I had thought that time had passed on my Kingibe question with the passage of time. But President Muhammadu Buhari’s decision to recognize June 12, 1993, as a watershed in Nigeria’s history changed the situation. With that recognition came the posthumous award of the country’s highest honour to M.K.O. Abiola, the winner of the presidential election held on that fateful day and the second highest honour to Baba Gana Kingibe who had run on the same ticket as the vice president. While most people have hailed the bestowal of this award on Abiola, there has been widespread condemnation of the same to Kingibe.
Critics of the restoration Kingibe to honour despite his having dumped Abiola in the struggle that ensued to actualize the mandate they won in that election aver that he is unworthy, in part, because he betrayed Abiola and the cause that June 12, 1993, morphed into. What is worse, he went on to serve as Foreign Minister in what everyone agrees is the most brutal and execrable regime to have ruled Nigeria: the Sani Abacha junta. Additionally, this was the same junta that installed itself in power in lieu of the legitimate government that ought to have been in place under Abiola and Kingibe. Although he is not alone, Olisa Agbakoba forcibly articulated this view in his recent interview with Punch [https://punchng.com/kingibe-is-a-traitor-he-doesnt-deserve-national-honour-agbakoba/] better than any other that I have read.
I agree entirely with Agbakoba. Yes, Kingibe betrayed the man at the top of the ticket on which he won the vice presidency of Nigeria. Yes, he abandoned the struggle for realizing the mandate overwhelmingly given to him and Abiola by Nigerians from all parts of the country in that election.
The criticism needs to be expanded. What is of moment, though, is not whether Kingibe deserves the honour to be conferred on him. The way I see it, in the present instance, he is the equivalent of an accidental honoree, a collateral beneficiary of a process that does not leave room for alternatives. For one thing, we have no evidence that Abiola ever hinted at dumping his running mate before he was cynically dispatched. And I am yet to hear of any attempt by prosecutors of the June 12 struggle to disinherit him.
For another, because this is not a personal honour for Abiola but for the office he won, there is no way to separate the ticket and honour one half of it. This is what I mean by Kingibe being a collateral beneficiary.
Of course, given what has happened since 1993, one would ordinarily expect an honourable person to decline the honour now being offered because of a principled abandonment of the June 12 struggle. I was not surprised that Kingibe did not do that. Nothing in his trajectory since that time suggests that he is such a person.
This brings us to what I call the Kingibe question. This question deserves serious attention from us because it might hold the key to unravelling some of the conundrums that afflict our political life not just in Nigeria but in many other African countries, too. The question is motivated by the fact that it is mistaken to look at Kingibe’s failings as an individual issue or strictly personal imperfections.
I would like to suggest that Kingibe is only one face of an attribute that many of us in the political and intellectual spheres share and makes us ever vulnerable to the kind of opportunism, moral bankruptcy, prostitution, and lack of fealty to principles that Kingibe embodies. In other words, Kingibe is the mirror we need to hold up to ourselves if we are to preempt future incarnations.
Even if it is yet to live up to expectations, few deny the importance of Nigeria as the giant of Africa. The Nigeria of 1993 that Kingibe would have served as vice president had been the leading country in the continent when it came to global affairs. South Africa was just negotiating its way out of apartheid and Nelson Mandela was still one year away from taking the reins of power there. Everyone who adverted their mind to it then believed that Nigeria, if only it would get its act together, would play a pivotal role in the liberation of African-descended peoples everywhere in the world.
Of no slight significance was the fact that at the head of the ticket sat Abiola whose profile in Africa, because of his support for sports was huge, to put it mildly; and in the African Diaspora, his reputation had soared on account of his advocacy for and financing of the struggle for reparations for blacks for the ravages of slavery in the Americas and the European slave trade that spawned it.
In sum, the Nigeria to the vice presidency of which Kingibe was elected was, by all accounts, the most important, if not the most powerful, black country on earth! The annulment of the election and the installation of an illegitimate regime fronted by Abacha truncated the process and prevented the accession to the vice presidency of Nigeria of Kingibe as it did his principal’s, Abiola’s, to the presidency.
Against everybody’s expectations, Abiola decided that history would not be kind to him nor could he live with the ignominy that would attend his abandonment of the popular mandate that the election gave him. He stood his ground even when it was clear that it could cost him his life and all that he had labored to achieve in his life. In other words, the choice he made was nowhere inevitable. He could not see his way to living in any way that would represent a betrayal of the mandate he earned. He chose principle over expediency and history has pretty much made its judgment.
Kingibe made the exact opposite choice. He chose to abandon principle and did not leave it at that. He could have walked away from the mandate and gone back to his private life and enjoy his life as he saw fit. No, he became the foreign minister in the illegal government that usurped his mandate and served while his principal was incarcerated.
Here, at last, is the Kingibe question: what would make an individual, who is otherwise distinguished and adjudged worthy, give up the vice presidency of the most important, if not the most powerful country in Africa to become the diplomatic face of the most brutal regime in his country’s history led by a military flunkey whose generalship was dubious at best? Needless to say, even if Abacha had been a worthy general in the circumstance, the question would not be any less compelling. Given that there was no inevitability to the choice he made, the question deserves some reflection.
The question is beyond Kingibe the man. He is just an iteration of the type that populates the Nigerian, nay, African, political landscape since independence. Before we leave Nigeria, I am surprised that, in the present discussion, people are overlooking another significant enabler whose choice might only be slightly less grievous than Kingibe’s: Ernest Shonekan. What would make a business mogul who had headed the first true conglomerate in Nigeria, the United Africa Company, soil his sterling reputation by cooperating with an unprecedented illegality called Interim National Government and the subversion of the popular will of the Nigerian electorate? While we are on that, it may be time, as part of the exorcising of the ghosts of June 12, to remove Shonekan from the list of former presidents of Nigeria and the Council of State.
Other examples abound. Think of the intellectual and political amen corner for, first, Samuel Doe, and, later, Charles Taylor in Liberia; the yes men and women who celebrated Jean-Bedel Bokassa in the Central African Republic; the repeated selling out to Mobutu Sese Seko of the cream of Congolese intelligentsia and political elite; Raila Odinga agreeing to be Prime Minister to Mwai Kibaki; Morgan Tsvangirai serving under Robert Mugabe, when it was obvious that the latter had practically done a coup against the popular will of Zimbabweans; and so on.
I do not need to prolong this discussion by populating it with the many Kingibe-types in our successive administrations, military or civilian—in Nigeria.
I am convinced that answering the Kingibe question might open the path to a politics of principle, self-respect, and honour; and a steadfast refusal to sell out for pittances.
Táíwò teaches at the Africana Studies and Research Center, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY, U.S.A.