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Between Frank Kokori and Babagana Kingibe…

By Bola Bolawole

“The fact is, when men carry the same ideals in their heart, nothing can isolate them – neither prison walls nor the sod of the cemetery. For a single memory, a single spirit, a single idea, a single conscience, a single dignity will sustain them all” -Fidel Castro.

Emma Ochuko Arodovwe’s “Troubling thoughts from Chief Frank Kokori’s funeral event” made an interesting, yet troubling indeed, reading! In this piece, the author wondered why Kokori did not get the kind of earth-shaking burial ceremony one should have expected of someone of his pedigree. Without doubt, Kokoro deserves a state burial; did he get one? While he lived, he deserved royal treatment; did he receive any? When he ailed, he deserved the best medical attention at home and abroad; was he given one?

Anyone not familiar with the history of Nigeria – our younger generations especially – will wonder what the fuss is about an old man that died at 80 years, well over the biblical age of 70 years! In 2020, Nigeria’s life expectancy was 52.89 years. With the massive degradation experienced since then – in medical facilities, escalating costs of living generally, and the rise in the level of frustration on many fronts, the likelihood is that life expectancy in the country must have taken a dip.

For those not familiar with history, the complaint is about the inconsequential recognition given to Kokori in view of his immense contributions to the fight against military dictatorship, which eventually saw to the exit of the military and the enthronement of democracy. The complaint is also that, despite the well-known sacrifice made by Kokori to birth democracy, and despite the bashing his health and well-being took to the bargain, the same people (politicians) who benefited most from Kokori’s pro-democracy struggles gave him ‘the ignore’ (to quote the late Fela’s lawyer, Kanmi Ishola-Osobu) or the cold shoulder which Arodovwe so graphically described in “Troubling thoughts…”. Were this not a democratic dispensation, it would have been better understood. And were President Bola Ahmed Tinubu not Kokori’s comrade-at-arms, it would have been excusable.

I last saw Comrade Kokori at the 17th Harmattan School of the Nigeria Labour Congress held at the Michael Imoudu National Institute for Labour Studies (MINILS), Ilorin, Kwara State on December 6, 2021. I had been invited to the event by the MINILS Director-General, Comrade Issa Aremu. Comrade Kokori was the Chairman of the Board of MINILS. He already looked frail but the fire of activism was still raging ferociously in his belly. The torture he suffered in detention under the vile dictator, Gen. Sani Abacha, must have taken its toll on him, as it did other pro-democracy activists like Chief Gani Fawehinmi and Dr. Beko Ransome-Kuti, to mention but a few. The identity of the person who betrayed Kokori to Abacha remains in controversy just as that of the person who delivered the parcel bomb that killed journalism icon, Dele Giwa.

Titled “Kokori ignites old-time fire at Michael Imoudu Institute” and published in my TREASURES column in the New Telegraph newspaper of Wednesday, December 8, 2021, I said, inter alia: “Frank Kokori, remember him? He was the petite but fire-spitting General Secretary of NUPENG who led the oil workers’ strike that crippled the entire country and held the Sani Abacha military junta by the jugular, until he was arrested on August 19, 1994 (after which) the strike crumbled. Kokori was thrown into solitary detention in Bama prison where he remained until the death of Abacha (8 June, 1998). Abacha’s demise threw open the prison door for Kokori’s release by the succeeding military regime of Gen. Abdulsalami Abubakar on June 16, 1998.

Kokori’s ‘crime’, like that of many other civil society activists and ordinary, conscionable Nigerians, was their demand for the revalidation of the June 12, 1993 presidential election won free and fair by MKO Abiola but which was mysteriously and inexplicably annulled by the Ibrahim Babangida military junta. When the pro- June 12 clamour forced Babangida to infamously ‘step aside’, he installed erstwhile UAC chieftain, Chief Ernest Sonekan, as chairman of a contraption called the Interim National Government.

“Abacha pushed aside the contraption after only a few months of waffle-shuffle by Shonekan and subsequently imposed a vicious dictatorship on Nigeria, rolled out the tanks and massacred peaceful protesters. Undaunted, Kokori went underground and led the oil workers’ protest that shut down the country. It was only after Kokori’s arrest that Abacha gained the upper hand but the after-effects of the Kokori or NUPENG strike reverberate to this day. For instance, the foundation for today’s comatose refineries was said to have been laid during that period when all manner of hands and methods were employed by the Abacha junta to make the refineries work anyhow in the absence of striking oil workers.

“Kokori is a revolutionary par excellence. Last Monday at Ilorin, he was still spitting fire, saying it as it is, firing from all cylinders, and not minding whose ox is gored; (holding) the feet of his constituency, which is Labour, to the fire, unsparing and telling uncomfortable truths that could make many accuse him of being possessed of a malevolent spirit intent on spoiling the show and souring the mood for the array of dignitaries that graced the event – but for the fact of Kokori’s own pedigree! None can deny that he has paid his dues as a distinguished Labour leader”

Kindly Google that piece to read it in full. In it, I recalled the running battle Kokori had with Chris Ngige, the then Minister of Labour. Kokori had been named to chair the Board of the Nigerian Social Insurance Trust Fund (NSITF) but Ngige as the supervising minister refused to inaugurate the Board. Eventually, Kokori lost the NSITF but gained the Michael Imoudu Institute; however, not until he had publicly accused Ngige of oppressing him!

At the MINILS event, Kokori went down memory lane as he recounted his days as Labour leader vis-a-vis what operates today. He said: “I remember my days as Labour leader. Labour is not bread and butter but you should be the tribune of the people. Labour should take up the struggle against corruption. If Labour fails to fight, then, the country is doomed…But you fight for minimum wage; why allow our four refineries to go down? Warri refinery used to have the best kerosene but no more! I am not happy with what organized Labour is doing. You have to fight corruption. You will have your minimum wage but because the Naira is worthless, you will pack Naira notes to the market to buy Indomie”. Vintage Kokori!

Born on December 7, 1944, at Kokori, Delta State, Frank Ovie Kokori coincidentally died on his 80th birthday, December 7, 2023, and was buried in his hometown of Oviorie-Ovu on Friday, March 8, 2024. President Tinubu was represented at the event by the Minister of State for Petroleum Resources, Heineken Lokpobiri.

Drawing comparison between Kokori’s burial and that of Hebert Wigwe, the Access Bank Group MD who died in a plane crash along with his wife and first son, Arodovwe concluded that the fire-spitting Labour leader was not given his due by his Urhobo people, his local community and Nigerians at large – leaders and the led inclusive.

Arodovwe also compared Kokori who fought and suffered for June 12 with Babagana Kingibe, MKO Abiola’s running mate, who was one of those reported to have negotiated away June 12 to enjoy the perquisites of office. Kingibe was appointed Minister of Foreign Affairs; Secretary to the Government of the Federation and, later, reportedly became a very important cabal member in the Muhammadu Buhari administration.

Between Kokori’s and Babagana’s, which life would you prefer to live? And my mind immediately went to Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe: Asked whether he could die for Nigeria, Zik answered: “Why die for Nigeria when you can live for Nigeria”! Oh yes! Why suffer for Nigeria when you can enjoy Nigeria!

Talking seriously, though, Karl Marx answered the question posed by Arodovwe centuries ago when he posited that: “The ideas of the ruling class are, in every epoch, the ruling ideas; that is, the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. In other words, the ruling ideas of a given epoch are those of the ruling class. Thus, the ruling ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relationships.

In similar context, the morality of the ruling class is, in every epoch, the dominant morality of the society. In like manner, the class interests of the ruling class are the dominant interests in any given epoch. The Nigerian ruling class of this epoch does not share the same ideas or ideals as Kokori. They may pay lip service or sloganeer but can only offer tokenism. Until men and women who carry the same ideas or ideals in their heart as Kokori control the affairs of State, patriots like Kokori will not get their due from the Nigerian neo-colonial State operating on the periphery of the centre of International Finance Capital.

Eternal rest grant Chief Frank Ovie Kokori, O Lord!

* Former Editor of PUNCH newspapers, Chairman of its Editorial Board and Deputy Editor-in-chief, BOLAWOLE was also the Managing Director/ Editor-in-chief of THE WESTERNER newsmagazine. He writes the ON THE LORD’S DAY column in the Sunday Tribune and TREASURES column in New Telegraph newspaper on Wednesdays. He is also a public affairs analyst on radio and television.

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