Frank Kokori, trade unionist and former secretary-general of the National Union of Petroleum and Natural Gas Workers, NUPENG, studied at the University of Ibadan and the Institute of Social Studies, The Hague, Netherlands. He was a former member of the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) and former vice-president, African Federation Petroleum Committee of the International Labour Organization (ILO). He spoke with OKUNGBOWA AIWERIE on democracy and other sundry national issues. Excerpts:
What is the relevance of June12 to the achievement of this democratic dispensation?
June 12, as you know, happened 19 years ago. Nigeria was granted independence by Great Britain on October 1, 1960. That independence was won by our founding fathers, namely, Ahmadu Bello, Nnamdi Azikiwe, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, Aminu Kano, Peter Enaahoro and a host of other nationalists. The struggle for independence was not achieved militarily like in some African countries and other parts of the world where they had freedom fighters.
During negotiations with the British, there was no unanimity amongst our leaders. It is on record that some of our leaders opted for independence, while others wanted independence delayed. But we got independence through compromise. And because of that, agitation for independence did not evolve through a culture of political violence. And because of this, it was easy for the military adventurers to seize and abuse power.
This, no doubt, had encouraged military adventurism which fostered unprecedented corruption in the nation. For every civil upsurge, the military found a reason to take over power. Since 1960, the nation has moved one step forward and three steps backwards. June 12, 1993 is important because that was the first time, after so many years of military dictatorship, that the people rose to vote with one accord. They went to the polls which had been adjudged to be the freest and fairest in the annals of elections in Nigeria and someone emerged with the mandate of the people.
That election was won by Chief Moshood Abiola. But somehow, the military, with contempt and disdain, annulled it. That was the first time Nigerians came out united to fight the impudence of the military. The struggle was very severe. Many civil society groups, including organised labour, stood up against the tyranny of the military. The organized labour, especially the oil unions (NUPENG), led the first charge. We decided to break away from the tepid central labour union. I was fortunate to be leading a more nationalistic labour movement, the NUPENG, and our sister group, the PENGASSAN.
We took the battle to tell the military dictatorship that enough is enough! Nigerians felt this was an affront that must be challenged. Many innocent people lost their lives, many more suffered imprisonment and involuntary exile. The civil group and the Nigerian masses told the military that notwithstanding its huge military arsenal, it could not ride over the will of the people all the time. The military authorities could not believe it was being issued an ultimatum. June 12 was a watershed in the history of the country. It is relevant today because it showed the folly of clinging on to power. Today, I still believe that it is that lesson that the military has carried with it until this moment. That is why they have not dabbled into politics under any pretext. In a way, they were humiliated out of power by the masses.
Can we safely say the ghost of military intervention in national politics has been finally rested?
I want to believe that, if not on any other occasion, during this period with the insecurity and terrorism, they may have since staged a return. Since 1999 till date, this has been the longest time the military has been out of power in the history of this country. They have refrained from dabbling into politics, having lost face due to the June 12 battle and the lesson learnt from the battle. The June 12 struggle also taught Nigerians that they can fight to assert their rights when it becomes necessary. And that the military is not invincible.
What is your assessment of the present democratic dispensation?
Those of us who were in the vanguard of the struggle thought Nigeria would be a better place after the exit of the military. I also believe that the politicians have learnt their lessons. I will tell you that I am terribly disillusioned with what is happening in Nigeria. In the first few years, we thought we were learning the ropes. But after 19 years, nobody will tell me we are still learning the ropes. Unfortunately, we do not have good and selfless leaders. If we had good leaders, most of the corruption going on would have been checked.
Corruption has become the albatross on the neck of the Nigerian people. The police are corrupt, the judiciary is corrupt and our leaders are rotten. In a situation like this, it is very difficult to have progress or development. Corruption can be tackled if we have a strong special leader, a man that is above board. My prayer is for children yet unborn to take this country out of the hands of inept politicians and set it on the right track.
In what way do you think we can deepen democracy in Nigeria?
When I talk about corruption, I mean it has eaten into every facet of our life. It is evident in the electoral process. All the elections we have had over the years have grown progressively worse. Only the South-West in the last election had a modicum of free and fair elections. During the NRC and SDP days, when I was active in politics, elections were close. But in the South/South where I come from, electoral malpractices are rampant. But we can deepen democracy if we begin to create strong institutions, rebuild the police, the judiciary and the legislature.
What role would you have civil society groups play in our democracy?
After fighting the military dictators, one would think they will play a prominent role in moulding democracy. But the greedy politicians will not allow them. How many of those enjoying the fruits of political offices today are prepared to lay down their lives for democracy, apart from a few people in the South-West. Great men like Gani Fawehinmi, Femi Falana, Wole Soyinka and others in the oil unions who made great sacrifices. But don’t forget that the battle was fought by the oil workers. And that is why some of us spent 5-6 years in some of the worst prisons in the land.
How do you think Nigeria can get out of the political quagmire?
Many say leadership is difficult. But I say leadership is not difficult. You must open clean hands to your people. You do not cheat them; you call your constituents for consultation. There must be proper representation of the people. It is not a situation where the most unpopular candidate in a community wins an election because of money and connections. Take a look at democracy in action in some African nations like Ghana and Senegal. Look at how democracy works in Europe.
Culled From THE NATION