prominent families in Nigeria,
with extraordinary access to the finest in education and things. And then the head of the family, Mr. Abiola, campaigns in an election, wins the election
and is imprisoned. His wife, Kudirat Abiola, and this is a Muslim family, and of course polygamy is permitted, and so it’s a large family, but Kudirat Abiola,
after the death of Mr. Abiola’s first wife of natural causes, became the head of household. And she stepped into Mushad Abiola’s shoes when he went to prison,
campaigning both for his release from prison, but as importantly, continuing to articulate his vision of a just and democratic Nigeria. And became a leader
in her own right of the Nigerian democratic movement. That was why in June of 1996 the Nigerian military government had her murdered. There is, proof of that
will have to await the advent of a democratic Nigeria and the return of the rule of law so that the facts of the matter can be established in court. But there
is just no doubt that the military had her murdered. There is strong circumstantial evidence to support that. The gunman that killed her sped off in a gray
Peugot sedan. Two months before her murder she had complained in a Nigerian magazine article about being tailed by state security service agents in a gray Peugot
sedan. The bullets that they removed from her body after assassination are of a type available only to elite Nigerian security forces. And the former United
States Ambassador to Nigeria, Dr. Walter Carrington, who was himself driven out of the country in this past September at gunpoint, simply said that he personally
was absolutely convinced that she was assassinated precisely because of her leadership role in the democratic movement and her unflagging demand for the release
of her husband and the restoration of the family.
PORTER: Jumoke, you are convinced of the government’s involvement in Kudirat Abiola’s murder?
OGUNKEYEDE: Yes I am convinced. If you look at what’s going on in Nigeria it was just like Mike said early on, the government didn’t imagine that Abiola
would be victorious in the election. And how then was he able to garner the North and the South and win the election? He was able to reach the people. People
forgot temporarily that they were not Yorbas, or they were not Muslims, while voting for him. It was impossible for the military government to even conceive
that Abiola would ever win.. So after he won they found it very difficult to hand over to him, knowing that he would take the military, the government, away
from the focus that the military has for the country. Which is just taking the money, making the money from the oil and spending it as they wish.
PORTER: We’re talking in this edition of Common Ground with Mike Fleshman of the Africa Fund, and Jumoke Ogunkeyede, of the United Committee to Save
Nigeria. Printed transcripts and audio cassettes of this program are available. Listen at the end of the broadcast for details. Common Ground is a service
of the Stanley Foundation, a non-profit, non-partisan organization that conducts a wide a range of programs meant to provoke thought and encourage dialogue on world affairs.
FLESHMAN: One of the numbers that I use a lot when I go around and talk to Americans about this to help them understand that it isn’t about individuals, or not
just about individuals and individual suffering, but there is a broader and more fundamental injustice happening is Nigeria, is to look at the World Health Organization’s
statistics on infant mortality and malnutrition in Nigeria.
PORTER: Again, this is Mike Fleshman, Human Rights Coordinator for the Africa Fund.
FLESHMAN: In a country that earns somewhere between ten and fourteen billion U.S. dollars per year in oil sales, mostly to the United States; malnutrition among
Nigerian children stands at 40%. And there’s no reason for this. There’s no good excuse for this. The resources are there. And even under some previous military governments
the resources were made available. There was a time when Nigeria had a world-class university and secondary education system. Where community health clinics did provide
health services, at least basic health services, to the great majority of Nigerian citizens. If you go to those clinics now they are boarded up, there’s no medicines on the
shelves and the doctors have long since emigrated to the United States or Europe to practice their medicine.. It’s a combination of gross suffering on a scale that encompasses
all of Nigeria’s 110 million people, but it’s also, part of the cost of dictatorship in Nigeria is the opportunities that have been lost. Nigeria should be not just a leading
country in Africa but it ought to be among the great countries of the world. They have the human and material resources to have made the jump from colonial dependency to an
emergent middle-class, growing, productive country in the world. Something that would buoy Africa and help all persons of Africa and African descent to take their rightful
place on the world stage. Instead, Nigeria is isolated; it needs to be more isolated than it has been. It is dragging down not just West Africa but the entire northern half
of Africa. It’s a tragedy for what has not been.
PORTER: Jumoke, I assume that you would agree with all the wonderful things Mike has said about Nigeria’s potential.
OGUNKEYEDE: Oh yes, I agree. Let’s step back a little and look at how Nigeria’s problem developed or got to the stage.
PORTER: Jumoke Ogunkeyede is Chairman of the United Committee to Save Nigeria.
OGUNKEYEDE: When the colonial masters were leaving, the British government was leaving Nigeria in 1960, they sort of divided Nigeria and made some part of Nigeria to be
larger than the rest on paper. Not in reality. And so told this section that you must be in charge, probably for their gain, so that they can be able to deal with these people,
do business with them. And somewhere along the line when you are told you are a prince, even if you are not, after some time you begin to believe you are a prince. This section
of the country began to feel that they are given this right to rule Nigeria perpetually, from where the sun sets in the East to where it—I mean where the sun rises in the East to
where it sets in the West; from the desert to the Atlantic Ocean. And that’s that way they feel that Nigeria should be run. And that’s why they cannot conceive anybody from the
southern part of the country ruling the nation.
Well, where do we go from here? Unless the international community comes up, communities come up and stand by what we are saying, that Nigeria must be run by a democratic setting.
People are now talking about what they call the African Democracy. I am yet to find meaning, I mean to define that. But whatever African democracy means, if it’s the government
of the people, by the people, and for the people, then I’m for it. The way things are in Nigeria, unless the international community wakes up and sees that what is happening in
Nigeria will cause a global problem later, if you look at the size of Nigeria, Nigeria is about ten times the size of Rwanda, and you know what happened in Rwanda in 1994. Unless
people of conscience come up and begin to look at Nigeria closely, not looking at it from the point of view that it is about three or four thousand miles away, it does not concern us,
there will be a problem in Nigeria that might not be containable by the African community of nations.
PORTER: Mike, that’s the next area I wanted to go into, really, is what are the immediate dangers for the people of Nigeria?
FLESHMAN: Well, the, as Jumoke has already pointed out, the worst case scenario can be grim indeed. From the more recent genocide in Rwanda and the emerging danger of more
genocide now in Burundi, but we only have to go to 1967-68 to see what happens, can happen in Nigeria. The Biafran Civil War, which was ultimately a struggle for the control of the
country’s vast oil resources, took over a million lives and sent hundreds of thousands, hundreds and hundreds of thousands of people over Nigeria’s border into surrounding countries
to escape the killing. That’s the worst case scenario. And it poses a grave and immediate threat to international peace. The, even a maintenance of the status quo which is an
unstable but on the surface at least quiet situation means—and certainly if General Abacha is allowed to get away with his current plan to civilianize himself with a bogus election
later on this year—then the prospects are not even much better. Either the explosion will come into outright, probably regionally-defined violence, one against the all, and that’s
the Biafra/Rwanda scenario, but the status quo is not a lot better. So what you will have will be a continuing exodus of the kind of people that Nigeria desperately needs to rebuild,
continuing economic collapse, and because Nigeria is so large and dominates both the politics and the economies of all of West Africa, West Africa as a region, which again has tremendous
human and natural resources that can be brought into a sustainable development project that benefits both Africa but also the United States as a trading partner, that potential gets squandered.
And the malnutrition continues and the suffering continues and the jailings and the officially sanctioned murders continue (voice fades into background sounds of heavy traffic).
PORTER: Back at Kudirat Abiola Corner in mid-town Manhattan, I spoke with a man named J.J., who operates a shoe shine business there:
“Right across the street there. That corner. There’s a blue sign there and it says, “Kudirat Abiola Corner.” Do you see that blue sign there? Right below the green street sign?
Right below where it says Second Avenue?
J.J.: Yeah, I’ve seen that?
PORTER: Do you know who she is?
J.J.: I don’t believe I do.
PORTER: Do you know why they named the corner after her? Anything like that?
J.J.: Can’t say. What’s her name? Let me see (long pause). No I don’t. Tell me why.
PORTER: She was a democracy fighter in Nigeria. She was shot. Some people think she was shot by people associated with the government. And so after a lot of pressure the
city council decided to name this corner after her. The Nigerian government has their offices in that building right there.
J.J.: Oh yeah. That’s good. That’s nice.
PORTER: So they decided to put the corner there to sort of say, “Hey, we don’t know if you did this or not, but we’re going to remind you about her name every day.”
J.J.: Well, they got a nice building here for Nigeria, very nice.
PORTER: It is nice, isn’t it?
J.J.: Very nice you know. Very expensive too.
PORTER: Did you ever notice the sign there before?
J.J.: Not really. I always know it was Second Avenue, but that’s about it, you know.
PORTER: Do you think it’s okay for the city council to name corners like that after people?
J.J.: If they got the money they can name anything after them.
PORTER: All right, J.J. Thank you for your time. Thanks, J..J.
PORTER: Tell us about Kudirat Abiola Corner, Mike.
FLESHMAN: Well, there’s a provision here in New York City where if the local city council
representative in a neighborhood agrees and if the New York City Council then duly votes in favor of it, that you can, not change a street name,
but you can add a second street name. And we wanted to honor Kudirat Abiola, Mr. Abiola’s wife who as murdered in 1996, by naming a street corner after her.
And nothing would do but it had to be the street corner on which sits the Nigerian Embassy and Consulate here in New York. And Jumoke and I actually came up
with that idea in the Spring of last year. It was probably about a year ago now. And we thought that it would be a nice small thing to do. It would be to
honor the family but also to make an important political point, small political point, to the Nigerian Embassy. It would be good to have the Ambassador have to
walk underneath that sign every day as he goes to work. But we thought it would be no great difficulty to do and wouldn’t take a lot of time.. And instead for
some reason our effort to get, to honor Mrs. Abiola, got under the skin of the dictator, General Sani Abacha personally. This we have from the former U.S. Ambassador.
And the Nigerian government and their hired apologists, they fought this little street sign change at every turn. Going so far as to hire people to pack meetings and
trying to disrupt meetings and cat-calling the former mayor Dinkins. All these things. And forced us to do a great deal more work than we had thought in order to get
it passed. But that also turned into a much larger issue and created a marvelous opportunity to do human rights education here in New York, both among the citizens of
New York but also in the New York City Council and even in the Mayor’s office and in the Governor’s office, about the human rights situation in Nigeria. And at the
end of the day, after six or seven public hearings we had a final climactic vote, after a nose-to-nose debate in the New York City Council on the matter, and we won that vote 43-1.
OGUNKEYEDE: Yes, the Government of Nigeria spent about a million dollars—I would say hundreds of thousands.
PORTER: The government of Nigeria?
OGUNKEYEDE: Yes. Spent about a million dollars on this Kudirat Abiola Corner thing. And
PORTER: On trying to stop it?
OGUNKEYEDE: On trying to stop it.
FLESHMAN: And one last postscript on the thing. The, several weeks ago in retaliation for our successful effort to get Kudirat Corner unveiled, the Nigerian government has
named the street that the U.S. Embassy sits on in Nigeria after Minister Louis Farrakhan. And regardless of what one thinks about Minister Farrakhan, there is no doubt that this is,
that Minister Farrakhan was selected to adorn that street corner not because of any good works that he does, but because the Nigerian government thought that that was the worst possible
thing that they could do to retaliate to the United States, by naming it after Minister Farrakhan. And in fact, among the names being considered for that street sign in addition to Minister
Farrakhan were Mohamar Khadafi, Saddam Hussein, and Timothy McVeigh.
PORTER: That is Mike Fleshman, Human Rights Coordinator for the Africa Fund. Our other guest was Jumoke Ogunkeyede, Chairman of the United Committee to Save Nigeria. For Common Ground,
I’m Keith Porter. Cassettes and transcripts of this program are available. The transcripts are free. Cassettes cost $5.00. To place an order or to share your thoughts about the program, please write
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