Opinion: Of June 12, Abiola, and history – By FOLA OJO
The pulse of the nation beats heavy. Excitement and apprehension together leased spaces in many homes. Democracy, a system that amplifies the voices of the people and tramples and thrashes on dictatorship, was about to undergo a towering test. It was on June 12, 1993. The Social Democratic Party presidential candidate, Moshood Kashimawo Olawale Abiola, held the banner for his party. The National Republican Convention candidate, Alhaji Bashir Tofa, did the same for his party. A military dictator, Ibrahim Babangida, whose hors d’oeuvres were the aura and opulence of the Presidential Villa, was the unfair umpire.
The Igbo across the nation closed their shops. The Yoruba dumped their farms and shut down their businesses. The Fulani abandoned their cows and the Hausa thronged polling stations. And the great people of Niger Delta took time off from their crude oil locations and together from all regions, Nigerians recorded their footprints and fingerprints on the pad of history. Everything stood still for history. Voter turnout spiked especially in the South on Election Day. Nigerians did not care that candidates on the ballot were both Muslims. At the end of the day, Abiola received over eight million votes winning in 19 states. The NRC’s Tofa received over six million votes and won in 10 states. Of the over total 14 million votes, Abiola won almost 60 per cent.
Then, the demolition announcement came in the air. Self-styled Evil Genius Babangida annulled the election and trashed the results. He claimed he was compelled to do so because of security threats to the enthronement of a democratic government at that time. He said he knew that Abiola’s new democratic government would sooner than later be toppled through another military coup d’état, which he said his government wanted to avoid. Years later, he admitted: “June 12 was accepted by Nigerians as the best of elections in Nigeria. It was free and fair. But unfortunately, we cancelled that election. I used the word unfortunately, for the first time. To be honest with you, the situation was not ripe to hand over at the time. Forget about the wrong things that happened in politics”.
Across Nigeria, protests against injustice were vehement. Pressure was too harsh to bear for the nullifier-umpire, Babangida, who had to “step aside” for Ernest Shonekan, a man from Abiola’s neighbourhood. Shonekan then took charge in Aso Rock as leader of a National Interim Government. Before Shonekan could settle in with governance, he was toppled in a military coup d’état on November 17, 1993. Sani Abacha, Babangida’s one-time Chief of Army Staff, was the arrowhead. Abiola continued the fight to reclaim his mandate; but Abacha wasn’t having that. Abacha’s reign of terror snuffed lives out of many political personalities. Many had to flee abroad escaping the junta’s cold hands of death. The winner of the 1993 election was then slammed behind bars. One day on June 8, 1998, Abacha slept and did not wake up. Gen. Abdulsalami Abubakar replaced him as Head of State. Under Abdulsalami’s watch, Abiola was eventually killed by wicked and invisible hands. He died mysteriously July 7, 1998; the day that he was due to be set free from incarceration.
Since the death of Abiola, democracy has reeled in the throes of mourning and pain. Abiola’s name was gradually fading off in history, and from the minds of many who were too young to remember the sacrifice made by many for the blossoming and entrenchment of Nigeria’s nascent democracy.
On Wednesday, June 6, in Abuja, President Muhammadu Buhari announced that in Nigeria and henceforth, Democracy Day will be celebrated on June 12 of every year in place of May 29. “June 12, 1993 was far more symbolic of democracy in the Nigerian context than May 29”, said Buhari in a press statement. This was the sweetest news I’ve received from Nigeria in 20 years. Since the announcement, controversies had suffused the air. Some call it politics; some call it pandering to the electorate; and many others call it justice at last. I leave politics to politicians and their screaming acolytes. I leave partisanship to partisans and their blind adherents. We are today discussing the honour of a man who died for a cause in a nation where, if you die fighting, you may have died in vain. If Abiola couldn’t be honoured as a living, he remains the honourable. And honouring the honourable is an honourable thing to do. Anyone carrying the headache of politicians winning one election or the other is free to do so. You will have to deal with the nagging effects of your migraine all by yourself with help from none. Many Nigerians don’t care who wins or loses the 2019 presidential election.
History records it on this day that what others couldn’t do, Buhari has done. What Abiola’s kinsman, President Olusegun Obasanjo hated to do, Buhari has done. What Umaru Yar’Adua couldn’t do, this president has done. What Goodluck Jonathan attempted to do and was resisted by powers-that-be, this retired General from Daura has done. And he has done well. Elder statesmen in any society are mighty men behind the scenes, not cupbearers and rabble rousers in the frontline. I don’t agree with Mr. President all the time, but he is one of Nigeria’s elder statesmen. He has done what is right and just. For the condemning voices who perceive Buhari’s move as politics-as-usual, you are probably right. But do you remember that this President has taken off the military uniform soldiering around? Do you know who he is now and what he does?
When a lawyer shows up in the courtrooms, he plays the lawyer’s game. When a doctor shows up in the emergency room, he plays the doctor’s game. When a pastor bounces up and about on the pulpit, he does what pastors do-preach the word. When politicians make decisions and announcements, what do you think they should play? Should they play a doctor’s game? Politicians play politics. Good ones among them play good politics. That’s their crafts. Buhari is a politician, not an Imam and no longer a soldier. He must play politics. And he must play it good. What is important to many is that he just did what is honourable with the honour conferred on Abiola. Abiola’s family members are appreciative and not angry. And with many Nigerians I know, we are appreciative and not angry either.
But, if Mr. President thinks this masterstroke seals the election deal in the South-West heading on to the 2019 election, he should think again. Honouring MKO with the June 12 declaration has only done one thing: “Commitment reinforcement”. Those who are committed to Buhari remain unwaveringly committed. Those who despise and hate the President become stronger in their hatred and more ferocious in their venoms. Will this move shift the needle to radical change-of-mind at the polling booth? If you think so; then you don’t know Nigerians. This fanfare will wear out in a week and then we go back to where we were before now. But with this gesture, I salute Mr. President.Punch