Around the third week of September 1998, I received a rather surprising call from Professor Ibrahim Gambari, Nigeria’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations. I had come to respect and like Professor Gambari in the years of our struggle. He became clearly one of our strongest opponents on the diplomatic turf in the sense that he never indulged in any sycophantic praise of the dictatorship in Nigeria.
“Unlike Tom Ikimi, who was really a good opponent to have, I crossed swords with Professor Gambari several times in international gatherings, and even after I attacked him, he would still come around to me and say ‘Aburo (my brother), let us remember that Nigeria is greater than anyone of us, and we must always protect Nigeria’s interest’.
“I recall particularly, a lecture he gave at the Royal African Society in London in 1996. As usual, he refrained from defending the regime’s battered image, but concentrated on Nigeria’s role in peacekeeping in the world. When I stood up and quoted his own reflections in his book, Theory and Reality in Nigeria’s Foreign Policy Making, as a basis for my question, that he seemed to have moved away from his argument, that the domestic basis of foreign policy could not be ignored, he just smiled and said to the audience, ‘This is a matter between me and Kayode. Please, allow me to have this debate with my brother in camera’.
“He used to annoy me enormously with this disarming charm, but I realised he gained enormous respect from other diplomats, particularly, in the UN, as a result of his unobtrusive approach. Anyway, I was curious to receive Professor Gambari’s call, partly because I did not realise he had my number. (It turned out that a friend in New York had given him the number).
“His question was direct: ‘Aburo, I need to reach Professor Soyinka urgently. I have tried all the numbers I have and I understand that you may be able to help me.’ I joked with him that we do not normally see the big masquerade in the afternoon, and I am sure this must be pretty important. Could he let me know what this was in connection with so that I could give Professor Soyinka advance warning? He demurred and I did not push, since I suspected what it was about. I promised to get back to him.
“By the time I got through to Professor Soyinka, Professor Gambari had already reached him by other means. Professor Soyinka quickly summoned a teleconference of the steering committee of the UDFN to discuss the reason for Gambari’s call. It turned out that the new head of state, General Abdul-Salami Abubakar, was on his way to New York for the General Assembly of the United Nations and had requested a meeting with Professor Soyinka.
“We were not unanimous in our view as to the necessity for a meeting with General Abubakar, but in the end, we decided that Professor Soyinka should see him but not alone, as the junta had originally proposed – and not without a clear set of positions consistent with what we agreed in Bromley. On 25 September, 1998, Professor Soyinka, the vice chairman of UDFN, Professor Juliu Ihonvbere and the Secretary General, Professor Sola Adeyeye met with General Abubakar at his New York hotel in the company of Professor Ibrahim Gambari.
*Excerpted from Fayemi’s book, “Out of the Shadows” published in 2005. Fayemi is governor of Ekiti state