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June 12 recognition and resurrection of a watershed

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MKO Abiola

In a surprise and unexpected move last Wednesday, President Muhammadu Buhari declared June 12, the day in 1993 that a presidential election was won by billionaire politician, Moshood Kashimawo Olawale Abiola but was inexplicably annulled by the Military dictatorship of General Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida, as Nigeria’s Democracy Day.

The move was a surprise because Buhari, except for a few moment of solidarity with the June 12 struggle in its early days before he was appointed by the beneficiary regime of General Sanni Abacha to head the Petroleum Trust Fund (PTF), never showed any pretence of pro-democracy activism, as Nigerians know it.

It was unexpected because Nigerians especially civil society and pro-democracy groups had shouted themselves hoarse calling for the recognition of the day as Democracy Day and the winner as an official icon of the country’s struggle for representative government.

The declaration came two days to the 20th anniversary of the death of Abiola and four days after the 18th anniversary of the death of his wife, Kudirat who was assassinated on the streets of Lagos by suspected agents of the state.

Since 1993, there have been a conscious effort and a deep conspiracy by those who supported or benefitted from the annulment, to wish the day away even though the exercise was described as a watershed in Nigeria’s checkered history.

On that day Nigerians united in their desire to end military dictatorship and defied all obstacles deliberately put on the path of a deceitful transition programme to vote for Abiola.

Babangida, a self-acclaimed Evil Genius, had embarked on a winding transition programme under which he banned and unbanned several politicians, postponed elections on flimsy excuses and even practiced diarchy when he, as a military ruler superintended over civilian governors and elected legislatures at state and federal levels.

Billions of naira was expended in establishing offices at federal, state and council levels for the Social Democratic Party (SDP) and the National Republican Convention (NRC), two political platforms in the two-party system that the Babangida junta decreed into existence.

When Nigerians in their determination to end military rule elected Abiola despite the fact of a Muslim/Muslim presidential ticket, Babangida, in an unsigned statement announced the annulment days after further release of the collated results, which already had a clear winner, was suspended.

For the first time, Nigerians defied ethnic and religious considerations as Abiola defeated Bashir Tofa, the candidate of the NRC in his home state of Kano, thereby laying a foundation for the building of a united country devoid of primordial sentiments in the political process.

The annulment however destroyed that foundation of unity as the military junta, in the attempt to sustain the unpatriotic act, began to fan embers of discord focusing on instigating Nigerians against each other by using fronts to lay emphasis on issues that divided the nation.

Of course, the development led to serious civil unrest spearheaded by pro-democracy groups and organised labour as well as elder statesmen who showed courage by defying the military jackboots to insist that the election be de-annulled and Abiola sworn-in as a validly elected President.

In the course of the struggle anchored by the National Democratic Coalition (NADECO), an amalgam of elder statesmen and activists, many compatriots were killed via state-sponsored murder including Pa Alfred Rewane and Kudirat, wife of Abiola while the symbol of the resistance himself was clamped into detention after the famous Epetedo Declaration where he proclaimed himself President.

Many activists like Professor Wole Soyinka and politicians like Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu, a Senator in Babangida’s diarchy were forced into exile while others like Chief Olu Falae, former Secretary to the Government of the Federation (SGF) also under Babangida, and who was among those banned by the military ruler in the deceitful transition to civil rule, were clamped into detention.

The Wednesday presidential declaration which came via a statement personally signed by Buhari, effectively replaced May 29 on which date in 1999 the military stepped out of power for civil rule to thrive, as the day to commemorate democracy.

The statement also announced the conferment of the nation’s highest honour of Grand Commander of the Federal Republic (GCFR) of Abiola, who died in solitary confinement during the protracted struggle to reclaim his mandate on June 8, 1998, month after his jailor, General Sanni Abacha, who sustained the annulment with a brutal force that cost many pro-democracy activists lives and limbs, died in similar controversial circumstances.

Abiola’s running mate, Ambassador Babagana Kingibe, who abandoned the struggle to take up ministerial position with the military usurpers, was also curiously conferred with the nation’s second highest honour of Grand Commander of the Order of Niger (GCON) with the late Chief Gani Fawehinmi, who alongside others, led the struggle for the validation of the election reputed to be the freest and fairest in Nigeria’s electoral history.

The presidential statement read, ““For the past 18 years, Nigerians have been celebrating May 29th, as Democracy Day. That was the date when for the second time in our history, an elected civilian administration took over from a military government. The first time this happened was on October 21st, 1979. But in the view of Nigerians, as shared by this Administration, June 12th, 1993, was far more symbolic of Democracy in the Nigerian context than May 29th or even the October 1st,

“June 12th, 1993 was the day when Nigerians in millions expressed their democratic will in what was undisputedly the freest, fairest and most peaceful elections since our Independence. The fact that the outcome of that election was not upheld by the then military Government does not distract from the democratic credentials of that process.

“Accordingly, after due consultations, the Federal government has decided that henceforth, June 12th will be celebrated as Democracy Day. Therefore, Government has decided to award posthumously the highest honour of the land, GCFR, to late Chief MKO Abiola, the presumed winner of the June 12th 1993 cancelled elections. His running mate as Vice President, Ambassador Baba Gana Kingibe, is also to be invested with a GCON. Furthermore, the tireless fighter for human rights and the actualization of the June 12th elections and indeed for Democracy in general, the late Chief Gani Fawehinmi SAN is to be awarded posthumously a GCON.”

Politics of June 12
As expected, a lot of politics have been woven around the election and its annulment with many politicians taking advantage of the situation to either genuinely express support for or seek opportunities to feather selfish political interests.

During the course of the struggle itself in the mid 1990s, many opportunistic politicians used it as a platform to get into political offices even while the symbol of the resistance was in solitary confinement.

By 1999, when the country was returned to democratic rule, support for the struggle was the yardstick that the electorate, particularly in the Southwest geo-political zone where the resistance was most intense, used to determine electability of politicians.

Those who were seen as vanguards for the struggle who grouped under the banner of the defunct Alliance for Democracy (AD) were easily elected into public offices in the Southwest while those who collaborated with the military were ostracized even up till today.

The fact that the two major presidential candidates in the 1999 elections, General Olusegun Obasanjo and Falae were from the Southwest was also a gimmick by Nigeria’s power brokers to offer the presidential slot to the zone as a balm to soothe frayed nerves.

But despite this fact, Obasanjo refused to heed to the demand of majority of Nigerians that Abiola should be recognized for his sacrifice and the date recognized as Democracy Day. Many however said Obasanjo’s obstinacy was as a result of personal differences he had with Abiola, a fellow Egba who attended the same Alma Matter, Baptist School Abeokuta with him.

An attempt by former President Goodluck Jonathan to gain an inroad into the consciousness of the politics of Southwest by renaming the University of Lagos after Abiola boomeranged as the offer was deemed too low for the status of the acclaimed winner of the June 12 election.

The latest presidential declaration has also contributed to the narratives of June 12 politics as many saw Buhari’s decision as a way to seek the favour of Nigerians particularly the Southwest in the face of obvious decline in his public acceptability less than a year to election. Many wondered why Buhari took so long to recognize Abiola and June 12 even when it was only penultimate week that he made a nationwide broadcast to celebrate May 29 as Democracy Day.

However there were mixed reactions over the development even among the stalwarts of Yoruba socio-cultural organisation, Afenifere who were the core group of NADECO. While the spokesman of the group, Mr. Yinka Odumakin said the declaration was good although belated, the leader of the organisation, Pa Reuben Fasoranti said declaring June 12 as Democracy day now is of no significance anymore.

According to Odumakin, “Even though we understand that election season is near and the government is doing everything possible to woo the people to its side, the fact President Buhari was humble enough to declare June 12 as Democracy Day is a welcome development.”

Fasoranti insisted that the declaration was ill motivated and would not serve any significant purpose saying, “I think Abiola deserves more than this. This one is too late. Buhari is only trying to please Nigerians because he knew his popularity has waned as the next general election is approaching.

“On the other hand, what is Buhari looking at in the last three years he became president considering the fact that Abiola died 20 years ago and we have also been shouting that he (Abiola) should be honoured.”

But the President of Arewa Youth Consultative Forum, Alhaji Shetima Yerima said the government’s position was a victory for all those that participated in the pro-democracy struggle.

Yerima however said, “There must have been a political undertone in declaring June 12 Democracy Day now that Nigerians are really suffering. What is the essence except for this administration to sit tight and do the needful?”

He also said Abiola deserved more, saying, “Mere declaration of June 12 as Democracy Day is not enough. Abiola should be declared president posthumously and all necessary entitlement should be given to his family.”

In another reaction, the Aare Ona Kankanfo of Yoruba land, Otunba Gani Adams commended the Federal Government over the decision, saying it was a right step in the right direction.

According to him, “This is one of the best decisions President Buhari has taken since he came to power three years ago but one more thing we demand from him before the 2019 general election is the restructuring of Nigeria to true federalism. If Mr. President could be bold enough to do this, his name would be written in gold in the nation’s history.”

Third Republic Senator, Anthony Adefuye said everybody is happy that justice was finally done to June 12 despite the long agitation that Abiola should be recognized, which the previous governments since1999 did not consider.

Against the backdrop of those who said the declaration was meaningless and insignificant, Adefuye said, “Nigeria has just taken the right step in the right direction of practicing true democracy. Whatever civil rule we claim to practice in Nigeria without giving due respect to June 12 like President Buhari had done is nothing. It is on this basis I said we are all happy.”

Disclosing how he was instrumental to the June 12 victory, the former lawmaker said “Two weeks to the election in 1993, Babangida sent a prepared result of the election that was yet to be conducted to late Abiola pretending to be on the side of the SDP.

“The content of the prepared result sent by Babangida favoured Abiola but when the late business mogul showed me the result, I was a bit skeptical and warned him (Abiola) that he didn’t need such gesture from Babangida because we were already sure of victory.

“I therefore urged Abiola to inform all SDP stakeholders and supporters not to fight or get involved in any act that the government could use to cancel the election, which he did. You would recall that the June 12 election was the most peaceful in the history of Nigeria.

“When the government couldn’t find any means to nullity the election, it said Abiola wore a cloth that has the logo of his party to vote and on that premise the election must be nullified. So, for Buhari to have done what past presidents refuse to do is welcome. Whatever the motive, it does not matter in this case; after all Buhari won in 2015 without necessarily using June 12 as a bait.”

In another reaction, General Secretary, Yoruba Council of Elders (YCE), Dr. Kunle Olajide described the declaration as a victory for democracy and honour to all those that suffered for the actualisation of Abiola’s mandate. He was however quick to say, “nobody should regard the gesture as a favour to Yoruba people. It was honour deserved, long overdue even.”

Olajide however said Buhari would do better if he can also yield to the demand to restructure the country before 2019 election.

Former General Secretary of the Nigerian Union of Petroleum and Natural Gas Workers (NUPENG), Frank Kokori, who was one of the arrowheads of labour resistance to the annulment, said he was elated that President Buhari, the last person expected to make such declaration is the one that did it.

He dismissed the sentiment that government was only trying to score cheap points because of the approaching 2019 elections saying, “PDP failed to recognize Abiola for 16 years despite the hues and cries it should. Former President Olusegun Obasanjo did not even consider using June 12 as bait when he was aiming for third term in office even Goodluck Jonathan never mentioned it. What is therefore wrong in it if Buhari, who is looking for second term, which is constitutional, uses it as a game plan?”

Kokori also said the declaration would give Nigerians assurance that their struggle for the country is not in vein. “I am particularly happy that this is happening in my lifetime. I am still going to contact NUPENG to ensure we issue a statement on it.”

Another NADECO chieftain, Chief Amos Akingba, who fled to exile when agents of the military junta bombed his house during the struggle, said the honour to Abiola was better late than never.

He said previous administrations that were expected to do it failed woefully but Buhari, who served under the late Gen. Sani Abacha’s government that got rid of Abiola is now the one that eventually did the unthinkable. “I think he has repented and we acknowledges his repentance.”

He said the sentiment that Buhari honoured Abiola to woo the Southwest ahead of next year’s election would not work adding, “Even if Obasanjo wanted to do something, he couldn’t have done it without the permission of the Caliphate. From his military career to civilian, he is always afraid of the Caliphate. We don’t have a Nigeria military, we have Caliphate military, when he disobeyed them they sent him to jail and nearly killed him.”

He added that the next thing to do as the president is to retrieve the report of the 2014 National Conference from the achieve and send it to the National Assembly and follow it up for implementation then we will have a country that is right.

But the National Chairman of the National Conscience Party of Nigeria (NCP), Dr. Yunusa Tanko disagreed with Akingba saying it was a move to score a cheap political point.

According to him, “Nigeria has not known peace after the annulment of June 12 election. At this particular time, people are being gagged, manipulated and twisted into forgetting what we are passing through. Unfortunately, people who have suffered this humiliation and who should know better and were part of the June 12 struggle and are in this government have forgotten what we fought for.

“Nigerians are being gagged democratically, and those who are doing it are those who championed the cause of democracy in the issue of June 12 but at the end of it all, they ended up benefitting from that particular struggle and now they are doing window-dressing without actualising the dream of our struggle.”

He mentioned the likes of Kayode Fayemi, who until Wednesday was the Minister of Mines and Steel Development whom he said has deviated from the principle of the struggle.

According to him, “What I am asking Nigerians to do is that we should look inward and vote for people with impeccable character to actualise the dream of June 12.”


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