The Man Who Opposed Abacha. By Achike Chude

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Aso Rock was in some panic. Out of the five political parties formed and controlled by the military authority, one was proving difficult and uncooperative. The political parties, Committee for National Consensus (CNC), United Nigeria People’s Convention (UNPC), National Centre Party of Nigeria (NCPN), Democratic Party of Nigeria (DPN) had all endorsed and given automatic presidential tickets to the dictator, General Sani Abacha. All he needed was to choose whichever of the parties he desired and the rest was a done deal. The Grassroots Democratic Party (GDM) was expected to do the same but some within the party declined, insisting that Sani Abacha must test his popularity in a national convention to be held in Maiduguri. The position was endorsed by the national executive council meeting of the party. But battle was not over. Very soon, the fight within and outside the party on the fate of the convention went all the way to the seat of power at Aso Rock where ‘Jerry Boy,’ influencial army general and long time friend of the Head of State was in support of automatic endorsement. The pro-convention group was made up of a more ‘radical’ assemblage of young elements supported by the very powerful chief security officer to the Head of State. The pro-convention group won the battle of supremacy and the convention went to Maiduguri. But not without safeguards to ensure that after all had been said and done, only one candidate among the contestants would emerge victorious – Sani Abacha. They had the fear factor to intimidate recalcitrant members of the political elites and money, plenty of it, to appease the cooperative ones. But they were still worried because by then, Dr Tunji Braithwaite, radical lawyer and fiery politician, known for his consistent call for a people’s revolution to overthrow the ‘rats and cockroaches’ infesting our country had declared himself unafraid of Abacha and also thrown his hat in the ring. He would be among the five that would contest against Abacha.
On the day of the convention, the city of Maiduguri was taken over by soldiers armed to the teeth. Their intention was unambiguous, and their motivation high. Their instruction was clear; General Sani Abacha, the maximum ruler of the military dictatorship must be chosen as the presidential candidate of the Grassroots Democratic Party (GDM). Already there was a consensus by certain critical but compromised segments of the Nigerian society that Nigeria will not survive if Sani Abacha did not successfully transform from a military president to a civilian president. According to these sets of people, in a country of over 200 million people, Sani Abacha was the only qualified Nigerian to run for president. To that affect, all sorts of people had mobilised themselves on ‘pilgrimage’ to the Head of State to ‘beg’ and ‘plead’ with him to save Nigeria from imminent collapse by becoming our civilian president. The million man matches were being organised all over the place for the pleasure and ambition of the head of state. One after the other, some traditional rulers as well as some Christian and Muslim leaders including professional groups and artisans all spoke with one voice; “Abacha Must Be President”
The Grassroots Democratic Party was the only party standing during that dark period of 1998. It was not that the party, also described by the late assassinated former governor of Oyo state, Bola Ige as a part of the “five fingers of a leprous hand” was no longer part of the five parties formed with the blessings of the powers that be. No! It was because there were certain young, radical elements within the GDM that did not agree with the vision of the Abacha government and loyalists for continuity. They had constituted themselves as a threat to the successful military-to-civilian transmutation of General Abacha. The heartland and headquarters of that challenge, opposition, and defiance was Lagos. The leader of that resistance was a certain Akintoye Branco-Rhodes, son of Olayinka Rhodes, Lagos business man socialite, and Baamofin of Lagos. His mother was Elizabeth Abimbola Rhodes, the then Iyalode of Lagos. Akintoye was just 34 years, and as the Lagos state chairman of the Grassroots Democratic Party, was the youngest party chairman in the country. He had sworn that Abacha would not be allowed to become a civilian president. It was a threat he had issued publicly in the media, a media that became too scared to report Akintoye’s warning to the military government. And they had a reason to be afraid. The military crackdown had begun earlier in August 18, 1994 as the government sacked the Executive Council of NUPENG PENGASSAN, and the NLC, and closed down three newspapers: the Punch, Concord group, (owned by Abiola) and The Guardian.
By this time, bomb explosions across the country had become the order of the day, accompanied by the assassinations of prominent opposition people in the country. The bombings, suspected to be perpetrated by elements within the military, were used as a pretext to further the brutality of the junta.Odion Aikhane, Gani Fawehinmi, Barrister Femi Aborishade, Chief Anthony Enahoro, Admiral Ndubuisi Kanu, Chima Ubani, General Alani Akinrinade, Alhaji Balarabe Musa and many others were arrested at different times. Wole Soyinka and others who could make, it had fled into exile. It was in the midst of these acts of brutal repression that Akintoye and the rebels within the Lagos GDM dared to stare the lion in the face.
The government, anxious to have a successful national convention in Maiduguri where it was planned that Abacha would be carried unopposed, come what may, knew about the rebellion and the renegades in Lagos. The government solution was to ensure that they did not have a plane that would take them to Maiduguri. And with a few hours to go for the commencement of the convention, the South-West delegates led by Branco-Rhodes was truly grounded and stranded. No plane was found for a flight to Maiduguri. Not even a charter flight. But the talents and tenacity of the young man were incredible. His faith that they would be at the convention was strong and unyielding. He had a brainwave and went in search of the General Manager of then Nigeria Airways and informed him that a plane was needed for Abacha’s convention in far away Maiduguri. Frightened at the possible implication of being accused of botching a pro-Abacha convention, the helpless and hapless manager quickly made a Jedda bound plane available to the delegation. The half empty plane would drop them off in Maiduguri and proceed on the original destination to Jedda.
Thus the denouement and grand finale to the crisis was set at the El Kanemi stadium in Maiduguri where Nigerians with nothing but raw courage as weapons, faced off against their fellow Nigerians armed with AK 47s, armoured tanks and tears gas, intent on protecting and preserving the ambition of one man. And the people with courage almost won. At least they won the popularity contest as they energised the entire stadium of plebians, grassroots and hoi-poloi to the extent that the crowd began to shout anti-government, anti-Abacha rhetorics. And the inevitable happened. Suddenly the lights in the stadium went off, ‘government magic’ as attested to by Fela Anikulakpo Kuti began to happen and suddenly General Sani Abacha emerged as the presidential candidate of the Grassroots Democratic Party.
Angry and disappointed, the Lagos delegation returned to the state, called a world press conference and, in full view of the media, proceeded to burn their membership cards of their political party. But the profound prophetic statement made by Akintoye Branco-Rhodes came to pass. Sani Abacha did not succeed in transmuting into a civilian president. He died on June 8th 1998.
This is a fitting but true tribute to Akintoye Branco-Rhodes, the friend who became a true brother to me. He passed away to eternal glory on Friday 19th 2021. May his soul rest in the bosom of the Lord.

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