1998: A Watershed Year ~ By Jaye Gaskia
The year was 1998, the campaign of civil disobedience encapsulated in the burgeoning across the country in intensified and intensifying mass street protests, was gaining in momentum and gaining in traction. The ruling class, both the military and civilian wings, along with their international ruling class partners were getting more and more jittery by the day.
The traditional May 1st Workers’ day protest became a lightning rod, mass protests were erupting across the country, the centre could no longer hold.
The ruling class, fearing the outbreak of a revolution from below had to act and act fast. First it was Abacha, the Maximum ruler, and head of the dreaded, and perhaps military dictatorship seen in the history of our country, who suddenly died. That was in June of that year.
His death catapulted into the headship of the regime, the then Chief of Defence Staff who was then the most senior member of the regime in the absence of the Chief of General Staff, the hitherto deputy head who had been jailed for planning a phantom coup.
The irony of the whole issue, lending credence to the theory of deliberate [though the spiritual ones among us may say divine] by unseen but carefully guarded hands of some master manipulators; was that the man who inherited the jaded throne, was rumoured to have been under investigation himself, and could have become the victim of another foiled phantom coup, had death not so generously intervened.
Then came the turn of MKO, the actual winner [though officialdom prefers to say presumed] winner of the annulled June 12 presidential elections of 1993, who also suddenly succumbed to the cold hands of death, in the presence of the international community, after taking tea, brought to him by his captors. That was in July 1998.
He had been receiving a high-powered delegation of international mediators [some would say co-conspirators], who were visiting him ostensibly as a part of a process of mediating his release and a way out of the logjam and crisis engendered by the annulment of the election that he had won.
Prior to this in June of 1994, after he had gone to Epetedo to address a press conference, in the course of which he affirmed his victory at the said annulled election and declared himself president, surrounded by courageous, but ageing tested ruling class fighters, he had been promptly arrested by the draconian agents of the authoritarian regime and clamped into detention. A detention he did not come out alive from.
Again, the irony of the Epetedo [in Lagos] declaration and its consequence, was that a few months earlier, in November of 1993, after a High Court had declared the contraption called Interim National Government [ING] – hurriedly put together by a fleeing dictator – IBB, when forced by the intensity of the mass resistance to abdicate – illegal, MKO had had the chance to make the same declaration, but this time in the presence of hundreds of thousands of anti-military protesters and supporters of June 12 election result, who had massed around his Ikeja home, expecting the man versed in proverbs to take and give leadership.
But alas, he failed to rise to the occasion. Alas he failed to rise to the occasion. Surrounded by his advisers from the National Democratic Coalition [NADECO], he had using his famed prowess with proverbs, found a way to disperse the crowd and disperse the protest movement, after which he had promptly gone abroad [some would say ran away] ostensibly to consult with the international community. The same people who flew into the country four and a half years later, to oversight his murder.
Thus it was, that after the killings of Abacha in June, and of MKO subsequently in July, in the clearest evidence yet of the conspiracy to derail the mass protest movement and prevent a revolution from below; One of the clearest thinkers, most charismatic speakers and easily most pre-eminent organiser, and a leader of the then civilian wing of the ruling class, the now late Uncle Bola Ige [as he was popularly known], the Cicero of Esa-Oke, had gone on to pronounce that the twin murders of Abacha and MKO had fortuitously created a level playing ground to move forward from.
Ironically, he was himself soon assassinated, while serving as the chief law officer of the Federation of 4th republic that he had helped to midwife. He was rumoured that he single-handedly wrote the constitutions of the then three main parties at the dawn of the 4th republic; first the constitution and manifesto of the PDP, and then next of the ANPP, and subsequently of the AD, as Afenifere and its NADECO allies kept looking for a political home they could be comfortable with and comfortable in.
The rising tempo of the mass protest, anti-military and pro-democracy movement as it gained in traction and momentum in leaps and bounds in the early part of 1998; The growing weariness of the ruling class and spreading panic within its ranks leading to a determination to stop the revolutionary upsurge in its tracks.
The subsequent strategic removal of the two principal actors and dramatis personae whose mutual antagonism had become the driving force of the revolutionary upsurge; and the subsequent relative positioning, attitude, actions and inactions of the main social forces who were leading the mass movement; All of these combined to determine the outcome of 1999 and have shaped the subsequent character of the 4th republic.
The year 1998 was there in its essence, the year in which all of the struggles of the array of social forces ranged against the military dictatorship, came to a head, reached a crescendo, and culminated in the processes, encapsulated in the Transition program of the short lived [some nine months in total] Abubakar Abdulsalami regime, which produced the outcome of 1999 and birthed the current fourth [4th] republic.
There are those who have observed [and I am not only in full agreement with them, but I am also one of them] that the collective failure of the radical anti-military, pro-democracy and Democratisation movement and the coalition built around the struggle, created a vacuum and a situation where those who inherited power after the transition were not those who fought for democracy, and who led and organised the mass movement; but were those who played safe during the struggle, and significant body of charlatans with whom they went into alliance in order to govern and restore stability to bourgeois rule.
For the mass movement and in particular the currents organised around the coalition called United Action For Democracy [UAD], the organisers and mobilisers of the Yaba counter, anti-Abacha 5 Million Man March in 1995; the denouement came with the Port Harcourt August 1998 Election Convention of the Democratic Alternative [DA], arguably the lead organisation, secretariat and engine room of the UAD coalition.
Leading up to that convention had been an ongoing debate within the ranks of the cadres of the DA with respect to our positioning on the new transition program of the Abdulsalami regime.
This had become particularly heightened given that the civilian wing of the ruling class after the twin murders [of Abacha and MKO], and after the pronouncement of the Chief spokesperson on how the murders had created a level playing ground, had promptly established the G37, entered in consultations with the regime, and accepted the terms of the regime for the transition program; essentially abandoning the demand of a significant fraction of that civilian wing for a [Sovereign] National Conference to prepare the transition.
It was the quest to gain acceptance of and build a consensus for the National Conference that had led the NADECO fraction in its political sojourn in search of a political home from the PDP, through the ANPP [both which it had helped to establish], and eventually into the AD.
But back to the DA and the contending strategic programmatic positions. Both contending platforms within the DA were clear about the necessity for, even urgency of political participation. But they were separated with respect to the strategic approach to make this happen.
One wing which had majority in the national leadership proposed engagement with the transition program and participation in the process without preconditions, and in particular without the insistence of the convening of a Sovereign National Conference [SNC], or any National Conference.
For this current, a coalition of parties after winning the inaugural elections could then of its own convene the National Conference to write a new people driven constitution for Nigeria addressing the multifarious challenges facing nation building including the demands of ethnic nationalities among others.
The second current, which as it turned out had a majority among the state chapters and membership of the DA, agreed with the proposal to engage with and participate in the transition program, but was insistent that the demand for SNC should not be dropped, that since this was a transition program, we should insist on the convening of such a conference as the mechanism to have a national conversation and midwife the fourth republic.
Essentially the difference though appearing slight was quite significant, it was a difference hinged on the quality and character of the transition program, and eventually the quality and character of its subsequent outcome, the 4th republic.
The current which insisted on a transition program carved out through a National conference, also argued that the transitional regime of Abdulsalam was operating from a position of weakness given the extraordinary circumstances under which it was made to inherit power.
We argued [I was part of this current, part of its leadership, the arrow head and chief spokesperson for the current] that the mass protest movement was in ascendancy, that it was this brewing revolutionary upsurge, engendering a revolutionary crisis that led the ruling class to organise the conspiracy that resulted in the twin murders.
We argued further that the ruling class was in disarray, and that if we stood our ground, there was the possibility of the NADECO and pro national conference wing of the ruling class coming over to back us.
We felt, given the combination of all of these factors we were in a position to bend the will of a weak transitional regime, and of the civilian wing of the ruling class in temporary disarray, to accede to the demand to convene a National Conference made up of delegated and mandated representatives of the social classes and social formations of our country to drive the transition program and midwife a popular democratic 4th Republic.
This was our position, and contrary to the ensuing narratives of the hagiographs of the other contending wing of DA, and the recent exercise in recanting of a few of the then leaders of our own wing, this was what the political contestation at the Port Harcourt Convention of the DA in August 1998 was primarily about.
How significant and important this debate within the DA was to the entire progressive and radical wing of the anti-military and pro-democracy movement was; was demonstrated by the attention which the debate and the convention attracted from outside the DA; and ultimately the sending of NADECO delegation led by the late Tunji Braithwaite and Comrade Baba Ola Oni, to observe our convention, solidarise with us, and enter into a negotiation on possible collaboration with us.
But let us be clear, there were other extenuating circumstances and factors which also played into this debate and divide and prevented the emergence of a negotiated outcome in the form a harmonised position that could be supported by both wings of the political formation called DA.
The most significant of these extenuating factors were twofold; the first and most significant was that it was an election convention, where because of the debate and contestation of opposing political program, there was actually going to be a leadership contest between the two wings.
The secondary extenuating factor was around the person of some of the leadership of our own platform and wing who were being fielded in the DA Leadership contest – in particular a certain Jaye Gaskia, who as leader and arrowhead of the wing insisting on an SNC mediated transition was being fielded by the wing to run for the presidency of the DA.
This was not particularly neither palatable to the ears of this wing nor was it acceptable to them. Hence leading up to the convention, a lot of tension had been building up waiting to explode at the convention.
The first attempt to ensure a managed outcome that will be favourable to the tendency which held a majority in the national Executive was to try as much as possible to delegitimise state chapters which had been formally inaugurated by the national secretariat under the control of this same wing.
Successfully delegitimising these state chapters would mean that they would not be able to vote during elections or during any of the debates, since their delegates haven been disfranchised would only be observers in the convention.
We were not going to allow this travesty of democracy and this attempt to undermine internal democracy, particularly given that all of these state chapters had been formally inaugurated more than a year before the convention, and long before the exceptional occurrences of May, June and July of 1998 had precipitated a hurried transition program, where the military would not be overtly participating.
It is true that the building of these state chapters primarily throughout the South South, in most of the South East, and in some of the South West and North Central states had been undertaken largely through the efforts of our tendential platform and the alliances we were building across the country, and particularly in these geo-political zones.
Given these character of these state branches, they could be said to be extension of our political and ideological tendential platform, and part of a social movement which shared essentially the same programmatic political platform with us.
So, it was feared by the other program platform, that delegates from these states who essentially shared our political views would vote for our political program and our electoral slate during the convention.
And since we had a majority of the state chapters, it seemed quite obvious that in any straight head to head contest requiring voting, our platform would carry the day and carry the convention, both on the question of program as well as on the elections.
This was thus the background to the desperate and autocratic and anti-democratic, attempt to prevent accreditation of delegates from many states who had previously been legitimately inaugurated by the national secretariat and formally constituted into state chapters of DA.
We were not going to accept this, but we were also in favour of a negotiated solution. Since the real issues were around the political program of engagement with the transition program; and around election of a leadership to implement such a program; we were open to and proposed that we negotiate and reach agreement on these two issues and present a joint and harmonised political program and electoral slate to the convention for ratification.
I led the negotiations from our side, supported by a number of the leaders of our platform, some now late, some still alive, and one or two of which have since recanted their positioning and role during this period.
The late Comrade Chima Ubani, who was incumbent General Secretary of the DA, who was my friend, and who had stayed with me in our home in the week and days preceding the convention, while we were finalising preparations for the convention, led the negotiations from the other side, again supported by a number of the leadership of their platform, some of whom are likewise now late, and some of whom are still around with us today.
Basically, the negotiating teams were able to reach an agreement to work out a consensus and harmonised political program platform to engage with the transition program. There was agreement that we would engage, there was agreement that we would participate, and there was agreement that we would not drop the demand for the SNC as a precondition for conclusion of the transition program.
But we could not reach agreement on the joint electoral slate. We were willing to concede the presidency, on the condition that Comrade Chima Ubani from their side would be fielded for that position; while Jaye Gaskia, will now run for the position of General Secretary of the DA.
This was out rightly rejected by a majority of the members of the negotiating team from their side. They were in no mood to concede any significant position in the national executive to our side, yet we had a majority of the delegates.
This was the stumbling block upon which the convention eventually faltered. The opposing platform, withdrew from the negotiations, and called for a re-convening of the convention, and sensing their imminent loss in the event of a vote, contrived a crisis, with a majority of the members of the national executive staging a walk out from the convention.
The convention promptly voted to continue, particularly since a convention had already been elected, and proceeded to conclude the convention.
The party which had staged a walkout of the convention went back to Lagos and precipitated a split by stating that no convention held, and by proceeding to organise a new convention where only the national executive and a few states were represented.
This sad development fitted into an emerging pattern and trend by this political tendency of the left, as they had previously precipitated such minority led splits after failing to gain a majority at the conventions of other mass organisation fronts, including NANS [National Association of Nigerian Students], and WIN [Women In Nigeria] at the OAU Ife and Enugu conventions of the respective mass formations prior to the DA convention, where they again behaved true to type.
This inability to appeal to a majority, this inability to organise and lead a mass democratic movement without undermining internal democracy and subverting popular will; this crass intolerance of organised tendential dissent among friendly and even kindred social formations and forces; this doctrinaire approach to left organising which brooks no dissent, which affirms and seeks to aggressively promote a monolithic organisation and organisational line; was at the bane of the crisis engendered by the contestations at the August 1998 Port Harcourt Convention of the DA, and which eventually led to the refusal to reach a harmonised view, the refusal to accommodate the views of allies, and the deliberate step taken towards the split of the DA.
As a result of this intransigence we lost an opportunity, we could not present a united front, we could no longer present a beacon of attraction to NADECO which was desperately seeking for allies; and we undermined our capacity to effectively intervene in the transition program, the mobilisation and organisation of the masses around a common progressive, radical and popular democratic program.
And by thus doing we opened the floodgates to the conduct and conclusion of the transition program, in such a manner that the outcome, the 4th Republic, was by origin and in character not in the interest of the overwhelming majority of our people and was such that the 4th Republic was subsequently crafted to exclude the interests of the popular masses.
These sets of conditions have continued to plague the left, with theory raised to the status of dogma, and and its adherents no longer able to use theory as a guide to action, in interrogating the conditions of the 21st century and setting a left socialist agenda for the 21st century in our nation.
It this morass into which the left has sunk, ideologically bereft, and completely abandoning the dialectical method; that has helped to continue to shape the character of the 4th republic and the struggles of the masses in the 4th republic.
It is these situation that made it impossible for a majority of the left, who actually played the leading and decisive role in the organisation of the January Uprising of 2012, to recognise the revolutionary significance of that uprising.
For this left, the January Events were just another series of protests. Yet, this political protest and the political movement that ensued from it was the life transforming, radicalising, and politically decisive occurrence for a new generation of activists in Nigeria.
And because we failed to take ownership of the process and its legacy, we are ceding leadership of the mass movement and the mass protest movement to those radicalised by that experience, but who have no political clarity of their purpose and lack ideological understanding of reality. So now they are shaping the protest movement of the 4th republic of this period into a tokenist, reformist and autonomist movement and process, content to seek cosmetic changes, and gratified to win tokenist concessions from the ruling class.
And again in 2018, this nebulous character and nature of a dying and ossifying dogmatic left, prevented us from agreeing a common left political platform and program, around which we could have built a mass movement and strategic political coalition to undertake the sorely needed left intervention in our polity and political processes.
In 2018, as in 1998, 20 years down the road, we showed that we have not learnt any lessons, and that we are not prepared to engage for political power.
We continued to allow ourselves to be dogged by our inability to work together across tendential lines, build a viable coalition of the left, around a radical popular democratic program, and appeal to the masses.
There are still individual persons we cannot work with regardless of the situation, yet we are all left. With particular respect to the Take Back Nigeria Movement initiative for political intervention to engage with the political process; there are those who saw 2018 as payback time for the perceived infractions of 1998; and hence would neither lift a finger to facilitate the process nor even speak favourably about the process, much less canvass others. Yet some of them have been quick to jump to the political trains of so-called left candidates and parties.
Let there be no doubts about this, just as the actions and inactions, and the failures of 1998 among us led to the outcome of 1999; so are the actions and inactions, the failures of 2018 priming us for the outcome of 2019; which like the 1999 outcome before it, will not be in favour of the masses, nor in favour of the left.
And unless we are ready to reposition ourselves, to undertake a root and branch overhaul and revival of the left, we might be unwittingly creating the conditions that will help in the perpetuation of the anti-people character of the 4th republic along the trajectory which the outcome of the 2019 general elections will help to shape.
Jaye Gaskia Is National Convener of Take Back Nigeria Movement