Title: Frank Kokori: The Struggle for June 12
Publisher: Safari Books Limited, Ibadan, 2014
Author: Frank Kokori
Reviewer: Bayo Ogunmupe
THIS voluminous book is the autobiography of Frank Kokori, the iconoclastic labour leader and hero of democracy. As a memoir, The Struggle for June 12 showcases the gladiators who helped attain democratic governance in Nigeria but have been neglected in present day Nigeria. As a ranking member of the campaign for the actualization of June 12, Kokori named 82 others among whom are Professor Wole Soyinka, General Alani Akinrinade and Senator Bola Tinubu.
To someone not versed in Nigerian history and politics, it would be necessary to explain June 12 as the day Moshood Abiola was elected President of Nigeria in 1993. Unfortunately the election was annulled by General Ibrahim Babangida, the military president at the time. Aside of the foreword, which was written by the eminent senior advocate of Nigeria – Femi Falana, the text comprises 22 chapteres, an epilogue, the index of 12 pages and spanning 344 pages. It is cleanly printed with beautifully illustrated paperback pictures of Kokori’s heroes of democracy. The author also had 16 pages of photographs stacked into it.
Frank Ovie Kokori got into fame as the General Secretary of the National Union of Petroleum and Gas Workers (NUPEG). That was in the Babangida era 1985-1993. Then, President Babangida wished to takeover NUPENG, but Kokori rebuffed him. For his transparency, Kokori became highly respected as a trade union leader. Unlike other labour leaders, he could not be compromised by bribery.
Though he was forbidden by law to play politics as a unionist, he believed that the demand for humane working conditions under military rule could not be divorced from the struggle for democracy and justice, so Kokori decided to take part in the political transition programme of General Ibrahim Babangida. At both the Constitution Review Committee and the Constituent Assembly where Kokori represented the Nigeria Labour Congress, he made his mark by representing freedom and democracy. He was a member of the caucus that established the Nigeria Labour Party.
But with the refusal of Babangida to register the Labour Party, the NLP merged with the centre left Social Democratic Party, which successfully sponsored Chief Abiola who later won the June 12, 1993 presidential election. Unfortunately, Babangida annulled the election, which was won by his friend and fellow Muslim, an heresy in Islam for which Babangida ought to have been excommunicated. But no one cared, a decision with horrendous implications in the future.
The NLC condemned the annulment but did not act on it. For NUPENG and the Petroleum and Gas Senior Staff Association of Nigeria (PENGASSAN) however, going on strike for the rule of law was the norm. They jointly went on strike. Added to the strikes were mass protests from the human rights groups. The crisis forced Babantida to relinquish power to Ernest Shonekan who was hurriedly installed as head of an Interim National Government (ING).
Thereafter, Kokori joined Abiola to fight for the actualization of the June 12 electoral mandate. Although he was disturbed to learn that General Sani Abacha was compiling a list of ministers with his plan to sack the ING for a democratically elected government to be headed by Abiola. When Abacha ousted Sonekan, he offered Kokori a ministerial post. However, Kokori rejected the offer, insisting on the inauguration of Abiola as the winner of the June 12 election. Not long after, Abacha consolidated power to the chagrin of Abiola’s mandate.
Abacha who had ostensibly seized power to placate Abiola, eventually ditched him with Abiola’s supporters. Then, Kokori adjudged Abiola’s declaration of himself as President had come too late in the day to have effect. But as soon as Abiola declared himself President, NUPENG and PENGASSAN started an indefinite industrial action. Then both unions and the NLC were proscribed, but the strike continued. Kokori then went underground. He was arrested at Yaba, Lagos, brutalized and taken to Abuja.
For four years thereafter, Kokori was detained in Bama Prison, Borno State. In spite of the poor conditions in prison, he confronted his assailants audaciously. His enemies were forced to admire his courageous commitment to principle in adversity. He did not regain his freedom until June 16, 1998 after the sudden death of the maximum dictator, Sani Abacha.
This paperback text contains the entire history of June 12 by an eye witness. He tells of the formation of the two government parties: Social Democratic Party with Babagana Kingibe as chairman and Tom Ikimi as Chairman of National Republican Convention (NRC). As the Natioanl Financial Secretary of the SDP, Kokori knew how money flowed into the covers of the party. He averred that the parties were well-funded. Each party was given N500 million at the time in 1990 when it was N10 to the US dollar.
Kokori credited the proper funding of the parties to wise advice from Professor Omo Omoruyi, chairman of the Centre for Democratic Studies. He told the story of the parting of the ways between godfather Shehu Musa Yar’Adua and his son – Babangana Kingibe. Kingibe’s ascendancy to the chair of SDP was owed to the grace of Yar’Adua, who funded Kingibe’s election. Though the age difference between Yar’Adua and Kingibe was not much, Kingibe willingly accepted Yar’Adua’s tutelage.
All the while, Yar’Adua the strategist, used Kingibe as a front to help work his own crowning as Nigeria’s chief executive. But in this he underestimated Kingibe. The godfather underestimated human nature. Since Yar’Adua never expected Kingibe to be nothing more than a puppet, he failed to understand that Kingibe could have ambition. Then Kingibe’s SDP executive organized presidential primaries in which Yar’Adua was returned. But rumour had it that the primaries were cancelled by Babangida based on reports by Kingibe that Yar’Adua heavily monetized the SDP primary. Besides, Kingibe and Tom Ikimi of NRC had their own ambitions as well as the channels of privately meeting Babangida. Moreover, these party executives had access to Babangida more than Yar’Adua whom Babangida regarded as a threat to his political future.
Thus, Yar’Adua was bitter for the cancelled primaries and he held Kingibe responsible for it. Though, Kingibe ranked in the second primaries as runner-up to Abiola, the repercussions might be the eventual annulment of June 12 election. This book is the candid memoir of Kokori, an alumnus of the University of Ibadan and former NUPENG General Secretary. It exposes the hidden facts about the chilling events before, during and after the June 12 election and the political brouhaha and the debilitating experience thereafter. It is a text on the political economy of betrayal and deprivation. I commend it onto your perusal and enlightenment.