By Oluwasegun Abifarin
28th May 1989: The cloud had gathered over the University of Lagos, Akoka, Nigeria. The drumbeat of the anti-SAP (Structural Adjustment Programme) uprising had sounded in Port Harcourt, Benin, Zaria, Ibadan, etc. And the “drummers” were in Akoka already. The stakes were high, and the odds equally high against the protest on campus that night.
The University of Lagos Students Union President then was opposed to the protest, despite the pressure mounted on him by the various sectors student leaders in the university.
Twenty hours earlier, the Faculty of Arts Students Association had invited Femi Falana to speak at the lecture marking its week. The topic was on “The Implication of SAP on Education and Development in the Third World”. Falana seized the opportunity with both hands and not only lectured the students on the topic, but extended his opinion to implication of SAP on Religion and Faith.
The charged atmosphere became intense. Clearly, only a miracle would stop the protest, despite the efforts by the school and the government to forestall it.
Lagos was strategic to the military government being the seat of federal power then.
By that evening, officials of the National Association of Nigerian Students, NANS became increasingly noticeable of campus. By about 7 pm, Ogaga Ifowodo from the University of Benin, Gbenga Komolafe of the University of Ibadan, who was NANS Senate President, and our own Gbenga Olawepo-Hashim of UNILAG Mass Communication Department, who was NANS Public Relations Officer, moved to the quadrangle of Mariere Hall and spoke to the students who had gathered there on the need to join the protest.
I still recall the opening words of Olawepo-Hashim quoting Frantz Fanon that “every generation out of relative obscurity discovers its mission fulfil or betray it”. The students became charged as the train moved to the nearby Jaja, and later to Moremi, Fagunwa, Eni Njoku and Tinubu Halls. By the then the crowd had become huge as we moved to the main gate toward El-Kanemi and Queen Amina Halls.
The Police and other security agencies had also upped their game. They barricaded the Akoka main gate in large numbers with tanks and other weapons. The main gate of UNILAG is the only sure way to town. The other exits lead to the lagoon and dangerous swamps.
The only choice opened was to confront the Police and their tanks at the main gate. From about 9 pm till 5 am when the battle with the Police raged, the voice of Olawepo-Hashim kept ringing that SAP was evil and that we either betrayed or fulfilled our mission to rescue our country. His words moved the armless students to action and to confront the armed Police because the students believed in him and his leadership.
Before 6 am, the Police were tired and students poured out to the streets towards Akoka-Bariga and Iwaya-Ikorodu Roads. In matter of hours, Lagos was on fire of protest, an action that Olawepo-Hashim and his colleagues paid dearly for it later.
It is incredible that student leaders of that era, like Olawepo-Hashim, had such influence that they could shut the country down for weeks and leave the military leaders with the only option of pleading for dialogue after series of repressive actions to crush protests would have failed to deter the activists.
When he was detained under the draconian Decree 2, stories had it that representatives of the military made him offers, including a pathway to a foreign service career in exchange for support after his release, which he declined. The big lesson for me in that era was that leadership can charge and change the environment, chart a path of action and mobilise for positive action.
He and other progressive forces also contributed hugely to snatch democracy from the jaw of the military. For instance, on the night of 8th June 1998 when the Head of State, General Sani Abacha died suddenly, the atmosphere was very tensed as various factions in the military began a fierce struggle to take charge of the situation.
That night, Olawepo-Hashim and few courageous pro-democracy colleagues quickly drafted a memo on a way out of the void created by the death the military ruler. At a high risk to their lives, they drove to Fort Ibrahim Babangida to hand over the memo to the then Chief of Army Staff, General Ishaya Bamaiyi.
“It was in the memo that we drafted the name, Independent Electoral Commission. We proposed a composition of an Independent Electoral Commission, and a whole lot of other recommendations. That memo was signed by (former President of the Nigeria Labour Congress) Pascal Bafyau, who is late now and my very self. We took that memo to Fort Ibrahim Babangida, and that was the night people were still struggling about who was going to be Head of State. I remember the Chief of Army Staff then, who surrounded himself with many armoured tanks with flashing of lights in the middle of the night. And as we were going, I heard a loud noise: ‘Stop, the Chief is coming’.
“Our vehicle swerved into the bush; there was Ishaya Bamaiyi surrounded with armoured tanks. Eventually, we settled down with Bamaiyi. He took the memo and said we could go. He didn’t say a word, and thankfully, 80 per cent of what constituted that transition came from that memo”, Olawepo-Hashim said recently.
As one of the earlier political leaders after the military returned to the barracks in 1999, Olawepo-Hashim was Deputy National Publicity Secretary of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and Chairman of the party’s Group of 54 National Executive Committee members, which he formed.
He resigned from the PDP in 2006 after a lot of disagreements over internal democracy.
Today, the twin issue of leadership and environment, which played out in the University of Lagos protest more than three and half decades ago have come up strongly in national politics with Olawepo-Hashim driving the point again.
On Tuesday, 3rd May 2022, as he stepped out to declare his intention to fly the flag of the ruling All Progressive Congress (APC) in the 2023 presidential election, he asserted that “there is nothing Nigerians cannot achieve with the right environment and support. I am out to give the leadership to create that environment”.
According to him, “mine is not an ambition but a historic burden. It is a burden imposed on me right from my late teens when as an undergraduate youth activist, my generation committed ourselves to the struggle for social and economic development of Nigeria, as well as to the struggle for democratic rule”.
He added: “I carry a historic burden to lead the process that will make a democratic Nigeria deliver the promise of a greater Nigeria that will provide for all her citizens and those who reside in it without discrimination.
“A modern Nigeria capable of securing itself from internal and external threats, provide jobs for her teeming youths currently unemployed through a sustainable economic development plan, and reduce the scourge of poverty and corruption.
“A burden to build a New Nigeria that will be a land of equal opportunity and justice”.
The aspirant recalled the “initial patriotic national ethos of our great First Republic leaders, which made Nigeria one of the leading countries of Asia and Africa with comparative GDP with Malaysia and Thailand has been effectively buried in the rubbles”.
He was confident that “yet, there still exist an incredible reservoir of national energy capable of pulling the nation from the ruins and destruction and for the construction of a new and better Nigeria. This abundant energy is able to bring light to over shadow the darkness that is enveloping our nation. There is fire in the belly of an average patriotic Nigerian which, when lit, is able to consume any imaginable size of evil”.
He equally promised to bridge the existing divides in the nation, heal the wounds and bring our nation back together again. “By reason of accident, my father came from Northern Nigeria and my mother from the South. Half of my family are Christians while half are Muslims.
“I have lived and schooled in both North and South as well as in Europe and America. I know that all human beings are born equal and deserving of equal rights, opportunities and justice.
“I will do justice to all without discrimination on account of ethnicity, religion and gender. This is not another empty promise of another politician. It is who I am”, he declared.
Since his activist days more than three decades ago, Olawepo-Hashim has done many things in business and in politics, unlike his peers who stay in the traditional comfort zones of running NGOs, media organisations and working in the universities.
In terms of clarity of vision and mission, Olawepo-Hashim appears to be the most vocal and engaging political leader in the political space, discussing critical issues of statehood, economic development and national unity and proffering solutions on how to advance the country and keep it safe.
Olawepo-Hashim in his 50s, is strong on economic issues, national security and national integration, which he has spoken widely on in the past four years. He has core competences theoretically and practically, doing business across international jurisdictions and did core courses in International Finance, International Economics and Global Security.
“I have a settled conviction in my spirit that God has preserved me for such a time as this”, Olawepo-Hashim said.
Abifarin, an award winning journalist and former Editor of TheWeek magazine, writes from Lagos