By Chief Akintayo Akin-Deko
If the highest aim of a captain is to preserve his ship, he would keep it in the port forever. – Thomas Aquinas
There have been many tributes and comments about Pa Ernest Sonekan, who died on January 11 2022, at the grand old age of 85 years. Sadly, many of those comments competed in trying to vilify the former UAC Chairman/CEO for accepting to head the 1993 Interim National Government, which we Yoruba derided by translating as “Fidi he”. Worse still, far too many of the comments on the late Chief Abese of Egbaland, sought to simply crucify an already dead man on the altar of reputation and loyalty.
For me, sanctification of a person’s reputation makes Reputation an end in itself, when it is in fact simply a means to an end. Reputation is the ultimate value judgement; good or bad, it is bestowed on a person by his or her interest group be they peers or a nation. They can also disparage it or take it away. I believe reputation is thus to be used to protect a person’s interest group and to promote his or her beliefs and not to be hoarded away for writing epitaphs.
I don’t in the least feel that Chief Sonekan’s abundantly good reputation was ever taken away from him by his interest group. He died a UAC pensioner, an Egba chief, and a member of the Nigerian Council of State, with none of his Awards and Certificates withdrawn from him. Information to the contrary was always propaganda during those tumultuous days emanating from different groups, who felt Chief Sonekan and his gargantuan reputation was an obstacle to their goal.
That was then when history was in the making. Today I feel we should use Chief Sonekan’s experience to prepare our army of internet generation sociopolitical activists for the next round of upheavals whenever they return. The 1993/4 crisis, which at one stage centered around Chief Sonekan and Chief MKO Abiola almost broke Nigeria. If not properly handled, such a crisis in today’s precariously fragile nationhood, could tip us over the edge; more so if commentators and activists are consumed by the fake news that surround such matters.
I emphasize that I have no interest in either Chief Sonekan or MKO as Chief Abiola is popularly called. I hold both men in the highest esteem and pray they continue to rest in peace.
Pa Sonekan rose to become the head of the UAC conglomerate, which in 1993 was the peak of his reputation. He was therefore no doubt a protégé of that same British corporate interest that sold “Nigeria” to the British government and was the leading corporation here when the nation was granted independence in 1960. The son of a civil servant, Pa Sonekan had joined UAC in 1964 and the Indigenization Decree and its amendment during the 1970s later paved the way for his emergence in 1980 as UAC Chairman, in which capacity he became the indigenous face of British corporate interests in Nigeria.
Chief MKO, also an Egba, who was to hold 197 awards and titles including Aare Ona Kakanfo, Bashorun Oluyole and Adinni Musulumi, on the other hand rose from humbler beginnings. He was working with Western Region Finance Corporation before circumstances brought him close to late General Muritala Mohammed – the then Nigerian military head of state. MKO then metamorphosed into a private businessman rising to Vice-President of ITT at a time when Exxon-Mobil, Chevron and co were still finding their feet in Nigeria. MKO’s progress in the corporate world was also facilitated by the Indigenization Decree and, after he became 49% shareholder in ITT and VP of a multinational telecoms giant, he became the Nigerian face of American business interests in Nigeria and most likely a protege of Uncle Sam.
The reputation of both men had been nurtured as proteges of British and American interests respectively. They were not members of the precolonial political elite and had been thrust on the commercial landscape through corporate membership of these multinationals. They were Nigerians, yes but, it was the traditional rulers or head of the different ethnic and religious communities that the 2 men embraced, which further reinforced their reputations with titles and awards. Sociopolitical platforms like Afenifere, NADECO, Labor Unions and others contributed nothing to the making of either men .
When the opportunity to become president of Nigeria came along, it came first to MKO. It has been widely reported that he ran for office against the advice of family and close associates (including many amongst his military benefactors). He was an extremely intelligent man (a graduate of University of Glasgow) and so it is unlikely he would have taken such a risky step without the support of his US corporate mentors. Indeed, IBB alluded as much in his broadcasts as to why he felt he couldn’t hand over to Chief Abiola
Similarly with Pa Sonekan. He was equally brilliant, he had a great reputation and was also seriously urged not to take the “fidi hè” position (head of the Interim National Government), but decided to do so. I just don’t see why he would have risked it all on that one throw of the dice, without the support of his British corporate mentors!!!
Two brilliant men, who risked their position and fortune to become president. Both had strong allegiance to foreign corporations, which had nurtured their reputations and both men, despite strong personal advice against, dared to try to become president when the opportunity knocked. If either of the two men had succeeded, they would have eased power out of the hands of the military and reset Nigeria’s trajectory, no doubt with the strong influence of their foreign mentors. But then if not, why not.
As it was, both men failed, and Nigeria remained firmly in the hands of the military. Meanwhile many commentators have since chosen to villify Pa Sonekan because Britain’s hand was obvious in the build up of his attempt to become Head of State, while the hand of corporate USA was much more obscured in MKO’s political journey
MKO’s march to Aso Rock started in the NPN in 1978, and finally yielded fruit in 1993 when he was the leading presidential candidate of the SDP. But he lawfully (if immorally) stopped by the judgement procured by the Association for a Better Nigeria, which needed to be set aside. The only way forward was either the courts or nationwide rebellion against “constituted authority”. NADECO prepared us for the latter, but the center didn’t hold, and the movement’s brave members had to go underground as a majority of the nation’s political elite conveniently (albeit unjustly) declared the struggle to actualize MKO’s mandate a Yoruba Agenda to dominate Nigeria. NADECO’s attack on Pa Sonekan’s reputation was a case of acceptable collateral damage and not necessarily a statement of fact as commentators have since made it
The politics of it is that, as all lawful means were used to make Chief Sonekan Head of State (including the Decree promulgating the Interim National Government he was to head), he would have been a lawful ruler with only a short term to stay in power. A ruler steeped in corporate discipline of doing things the right way. With him at the helm of Nigerian affairs, things would less likely have deteriorated to the current abyss. His government was lawfully obligated to institute a program to return Nigeria to civil rule within the shortest possible period. Given his credentials, Pa Sonekan would have complied.
I go to these lengths to raise these issues because we are moving towards a crisis similar to 1993/4, and many of our good, bad and ugly politicians are getting involved in the politics of getting power. So as not to discourage them, we should not crucify past activists for taking tough decisions on what they lawfully did with their reputations in the drive to save Nigeria or their ethnic groups from misrule. Instead, we should remove the log from our own eyes and, if we cannot join them, offer constructive advice. Alternatively, of course we can respectfully keep quiet.