It is easy to oppress, to imprison without trial, to
maim, even to kill, but the history of man is that
ultimately, you cannot break the will of the people
who are determined to be free.
– Anthony Enahoro
In the height of the recent lockdown at the instance of Covid-19 pandemic, the memory of June 12 stirred up on my mind. That was when our streets ran dry of movements and silence of the graveyard took precedence. The experience during agitations for revalidation of June-12 mandate could be likened, in some respects, to the restrictions occasioned by COVID-19 pandemic. Although there was no self-isolation or quarantine and no one was afraid of going out because of the fear of contracting an infection, the strike called by labour unions in concert with platforms of civil society to press for the revalidation of June 12 presidential election crippled the socio-economic activities as many households ran out of supplies; leading to restriction on vehicular and human movements. The country’s economy was grounded the same way as witnessed during Covid-19 restrictions.
As the commemoration of June 12 historic mandate approaches, memories of that epoch streamed into my mind with nostalgia. The events culminating in that momentous day in 1993 have refused to elude me. It was a day that broke out like a beautiful flower. The sky brightened, signalling the horizon of a fulfilment. The weather was so soothing yet foreboding! However, there was no suggestion as to the darkness that would soon descend on a nation that was agog with celebration days after the poll. An election that would bring death literally to the tyranny and dictatorship that had turned our country to a pariah nation was expected to take place that day. People were already in jubilation; expectant of an end they were yet to see. What was certain was that whether it was ‘a little to the left’ or ‘a little to the right’ of the political spectrum that won the election, it was going to be a good riddance to the nuisance constituted by military oligarchy.
I was a student at the Osun State Polytechnic, Iree at the time but I witnessed the presidential election in my hometown; Ipetumodu. It was an election that was to put a democratic president in the saddle. However, the initial impression that pervaded the country was that the election was not going to hold as many obstacles were put in place to frustrate its success. For example, a rather satanic group known as Association for Better Nigeria (ABN) sponsored by military apologists and headed by self-styled “maverick” Arthur Nzeribe had procured a court order stopping the election. The election went ahead notwithstanding the obvious booby trap orchestrated through Nzeribe’s ABN. Even though the election was conducted peacefully, General Ibrahim Badamosi Babangida, the then military ruler was still going to spring his ‘Maradonic’ surprise at the end of the day by doing what had long been foretold considering the trajectory of the will-o-the-wisp transition programme that heralded June 12. I should like to say that in the course of the preparations for the elections, I had lost confidence in the whole process. Babangida’s transition programme had become the butt of a joke that I concluded the presidential election billed for June 12 was not going to see the light of the day. Babangida had stretched his deception beyond limit that people had become so disenchanted.
June 12, 1993 presidential poll was between two candidates and two political parties; The National Republican Convention (NRC) and Social Democratic Party (SDP). It was the first time in the history of our nation that presidential election will feature two political parties and two candidates. The candidates were SDP’s Chief Moshood Kashimawo Abiola popularly known as MKO and Alhaji Bashir Tofa of the NRC.. It is important to mention that the two parties were the creations of the military which defined them as “a little to the Left and a little to the Right” contraptions. The SDP was considered to be a little to the left while NRC was seen as a little to the right. MKO Abiola of the SDP was already a household name in Nigeria and globally acclaimed businessman. His challenger, Bashir Tofa was little known even if he projected to be bride of the powerful and influential northern political hegemony.
MKO Abiola from the southwest had spread his tentacles across the country in terms of his philanthropy and popularity. It was obvious the dice of that election had cast itself in favour of the SDP candidate. Before that day, Abiola had displayed knowledge, wisdom and a lot of understanding in his diagnoses of the nation’s problems at a presidential debate that had taken place. That presidential debate was novel to our electoral system but it was that debate that won the heart of the nation for MKO. His vast knowledge of issues and his being cerebral at analysing and diagnosing Nigerian malaises and proffering solutions to them were endearing. MKO’s “Farewell to poverty” slogan conveyed depth of diagnoses and solutions to the poverty ravaging Nigeria. On the contrary, “Things are Tough but Tofa is Tougher” slogan of his NRC challenger conveys more a sardonic impression than appeal to reasoning. Apart from being a philanthropist who had spread his kindness far and wide beyond the shores of Nigeria, MKO was a business mogul who had extensive international business networks. He was also a media guru who had invested hugely in the print media, including a flourishing newspaper known then as National Concord that was among the most successful and influential media organisations in the country at the time. Abiola was also a lover of sports. In fact, apart from having a football club then, he became pillar of sports in Africa as he was a patron to many sport organizations in Nigeria as well as other parts of Africa. MKO’s advocacy for payment of reparations for the people of Africa over decades of slave trade was also seen as demonstration of pan-Africanist leadership that stood him miles of shoulders high and above the political neophyte; Bashir Tofa.
MKO’s election campaign was unique as he brought in experts from across the world. He endeared himself to a majority of the voters so much that many had thought the election was just a formality as many, across the country, considered him the preferred candidate. But the power oligarchy proved to be stumbling block that proverbially robbed Peter but, worst still, without even paying Paul. By noon of June 12, the counting of ballot papers had been done in most polling booths. It was an open ballot styled ‘Option A4’ whereby voters lined up behind the poster of their preferred candidate to be counted. As the results were rolling in from every nook and cranny of the country, it was clear that Abiola was leading even in Tofa’s Kano State and coasting home to be declared the president-elect of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. Few days later, announcement of the handful of results yet to be officially declared were abruptly stopped on the orders of the then military authority. What followed was chaos! The anarchy that was let loose upon the country was never imagined!
Babangida, the military President, though did not differ radically from other military rulers before him, his reign was full of deceptions which earned him the sobriquet, Maradona, meaning a ‘dribbler’ – a name taken after the Argentine footballer, Maradona, the master dribbler. He had sold to Nigeria, through his penchant for deception, the Structural Adjustment Programmes of the IMF/World Bank which impoverished a large population of Nigerians. Many civil society organizations and individuals, including Committee for the Defence of Human Rights (CDHR), Civil Liberty Organisation (CLO), Chief Gani Fawehinmi, Baba Omojola, Beko Ransome Kuti, Olisa Agbakoba, Femi Falana, Olusegun Mayegun and a host of others rose to struggle against SAP and other ills of the Babangida regime prelude to the June 12 election.
The June 12 Presidential election brought out, again, Babangida’s demonstrated insincerity through a broadcast justifying the annulement of the election. Here was a man who had promised the Nigerian people that he was going to return power to a democratically elected government but turned around to break faith with nation in spite of the peaceful and credible outcome of the poll. It was clear Babangida and his collaborators did not want a return to civil rule. One of the immediate consequences of the annulment was that it generated massive protests across the country. Many protesters were mauled down under the hails of bullets by the military and police goons in the attempts to crush protests that were becoming massive daily.
When the protests were unceasing and people were not only dying but ready to die more while Babangida’s image was dipping, he relinguished power in ignominy on the 27th August, 1993, signalling the end to his 8 years draconian rule. But Babangida did not leave without dragging the country into another abyss in his last move of desperation by leaving behind another landmine. He set up an interim government and appointed Chief Earnest Shonekan as head. Babangida left Shonekan with a high-ranking military officer, General Sanni Abacha, waiting in the wing to return the country to full-blown dictatorship. After Shonekan had fidgeted with power for less than two months, Abacha took the power in another palace coup, setting the stage for the most brutal military regime in Nigeria.
Although Abacha was said to have promised to revalidate the mandate of MKO and return him as the President, it was a grand deception as he also held on to power but not without some struggle against his government from politicians, including MKO and many individuals and civil society organizations. Having seen through the deception, MKO took up the gauntlet and challenged the Abacha government by declaring himself President-elect of the Federal Republic of Nigeria in 1994 at Epetedo. That historic affirmation of the sanctity of the mandate of Nigerian electorate in Lagos State is now commemorated annually as Epetedo Declaration. MKO was soon arrested and thrown into jail. Many other politicians who were in support of quest for the restoration of June 12 mandate were either assassinated, clamped into jail or driven into exile. The height of the military brutality under Abacha was the assassination of the wife of MKO Abiola, Alhaja Kudirat Abiola on July 4, 1996 as well as several other Nigerians brutally killed. Amidst this crisis, Abacha proceeded with the ambition of transmuting into a civilian president via the creation of five political parties which adopted him as sole presidential candidate.
It is pertinent to remind ourselves, at this juncture; that a number of those who fought in suport of sanctity of MKO’s mandate were those who never wanted him in the first place but later began to see him as the symbol of the struggle against perpetuation of military rule. These supporters belonged to different political spectrums, including those who could be described as conservatives as well as people from the left. They included media professionals, university lecturers and student union activists on various campuses of higher institutions in the country. They constituted the bulwark of the fight against the military tyranny and they were usually on the streets protesting against all kinds of injustices and government misrule. To say that Abacha was the worst dictator in Nigerian history is an understatement because for good five years of his reign, Abacha threw every caution into the wind as if there was not going to be a tomorrow. He really played God and he was no respecter of any human. He arrested and imprisoned a former head of state, General Olusegun Obasanjo as well as a former Chief of Army Staff, General Shehu Musa Yar’adua, on trumped-up charges. Furthermore, he threw his Vice, Major-General Diya, Beko Ransome-Kuti and a host of others into detention also on trumped-up charges of plotting against him.
When Abacha was announced to have died suddenly in 1998, many Nigerians went out into the streets to celebrate his death as they felt relieved of the burden his regime had constituted to the country as Nigeria had become a pariah in the comity of nations. Following his death, one of his cabinet members, General Abdusalam Abubakar took over the reign of power and immediately began the process of transition to democratic rule. Abacha’s successor released all political detainees and persuaded all those who were in exile to return home. By May 29, 1999, when all the transition programmes from military rule to civilian rule had been wrapped up, Obasanjo became the major beneficiary of the June 12 struggle as he emerged as democratically elected president of Nigeria. Interestingly, the election that returned Obasanjo as president could not, in any way, be described as free and fair like the June 12, 1993 poll.
June 12 brought in its wake many life lessons. The first lesson of June 12 was the infidelity of politicians. Hardly had Abubakar settled down as the head of state, following Abacha’s death, than the politicians began the process of political negotiation with the military instead of first demanding for the release of MKO. In other words, it was clear that all they were interested in was political participation and transmission of power to civilians. While the political class was negotiating political transition, the military cabal was strategizing on how to even up the death of Abacha because they would have had no other choice than to negotiate power with MKO if he was going to be released alive from detention. MKO, however, died following the visit to him in detention by a team of American envoy during which he was said to have been served a cup of tea.
The second lesson is the place of fate. It was a sheer irony of fate that Obasanjo came back as the president of Nigeria courtesy the June 12 struggle to which he was opposed. He had worked against the de-annulment of June 12 election results and the declaration of Abiola as president. Throughout his eight years in power as civilian president, Obasanjo neither for once acknowledge the June 12 nor recognise Abiola who was the symbol of that struggle. The same irony played out twelve years after Obasanjo had left power that Mohammadu Buhari, an Abacha’s supporter whose conspiracy of silence was loud enough on his opposition to Abiola’s presidential mandate but turned around as civilian president to recognise June 12 as public holiday and also conferred on Abiola presidential honours, posthumously. It is also ironic that MKO was widely believed to have sponsored Banbagida’s coup against Buhari when he was military Head of State.
The third lesson however is the political miscalculation of radical groups regarding participation in Abdulsami’s presidential transition that heralded return to civil rule in 1999. The radical group that constituted the block of genuine progressives frittered away the unique opportunity they would have availed themselves by participating in politics in 1999, thereby robbing the masses the much-anticipated change in governance. This singular generational political blunder has given room to enthroning people without progressive pedigree in governance across all tiers of governance in the country.
The fourth lesson is that class and self-interests play key roles in politics and therefore the need to be conscious and relate to the dynamics. The roles of Babangida and Babagana Kingibe in the June 12 saga were dictated mainly by different interests that ostensibly were in opposition to MKO presidential ambition. MKO perhaps trusted his military friends too much and had little or no knowledge of Babagana Kingibe. Besides, MKO overestimated his closeness to the power oligarchy and as well his international clout.
It is to be noted that the reality of life, as Yoruba saying goes, is that you can never be as wise as people stalking you. The greatest of people have fallen through the conspiracy of their friends. Enemies can also come to the rescue when best friends have proven to be betrayers. Hopefully the lessons have been learnt and would remain a guide in navigating the future. Long live the memory of June!
Johnson Amusan is a legal practitioner.