By Uche Amunike
Our country Nigeria is rife with a lot of sentiments presently trailing the recent twist of events as former President Olusegun Obasanjo not only reconciled with his then Vice President, Alhaji Atiku Abubakar, but also endorsed him as PDP flag bearer in the oncoming Presidential election of our dear country. Nigerians have been skeptical about this move by Obasanjo, judging from his antecedents. I have certainly been suspicious of that move as well. However, I came across this piece written by the very cerebral Chief Shepherd of Sokoto Diocese, Bishop Hassan Kukah. In it, he cleared the air and laid the cards on the table for the sake of doubters like me. I love the way he tells this story of these two former formidable leaders, brothers and friends turned enemies, in a most interesting, revealing and touching narrative.
I have deliberately made this explanatory note long because I think it is necessary that people make up their minds based on the facts, given my central role in the event. I note that Sheikh Gumi has already told his own side of the story. I feel obliged to state my own side so that Nigerians can have a clearer picture of my own involvement. Sadly, I personally did not read President Obasanjo’s statement until two days later on the Internet since I was not physically in the hall.
Although trying to reconcile President Obasanjo and Alhaji Atiku Abubakar was something I had been working on intermittently in the last few years, nothing could have prepared me for the way things finally shaped up. My focus all along had been with President Obasanjo and I had never brought Alhaji Abubakar into what I was doing. Quite fortuitously, a chance meeting changed the tide in favour of reconciliation.
Understandably, the pictures of the four of us (President Obasanjo, Alhaji Abubakar, Shaikh Gumi and I) literally lit up the social media and elicited divergent reactions from the general public. Although over 99% of the reactions that have come to me have been largely those of commendation, with people focusing, rightly, on the reconciliation, there have been others whose focus has been on an isolated development that had absolutely nothing to do with what I had in mind all these years, namely, the endorsement.
I must say that I am eternally grateful to God that this reconciliation finally happened. The focus of attention has been on the endorsement of Alhaji Abubakar by President Obasanjo, a development that I can call the third leg of the process which I initiated. I am not sure of President Obasanjo’s other interlocutors after we agreed to meet, leading to the participation of other actors and so, I will only clear the air on what I can take full responsibility for.
Let me state first that I am a priest of the Catholic Church and by the grace of God, a Bishop. I have more than a passing knowledge of our discipline and doctrine in matters relating to the role of a Catholic priest in political engagement. My doctoral thesis was on Religion and Politics in Nigeria. So, this is an area that I have written and spoken extensively about for over thirty years. I am therefore, very clear about the boundaries, the slippery slopes and the contexts.
Unlike Sheikh Gumi and Rev. Oyedepo who were invited to this event, I am a central actor. So let me explain what really happened.
On Tuesday, October 9th, 2018 I had the honor of being the Guest Speaker for the Annual Conference of the Four Square Gospel Church in Alagomeji, Lagos. (The Presidential
Spokesman, Femi Adesina, a member of this Church had first invited me some years back but I could not honour the invitation). President Obasanjo was the Chairman of the occasion. At the end of the lecture, he indicated that he would have to leave because he had a scheduled meeting. I told him I needed to see him briefly and he obliged. I brought up again the issue of what he thought of his reconciliation with Alhaji Atiku.
My last discussion with him this year was either January or February. His response was still negative and he told me what he later told the media. I reminded him that I was not interested in the politics of reconciliation but the spiritual angle. After all, I said to him, ‘as a Christian, this is an important thing for you to do’. He was quiet and then said he would speak with me later that evening on his final decision. We parted, he to his car and I returned to the Church to end the event.
At about 9pm the same Tuesday, he called to say that he had thought over the issues I had raised and finally decided to accept my suggestion and that yes, he would be happy to reconcile with Alhaji Abubakar. When did he think we could meet then, I asked him? He said he would look at his diary and get back to me later. Then, just before 11pm the same Tuesday, I received another call from him saying his diary was full, that the earliest date for him was October 21st. I accepted happily and told him that I would try and reach Alhaji Abubakar either directly, or through his aides to convey the news.
My initial intention had been to return to Abuja that same evening from Lagos, but my hosts at the Four Square Gospel had suggested that I should get some rest. Next morning, Wednesday October 10th, after I had finished celebrating the Holy Mass, I received a call from President Obasanjo: ‘Bishop, listen, I have changed my mind’. My heart nearly sank, but before I could ask why, he said: ‘Let us do it tomorrow if you can reach Atiku. I am going to deliver a lecture in Ife and will be back home before 1pm. So, tell him to come at 1pm’. I started frantic efforts to reach Alhaji Atiku without luck. I reached one of his aides, Paul Ibe, and asked him to please let him know I am trying to reach him. Finally, at about 1pm, I received a call from him. I told him what had happened with President Obasanjo. He agreed and said he would be in Abeokuta for 1pm on Thursday.
I got back to my hosts, the Four Square Gospel Church to tell them about the change in my travelling plans especially as I had no car to take me to Abeokuta. I didn’t want to ask President Obasanjo’s people to send me a vehicle because I believed I needed a leeway of independence and trust. My hosts were exceedingly gracious in making a vehicle available, a driver and an aide to take me to Abeokuta.
Earlier that morning, President Obasanjo had called me a second time and told me that he wanted Alhaji Abubakar to come with the Chairman of the PDP, and two or three others. He also told me he had also invited both Shaikh Gumi and Rev. Oyedepo. This was welcome news- Rev. Oyedepo is a kinsman of his, and the presence of Sheikh Gumi made sense.
I was a bit nervous, seeing that the circle was getting larger for something I thought was between three of us.
I arrived Abeokuta about 12.15pm ahead of both President Obasanjo and Alhaji Abubakar and his team. Alhaji Abubakar and his team arrived, and then I saw more and more people coming in. I saw familiar faces of different people who turned out to be the leaders of Afenifere. All these years, whenever I brought up this matter of reconciliation, my idea has always been for the three of us to sit down together. I still believed that the meeting would be between the two of them and the three religious leaders.
When President Obasanjo appeared, I walked up to him and said I wanted to know the protocol for the meeting. He suggested that we would meet in a hall and that I should say a few words about how we got here. I declined because it seemed again that at this point, we were in small forest of politics and I had no wish to be caught in it. I was happy that what I wanted to achieve had been achieved, namely, getting these two men to put the past behind them.
My personal preoccupation was a pastoral one, and not a political one. I was uncomfortable with this and I decided to make my position clear. I offered a different proposal to help us sift the moral grain from the chaff of politics via a three-step process so as to insulate the three of us from the political fallout. I proposed that the first step would be for he and Alhaji Abubakar to sit down behind closed doors, sort out their issues and then the next step would be for both Sheikh Gumi and I to go in and listen to the two of them as Rev. Oyedepo had not arrived. After that, I said, they could continue with the third phase which from what I could see was high wire politics and I had no wish to be caught in the web. After they both finished their brief meeting, Sheikh Gumi and I went in and sat down with the two of them.
We had some small briefing and then both of us spoke briefly on what they had done, encouraging them to ensure that this reconciliation holds. I even said jokingly that I am a Catholic priest and our marriage vows are indissoluble! After that, we prayed and then took what has now become the famous photograph behind closed doors.
At this point, I felt that my spiritual duties had been achieved and I was prepared to maintain my independence. Sheikh Gumi and I shook hands and although I was hungry and food was being laid out, I skipped lunch. I quietly let myself out by the side door, got into the Four Square Gospel car and we drove off to Lagos. Despite the dread of Lagos traffic and the disruption of flights at the Airport in Lagos, I had declined the offer of a seat in the Aircrafts which had flown them to Abeokuta. Although flying with them was the best (and most convenient) assurance I had of getting to Abuja in time for a speaking engagement at an event with the Sultan and Cardinal Onaiyekan for 9am the next day, it was necessary to ensure that I took no favours from any of the two parties.
I was not in Abeokuta to endorse Alhaji Atiku Abubakar, the candidate of the Peoples’ Democratic Party. I perfectly understand the feelings of many of my friends and members of the opposition who believe that I travelled with Alhaji Abubakar and his team to attend his endorsement by President Obasanjo, but I reiterate that this was not the case. All the bills for my travel were settled by the Four Square Gospel hosts for the earlier dated programme who had bought my tickets, booked accommodation for me and took care to get me to the airport for my flight to Abuja and Sokoto.
I am a strong believer in a peaceful and united Nigeria, ideals for which I have striven and served my entire adult life as a thinker and a priest. My instincts for reconciliation and peace were sharpened during my involvement and experience with the Oputa Panel. When the Generals refused to respond to the invitation of Oputa Panel, I personally undertook to visit both General Babangida and Buhari (he was not at home) at a time that today’s latter day Buharists were asking the Panel to compel them to come or risk being blacked out of national life. Objective-minded people will remember that back in 2001, when the Christian community and many of President Buhari’s opponents claimed that General Buhari had said that Muslims should vote only for Muslims, many people in the Christian community were disappointed that I wrote a long article to explain the context of what he had said after speaking with the General. His party, the ANPP later used part of my article for their 2003 campaigns! My faith and experience taught me to learn to suspend judgment till I have heard both sides of a story, no matter what.
I hope that this clarification helps to allay the concerns of those who may have seen all of these in a different light. Many minds will remain set no matter the reasonableness of my comments here, and this is to be expected- one cannot please everyone. This is why it is often best to seek to please only one’s own conscience, and here, mine is very clear. I have been involved in a few behind-the-scene shuttle diplomacy for years, largely on my own initiative, taking advantage of my knowledge of those engaged in the conflict or at the invitation of third parties. Some have succeeded and some have not. As priest, it is not in my place to publicise what we have achieved. I am the Convener of the National Peace Committee.
This alone is enough to place a moral boundary which I am bound to respect. The NPC able to accomplish much because of trust and that is not what I can treat lightly. When it became clear that both President Obasanjo and Abubakar were on the verge of making peace, I alerted the Chairman of the NPC, General Abdusalam. Since I happen to be in Lagos, I drove to the Ikoyi home of Chief Emeka Anyaoku and alerted him. I spoke to my Metropolitan, the Archbishop of Kaduna, Archbishop Matthew Ndagoso. All in all, everyone believed this was a very good move if we could achieve it. None of us imagined the third phase of this meeting. Both theoretically and practically, I have come to know that peace making is a very risky business and often a thankless job. I recall listening to the late Kofi Annan speak about this on two different occasions. Anyone involved in peace making from domestic quarrels to larger battles, must be ready for the good, the bad and the ugly. In the end, we must wear the shoes of the long distance runner, believing and trusting that the truth never ever sinks to the bottom of the sea. The truth will always have a stubborn way of defying the hostile elements and popping up at the right time, no matter how long it takes.
I perfectly understand that with Alhaji Abubakar having just picked up the Presidential ticket of his Party, without providing this context, definitely, I can appreciate why many people will have a lot of anxieties. They will definitely be right to question my neutrality. However, I have far too many friends across party lines for me to openly endorse one candidate or party against the other. It will be against the principles of the Code of Canon Law of the Catholic Church which regulates our public life in the political space.
The President of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference has signed a statement to the effect that no altar of the Catholic Church must ever be open to any politician, something we have all taken seriously. I therefore hope that this clarification helps those whose minds are open. I am thankful to God and quite pleased that this reconciliation took place and that I was a small instrument in making it happen. However, I am sorry that it has been given a different colouration and doubts to many people. Its timing was purely fortuitous and purely circumstantial not a contrivance. Personally, I will never relent in the very urgent task of making peace and reconciliation across the spectrum of our country.