I was supposed to be on exile from journalism but it was on my visits to his home office that I got to meet the great Generals like Ndubuisi Kanu and Alani Akinrinade. Chairman would casually introduce them to me. Then, unannounced, he left Nigeria. I never got to meet him again. Sadly so. May the good Lord comfort the family of the great General who, at great cost, stood true to his conviction.
There was nothing remarkable about my first encounter with Air Commodore Dan Suleiman. He was at the bank for a meeting of the Board of Directors, which he chaired at the time. I was in charge of Public Relations and my path inevitably crossed with that of members of the Board, in the discharge of my duties.
Things would start getting interesting within a few years. We were faced with a full-blown Board crisis, with the Managing Director ousted by the Board taking the Bank to court. At this time, the Board began to play a more prominent role in the affairs of the Bank and with that, I had more frequent interfaces with the Chairman.
But just as things were becoming more interesting in the bank, so were things playing out in the political arena. General Babangida, playing football with the political elite, kept changing the goalposts. He had just banned political parties and created two parties by fiat. MKO Abiola had emerged as the candidate of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) after a fierce contest in Jos.
Soon, speculations became rife about who was likely that to emerge as the running mate to MKO. One of the names touted was that of our Chairman, Air Commodore Dan Suleiman. Being a Christian from the North (Adamawa), it was thought that he would be a good fit to MKO Abiola who was a Southern Muslim, in order to balance the ticket.
Our hope was raised when a few days to the announcement of his running mate, MKO Abiola walked into Archbishop Vining Memorial Anglican Church in the company of our Chairman to witness the wedding ceremony of our colleagues, one of them being the daughter of Colonel Madaki.
The pressure from the Governors, as we have now become accustomed to, would force the hand of MKO Abiola, leading to the choice of the choice of the Chairman of the party, Baba Gana Kingibe, as his running mate.
June 12 came. History was made, but by the 23rd of June, the story turned on its head. The country was on fire, as Babangida insisted on having his way. The Interim National Government, his illegal contraption, couldn’t stem the tide. Then came Sani Abacha.
One of those days, I received a call from the Chairman, asking me over to his house in Victoria Island. The crisis at the bank had then degenerated. I thought the call had to do with that. But that was not the case.
Months before then, General Abacha had taken over the reins of power. There had been the famous meeting between Abiola and Abacha, at which some agreement was said to have been reached.
Seated opposite him in his home office, he casually pointed at the telephone on his desk, as he described how Abacha, who was a former colleague, had called him on that phone to broker a meeting with MKO Abiola. A short video clip of that meeting would later be shown by NTA, catching the nation off-guard, sending out mixed signals.
But as he gave me the brief that day, it was obvious that the tune had changed. The possibility of brokering a deal was now off the table. Abacha had reneged on the promise he made to Abiola and his team when he took over and was fast consolidating his hold on power.
NADECO was their response to the Abacha that had just emerged. Along with others, they had formed the coalition. I think he was the protem Chairman and was later named the Vice Chairman following some re-arrangement.
His instruction to me that day was to draft a press release. Only thing I remember from that document was the demand for Abacha to step down for an Abiola-led unity government. He signed it and I went round all the newspaper houses with it.
That was only the beginning. At some point, MKO Abiola declared himself president and then went underground for a while. He came out and was arrested. Then, there was the spate of arrests involving Tinubu and others. And the attacks; the bombs, etc.
One day I showed up at Chairman’s home office as usual, only to be told about the attempted bombing of the building the previous night. I was shocked at what I saw, going round the house – the petrol cans, the hose linking them to air-conditioning sets. The plan was to fire-bomb the house with the occupants inside overnight. It was a miracle that they were able to discover this before the plan could hatch. They survived.
Following the attempt on his life, Chairman was forced to go on exile, from where he continued the struggle, serving as Chairman, NADECO Abroad, only returning to Nigeria after the death of Abacha.
As it turned out, that singular decision on the part of Air Commodore Dan Suleiman to take to the path of honour, standing firm in defence of June 12, even when he had not been chosen as MKO’s running mate, even when Kingibe, the man chosen instead of him had turned full circle, serving as a part of Abacha’s cabinet, would eventually redefine the place of Suleiman in history.
He was a General. He had served as Governor of Plateau State, Federal Commissioner (Minister), member of the Supreme Military Council. He had served as Ambassador and played top roles in the business world in his private capacity, but when he passed on, he was mostly celebrated as a pro-democracy activist and NADECO leader.
I find the tribute by NADECO trenchant and particularly fitting:
“Our indefatigable leader, Dan was born in Guyuk, now in Adamawa State, in 1942, so he was 81 years old at his transition to glory.
Cmdr. Dan Suleiman (DS)’s life and times was rich for good purposes and services to God and humanity.
First, DS was a member of the General Murtala Mohammed’s Supreme Military Council (SMC) between July 1975 and March 1976 and was Military Governor of Plateau State from March 1976 to July 1978 after the State was created from part of the old Benue Plateau State.
Second, he was appointed into the Cabinet of General Yakubu Gowon in January 1975 as Federal Commissioner for Special Duties, and he was instrumental in founding the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). After the overthrow of Gen. Gowon’s government by Gen. M. Mohammed, DS was again appointed Federal Commissioner for Health.
Third, when Gen. Babangida annulled the victory of Bashorun MKO Abiola at the 1993 Presidential election and General Abacha eventually also established his military dictatorship, DS opposed and resisted the annulment and its new strongman.
Four, as a leading light of the Middle Belt Forum Leadership, when the Forum decided at a meeting held in Chief D.B. Zang home in Jos to attend the preliminary meetings and consultations that birthed NADECO in Lagos, DS was one of the founders and titans of NADECO. He was a leading member of its apex body, Steering Committee, which was the Policy Decision Making body.
Five, as a consequence of his leading role, Gen. Abacha was extremely pained at DS’ membership of NADECO and tried severally to win back DS but failed. In fact, at a number of critical meetings held in DS’ Lagos home in Victoria Island, Gen. Abacha exploited the friendship between the late founder of the Guardian Newspapers, Chief Alex Ibru who was his Minister of Internal Affairs to always reach NADECO through DS. But NADECO rejected any formal meeting with the goggled Gen. Abacha, insisting on having an agenda and each side notifying the other side of its position on the agenda. Even when NADECO suggested an agenda and stated its positions on each agenda, Gen. Abacha only sent a Government Presidential jet to ferry us to Abuja and we rejected the offer.
Six, DS had to be forced to go on exile in August 1994 when we had a reliable intelligence information that Gen. Abacha had spread his dragnet to arrest and or capture DS. It was a painful decision that we had to decide that DS must depart Nigeria that night. That decision was taken in my hide-out office which was Chief Olu Falae’s Osborne Office, Victoria Island.
Seven, DS became the first Chairman of NADECO Abroad, then based in London. He only returned home on October 7, 1998 after the death of Gen. Abacha and the amnesty pronounced for all those in exile by Gen. Abdusalami Abubakar’s government. On his return he joined the group that formed the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and held different posts including that of Nigerian Ambassador to the Soviet Union and President of the Middle Belt Forum. DS was a reliable, amiable and diligent leader whose vacuum will be difficult to fill…”
When my career in television, which, in fact, had only just begun to take form, took a detour in the direction of banking, little did I know where it would lead me. I only followed Demosthenes’ lead that “small opportunities are often the beginning of great enterprises.” I simply trudged along, and as it turned out, nothing could have prepared me for how the journey eventually turned out.
It was supposed to be working in the corporate world of Broad Street, but soon it became one of working in an undefined capacity with our bank’s chairman, risking it all in the service of fatherland as a pro-democracy leader. I was supposed to be on exile from journalism but it was on my visits to his home office that I got to meet the great Generals like Ndubuisi Kanu and Alani Akinrinade. Chairman would casually introduce them to me. Then, unannounced, he left Nigeria. I never got to meet him again. Sadly so. May the good Lord comfort the family of the great General who, at great cost, stood true to his conviction.
Simbo Olorunfemi works for Hoofbeatdotcom, a Nigerian communications consultancy and publisher of Africa Enterprise. Twitter: @simboolorunfemi
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