It was in April 2021 and the occasion would ordinarily have been innocuous but for the fact that the star actor was former two-time Head of State and newsmaker par excellence, General Olusegun Obasanjo (retired). Obasanjo was being inaugurated as a trustee of the Abeokuta Club. Abeokuta, specifically Owu or, better still, Ibogun-Olaogun, is the generally-recognised birthplace of Obasanjo.
Headlined “MKO Abiola: Why IBB cancelled 1993 election” a news medium reported the story this way: Former President Olusegun Obasanjo has insinuated that former Head of State, Ibrahim Babangida (IBB), cancelled the June 12, 1993 election presumably won by MKO Abiola due to ‘bad belle’. ‘Bad belle’, Nigerian slang, is synonymous with jealousy. It is used to express the resentment of a person towards a thing or individual…The Owu-born elder statesman was honoured alongside (MKO) Abiola. The late philanthropist was awarded a posthumous vice-patron of the club. Obasanjo said IBB’s action denied Egbaland and Ogun state the privilege of producing three occupants of the nation’s top seat, including Ernest Shonekan, ex-Head of the Interim National Government (ING).
“ ‘I want to thank the club for this honour being bestowed on me and the honour being bestowed on my school mate, MKO Abiola, which he richly deserved…When you win a cup three times, you keep the cup. Isn’t it? If not for ‘bad belle’, Abeokuta would have produced the President of Nigeria three times, in which case we should have kept it permanently’… Alake of Egbaland, Oba Adedotun Gbadebo, described Obasanjo and Abiola as proud sons of Abeokuta. The traditional ruler added that ‘bad blood’ didn’t allow Abiola to emerge President”
Is this story not innocuous or ordinary on the face of it? I stumbled on it again days ago and began to read deeper meanings into it, more so in view of our present political situation in Nigeria generally but in Yoruba land specifically. Reading that story, anyone not familiar with the history of Nigeria, specifically the June 12, 1993 credible presidential election won free and square by MKO Abiola, its annulment by military dictator, General Ibrahim Babangida, the heroic struggle of Abiola and pro-democracy Nigerian activists and people who withstood the annulment, with Abiola himself eventually paying the supreme sacrifice on 7 July, 1998, and Obasanjo’s stand on Abiola and his June 12, 1993 mandate – anyone not familiar with all of that would think Obasanjo regretted that Abiola was not allowed to be president.
But the same Obasanjo it was who reportedly blurted in 1993 that Abiola was not the messiah Nigerians needed: The same Obasanjo, in the eight years that he was president, never took kindly to anyone who broached the Abiola issue, despite the fact that the blood of Abiola and of other martyrs paved the way for the democracy that Obasanjo became its chief beneficiary. But time and circumstances change men!
Obasanjo said “bad belle” led IBB to annul June 12; some other reports have it that, like biblical Saul consenting to the daylight murder of Stephen (Acts 8:1, Acts 22:20), Obasanjo also consented to the annulment; whether or not it was against his personal wishes and desire is a different kettle of fish! The statement – against my personal wishes and desire – was famously made by Obasanjo when, after the assassination of the then military Head of State, Gen. Murtala Muhamed, on February 13, 1976, Obasanjo as his second-in-command was called upon by his colleagues to step into Murtala’s shoes. That statement, according to many, was vintage Obasanjo – coy, sly, foxy – desperate to mask any outward show of ambition which, in itself, is not bad. Stooping to conquer (Oliver Goldsmith) may not be a bad idea after all!
May we always have elders in the land, especially those whose head sits pretty on their neck and who will not mince words, regardless whose ox is gored! Alake of Egbaland, Oba Adedotun Gbadebo’s response to Obasanjo’s “bad belle” narrative was short, sharp, full of wits but dripping with blood! The Kabiyesi retorted that MKO was prevented from being president because of “bad blood” Remember, Obasanjo had spoken of “bad belle” and had named IBB but Oba Gbadebo countered with “bad blood” but named no one. Now, what is “bad belle” and what is “bad blood”? “Bad belle” is the external enemy while “bad blood” is the enemy within. You cannot speak of one without speaking of the other. In fact, it is the enemy within (bad blood) that opens the door for the external enemy (bad belle). Both played a role in the annulment of MKO Abiola’s mandate and his subsequent murder in detention.
Obasanjo and Oba Gbadebo had a career in the military, with the Kabiyesi rising to the position of Principal Staff Officer (PSO) to retired Gen. Tunde Idiagbon, the then second-in-command to Gen. Muhammadu Buhari as military dictator. Oba Gbadebo retired as a red neck (Colonel). Was there any classified information on June 12 in his possession that made him shed some light on the annulment or was he simply defending a former boss? Is he close to IBB as some have alleged? Chief Ernest Shonekan, the second Egba personality mentioned by Obasanjo and who was allowed by the powers-that-be to become Head of State died on Tuesday January 11, 2022 aged 85 years. What many may not know, however, is that Shonekan fortuitously became Head of the Interim National Government (ING).
Three personalities had reportedly been shortlisted for the ING job with Obasanjo topping the list. The other two were Shonekan and Prof. Adebayo Adedeji (died, 25 April, 2018), formerly the Executive Secretary of the Addis Ababa, Ethiopia-based United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (ECA). It’s like the three were deliberately chosen from amongst MKO Abiola’s kit and kin for obvious reasons. Scripture says a man’s enemies are the members of his own household (Matthew 10:36). As editor of The PUNCH/ SATURDAY PUNCH at the time, I got wind of the information that an emissary had been dispatched from Abuja to the Ota Farm residence of Obasanjo that fateful Friday with a message from IBB offering Obasanjo the ING job.
I immediately dispatched a battery of reporters and photographers to Ota Farm to waylay the General bearing the message from IBB to Obasanjo. As both men came out of the meeting and Obasanjo was seeing the emissary to his car, my reporters hauled a missile at Obasanjo: Sir, have you accepted the offer to be ING chairman? The story led the next day’s SATURDAY PUNCH newspaper with the trademark PUNCH screaming and bold headline! That story reportedly dropped their hands and the rest, as they say, is history. So, even Shonekan might not have been Head of State but for that story.
As the politics of 2023 gathers steam – and storm – it is instructive to note whether or not the Yoruba especially have learnt useful lessons from their recent history. Do they still carry on as a nation without a sense of nationhood and as a people disparate and failing to bind together in pursuit of common goals and objectives? Without a sense of history and a vision of nationhood, can a people have a clear-cut idea and coherent ideal of nationality? Hidden in Obasanjo’s narrative is a problem that will plague the Yoruba down the line if it is not quickly addressed – it is called the national question.
Left unattended to, it led to the dismemberment of the behemoth called the Soviet Union, the splintering of Yugoslavia that Josip Broz Tito spent a life-time cobbling together, and the velvet divorce of Czechoslovakia, to mention but a few. Wherever and whenever the spirit of nationalism takes roots, rationality recedes and intellectualism loses its allure. Better nip it in the bud than allow it to run rampant before fire brigade approach or damage control is applied. On the surface, the Yoruba appear monolithic but in the real sense are not. Yes, we have so much in common. All the same, we have our fault lines. There are the Oyo-speaking Yoruba (full and partial) and there are the non-Oyo-speaking Yoruba.
We have the Egun, Awori, Ekiti, Ijesa, Ondo, Owo, Akoko, Akure, Ife, Egba, Ijebu, the so-called Ara-Oke people, the Okun, Kabba, not to talk of our Anago brothers across the border in Benin Republic, Togo, southern Ghana, etc. If one section continues to provide the leadership, as Obasanjo has itemised, while the others are shoved aside for whatever reasons, it will, before long, breed resentment – if it has not done so already. A word, they say, is enough for the wise. And the Yoruba, I do know, are wise people!
LAST WORD: In an age when reading, not to talk of writing, has taken the back seat in the rat race to get rich quick, it is heart-warming to see a young man, Idegu Ojonugwa Shadrach, striving not just to make a mark but also to, through his writings, help to change Nigeria’s unflattering narrative as well as affect humanity positively. As he inundates me with his writings, which I advise he continues to improve upon, I cannot but wish him the very best. Even the sky is too limited for those who constantly strive to make their best better!
*A former editor of The PUNCH and chairman of its Editorial Board, BOLAWOLE writes the “TREASURES” column in the New Telegraph newspaper and the “On THE LORD’S DAY” column in the Sunday Tribune newspaper. He is also a public affairs analyst on radio and television.