By Owei Lakemfa
In the rascally days of the military, when generals were wedded to coups, a military officer arose in their ranks called Oladipo Donaldson Oyeyinka Diya. He was unknown to the public until January 1984 when the coup plotters led by General Muhammadu Buhari, who had overthrown the Shagari administration, announced him as the Military Governor of Ogun State.
The populace had thought the military seized power to alleviate their suffering, but soon realised that their state had worsened. So in Ogun State, they started referring to Diya, which literally means ‘reduce our suffering’, as Kunya which means: ‘add to our suffering’.
An August 1985 palace coup sent Diya back to military duties while his colleagues continued to mismanage the country. The military shifted the handover to civilian rule thrice before aborting the June 12, 1993 presidential election won by Chief Moshood Kashimawo Abiola just so they would not return to the barracks.
After the annulment of the election, the Generals put in place a contraption called the Interim National Government, ING, headed by one of their civilian ‘boys’, Chief Ernest Shonekan. But it was strange to the country in all ways and the Nigeria body rejected the foreign object. An upcoming Justice Dolapo Akinsanya declared the ING illegal, and that was when Diya became quite active amongst his fellow Generals.
Chief Gani Fawehinmi had some days after the verdict on the ING launched a book on the subject during which the legal icon and advocate of the masses called on the “revolutionaries” in the military to seize power. I got up at the public forum to oppose the call on the basis that we do not know revolutionaries in the highly compromised military which behaves like a lion that had tasted human blood. I insisted that civilians must take over; and on behalf of the Pro-Democracy Movement in Nigeria, declared that we would oppose and fight any new coup plotter on the streets as we had done with the Babangida dictatorship.
The newspapers next morning carried the open disagreement between Chief Fawehinmi and I.
Then, Dr Olu Onagoruwa, a noted lawyer, minority rights activist and pro-democracy leader, asked me for a meeting. He told me he had read the altercation between Chief Fawehnmi and I, but would suggest I make no further public comments against a coup as one was coming in a few weeks.
I told him I was aware that General Diya was coordinating one and had consulted a number of civil society groups, including those in the leading Campaign for Democracy, CD, but assured him that even if it will take hundreds of lives as it did under Babangida, we were going to take on any new military regime.
The coup was staged on November 17, 1993. A reticent, seemingly apolitical General Sani Abacha with a voracious appetite for alcohol, women and public funds, was named Head of State and Diya as his Deputy. Dr Onagoruwa was named Attorney General and Minister of Justice, and my former employer in the GUARDIAN Newspapers, Mr Alex Ibru, became Interior Minister.
The more boisterous Diya, coordinator of the coup who seemed to have control of the new regime and the backing of many Generals, ran the show, while Abacha appeared to have taken a back seat.
The popularised objective of the coup was the de-annulment of the June 12, 1993 presidential election and swearing-in of Abiola as president. But this was not happening fast and there were worries. The impression was sold that a publicised meeting between Abacha and Abiola with Diya and Senator Bola Ahmed Tinubu as witnesses, had ironed out things.
Some five of us leading the pro-democracy movement, including our leader, Dr Beko Ransome-Kuti, Dr Frederick Fasehun and Femi Falana met Chief Abiola the next day. First, we protested his public endorsement of the coup plotters. Secondly, we warned him that the Generals are untrustworthy and thirdly, made him know that we would oppose the new regime.
We were also angry about the elevation of Abacha who had on July 6, 1993 personally led heavily armed soldiers to maul down protesters demanding the restoration of Abiola’s mandate. On that day, Abacha and his murderous soldiers had shot dead 118 pro-democracy protesters in Lagos.
Abiola had characteristically tried to make light our protests. He told us that he met the diminutive Abacha because: “If you want to greet a dwarf, you have to bend down to his level.” Beko had responded that a dwarf can be placed on a pedestal rather than bending down to his level.
As the regime consolidated, it was not certain whether the Diya wing was still “standing on”, “sitting by” or even supporting June 12 mandate restoration.
Since Dr. Onagoruwa appeared quite influential and respected in the regime, was very close to Diya with whom he shared the same Odogbolu homestead, and was a mutual friend, Beko and I decided to have a talk with him. He invited us to his Odogbolu country home for a weekend where he assured us that Diya was in charge of the regime and could, if need be, instruct “the boys” to clear off Abacha who he said was called ‘Baba Go-Slow’ in the Executive.
Diya completely underrated Abacha and was basically incapable of reading the political situation. Even when those of us, outsiders could read changing situation, he could not. By the time Diya realised he was riding on a tiger’s back, he had practically ended up in its stomach.
Abacha had Ibru shot on February 2, 1996; he survived, but lost an eye and two fingers. He got his killer squad on June 4, 1996 to execute Mrs. Kudirat Abiola, Chief Abiola’s wife, on the streets of Lagos. Abacha went after Onagoruwa by killing his son, Oluwatoyin, a lawyer, on December 18, 1996. He then sent Diya to officially commiserate with him. Then, he went after Diya.
After two assassination attempts on Diya, including in December 1997, blowing up the aircraft he was to take on official assignment to Benue State, Abacha manufactured a phantom coup under which Diya in April, 1998, was sentenced to death. It was the second of such coups. The first was in 1995 under which men like retired Generals Olusegun Obasanjo and Shehu Yar’Adua were convicted. The latter was poisoned in Abakali Prisons.
After the sentence, videos emerged of General Diya kneeling down before Abacha, weeping and begging for his life. His life might have been spared only because Abacha lost his own on June 8, 1998. That enabled Diya to live another 25 years in virtual obscurity before he finally bowed out on March 26, 2023. May we never witness such regimes in Nigeria again. Amen!