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Rotimi Sankore: June 6, 1968 – April 12, 2024

Rotimi Sankore: June 6, 1968 – April 12, 2024
April 14
09:07 2024

On December 26, 1991, Algerians voted in the first round of parliamentary elections. Over 40 parties fielded candidates. As returns started coming through, it became clear the country was in the throes of a political earthquake. The Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) took 189 of the 231 seats decided in the first round of elections for the 430-seat parliament, trouncing the ruling National Liberation Front (FLN), which only got 15 seats. FIS candidates were in the lead in 140 of the 199 districts left to be decided in the 2nd round, all but guaranteeing that the party would “attain a two-thirds majority, the amount needed to ratify constitutional amendments”. On January 11, 1992, the Algerian military forced the resignation of President Chadli Benjedid, before cancelling the election.

The following year, Nigeria was due to go to a much-delayed election to choose a successor to its military ruler. With a pervasive commitment to native exceptionalism, however, no one thought it could happen in Nigeria and, despite the events in Algeria the previous year, there was no plan for an annulment scenario.

When on June 22, 1993, Ibrahim Babangida, the Army General who had ruled Nigeria since August 27, 1985, announced the annulment of the presidential election of June 12, 1993, he induced shock around the country to the point of inaction. Alao Aka Basorun, a leading lawyer and 14th president of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), telegraphed popular scepticism about Babangida’s intentions, accusing him repeatedly of harbouring “a hidden agenda” but not even Aka had foreseen an annulment.

As the Babangida transition program grew more interminable, civic groups interested in policing it agreed to coalesce into the Campaign for Democracy (CD). At the time of the annulment, it was led by Beko Ransome-Kuti, a medical doctor and younger brother to Afrobeat musician, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti.

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Without a plan, the leadership of the CD was initially unsure how to respond. At the emergency strategy meetings called by Beko in his Imaria Street home in Anthony Village, Lagos, there was clear ambivalence as to how to respond to the annulment. Amidst the confusion, there was one exceptional young man who came prepared with clarity and rigour about how to respond.

Rotimi Sankore, who died at 55 of complications from cancer, was the clear intellectual and strategic leader of the argument that won through into the nationwide shutdown that followed the annulment of the June 12 elections in 1993, ultimately forcing Ibrahim Babangida to “step aside” from power in August of the same year into infamy.

Born as Rotimi Johnson on June 6, 1968, he was the son of Jimi Johnson, a pioneer in Nigeria’s art and theatre, and one of the stars of The Village Headmaster. Among his early mentors, Rotimi counted Wole Soyinka, who was a close friend of the family as well as Soyinka’s cousin, Fela.

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Rotimi was a precocious polymath from an early age. It was close to impossible to find a subject under the sun on which he was not reasonably informed. He could easily have been home-schooled but, Nigeria being what it is, he reluctantly got persuaded that it was useful to own a university degree. In reality, the degree certificate needed him more than he needed it.

A graduate of Communications Studies and Language Arts, Rotimi spent his undergraduate days at the University of Ibadan (UI), where his extraordinary breadth of networks and insight became a huge resource to the student movement. While embedded in the leadership of the student movement at UI, Rotimi was also a stringer and writer for the Guardian newspaper in Lagos.

Recognising him as the Svengali of a student union government whom they thought implacable, the UI authorities expelled Rotimi in 1990. Following legal assistance in which Olisa Agbakoba and the Civil Liberties Organization (CLO) were instrumental, he eventually graduated with the help of a court order which nullified the expulsion.

Rotimi was a versatile thinker who prospered in every genre of journalism. Until the period immediately following the arrival of the regime of General Sani Abacha, he worked with or wrote for The News and Tempo weekly magazines; as well as with The Guardian. In London, he wrote for The Guardian, Index on Censorship, and The Journalist. Among other titles, Rotimi also wrote for the Mail & Guardian in South Africa, the Global New African magazine, and New African Woman.

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After the crisis of the June 12 annulment, Rotimi masterminded several civic and advocacy start-ups, including the Journalists for Democratic Rights (JODER) and later CREDO, an organisation that advocated around Africa for the protection of free expression and associated political rights. In exile to the United Kingdom, Rotimi became a member of the executive council of the National Union of Journalists (NUJ), eventually going on to lead its Black Members Council as the Chair.

He became the pioneer editor of the Belgium-based International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) website for African journalists reporting on public accountability, corruption, democracy and rights-related issues. At the turn of the Millennium, Rotimi founded the Africa Human & Social Development Information (AfriDevInfo), which pioneered the use of data and statistics for journalism and policy advocacy during the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

Rotimi was also a broadcast journalist. Until his passing, he led the editorial board of the Nigeria Info Radio Group, part of the AIM Media Group with 13 stations in Lagos, Abuja, Kano, Port Harcourt and Onitsha (incorporating Nigeria Info FM, WaZoBia FM, Cool FM and Arewa Radio Stations). In this role, he also contributed to programme development on the sister television station WaZoBia TV. At his death, Rotimi was executive director of the Africa Centre for Development Journalism. His weekly current affairs programme, Public Square, was the flagship of NigeriaInfo FM 99.3 and drew the highest ratings in the country among its genre.

Rotimi was a pioneer in data journalism as a tool also for policy education and was especially passionate about access to public health information and education for under-served and excluded communities, particularly girls. In pursuit of these concerns, he regularly advised many international institutions, including the United Nations Fund for Population Activities (UNFPA); the UNAIDS; the World Health Organization, (WHO); the Geneva-based Global Partnership for Maternal, Newborn and Child Health; the Africa Development Bank (ADB); and the African Union Commission in Addis Ababa.

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Contemporaneously with his journalistic undertakings, Rotimi invested considerable energy in fostering the advancement of solidarity with women’s groups. He was an early inspiration for the creation of the Women’s Rights Project (WRP) at the CLO and became a founding member of one of Nigeria’s leading women’s rights organisations, the Women Advocates Research & Documentation Centre (WARDC).

Beyond Nigeria, Rotimi was instrumental in the development and adoption of the Gender Protocol of the Southern African Development Community (SADC). He was also a major actor in advocacy for the ratification of the African Union’s own Protocol on the human rights of women in Africa.

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In an intrepid career, Rotimi excelled as a journalist and advocate for the public good, an enterprise to which his life was dedicated. It was fitting that his battle with mortality would inspire his terminal piece of earthly advocacy.

In late 2022, Rotimi was diagnosed with what was supposed to be malaria which proved to be stubbornly resilient. Following bouts of unsuccessful therapy, he asked for a full health check. The results returned at the beginning of 2023 querying cancer. Further tests confirmed the dreaded “C”, indicating extensive metastasis. A grim prognosis gave him weeks to live at best but Rotimi beat that by over one year during which he deployed his considerable reach and expertise to comforting people affected by cancer.

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Confronted with the reality of his mortality, Rotimi chose to meet it with a determined sense of humour until the end and with eternal optimism. In conversation in the last week of his life, he was resolute: “My brother, we cannot let the bad guys have it all their way”.

Rotimi Sankore is survived by a daughter, his mother, and a brother.

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A lawyer and a teacher, Odinkalu can be reached at [email protected]



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