By Owei Lakemfa
The battles I describe, took place four decades ago. They speak to character and governance; some of the problems we have today and why the country is in turmoil. They were between a then 42-year-old General Muhammadu Buhari and 76-year-old Michael Adekunle Ajasin who had retired after 54 years of teaching from July 1921 to August 1975.
Both men represented different values: one relying on coercion and the other on persuasion and reliance on the intellect. Ajasin had been admitted into the Fourah Bay College for a Bachelor Programme in English, Modern History and Economics in 1943 that is one year after Buhari was born.
Ajasin had the distinction of crafting the Free Education Programme of the Action Group under which millions of Nigerians were educated free, some to university level.
In his own case, Buhari joined the army at 19 in 1962 and spent the years 1975 to 1978 holding political offices as Governor of the then North-East, Governor of Borno State, Federal Commissioner (Minister) of Petroleum and Natural Resources, Chairman of the Nigeria National Petroleum Corporation, NNPC, and Member of the ruling Supreme Military Council, SMC. So he was exposed to high political offices and politics before returning to military duties. Buhari and his fellow military officers who had been politically exposed, were like lions who had tasted human blood and could not restrict themselves to normal diet.
It, therefore, came as no surprise when four years into renewed civil rule, they were back in political power having overthrown the Shagari administration in a military coup on December 31, 1983. The coup plotters with Buhari as new Military Head of State accused the ousted administration of turning the country into a debtor nation with high unemployment figures and poor living conditions.
In the four years the military was away, Ajasin was Governor of Ondo State. In those 50 months he spent in office, among other achievements, he built a bank, an insurance company, a university, a polytechnic, a television station and provided free education and free health services. Also, Ajasin was so frugal that he did not spend the Governor’s allowances legitimately allocated to his office.
Despite these proofs of honesty and good governance, the Buhari regime seized Ajasin and threw him into detention, first in Bonny Camp, then in Kirikiri and Ikoyi Prisons and then, in Ibadan.
Buhari hauled the elderly Ajasin to two different military tribunals. In the first case before the Lagos Zone of the Military Tribunal, he was charged along with former Governors Bola Ige of Oyo State and Olabisi Onabanjo of Ogun State for allegedly collecting a N2.8 million kickback from the Bouygues construction company. The company was handling the construction of the headquarters of the Great Nigeria Insurance Company, GRENIC, a subsidiary of Odua Holdings Limited jointly owned by the three states: Ondo, Oyo and Ogun.
There had been disagreements in the GRENIC Board of Directors over the contract, and its Chairman, Mr Olanihun Ajayi, had reported this to the three owning states. The three governors had then mandated Onabanjo who lived closest to Lagos to look into the crisis and report back. When Governor Onabanjo reported back at a meeting chaired by Ajasin, Bola Ige was absent. So it seemed illogical that the latter could be charged with an alleged crime when he was not even present at the meeting. On his own part, Ajasin told the Tribunal that at the meeting, nobody spoke about 20 per cent mobilisation fee and that the governors did not ask for a fee nor directed that any money should be paid their party, the Unity Party of Nigeria, UPN.
Ajasin and Ige were discharged and acquitted but Onabanjo was sentenced to 21 years imprisonment without a prima facie case established against him.
An interesting aspect of this trial is that the Buhari regime through then Deputy Head of State, Brigadier Tunde Idiagbon had months before even interrogating the three governors, made a false public announcement that they had admitted receiving the bribe! So the trial was like a face-saving act and Onabanjo was just a sacrificial lamb to cover the regime’s shame.
Ajasin’s second trial, this time at the Ibadan Zone was for allegedly conspiring with a state-owned company, the Nigerian-Italian Ceramic Products Company to fraudulently obtain N600,000 and paying same to the party, the UPN. His explanation was that while it was the duty of the electoral body, FEDECO to pay the agents of all political parties in the elections, the body had asked the parties to find the money and apply for a refund.
He said it was on this basis the party applied for a loan with interest from the company and that “the company has the power to grant a loan to any person, including a political party which is a person under our law.” The loan application and approval he said were well documented and that it was going to be repaid once FEDECO made the necessary refunds of polling expenses and statutory subvention to the party. He argued that he could not be charged with conspiracy because: “ Conspiracy has been defined as an agreement between two or more persons to commit a crime” but taking a loan was not a crime.
The Tribunal on July 24, 1985 discharged and acquitted Ajasin and his two fellow accused; former Trade Commissioner, Chief (Mrs) Alice Mobolaji Osomo and the UPN Deputy Treasurer, Mr Joshua Akin Majasan
After two humiliating defeats at military tribunals he set up himself and detaining the old man for eighteen months, rather than allow Ajasin go home, General Buhari decided to detain him indefinitely without any further trial. Ajasin was in prison on August 27, 1985 when he received news of Buhari’s ouster. Three days later, in announcing the release of 87 detainees including Ajasin, the new Minister of Information Lieutenant Colonel Anthony Ukpo apologised to Ajasin. He described him as an old, honest and righteous man who after two trials ought to have been set free. He added: “this is contrary to our (Military) tradition and even if he was found guilty, as an old man, he should have been pardoned”
When a new military dictatorship under General Sani Abacha arose in 1993, Buhari supported it and served that regime as the Executive Chairman of its controversial Petroleum (Special ) Trust Fund. In contrast, Ajasin opposed the fascist Abacha regime and as the leader of the National Democratic Coalition, NADECO, fought for the restoration of democracy. Pa Ajasin passed away on October 3, 1997, twenty months before civilian rule was restored. Today, Buhari is the President of Nigeria; a beneficiary of Ajasin’s untiring struggle to restore democracy.