Monday Column by Emmanuel Yawe
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The emergence of the People’s Democratic Party in 1999 rekindled much of our hopes in Nigeria. The military intervention of 1983 saddled us with a succession of generals who brought our country down to her kneels.
The Generals were strong men who could not be removed by weak men. The PDP took root when some courageous politicians came together during the reign of General Sani Abacha – the strongest of them – to challenge the lion in his den. The General had mapped out a program of transmuting from a military dictator to a civilian elected president. All the five registered political parties nominated him as their sole joint presidential candidate.
Just when we thought all hope was lost, the courageous men came together and called the general to order. They crafted a letter of advice and chose the most courageous among them, Solomon Lar to deliver it to the general by hand. Solomon Lar did not only deliver the letter, he let the media have it. The whole world knew that there were still men of courage in Nigeria.
When Abacha died, these men continued their meetings and finally registered the PDP to contest for power in the transition program hastily arranged by Abdulsalami Abubakar the new Head of State. Of the registered political parties at the time, some of us saw hope in the PDP which seemed the most rational and national group of the lot.
But it did not take long before the PDP shot itself in the foot. The biggest mistake of the party was to have rushed the political resurrection and ascendancy of General Olusegun Obasanjo a former military dictator who had been incarcerated by General Sani Abacha. Within a few months of his leaving prison, he was handed the presidential ticket of the party.
The organizer in chief of that event in Jos, tagged the first PDP National Convention – Chief Sunday Awoniyi – bitterly complained to me until his death about his role in making Obasanjo the presidential candidate of the PDP, an act that eased his way into the presidency of Nigeria.
“My son I have not only regretted my role in making Obasanjo the presidential candidate of the PDP, I have repented and asked my God to forgive me for bringing the misfortune called Obasanjo to preside over the affairs of Nigeria” he told me often when I went to his house and we discussed what was happening in Nigeria during Obasanjo’s presidency. He had many reasons to repent. First he tinkered with the rules of the party in order to ensure that Obasanjo qualified to be a candidate. The PDP had stipulated that before one could qualify as a candidate of the party, he had to be a member for at least 12 calendar months. Obasanjo was certainly not qualified because he had just come out of prison.
Secondly, he told me, all over the civilized world, you do not promote a prisoner overnight to be president. When somebody comes out of prison, you give him a breathing space to readjust to a normal life before saddling him with such heavy responsibility. The PDP launched Obasanjo from prison to presidency.
Chief Awoniyi who had known Obasanjo in the 60’s when he was a junior military officer gave me several instances of his interactions with the President – some in the hallowed chambers of his presidential office – which made him suspect that the trauma of prison life may have made Obasanjo mentally unbalanced.
We know that Awoniyi had a stormy relationship with Obasanjo right from the beginning of his presidency. When Awoniyi expressed interest to run for the national chairmanship of the PDP, Obasanjo stepped in to frustrate him and organized a very fraudulent national convention to elect the first substantive executive of the party after the tenure of the interim executive led by Solomon Lar had expired. Obasanjo then handpicked a national executive of the party led by Dr Barnabas Gemade.
That convention led to a major implosion in the party. The founders of the party who defined its soul were sidelined by Obasanjo who had always held the party in contempt and suspicion. The likes of Alex Ekwueme, Bamanga Tukur, Adamu Ciroma, Atiku Abubakar, Sunday Awoniyi etc were subjected to ridicule by a party they formed.
Even before these disagreements broke into an open scandal, Chief Solomon Lar, the courageous old war horse wrote to Obasnjo on July 19 1999 to complain that the PDP as a party was sidelined by the Obasanjo government. It is believed that Solomon Lar incurred Obasanjo’s eternal anger because of that letter. He was soon eased out of office. But even Barnabas Gemade whom he handpicked did not have a long lasting cordial relationship with him. Obasanjo brought in Chief Audu Ogbeh whom he later forced to resign with a loaded gun pointed to his head.
Obasanjo set the stage for a game of political fancy dress ball, a charade of disguises and a game of masks. The dismal performance of the PDP in government started at that stage. The high sounding ideals for which the original founders of the PDP came together soon became second fiddle to the mean objectives of personal greed, turning the PDP into a national casino or ATM machine. Obasanjo destroyed the PDP.
By the time he started toying with the idea of making himself a perpetual president of Nigeria through the so called third term constitutional amendment, the party was already dead. It was only a matter of time before a more organized party led by serious minded patriots would take over or failing which another military coup would come.
Mercifully, the APC came up and the option of a military coup was prevented. But if the APC and President Buhari are to succeed, they need a strong party to exist as an alternative. Such a party will act as a check to their human foibles.
The PDP appeared to be the only party with enough clout to play such role. But once out of government, the party plunged itself into endless squabbles that led to prolonged litigations all the way to the court of last resort in the land. How do you rate a political organization whose leaders are incapable of solving political problems until the courts came in?
Those of us who placed our hopes in the PDP as an alternative voice still hoped that the national convention of the party which came up a few days ago would bring out the best of the party. Sadly, the convention has come and only succeeded in dashing our hopes now that it is gone. Old habits die hard. The men who called the shots at that convention do not look like men who have the capacity to turn a new leaf. What do you say about a convention where the votes cast are more than the numbers of those accredited to vote?
PDP leaders are sadly doing nothing to make the party more attractive to the Nigerian voter.
The APC may soon become an all-conquering party as the PDP was in its hey days. That will make me sad because when you have such a powerful party in an African country, the end result is always a comprehensive catastrophe. Look at Kenya under Mzee Jomo Kenyatta, Uganda under Milton Obote, Ivory Coast under Felix Houphouet – Boigny, Zaire under Mobutu Sese Seko Ngbendu Wa Za Banga, Liberia under William Tolbert and lately Zimbabwe under Robert Mugabe. The list is endless. If only the PDP could change and give the APC a serious challenge.