Senator Kofoworola Bucknor-Akerele, a third generation senator who also was a deputy governor in Lagos state. She was in active politics for 25 years. She was also a chieftain of the People’s Democratic Part, PDP. In an interview with TEMITOPE OGUNBANKE, she narrates her ordeal and becoming as a politician.
About 25 years ago, you left public office as a senator after the aborted Third Republic, following the annulment of the June 12, 1993 presidential election. Has Nigeria made progress, politically, after that annulment?
Well, 25 years after the annulment of June 12 election, we have progressed in some ways and yet we have not progressed in other ways. But, at least, we are still under the power of democracy.
As an active participant, what were the memorable moments of the Third Republic?
I think the June 12 election was the most significant because for the first time in Nigeria, we had an election that somebody won free and fair. And, we had a Muslim-Muslim ticket and people didn’t care about it, but went ahead to vote for Chief MKO Abiola because they believed he was the person, who was going to set the country on the right path.
What were those memorable things you remembered about the election?
What was memorable about that election was that on Election Day, everybody went out. The election was held in June and there was no rain anywhere. I am not going to say I am a very religious person, but it showed that God was in fact showing us, but unfortunately, the military decided to annul that election.
How did you feel about the annulment?
It was a terrible shock for most of us, who supported Abiola and it was unfair and ungodly. I think we are still reaping the benefit of that right now because that annulment set the country on a path, which we are yet to recover from.
You played a crucial role during the June 12 annulment struggle as a member of the National Democratic Coalition (NADECO). How will you describe the struggle?
It was a struggle like the struggle for independence or for one right. It was a struggle and we were in it. It was a risk to our lives, but you have to take a decision in your life whether you are going to fight for what is right or you are going to sit back and do nothing.
Why did you risk your life and comfort to take part in the struggle?
Because I felt it was my duty. This is my country and I wanted a country where my children could grow up in a free, democratic atmosphere.
Did you lose anything to the struggle?
Yes, I did. I lost my business because people did not want to do business with NADECO people. But, it was a sacrifice one had to make.
Do you regret taking part in the struggle?
I don’t regret it at all.
Even when your business collapsed…
Why should I? I think I was doing what was right for the country. And I think in the end, we won because the country was returned to civilian rule due to pressure from NADECO.
Can you recollect some of the tough times you faced and the losses during the struggle?
We were detained in Owo (Ondo State) with Papa Adekunle Ajasin. That was one experience. When we demonstrated in Yaba (Lagos State); military tanks were rolled out against us. We were teargassed and chased with guns and we lived in perpetual fear. In fact, I used to have a bag packed by my bed side with my cosmetics, toothpaste, towel and other things because one never knew when they were going to pick us.
What was the driving force then considering that you are woman?
My driving force was that I knew I had to do what I thought was right.
How did you feel that many of those you started the struggle with later betrayed the course?
It was unfortunate that some people betrayed the course, but at least some of us were steadfast and history is there.
Do you think that you were really rewarded for your actions in the struggle, considering various events that later took place?
I don’t think any of us was looking for reward. What we were looking for was to set the country back on the democratic path.
But the belief is that those who were not part of the struggle are ones enjoying the dividends of democracy you and others fought for. How do you feel about that?
It is unfortunate, but such is life.
How do you feel serving as a senator in the aborted Third Republic?
It was a joy, when I emerged as a senator and some of us came together and fought for realisation of June 12 and fought for return of the country to democracy.
Your emergence as the senatorial candidate of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) was dramatic. Can you share your experience?
The drama was that all the delegates were bought over and my two main opponents, who were men, were fighting among themselves. So, they refused to queue up and be counted, whereas I insisted on been counted with my meager number of delegates.
What was Senate like in your days?
The Senate at that time consisted mostly of professionals. I will say more than three-quarters of us were professionals and therefore there was a certain standard. There were principled people in the Senate.
Do you think we have such situation in the Senate today?
I wouldn’t know because I am not in the Senate today. But I am surprised now that most of the time, we see empty seats in the Senate. When we were in the Senate, if you saw an empty seat, you will ask what happened to the person who was absent and why was he or she not around. But now you see that people hardly attend sittings.
Where were you the day General Sani Abacha took over and how did you receive the news of the sack of all elected officials by the military?
The day Abacha took over, I was actually in Aso Rock.
Who were you with in Aso Rock?
That would be a subject for my book.
What were you doing in Aso Rock that day?
I was actually in Aso Rock, but it was obvious that something was happening. We were lodged at Hilton Hotel and it was obvious because I had appointment to see Chief Ernest Shonekan and normally Chief Shonekan is somebody who will not keep you waiting if he gives you an appointment. Even if he knew that he couldn’t see you, he will come out and apologise and say ‘I am sorry.’ But, he never came out and then I saw the service chiefs coming. At that point, I left and went for the Senate session.
I came back and I was told that I should see Chief Shonekan at home, which was strange to me. But when I went back to my hotel, I saw a Deputy High Commissioner, who said: ‘Do you know that Abacha has taken over?’ I said no and that I was just from Aso Rock. He said Abacha has taken over and the British Foreign Minister at that time was going to issue a statement. I then went in and I saw late Kusamotu and Tony Anenih; they both stood together looking depressed and they said Abacha has taken over.
How did you view the news of Abacha taking over, which automatically put an end your stay in the Senate and disrupted the democratic process?
We were shocked, but some of us senators, who were been threatened at that time because we were known as June 12 senators decided to leave Abuja immediately for our homes.
How do you feel that your plan in the Senate was cut short by the military rule?
Of course, I was distressed and was upset. It was unbelievable, but then, we didn’t have a choice. And it was a question of facing people, who were armed and we were not armed. But, we decided to face them even though we were not armed because sometimes people say the pen is mightier than the sword.
Looking at the five years of the democratic struggle; how would you described those moments you and others fought against annulment of the presidential election and enthronement of democracy in Nigeria?
It was terrible, especially, when Kudirat Abiola was murdered because I saw her days before she was killed. It was a terrible shock that something like that could happen in Nigeria. Normally, one felt that women were protected in Nigeria and for a woman just to be gunned down like that was absolutely appalling.
After the June 12 saga, your effort in the struggle seemed to pay off as you were elected as Lagos State deputy governor. How did you feel being elected as the first female deputy governor in your state in the present Fourth Republic?
I don’t know what you mean by how I felt about that. It was something that was decided by my party. Of course, my party wanted me to serve them and I agreed.
Was the choice of serving with Senator Bola Tinubu something you accepted willingly, considering the report then that you preferred to serve with another person?
No! I was asked by the party’s leadership to become the deputy governor. At first, I was reluctant, but when it was pointed out to me that if I don’t take the position, those of us who formed the party and who had being in the struggle in Nigeria will not have a place in government. Naturally, I had no choice than to succumb.
Why did you feel reluctant to serve as Tinubu’s deputy?
Because I was not very keen on being Tinubu’s deputy given his antecedent. If it had been Dr. Wahab Dosunmu, a perfect gentle man, I wouldn’t have mind being a deputy at all.
But you were in the Senate with Tinubu during the Third Republic?
Yes, and that was the reason why I said having observed him in the Senate, I felt I didn’t want to serve with him. I was reluctant, but I was prevailed upon by the leadership of the party and then I had no choice.
What was the antecedent that gave you concern about Tinubu then?
I don’t which to talk about that.
What prompted your resignation as deputy governor few months to the end of the administration?
What really happened was that Tinubu wanted to take over the party from the leaders and he wanted me to join him in the process. I refused to do so and that was what caused all the problems between us.
Was that what forced you to resign from the government?
It was, but not only that. When he realised that I was not going to participate in taking over the party from the leaders, all sorts of lies and things were done to harass and force me as well as to also ruin my reputation. My family is a well known family on both sides, those on my father and mother’s side; they called me and asked me to resign and I did.
Why would you relinquish the mandate given to you by your party and the people of Lagos State just like that?
Because I had to protect my name, reputation and family’s name.
Was that not a costly decision?
I don’t know what you mean by costly decision; costly how?
Considering that you struggled for something and you left when you were supposed to enjoy the fruit of your labour?
Well, I don’t think it was costly at all. After all, I had my own life before I went into politics.
Did what happened change your perception of politics in Nigeria?
I have always had a view of what politics should be in Nigeria. I believe that politics should be about service. Once you go into politics, it should be about serving the people and trying to make Nigeria a better place than you met it.
But, despite pitching your tent with leaders of the party, they abandoned you to support Tinubu?
Yes they did, but when Tinubu finally got the party, they realised that they made a mistake.
How do you feel that those that you sacrificed your comfort to defend later turned against you?
I told you that they realised their mistake and now I am in good terms with all of them.
Even with Tinubu…
No! Tinubu is a different kettle of fish all together. I am talking about the party’s leadership at that time, not Tinubu.
What about Tinubu? What is your relationship with him like?
I have no relationship or whatever with Tinubu.
Why should I? I have no reason to have any relationship with him.
Is there the possibility of both of you still working together in future?
We are in different political parties, so I don’t see how we can work together.
Won’t you work with him if something brings both of you together?
What will bring us to work together?
May be political realignment?
I doubt whether there can be a political alignment between the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and Tinubu’s All Progressives Congress (APC).
But there is nothing that cannot happen in politics, considering the notion that there is no permanent friend or permanent enemy in politics, but permanent interest…
I know, but our ideologies are completely different. Tinubu’s APC in Lagos State is a one man show, whereas PDP is a democratic organisation.
After your exit from office as deputy governor, you have tried on two occasions to be governor of Lagos State, but didn’t succeed…
Because one, I didn’t have enough finance to support it and I also think that the electorate at that time were not ready for a woman or people who are ready for service. They were only looking for stomach infrastructure as it is now referred to.
Looking at all you have passed through in politics, are there any regrets?
Why no despite all that you passed through?
Why should I? I did what I wanted to do.
You said your involvement in the June 12 struggle affected your business. But after thatyou served as deputy governor in Lagos. Did politics made you richer or poorer?
It made me poorer.
Despite serving as a senator and deputy governor…
Yes, despite serving as a senator and deputy governor because when we were in the Senate, we were not getting the huge salaries and allowances people are getting now. I think we were on Level 17. The Senate at that time was not a money-making machine.
Even as former deputy governor, you insist that politics made you poorer?
Of course it made me poorer for the single reason that government decided the running cost of my office at that time, and also, statutorily, our salaries were fixed. And when you are in politics, you have so many people, who come to you; who want different things and who want to be helped out and you have to assist. If you are in politics to serve, there is no way you can be rich.
But some people became so rich after serving in public offices.
They were not there to serve.
Why do you think so?
Politics of today is completely different from politics of our time. At that time, the Senate was not getting the huge amount of money that senators are receiving now.
What is your advice to present day politicians?
As a politician, one should focus on service and trying to make things better for the people. That is how I see it.
Looking at all your years in politics, what can you described as your memorable moment?
My memorable moment possibly was when I won a senatorial election?
Why was it memorable?
Because I won an election, which many people did not thought I would not win.
What about sad moment?
There are so many moments you don’t find comfortable when you are in politics. So, I can’t enumerate them.
What is your advice to women in politics or those aspiring to go into politics?
Keep trying, don’t give up. Go into it and be determined. There is a lot of discouragement, but like I said, don’t give up.
How do you think they can overcome the discouragement?
It is a mental state of mind. Once you are determined and you set your goals, go for it. That is how you would be able to overcome the discouragement. You may not win all the time; but you may win some.
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