A former Director of Organisation of the Unity Party of Nigeria, Chief Ebenezer Babatope, tells FEMI MAKINDE why he agreed to take up a political appointment in the late Gen. Sani Abacha’s government
Chief Ayo Adebanjo said in his book that Chief Obafemi Awolowo called Chief Bola Ige by his first name. Do you know the kind of relationship that existed between the two of them when they were alive?
The late Chief Bola Ige was governor of the old Oyo State on the platform of the Unity Party of Nigeria and the late Chief Obafemi Awolowo was the leader of the party. Don’t forget that Chief Ayo Adebanjo and Bola Ige were contemporaries at that time. The two of them (Adebanjo and Ige) gave their best.
What was the relationship between Bola Ige and Ayo Adebanjo?
It was not bad. The two of them were very frank in discussing issues with Chief Awolowo. The two of them were very brilliant politicians and there were no disagreements between the two great persons.
Was there any veiled rivalry between Ige and Adebanjo?
No. There was nothing like that. They saw things from their own perspectives and they shared their individual opinions on issues without bitterness.
Chief Adebanjo, in his recent book, recalled an encounter between him and Ige’s wife, Atinuke, where they both appeared in a case before Magistrate Ovie-Whiskey. The magistrate called Atinuke’s case with an expression, ‘ladies first’. Do you know if this encounter angered Adebanjo because he later reported the matter to Ige?
What I know is that they could have disagreement. For instance, Chief Adebanjo had a disagreement with me when I went to serve in the Abacha government but what I know was that one must understand who these men were. If they had disagreements, it wasn’t something serious. There was no ill-feeling between Chief Bola Ige and Chief Ayo Adebanjo.
Can you recall what happened during the treason trial
I was a secondary school student at that time. I was a student at Ibadan Grammar School; so, I was not a mature person then. I did not join Papa Awolowo’s political family until the UPN was formed in 1978, but I knew about the leaders; I knew about them very well. Chief Bola Ige was holding the home front while Chief Ayo Adebanjo had to travel to Ghana when they were going to perscute him. He was with Kwame Nkrumah for a long time. He was received very well because they knew that he came from Papa Awolowo.
Do you know the process that led to the emergence of Chief Bola Ige as the governor of the old Oyo State?
I know that there was a struggle between Chief Bola Ife and Baba (Emmanuel) Alayande, who was Bola Ige’s teacher at Ibadan Grammar School. But Bola Ige emerged as the candidate of the UPN and he eventually won the election. There was no fight and even Baba Alayande served in that UPN government.
Is it true that Chief Bola Ige spearheaded the agitation that UPN must conduct primary elections to pick its governorship candidates?
UPN held primary elections. There was primary election in Ogun State, it was between Chief Bisi Onabanjo, Odunjo and Tunji Otegbeye. When they held the primary election in Ogun State, Onabanjo triumphed. Papa Awolowo wanted a democracy that cannot be flawed and that was why the party went ahead and conducted primaries. In (the then) Bendel State, Ambrose Alli had about three opponents also participated in the party primary election. Papa Awolowo did not do anything to disturb the flow of primaries. So, nobody can say that anybody was the author of primary elections in the UPN. Even in Lagos State, where Alhaji Lateef Jakande was very popular, there was primary election and he triumphed.
So what will you say led to the ‘governorship-or-nothing protest’ allegedly led by Bola Ige?
I didn’t know anything about that. All I know as the director of organisation was that there was primary election and Bola Ige defeated Baba Alayande. Like I told you, Baba Alayande embraced Bola Ige, who was his student at Ibadan Grammar School. I don’t know anything about the governorship-or-nothing protest.
But is it true that Chief Awolowo was not pleased with Bola Ige for not allowing his former teacher to take the first shot at the governorship seat?
No, you cannot say that. It is true that Papa did not hide it from anyone that Baba Alayande was his friend. But Papa knew that he could not have gone ahead telling the world that Alayande must not contest and that Ige should contest. Even in the old Ondo State, Adekunle Ajasin had to face Senator Ayo Fasanmi in the primary election for the governorship ticket and Akin Omoboriowo, who later became the deputy governor, supported Ajasin against Fasanmi. Senator Ayo Fasanmi still remains an Awolowo’s man till today despite losing that primary election.
Do you know anything about the ‘Night of long Knives?
Yes, I remember! I was the director of organisation of the UPN at that time. We went to the old Gongola State for our party’s meeting. It was when the late S. M. Afolabi and the late Bola Ige were entangled in a controversy on who went to Obasanjo or who did not go to Obasanjo to resolve a party dispute. And when we came back, Bola Ige granted an interview to The Guardian newspaper and that was where he described what happened in Gongola as a Night of long Knives.
But Chief Adebanjo asserted in his book that Chief Bola Ige and Chief Olusegun Obasanjo were the undertakers that presided over the funeral of the Alliance for Democracy. Do you agree with him?
I was not a member of the AD; so, I couldn’t have known what transpired there. When I returned from London where I went on self exile, I went back to the PDP. So, I don’t know what happened in the AD. I don’t know who presided over any burial of AD. I was not a member; so, I couldn’t have known who killed the party and who the undertakers were.
Are you pleased with the roles that Chief Adebanjo and other Awo faithful played when Bola Ige was killed and during the trial of his suspected killers?
There was no bad relationship between Bola Ige and Chief Adebanjo that would make anybody, who was Awo loyalist, to be happy that Bola Ige was murdered. No! He doesn’t kill the virtual views of the people over event in the country. They wanted an acceptable candidate for the party, and so, they were divided. They went for primary and Chief Olu Falae won. So, nobody would have rejoiced over the killing of Bola Ige. They could have expressed different views about the primary election but nobody would have rejoiced that Bola Ige was killed.
Is it true that UPN had already been formed before you were employed as the director of the organisation?
No! The UPN came from a committee of friends. There was a committee of friends and they were meeting all over the country. It was the committee of friends that later transformed into the Unity Party of Nigeria and Baba Awolowo was the creator. I was a young man and I joined the committee of friends and from there, joined the UPN. That was when Awolowo ensured that I emerged as the director of organisation at age 34 or 35.
So, one can say you are part of those who formed the UPN?
Don’t forget that Chief Adebanjo and Bola Ige were elders and highly-experienced people. One thing that was very particular about the UPN was that the party was blessed with mature people with lots of experiences. So, if I say I was part of those who formed the UPN, I will be arrogating to myself what doesn’t belongs to me. When it was formed, it was a popular party and many people went there and Awolowo was our idol.
Chief Adebanjo said your participation in Abacha regime ruined your reputation and brought you down. What is your reaction to this?
That is his view because, before I accepted the appointment to serve in the Abacha government, I had written books. I went to Mama HID Awolowo and told her that I was invited by Abacha and she said ‘go and take the job’. Even Papa Adesanya, who was a cousin of my mother in-law (both of them are dead now), did not say I should not take part in the Abacha government. So, I don’t know what he meant by that. I must respect his experience, his maturity and his contribution to the progress of the nation. He is a great man in his own right. If we have gone out of the Abacha’s government, something wrong might have happened. I went to participate in the Abacha’s government with the full consent of my leaders. Where problem started was when they asked us to quit the government. I said if we had gone out of Abacha government, the boys would have done anything to us. I am still the same person that went to that Abacha government and I am happy to say to anyone and I challenge everybody that if you know what I did which went against the teachings and ideas of Awolowo, such persons should come out and say so. As I am talking to you, I am 75 years old. Nobody can say I stole a penny from the Nigerian government and nobody can say I influenced fraud.
Do you have any regret working under Abacha ?
No regret at all! I am a fanatical Christian; I am a Methodist and I know that whatever happens to a man happened to him for his own good and from God. If I said I am, then that means I am questioning God but I cannot question God.
So, are you saying that God wanted you to serve under Abacha?
If God did not want me so serve, I wouldn’t have taken up the appointment. I served in the Abacha government and I am still raising my head up to declare that no man, born of woman, could say what I have done wrong against the teachings of Awolowo who brought me up from nowhere and made me who I am.
Why did you join the PDP and not the AD, which was populated by Awo’s loyalists?
I wanted to join the AD. I went round but it appeared that they did not want me to join them because of this Abacha albatross, which they all put on my head. So, I could not force them. I went to join the PDP and my friends like Jubril Martins-Kuye, Tunde Adeniran, Yemi Farounbi and many more were in the PDP. We were all young stars in the UPN and these people were my generation and age group. So, I went to join them.
Are you saying that you actually wanted to join the AD but the Awoists rejected you.
The late Abraham Adesanya, who was my mother in-law’s cousin, would have wished that I was in the AD but some of them didn’t want me to join but I will say it till I enter my grave that I was not wrong for joining Abacha government and I know that posterity will judge.
Why have you not being attending Afenifere’s meetings?
Any true Yoruba man, who loves progressive ideas, will be an Afenifere because it is a great legacy given to us by Chief Awolowo. But you see, I am getting old and I have a lot to attend to politically in the PDP. I am back to Ilesa now where I am enjoying the good company of my people. I only attend events if invited.
So, will you attend Afenifere meetings if you are invited?
There was a time that I was critically ill and several people, including Chef Ayo Adebanjo, wished me quick recovery. There has never been anything personal between me and the Afenifere leaders. They wanted me to attend their meetings. If I was well then, I would have gone.
Is it true that you once accused Ayo Adebanjo of having unforgiven spirit?
I have never done that. What has he done to me to warrant such? When I was in prison, the Buhari’s prison, Papa Awolowo and Chief Adebanjo sent money regularly. Adebanjo was not a millionaire but he gave his little help to my wife and children when I was in prison. Don’t mind those assertions.
Why did Maj. Gen. Muhammadu Buhari (as the Head of State) send you to prison if you were not corrupt?
He did that because he knew that Awolowo boys could be dangerous to the military existence if they were allowed to move about freely on the streets. That was why he jailed me and others immediately after the coup. I spent three months in Kirikiri prison before I was sent to Yola prison where I spent eight months.
Are you saying it had nothing to do with corruption allegation?
I was not a member of any government when he sent me to prison; I was a member of the UPN. I didn’t have anything to do with government money.
The same Buhari is seeking a reelection in 2019. What is your view on this?
We are working in the PDP to present a candidate that will defeat Buhari in the next election and I am very confident that PDP will defeat him because PDP will never underrate the potential of the Nigerian people. We shall bring all what we have learnt from Papa Awolowo on board to defeat him.
Which party will you describe as progressive in Nigeria now?
There is no party in Nigeria that can say it is progressives.