By Taiwo Farotimi
Chief Moshood Kashimawo Olawale Abiola, chartered account, business mogul and stylist politician never held political office in his lifetime. But with his foray into politics he affected Nigeria’s political history perhaps more than any of his contemporaries. At the beginning, some of his political adversaries assumed that it was his money that won him attention at political meetings, in private and in public. But after he won a pan-Nigerian mandate on June 12, 1993, the goodwill that his large heartedness and philanthropy bought for him among the people enhanced his transformation to the symbol of democracy. The electorate eagerly looked forward to an Abiola in the driver’s seat who will make Nigeria great.
In his historic Epetedo Declaration on the eve of the first anniversary of his election, Abiola urged Nigerians to reject “that abominable of naked political armed robbery” characterized by the annulment of the June 12 presidential election in the country. He said he took the decision to call on the people to take back the stolen mandate from the ‘soldier politicians’ following failed attempts “to arouse whatever remnants of patriotism are left in the hearts of these thieves of your mandate”. After a proclamation of government of national unity, and despite his willingness to pardon the soldiers, Abiola was clamped into detention by the Sani Abacha junta. He was to die in solitary confinement four years later, and one month after the death of the dictator who was his jailor, though also a friend. But if those behind the annulment of the election, considered the fairest and freest in Nigeria, assumed that his death will signal the end of the agitation for the official acceptance that Abiola truly won the election, they missed the point.
Civil society groups and the media continued to hammer the fact that the election was won and lost. Bashir Tofa, candidate of the National Republican Convention, NRC, and Abiola’s opponent did not contest the election. The military government became the opposition in an exercise where it was supposed to be the umpire. Demonstrators were killed and scores wounded for agitating for the reversal of the military action annulling the exercise. The brutal response of the junta to the agitations at home and its refusal to accede to appeals by foreign leaders and international institutions turned Nigeria to a pariah nation. The consequence included imposition of sanctions and its attendant impact on the image and economy of the country. Hopes that the government of General Abdussalam Abubakar, Abacha’s successor; would address the issue of June 12 was dashed when the death of Abiola was announced by the military authorities.
The agitation for the recognition of June 12 even under the civilian administrations of Olusegun Obasanjo, Umar Yar’Adua and Goodluck Jonathan made little or no impact. The closest that former President Jonathan got to give hearing to that demand was the contentious renaming of the University of Lagos, UNILAG after Abiola. Alumni and students of the institution at the time resisted. President Muhammadu Buhari, a retired general, regarded as a friend of Abacha and one general who could not be remembered to have made any statement about the annulment must have surprised many people when he announced the recognition of June 12 as Nigeria’s Democracy Day. Buhari did not only confirm that Abiola won the election, he also decorated him, though posthumously, with the medal of Grand Commander of the Federal Republic, GCFR, Nigeria’s highest national honour.
It is also symbolic that President Buhari signed into law the bill making June 12 the official Democracy Day in Nigeria on the anniversary of the Epetedo Declaration. The only difference is that while the declaration took place in Lagos, the president’s signature was appended in Abuja, the seat of government. But the presidential signature-itself a confirmation of the act of parliament- became the seal needed to undo that military pronouncement of 1993 [by General Ibrahim Babangida, then military president and interestingly a celebrated friend of Abiola] that the will of the people was not recognized by the few generals in power at the time. Babangida had also made the pronouncement annulling June 12 in Abuja.
The June 12 phenomenon became somewhat of a political movement that defied all opposition and force, making political jobbers risk their career in the embrace of power mongers in the military. Political associates of Abiola who went into the government of the Abacha junta and became too reluctant to leave at the instance of their political and socio-cultural groups almost turned to political lepers after the military was forced to bow out. Perhaps one of them who stood out as having had relevance in almost all governments since then is Babagana Kingibe, the man who ran on the same ticket with Abiola. He was also honoured by President Buhari at the same ceremony last year.
Majority of those politicians were not in the fore front of the National Democratic Coalition, NADECO, the umbrella body for the opposition groups that stood up to General Abacha, notwithstanding the draconian posture of the junta. Among them were retired Commodore Ndubusi Kanu, late Chief Adekunle Ajasin and Chief Ayo Opadokun. NADECO was so feared by the junta that the police often descended on anybody or group of people believed to be associated with them. For instance, Chief Alfred Rewane, a financial of the coalition, was killed in his Ikeja home by people suspected to be agents of the junta. The Abeokuta-home of Professor Wole Soyinka, Nobel Laureate, was shadowed from all direction by operatives of Abacha’s deadly secret service. He, like many in the group, had to run abroad. Those who were targets of the junta then risked being killed like Rewane or Omatsola or Bagauda Kalto, a journalist working for The News magazine. In fact, security operatives even introduced almost comic angle to the whole episode when they harassed workers of an alluminium company in Lagos for working for the political group. After failed attempts on the lives of some of the notable leaders of NADECO, like late Chiefs Anthony Enahoro, Soyinka and Abraham Adesanya, they trailed and detained a number of those politicians regarded as thorns in the flesh of the military. People like Chief Bola Ige, former governor of old Oyo State who was later killed in 2001 shortly after dropping his letter of resignation as federal attorney-general and minister for Justice, were clamped in detention by the Sani Abacha junta.
The dictator had to turn the heat on politicians in order for him to realise his ambition to perpetuate himself in office through the five political parties created and financed by his government. Ige had spurned the parties as ‘five fingers of a leprous hand’. So, rather than participate in such a venture, Ige decided to ‘siddon look’. He recoiled into his shell and was watching. That was not acceptable to the junta, because the clan of men of conscience, led by these men, were constantly pulling the hears of the military, reminding them that they were usurpers of a mandate that was freely given by Nigerians. Their demand was that Abiola be released from detention and allowed to govern in line with the mandate.
The more they made that demand the more the military became uncomfortable and desperate. The consequence was deaths of innocent Nigerians, arrests of scores of others, intimidation and closure of newspapers houses and brutalization of journalists as well as the framing up of those believed to pose a threat to the continued hanging onto power of the junta. Newspapers like National Concord owned by Abiola, The Punch and The Guardian were proscribed. But the military, even in all their war tactics, did not bargain for the antagonism of TELL and The News, two magazines that defied the junta. Often, whole print runs of TELL magazine were seized by agents of state, and though the magazine, through the fiery lawyer and activist, Chief Gani Fawehinmi, won many cases in court, the government merely scoffed at court verdicts without paying compensation as directed by the courts. Founders of TELL and The News, their staff and family members were either detained or brutalized by security operatives for speaking out against the oppressive actions of the junta. Businesses collapsed because they came under pressure from government for not being in the good books of those in government or because of half-baked policies that strained the economy, since soldiers were not trained in the act of governance.
‘Babangida dribbled Nigerians for eight years without concluding his transition programme, while Abacha did his for four years before he breathed his last’
It was not just the economy of the country or the people that were battered by the military and their vicious actions, the psyche of the people were also dealt some strong blows. What then happened was that those who fought for the return to democracy had so lost faith in the military that they did not believe that the military could be faithful with the pledge to hand over power to democratically elected representatives of the people. The doubt was justified. Babangida dribbled Nigerians for eight years without concluding his transition programme, while Abacha did his for four years before he breathed his last. It was therefore hard to believe that Abdussalam Abubakar, a member of the military ruling council before he took power, will do what his predecessors failed to do in one year.
They therefore left the game to political jobbers, politicians who took cover either at home or abroad when pro-democracy activists were facing live bullets or tear gas from agents of the state under the dictators.
Abdussalam thus became a general to be celebrated for giving honour to his words. A second general, after Obasanjo, to return the country to civilian administration. Ironically, he handed over to Obasanjo as civilian head of state. But before the death of Abiola, Abdussalam was under intense pressure to release the detained politician, conclude the process of the declaration of the results of June 12 election and swear in Abiola as president. But the sudden news of Abiola’s demise put paid to the agitation for his enthronement as president.
Political leaders, particularly from the northern part of the country, agreed that as a sign of respect for the pains of people of Abiola’s south west geo-political zone, the zone should produce the candidates for the office of president in 1999. The contest for the office was therefore between Obasanjo of the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP and Chief Olu Falae, who ran on the joint ticket of the Alliance for Democracy, AD, and All Peoples Party, APP.
On assumption of office, activists continued the campaign for the revalidation of June 12, requesting that Obasanjo should honour his kinsman, Abiola, as the true winner of the annulled election. Apparently, the soldier-turned-politician was not convinced that Abiola merited that honour. Not much was expected from his immediate successor, Yar’Adua, because of his state of health. Jonathan who attempted to honour Abiola probably did not do enough consultation, so his idea did hold. That historic success became the lot of President Buhari, one not known to be a friend or kinsman of Abiola. Yet a man who would ordinarily not be expected to be enthusiastic about an Abiola issue, because of the belief that he probably had a role to play in the coup that unseated Buhari in 1985. Buhari, for being so magnanimous, got a public apology from the children of Abiola for the not-so-friendly relationship between their late father and the president.
‘Though he would be remembered as the president who never took office, Abiola will be seen as the symbol of democracy and the man who laid down his life so that the people of Nigeria can freely chose the leaders that they want in government. That is the magic of June 12’
With the recognition of June 12, and the commemoration of the day as Democracy Day, it means that Abiola’s name has been written in gold in the history of Nigeria. Anytime the democracy day is celebrated, there will be a reference to the history behind the idea and the man of history voted by over 58% of Nigerians on June 12, 1993 will definitely come up for mention. Though he would be remembered as the president who never took office, Abiola will be seen as the symbol of democracy and the man who laid down his life so that the people of Nigeria can freely chose the leaders that they want in government. That is the magic of June 12. Those who then saw the agitation for June 12 as unnecessary noise of pro-democracy activists seeking attention will realise that the date has come to be a metaphor for popular government. That is the legacy that M. K. O. Abiola gave Nigerians, and that is why it could safely be said that those who voted for Abiola on June 12, 1993 voted right. Those who never rested from agitating for the revalidation of June 12 fought for the good of Nigeria; and those who allowed themselves to be used as instruments of that recognition had good counsel.
In fact, it could be said that if Abiola had taken office and ruled for two terms, though he may have battled poverty according to his campaign promises and restored the economy of the country, he probably would not have had the same impact on the national psyche.
So, as the Day is officially commissioned, supporters and associates of the politician could re-echo that his popular campaign slogan “ON THE MARCH AGAIN… M K O, IS OUR MAN O!” Now, they would be glad that he has become the man for all seasons and for all men, not just his admirers.