By FELIX OBOAGWINA
Frank Ovie Kokori has suffered, really suffered! Physically. Psychologically. Politically. Professionally. This diminutive labour leader has passed through “hell.”
Today, he spends his life savings nursing a wife virtually turned vegetable from a debilitating stroke. Esther Kokori has been in that condition since 1999, shortly after her husband secured his freedom from three years of detention (August 1994 to June 1998) at the Bama Prisons, in a town whose burning weather makes it virtually next door to hell. Kokori earned his time in that Borno State jail for leading oil workers to demand that Nigeria’s then maximum dictator, General Sani Abacha, relinquish power to civilians.
For the love of democracy, Urhobo-born Kokori, as General Secretary of the National Union of Petroleum and Natural Gas Workers, NUPENG, passed through the fiery crucible of vicissitudes.
When the umbrella Nigeria Labour Congress, NLC, under Paschal Bafyau, vacillated in 1994, Kokori led NUPENG to sustain the struggle for the restoration of the June 12 mandate of Nigeria’s undeclared President-Elect, Bashorun M.K.O. Abiola.
Indeed, if a roll-call of the heroes of Nigeria’s contemporary Republic should hold, it would amount to an unforgivable oversight and uncharitable injustice for Kokori not to make top five. Kokori will easily rate as poster-boy of that epic crusade. Yet the man continues unsung and unrewarded. After four regimes and four Presidents, he still remains in the cold.
I helped put together his memoirs, FRANK KOKORI: THE STRUGGLE FOR JUNE 12. During interview sessions at his Ojuelegba, Lagos, home, he spoke of dashed hopes suffered at the instance of President Olusegun Obasanjo. Severally, the President would be flying in from Abuja and invite Kokori to meet him at the Presidential Wing of the Murtala Muhammed Airport in Lagos. Kokori would abandon everything to wait for His Excellency.
As soon as OBJ landed, both men would take a chopper ride to Obasanjo’s Ota Farm or Abeokuta home. They would spend days together till His Excellency returned to Ikeja Airport en route Abuja.
“Oh, Obasanjo, Obasanjo will not give you a kobo!” Kokori would chuckle during these narrations. The retired oil-workers’ leader apparently made those trips at his expense. But the President always assured his fellow Bama Prison alumnus that his chairmanship of the Niger-Delta Development Commission (NDDC) was a done deal. This organisation Kokori had walked away from when Babangida around 1992 appointed him onto the board as Secretary only to render the position non-executive and subordinate to an executive Chairman. Kokori waited in vain for OBJ to play ball.
The promised appointment remained on “hibernation mode” until that regime expired. Kokori blamed hawks in the ruling PDP, whom he felt warned Obasanjo against appointing an unbendable ideologue (a non-party member for that matter!) as head of such a “juicy” agency.
Ideologically speaking, Kokori belonged to Nigeria’s second generation of Socialist and Communist-trained unionists. His NUPENG waged wars against casualisation and defied the oil giants to unionise every arm of the oil sector. These labour leaders paid heavily effrontery. Last time I checked (and I stand to be corrected), not a single one of Kokori’s about seven children had the privilege of employment in an oil company. Not one. Why? For one simple reason: Their father, working with the Asiya Otus, the John Enas Dubres, the Joseph Akinlajas, the Elijah Okougbos, wrested from the oil giants juicy welfare packages for oil workers.
But he got paid back with an evil coin. Returning from Bama into a blaze of national and international awards, including being declared “Prisoner of Conscience” by the late Nelson Mandela and Pope Saint John Paul II, this prophet would be stung by his own constituency. Perhaps intimidated by Kokori’s towering image, new NUPENG leaders hastily shooed him off into an impromptu retirement post-detention. This ingratitude is a story hardly told.
It has often been said that this democracy failed to reward its real heroes. In fact, apart from a handful, like Asiwaju Bola Tinubu and Comrade Shehu Sani, those who frontally defied the military’s gun barrel to birth this democracy have been left in the cold. Today, what benefits have accrued to democratic heroes like Bolaji Akinyemi, Ayo Opadokun, Arthur Nwankwo, Dan Suleiman, Alani Akinrinade, Frederick Fasehun, Popoola Ajayi, Chukwuemeka Ezeife, Joe Okei-Odumakin, Olu Falae, Amos Akingba and Umar Dangiwa?
Bottom-line: Kokori stands as metaphor for our unrewarded heroes of democracy who remain sidelined while charlatans and pretenders run the show.
Many of these heroes turned down opportunities offered for reward. Shortly after releasing political prisoners from detention, the new Head of State, General Abdulsalami Abubakar, invited Kokori to Aso Rock. The meeting dragged into the witching hours of the morning, during which the Commander-in-Chief apologised for the unionist’s travails, and towards the end asked him, “What do you want? What can we do for you?” Perhaps Kokori’s felt that having laid down his life, limb and liberty fighting a military regime, why should he curry favour from another one?
The morning after, he rues not asking for the governorship of his home Delta State, achievable on a platter in that atmosphere of military penance. Instead, he told the generous General that he preferred to wait for due recognition and reward in the coming regime of Bashorun Abiola. Abiola died in detention mysteriously. Kokori would forever rue his blind faith.
Similar blind faith recently drove Kokori into the eye of the controversy pitching him against former Labour Minister, Dr. Chris Ngige. Should any Nigerian imagine that an appointment made three years earlier by no less than the Acting President Yemi Osinbajo and confirmed by President Buhari could be so summarily rubbished by a Minister? It shows a level of administrative indiscipline that government’s commitments change merely over the whims and caprices of some well-heeled individual.
Ngige, as supervising minister, unilaterally rubbished Kokori’s appointment as Chairman of the National Social Insurance Trust Fund (NSITF). Labour and NUPENG, Kokori’s primary constituencies took to the trenches to make his case. Ayuba Wabba, NLC President, said: “In fact, I am aware that Ngige met Kokori over four times on the issue of inauguration. In July last year, a committee was actually set up to inaugurate the board. If they are afraid of Kokori’s integrity, they should come out clean.” Former NLC Chairman and current APC Chairman, Comrade Adams Oshiomhole, also, fought for government to redeem the commitment to Kokori.
Not a few consider it strange that Ngige would pontificate on Kokori. Talk about the tail wagging the dog! Where was Ngige in the deadly fight for democracy? More contemporarily, why would a Minister of Labour antagonize his own constituency? Could it be for a pecuniary motivation? Claiming massive fraud by the last board, Ngige assumed sole administration of NSITF. If he fell to temptation there, would it not make commonsense to plant a stooge who can cover his tracks? Did he consider, like Wabba insinuated that Kokori would be too clean to do the dirty job? Questions and more questions! Unfortunately, as Shakespeare said: There is no art to read the mind’s construction in the face. And only Ngige can voice the reason for his opposition.
Unlike Ngige and the man he prefers for the job, the Kokoris, the Akinyemis, the Falaes, the Nwankwos, the Suleimans, the Dangiwas know what they fought for. They know what they died for. They know the visions that propelled them into the trenches against military dictatorship. Unfortunately, although good activists, they proved to be clumsy politicians, an explanation for why they never won power. But as long as these visionary heroes of democracy remain sidelined as spectators outside the corridors of power, so long will this country languish in the wilderness of underdevelopment.
Should Kokori, Labour and NUPENG have a sense of entitlement? Yes, and rightly so! Compared to the sacrifice they made, the job Kokori recently lost is pittance –a garland fit for a slave. Fact is, Nigerian politicians owe heroes of democracy like Frank Kokori a bottomless pit of gratitude. And they have not begun to pay.
Felix Oboagwina is a Journalist and he wrote from Lagos