Ebino at 78: My fear for Nigeria

Elder statesman, staunch Awoist and chieftain of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), Ijesa-born Chief Ebenezer Oluwole Abayomi Babatope, is 78 years today. Though he isn’t rolling out the drums and jingling the cymbals, he thinks highly of the calendar milestone, being shared with the man with the single biggest influence on his life, Chief Obafemi Awolowo. BOLA BADMUS, SEGUN KASALI, SYLVESTER OKORUWA and LANRE ADEWOLE sat with him for his thoughts on Nigeria then, now and tomorrow.


Congratulations, you are 78 sir.

Yes, 78, that’s was the age Papa got to when he died; Awolowo got to the age of 78 and died. And I thank God I am being part of it, being 78, where my leader got to and then died.


What are your reflections?

Very many reflections, I am very happy to have been appointed the National Director of Organisation of the Unity Party of Nigeria (UPN) by Papa Awolowo at that time, and it was a glorious thing to have served under Papa Awolowo because I was lucky that Papa chose me as an official of his party at the time when people who were better than me politically and ideologically were all over the place. And for that, I would ever be grateful to him. So, it was a pleasure to serve the party and to rekindle the energy of Papa Awolowo’s ideological life. Thank God for it, and it was a good reflection, very good memory. I would forever thank my God for making that possible and for making it something I would live with.


What other memories do you hold dear?

I hold dear the fact that despite all the problems that the nation has confronted, we are still breathing, very much alive, and succeeding in battling with life. I thank God that God has enabled me to continue with the struggle that Papa Awolowo started; the struggle that is still on, but should be carried to a logical conclusion. I am very, very happy indeed and I do give praise to God Almighty that I got to this age of 78, in peace and not in pieces; I am able to give the best to my country. I was born to a Methodist clergyman, who is now of blessed memory, and something of memorial is that I know well that my father taught us all the rudiments that a Christian would need to pull through difficult times. Papa Awolowo also gave me everything in life that practically improved the course of my life and that virtually set me on the path of life as a perfect runner.

For example, Papa Awolowo taught many of us that when we are in public office, there are lots of things involved there. Don’t enjoy in government what you cannot afford in private life. What he is saying is that if you are made a public officer, don’t enjoy what you cannot provide for yourself in private life. If you know you cannot provide yourself a Coca Cola in private life, don’t take it when you are in office.

Secondly, Papa Awolowo said ‘don’t take gratification from anyone, that in the next morning you would not be able to look straight into the person’s face. Don’t compromise your life.’ A lot of people compromise because they want to give contracts to people; when you compromise, you end up in a terrible situation.

Thirdly, Baba said, ‘don’t give up your life to civil servants to control, because when you do so, you have only destroyed yourself. Because the civil servants will always tell you; ‘the Honourable Minister may want to approve,’ that’s dangerous. If they say the Honourable Minister may want to approve, if you approve, you are doing so at your own detriment. It means you are not part of what you are doing,’ and civil servants are fond of doing that.

So, many of us who were Papa’s protégés, when we were appointed to public office, we ensured that we did not compromise those three vital lessons that Papa Awolowo gave us.


Obviously, Papa’s briefing was central to the man you have become.

Oh, very central.


Were you the one that found Papa or Papa found you?

That’s very interesting. As a young man growing up in Ifaki-Ekiti, in those days, the only political party known in that area was the political party founded by Papa Obafemi Awolowo. I was lucky to really have been bonded in support of Awolowo as at that time. As a young man, not only that I was able to ensure that the principles of Awolowo, as the leader and founder of the ideological Action Group, was sustained, I also made sure I must not compromise anymore.


You were happy you met Awolowo.

Very, very happy.


The ideas he left behind for you and others, who are his close associates, are enormous. The Nigeria we have now, what are your regrets?

I have many regrets. The Nigeria Papa left has been compromised; it has been destroyed because Papa taught us all the principles that would make the nation great. We never thought we would have this kind of thing whereby elections would be hopelessly rigged by those who are in power to ensure they have political dominance in power and in government. I never knew, now I know better. If you want to win election in Nigeria, you must pray to God Almighty and you must pray to God to help you solve the problem of Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC). INEC is a terrible organisation now; they manipulate election at will; they are never afraid of God Almighty and, therefore, the Nigerian people are held at the mercy of those who do not want Nigerians to have their freedom to elect those who would govern them. The best option one can have, Chief Awolowo said, is democracy, that democracy is the last option for mankind. Mankind can only progress if we enthrone proper democracy.

Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, I will share his view in all my interviews. He gave a proper definition of democracy when he was alive. He said, ‘Democracy is demonstration of craze, crazy demon.’ And he was right. When you have democracy that was not guided by rules, that has estranged government from the people, then you have ‘demon crazy.’ Not democracy, but ‘demon crazy,’ ‘crazy demon.’ Well, we pray to God Almighty that INEC will, one day, change its mind and give the people of Nigeria the right to elect those who would govern them, and when they do that, they would enable Nigeria to stabilise democracy.


So, what is the way forward?

The way forward is to subscribe to the tenets of democracy to ensure that the people are considered important and are allowed to choose those who would govern them. Don’t manipulate your interest, or their interest, don’t manipulate the people because when you manipulate them and their interest; you are destroying the nation.


If you are going to look at the present administration in the country, how would you assess it?

I don’t know what I can use to rate Buhari’s administration. He is a lucky man; he is in power and I always concede to him. I don’t have anything to gain by saying that he has failed. He is of my own generation. He is one month and some days older than I. He is of my own generation, and I want to see him succeed but unfortunately he cannot succeed well because the people have it as their right to be protected and to survive under democracy.


Am I correct to call you a socialist and federalist?

I have been a socialist all my life but when you are a socialist, you believe that the people are the people, they are the moving forces behind this thing. People are the ones who can really practicalise their lives by putting their democratic lives in the control of those who would help govern them. So, really as a federalist, I met federalism in the country. My leader, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, was a four-star federalist. Those who are advocating for restructuring and federalism are saying ‘let’s go back to the basic tenets of federalism, let us have proper definition of the country’s existence, that is the elementary of restructuring, let’s go back to federalism.’


Why is that difficult for the present leadership of the country?

I don’t know, I don’t know. It is the military that brought all this mis-governance and then tried to push federalism away. We must give proper definition of federal nature to our country’s existence. When we do that, then we will solve the problems in the country and then we will solve the problem of poverty.


Election rigging in the country is not a new phenomenon; it has always been with us.

It has always been there; they ensured that Papa Awolowo did not win power by rigging the election. By so doing, they destroyed the country because Papa would have left outstanding legacy of democracy that would have been able to pull Nigeria through. But they didn’t want him, and they didn’t help Nigeria and that’s why we are where we are today.


The #EndSARS protests were not expected to be that huge. With that kind of feedback, do you foresee a possible uncoordinated revolution in the country if we continue this way?

Well, I am praying we don’t have an uncoordinated revolution, and I am praying that we have large hearts to solve our problems in a manner that will make us to be growing under a democratic atmosphere, under a democratic platform because any recourse to violence rather than democratic means, will destroy our country and that’s why I am praying to God that He should answer our prayers.


What is your view on the North/South dichotomy ahead of 2023 polls?

All I would say is that we must ensure that, as I said before, the principles of federalism must be held, to govern our lives. Those who are thinking that they want to hold Nigeria to ransom are making mistakes. Nigeria can no longer be ruled according to whims and caprice of those who feel they have to be in power for life. Let’s give federalism a chance, let us ensure that we run a country that will take care of the interest of the Nigerian people. I am pained seeing kidnapping here and there, killing here and there. l am praying to God, I am sure many people are also praying to God and God is going to change what we are having now, for us to have Nigeria as a country that gives respect to democratic wishes.


In one breath, do you support transfer of power to the South come 2023?

In fact, my party, the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), respects that. That’s what we have in our constitution for ensuring that power should be given to all parts of the country. But those who say Nigeria belongs to a particular tribe forever, they don’t understand what they are saying. Nigeria has passed that stage. Any tribe that tries to say that Nigeria does not belong to a free country is wasting its time, and only trying to destroy the country.


Ahead of 2023, there are groups and individuals trying to call for boycott of election if the country fails to restructure, what is your take?

I don’t really agree with that. Let us return  to the federalist years of Nigeria. Federalist era was one which guaranteed justice, fair- play for all. But how long are we going to survive, by boycotting elections? Let’s have ways and means of resolving the controversial issues that are developing and ensure that when we restructure, we allow competent people to govern the nation and justice and fair- play to direct the affairs of the country.


What about the call to approach the National Assembly over restructuring?

Does the National Assembly want people to approach them? They should do the right thing; they should do the right thing by ensuring that the law they pass honours and allows for free discussion of ideas that would guide proper interpretation of restructuring.


Are you also an advocate of state police?

You see, state police is a good idea because the officers would know the terrain of their areas, the geography of their area and know what operates in their areas. And when we have state police, it would give strength and fervor to the operations of democracy, and when you have state police, you are allowing the people who know the terrain to be in charge of the security of the nation.

Look at it now, people are being killed left, right and centre because of security lapses; that’s what is going on. We can have the state police that would do the right thing under the law; that is what is important and I want to appeal to those who govern us, to give it a chance. When they give it a chance, we are going to be free forever. Let’s give state police a chance and let those who rule Nigeria ensure fairness and justice to everyone.


Can we also return to regionalism?

We can return to regionalism but we are saying that if you go to regionalism, we must ensure we go back to it with proper definition of federalism and when you do that, and then we are allowing those who believe in the federal law to ensure they develop the country. Federalism was part and parcel of our struggle for independence, but when you say you don’t want federalism, then it means you want to return to what I can call ‘tyranny,’ and that will not be good for our country.


What is your fear for the country?

My fear for the country is the inability of those who govern to ensure that we have an INEC that respects the wishes of the Nigerian people, that does not rig elections, to make sure that those who vote are able to vote their choice into power. That’s my fear for Nigeria. If we are able to solve the problem of INEC, and make INEC to be reasonable to give us free and transparent election, then we have solved one of the major problems facing Nigeria.


You have written books; you have advocated and served at the federal level. Is it that we are going to wait until something bad happens to Nigeria before we have a better society?

I don’t pray for something sad to happen to Nigeria, I believe that one way or the other, God will intervene. I believe in the Almighty power of God to intervene but I don’t believe that we have to turn ourselves into a nation whereby we allow tyranny to govern us. God will intervene and God will save us; God will save his people. What happened in the #EndSARS should be a lesson to everybody and we should never allow those who think they can always continue in power if they manipulate things.


If power rotates to the South in 2023, will you be supporting Tinubu if he joins presidential race?

I am not a member of his political party, I am a member of the PDP, and he belongs to the All Progressives Congress (APC). I can’t throw my vote away, no. I don’t hate Bola Tinubu, no, I don’t hate him, but he should confine himself to his party, let him go and convince his party, APC and leave those of us who in are PDP alone.


But he is Yoruba like you.

We don’t belong to the same political platform, I am a fanatical believer in the party principles and guidelines of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and I can’t change at my age. I am 78 now by the grace of God. If I am looking for Yoruba man, I can get the same person in our party.


Sir, why do people think PDP is not a progressive party?

Well, that’s their belief. But I know very well that the PDP is like any other party. I am not saying that we are holy, and I am not saying that everything is perfect with us. But everything that I would want to see happen in Nigeria within the principles of the rule and equation of power, have been governing the PDP. And those who are saying PDP is dead, I say good luck to them.


Is your party also considering zoning presidency to Yoruba land?

We have it in our party constitution.


So, the presidency is coming to the South-West?

I am not saying PDP will zone to the South. But if the party says go to the South, go and bring a candidate, we would all be happy. Why not? That means the party has taken into consideration all the indices to ensure that we win power. All that is important is that we win power for the people of Nigeria, and that is why I said let Tinubu go and agitate within his party.


You are from Osun State. How do you rate Governor Gboyega Oyetola?

I want us in the PDP to win power and keep defeating Gboyega Oyetola and the likes. But the truth must be said, Governor Gboyega Oyetola, I see him as a young man, operating under a wrong party. And we in PDP are on our side, operating a right party, and we are trying our best to ensure that the candidate that will be fielded in the election will soon be announced by the party, and when we announce that, it’s going to be final.


If the two major parties, APC and PDP, zone their presidential slot to the South-West, what are the qualities you would be looking out for in the next president?

If the PDP zones it to the South-West and they have taken all considerations into account, we would ensure that the person who wants to contest on the platform is a person who loves Nigeria. He is a person who wants one Nigeria; he is a person who would not compromise the interest of the common people and people of Nigeria. When that is done, then we go into the field and vote him. But it’s not going to be an issue whereby we say if you don’t give it to the South, this and that will happen, that’s is not democracy; that’s not.


In specific term, do you support the agitation from South-East?

If the South-East is agitating for the slot, they are right because it is the only zone that has not produced the president of Nigeria. But having said that, I know our party leaders in the PDP would ensure that those who will come out to say they want to contest on the platform of the party are those who are prepared to ensure that justice and fairness reign supreme in the party and they would not put the interest of anybody above the interest of Nigeria, no.


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