On the night of April 19, 2007, I sat with the head of my media team in a long conversation over dinner. It was a light-hearted conversation about many things: family, religion, and history. We joked about a recent visit by a friend, and the recent pranks by his youngest child. Everything but politics.
This might sound strange because that was two nights before the 2007 Presidential Elections, and we were about to lose. It was my first, and only, run in a general election for president, and I knew it would be a heavy loss.
Two weeks prior to that evening, two state governors had visited my home to beg me to step aside. There had been rumours the results of the yet-to-be-held elections had already been tabulated and sent to INEC. In their thinking, they felt a need to warn me, for old times sake, not to go into an election in which the outcome may already have been concluded, and which may embarrass me to the point of destroying my political career.
I told them I had heard them and understood. The next morning, I told my team to ramp up activity on the campaign effort. We were still running.
Why did I continue in an election that I knew clearly I was about to lose?
Over the preceding four years – at great risk to my own political future – I had engaged in a long, tough battle to maintain the viability of our young democracy by preserving the presidential term limits prescribed by the constitution.
The issues that led to these battles were rooted in principle. The key element was, that after a productive first term as Vice President, I was faced with a fundamental question of loyalty: should I remain loyal to my boss and party, or should I remain loyal to our constitution and democracy?
The tough, correct choice – our constitution – was the path I chose. And in doing so, I shunned an offer that could have kept me in high office for a potentially long period of time. After struggling for decades along side many other brave patriots to enshrine democracy and wrestle power away from military rule, the choice to defend our democracy was non-negotiable.
At the time I believed the people of Nigeria would see this as a battle to save the soul of the country, and would judge me fairly. What I did not see coming was one of the best-executed smear campaigns aimed at tarnishing everything I had legitimately worked to achieve in our struggle for democracy.
The aggrieved power-mongers threw every contrived accusation they could at me, from the Economic & Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), to the Petroleum Technology Development Fund (PTDF), to the National Council of Privatisation (NCP) committee. And despite constant and total vindication at every turn by our courts, in the end battles are won and lost in the court of public opinion. And despite zero evidence or guilt, these opponents of democracy remain unyielding in their attempts to smear my hard-earned reputation.
It never mattered that I had a history of business success prior to entering politics. It never mattered that from the moment I bought my mother a home as a 14-year-old boy, I was running various businesses to provide for my family.
It never mattered that as a customs official, I maintained one of the best ever records of returns to government, and always beat my revenue targets. You do not do that by ‘taking’. Further, during the so-called “53 suitcases” saga during the 80s, it was my record of service that saved my job. In the face of intimidation by a ruthless military government, I did my job, without fear or favour. After leaving customs, I used my knowledge and drive to build a very successful string of business ventures.
It never mattered that my asset declaration forms filed prior to entering office showed my successful business record of creating jobs and opportunity in Nigeria.
What mattered was I was wealthy, and after the smear-campaign and various frivolous charges leveled at me by the aggrieved power-mongers, public opinion ruled against me.
But that’s politics. You need thick skin to survive. But, more importantly, in life, you must keep your soul intact. After decades of standing on principle and truth, I may be bloodied and calloused, but I am still upright and still willing to fight for our democracy and a better Nigeria – with all of my soul.
So there I was, orphaned from the political party I helped start, hounded by the very people I helped bring into government, hunted by the EFCC I helped establish with startup funding, after having been merely a shell agency when it was initially set up. Yet, in the end, the EFCC proved not one case against me.
Because in the end, all the charges brought against me had nothing to do with any actual crimes and everything to do with punishing me for standing on democratic principles. The entire smear-campaign was about preventing one man from contesting an election – something constitutionally permissible for a citizen of the Federal Republic.
At that point I knew if I did not run in that election, all those battles over the years would be lost. People in the future could potentially be banned from contesting elections because petty personal vendettas outweigh legitimate court rulings.
I also ran because, win or lose, I would have given a gift of legitimacy to our democracy, even if I was not going to enjoy the results.
So the next morning, I went out, voted, went home and waited for my loss as expected. I knew that while I was going to lose a battle, I had won the war – a war to preserve the sanctity of our democratic process.
Am I a perfect? No, far from it. After all, I emerged from the same imperfect system we all came from. But life has been kind. As a child I was an orphan, but Nigeria gave me an education and blessed me with opportunity to succeed.
I have been given a chance to give back, a chance to fight on the right side for the rule of law, for the entrenchment of democracy, and blunting impunity.
We are all products of our history. Mine was formed in the spring of 1995, when our dictator, General Sani Abacha, sentenced my mentor Shehu Musa Yar’Adua to death and former boss Olusegun Obasanjo to life in prison in sham trials.
And Abacha went so far as to send a hit squad to open fire on my family and me at our home in Kaduna. That was the very night I vowed that when we defeated this military junta, I would never allow another despot sit and rule over the people of Nigeria.
This gift of life and of dreams is why I stay in the fight for justice, in the hope it will eventually bring the kind of government Nigeria truly deserves. This is what democracy means to me – freedom, opportunity and dignity for all Nigerians.