This is the second in the special series we are doing on the 20th anniversary of Nigeria’s return to democratic governance.
One of the often forgotten aspect of the struggle against military rule is the role of women. There is no doubt that many women played leading roles in the struggle especially as members and leaders of the opposition National Democratic Coalition, NADECO, and Afenifere, the mainstream Yoruba cultural and political movement under the leadership of Papa Adekunle Ajasin and later Papa Abraham Adesanya.
Both Ajasin and Adesanya were fond of Kudirat, the senior wife of Chief Moshood Abiola, the winner of the June 12, 1993 presidential election.
Abiola’s victory was annulled by General Ibrahim Babangida and though Babangida lost his job as military dictator, Abiola did not regain his mandate. We believe that it was necessary to struggle for the validation of Abiola’s victory and restore democracy to our land. In the thick of that struggle was Kudirat who eagerly threw herself into the battle after the incarceration of her husband.
Kudirat was one of the four principal wives of Abiola, a wealthy philanthropist and the larger-than-life publisher of the Concord group of newspapers. When I joined the Concord in November 1982 after my National Service, the dominant figure in the Concord among Abiola’s wives, was Dr Doyinsola Abiola, the elegant intellectual who was our Editor-in-Chief.
As the military, led by Babangida and later by General Sani Abacha, unleashed its arsenals against Abiola’s political and business interests, it was Doyinsola’s herculean task to keep the media empire afloat. She was a capable Editor-in-Chief but the odds were great, her foes were powerful and her friends were few and often fretful and fearful.
As Doyinsola was struggling with the ship of the Abiola media, Kudirat threw herself into the thick of Abiola’s politics and its unpredictable implications. I got to meet Kudirat when Abiola eventually joined the military politics, a step he had earlier vowed not to take. Though I left Concord in 1984 to join the pioneering team of Newswatch, I had maintained a good relationship with Abiola, my old boss who was an exemplary employer.
Therefore it was not difficult for me to become one of his sympathisers when he eventually threw his hat into the ring on the platform of the Social Democratic Party, SDP, one the two parties formed by General Babangida. The other was the National Republican Convention, NRC. After a taxing Convention in Jos, Abiola eventually won the presidential ticket of the SDP.
After he won his ticket, Abiola did not immediately announce his running mate. That was how some of my colleagues got interested and it was agreed that I should meet him to plead the case of Babagana Kingibe, the smooth-talking former diplomat and estranged protégé of General Shehu Musa Yar’Adua.
All attempts to see Abiola was furtile until I got in touch with Otunba Olabiyi Durojaiye, a retired banker and lawyer. Durojaiye was the one who arranged my meeting with Kudirat who eventually got me an appointment to meet Abiola.
Kudirat was very influential in the Abiola’s campaign and when eventually the June 12 struggle happened upon us, she threw herself into it. She was never afraid. There was a rally organised for Yaba bus stop.
Early in the morning, the police and the military had taken over the place and the organisers of the rally held an emergency meeting in the home of Papa Ajasin’s sister near Yaba bus stop.
Kudirat gave an impassioned speech, insisting the rally must go on and that the military should not be given the right to abort the legitimate gathering of the Nigerian people. It was a great day when she marched shoulder-to-shoulder with our leaders including Chief Ajasin, Chief Anthony Enahoro and Chief Bola Ige.
The last time I saw Kudirat was in May 1996 at General Alani Akinrinade’s house.
General Akinrinade, who served as Chief of Army Staff and later Chief of Defence Staff during the Second Republic, had become a target of General Abacha’s assassination squad. He fled the country and when the Abacha boys came to the house and met it empty, they put fire to the palatial edifice. She, like me, had come to inspect the ruins of Akinrinade house.
Few weeks later, Kudirat was shot by members of the Abacha’s assassination squad on June 4, 1996 as she was been driven in her car on a Lagos street. She was also a victim of betrayal.
In the days of our struggle we had many brave wives of political prisoners. When my colleagues in TELL were imprisoned or detained, their wives bore the burden with dignity and fortitude. None of them complained. It came with the territory as journalists who were opposed to military dictatorship.
Arit, the wife of Nosa Igiebor, our Editor-in-Chief, kept the home front when Nosa was in Minna Prison. So was Wumi, when Onome Osifo-Whiskey was a tenant of Kuje Prison, one of the most modern in Nigeria. The irony was not lost on Osifo-Whiskey who started his career as a prison superintendent in Enugu shortly after his national service.
In a special category among the women in the struggle was Mrs Chris Anyanwu, publisher and Editor-in-Chief of The Sunday Magazine, TSM.
Chris, cerebral and provocative, dared to roar where angels would fear to whisper. She was arrested and tried along with the likes of General Olusegun Obasanjo, the late General Shehu Musa Yar’Adua, Colonel Gabriel Ajayi, Brigadier Lawan Gwadabbe, Dr Beko Ransome-Kuti, our colleagues, Kunle Ajibade, Ben Charles Obi and George Mba of TELL. They were all sentenced to long terms of imprisonments for the phantom coup which was actually engineered by Abacha agents.
I don’t know what would have become of Gani Fawehinmi if he had married a different kind of woman. Ganiat equanimity and imperturbability complimented Gani’s fiery temper.
Once Gani return from one prison experience, his wife would welcome him with open arms. She would then repack his bag for the next trip. Sure enough, the military and the security agents would soon come knocking again! At the last count Gani was detained for at least 40 times.
In some instances, his detention lasted for many months. He also survived several assassination attempts by suspected agents of the military junta.
In every prison that Gani had been taken there, Ganiat had visited him. She had travelled this country by road, by air and by boat in pursuit of her extraordinary husband. She supported to the hilt his fight for social justice and gave him everything. Theirs was a marriage of two warriors who were totally committed to each other and the struggle. Their home in Ikeja GRA was opened to all and sundry and Ganiat welcome everyone with open arms.
Gani had unforgettable prison experiences in Gashua, Kuje, Ikoyi, Kirikiri and almost everywhere. They knew him in every detention centre in Lagos and other towns. Wherever he had been taken, he had left his indelible mark. The power behind his stubbiness and principled perseverance was Ganiat, the unbreakable one.
During the Abacha era when many of our colleagues and leaders were in prison and detention centres, I was mandated to visit some of their wives. That was when I met Mrs Olufunsho Durojaiye and Ebun, the wife of Dr Frederick Faseun, founder of the Oodua People’s Congress, OPC. These women, like others whose loved ones were imprisoned by the junta, faced their ordeals and privation with dignity and calmness. For Ganiat however, it was a familiar road.
Ganiat and the children paid a huge price for our country to be free from military dictatorship.
Last year, she appeared before President Muhammadu Buhari to receive the national honour of Grand Commander of the Order of the Niger, GCON, post-humously bestowed on her husband. It was an emotional scene for who could have predicted that the Fewehinmis would become honoured guests within the precinct of the Aso Rock Presidential Villa.
When she stood on that national stage, she was standing proxy for all the other brave women who made our imperfect democracy possible. Happy 70th birthday madam! Greater days ahead by God’s grace.
– Babarinsa is a respected journalist