Opinion: The soul of Abiola can rest in peace – By AZUKA ONWUKA
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Last week, President Muhammadu Buhari announced the conferment of the highest national award of Grand Commander of the Federal Republic (GCFR) on Chief MKO Abiola, the presumed winner of the annulled 1993 presidential election. Buhari also announced the change of May 29 to June 12 as the new Democracy Day in Nigeria to underscore the importance of that election to the political development of Nigeria.
That pronouncement was received positively, especially by those who were sad about the injustice done to Abiola and Nigeria’s democracy in 1993 with the annulment of the June 12, 1993 election which was peaceful, transparent, free and fair.
Since the return of democracy in 1999, there has been a clamour for the recognition of Abiola as the winner of that election. After that annulment, Nigeria was thrown into a political crisis with fears that mayhem might break out if Gen. Ibrahim Babangida, who annulled that election, did not leave office on the scheduled date of August 27, 1993. Even though Babangida eventually left on August 26, he handed power over to an Interim National Government, headed by Abiola’s kinsman, Chief Ernest Shonekan.
Three months after, Gen Sani Abacha sacked the ING and took over power, acting as if he sacked the ING to remedy the injustice of the annulment of the election. But after digging in, he showed no plan to revisit the annulment. On June 11, 1994, Abiola declared himself the President of Nigeria on the strength of the 1993 election. Abacha declared him wanted, arrested him, charged him for treason, and kept him in detention until his death in June 1998.
While Abiola was in detention, his wife, Kudirat – who became the face of the struggle in his absence – was murdered in Lagos. Other activists were also murdered or arrested or manhandled. However, when the world was expecting the release of Abiola after the sudden death of Abacha in 1998, the former also died suddenly.
Eventually on May 29, 1999, the military returned power to the civilians. Before the handover, the two presidential candidates of the Peoples Democratic Party and the All Peoples Party (which later changed to the All Nigeria Peoples Party) were chosen from the South-West as an appeasement and compensation for the injustice done to Abiola. Chief Olusegun Obasanjo was elected as president and became the prime beneficiary of that compensation. Sadly, Obasanjo ensured that no mention was made of Abiola or the June 12 election all through his eight-year tenure in spite of calls to honour Abiola.
Obasanjo’s successor, Alhaji Umaru Yar’Adua, who was in office for two and half years, battling ill health, did not give any recognition to Abiola. Dr Goodluck Jonathan took over in 2010 as President and got elected in 2011, after completing the tenure of Yar’Adua. In 2012, he announced the change of the University of Lagos to Moshood Abiola University as a way of honouring Abiola. But contrary to expectations, it was greeted with protests. He eventually rescinded that decision.
The excuse was that the University of Lagos had made a name that should not be tampered with. There was also the excuse that changing the name of the University of Lagos (which is a federal university based in the South-West) was an attempt to “localise” Abiola and make his mandate look regional. Interestingly, before that announcement, some other Nigerians had been named after universities, including the renaming of Anambra State University, Awka in the South-East to Nnamdi Azikiwe University in honour of the first President of Nigeria, who led the fight for Nigeria’s independence. The Federal University of Technology, Bauchi in the North-East was renamed Abubakar Tafawa Balewa University in honour of the first Prime Minister of Nigeria. Similarly, the University of Ife in the South-West was changed to Obafemi Awolowo University in honour of the first Premier of Western Nigeria and former Nigerian Minister of Finance.
Since the inauguration of Buhari in 2015 as President, he had not done anything to show concern for Abiola or the June 12 election. In fact, Buhari was working under Abacha as the Chairman of the Petroleum (Special) Trust Fund all the while Abiola was in detention under Abacha’s directive. Even after Abacha’s death, Buhari had kept associating himself with Abacha and his family, attending his memorials and defending his regime as not corrupt in spite of all the looted funds being returned by different countries from Abacha’s bank accounts abroad.
In spite of all this, Buhari has gone down in history as the person who made June 12 Democracy Day in Nigeria and awarded Abiola the honour reserved for presidents. That glory goes to him. It shows that anybody can be an instrument of turning injustice to justice. Buhari has been accused of using Abiola to gain political mileage, especially in the South-West. But it should not be surprising. Buhari is a politician, and politicians are in politics to gain advantage over their opponents, so as to remain in power or regain power. Secondly, Buhari was not the first Nigerian president to be in power since Abiola’s death in 1998. Others before him, especially Obasanjo, had the golden opportunity to use Abiola’s popularity to their advantage. But they scorned it. Buhari decided to grab that opportunity with both hands.
There is also a lesson for dictators and others who believe that they can use their position to suppress the wishes of the people. The people have a right to choose the person they want to lead them, no matter how seemingly unwise that choice may appear. It is not the right of a handful of people to tell the masses that their choice cannot stand. The actions of Babangida and Abacha to annul and suppress June 12, 1993 election should actually be seen as national sabotage.
Another lesson from it is that the heroes of today may become the villains of tomorrow and vice versa. Those whose names and faces adorn our national monuments today may in future become odious because of the ignoble roles they played in the past. Some may even have their names dented by the International Criminal Court for war crimes and crimes against humanity. Some other Nigerians may move from infamy and oblivion to fame.
There have been calls for Buhari to go a step further to declare Abiola a former president of Nigeria with all the rights and privileges. Even though there may be legal mist surrounding this point, there is merit in such calls, for Abiola won an election that was needlessly annulled after the results were received by the head of the electoral body, Prof Humphrey Nwosu. With Buhari’s honour to Abiola, he has already broken that policy of conferring the GCFR only on former presidents. So, Abiola has tactically been made a former president. In future, a Nigerian president or the National Assembly may officially declare him a president.
Finally, by his announcement of last week, Buhari has indeed gained some political capital from the popularity of Abiola. As the presidential election is less than one year away, some may be swayed by that. But there are still many Nigerians who will refuse to be swayed solely by that action, but will choose to use the totality of his tenure to decide if he deserves their votes in 2015. Therefore, if Buhari wants to be re-elected in 2015, he should know that he has only about ten more months to produce tangible achievements rather than banking on the popularity of Abiola and his June 12 mandate.Punch