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24 years after June 12 elections, reflections on a paradise lost

By Niyi Bello, Leo Sobechi and Seye Olumide
12 June 2017   |   4:20 am
It is 24 years today that the June 12, 1993 presidential election, regarded by pro-democracy activists as the best thing to have happened to Nigeria since the country gained political independence in 1960...

Chief MKO Abiola

It is 24 years today that the June 12, 1993 presidential election, regarded by pro-democracy activists as the best thing to have happened to Nigeria since the country gained political independence in 1960, was held across the length and breadth of the nation.

Despite the many boobytraps that the administration of Ibrahim Babangida laid in the path of its tortuous transition to civil rule programme, which involved the shifting of goal posts several times into the game, the election was held without any serious rancour in all the country’s polling units.

Babangida and the Armed Forces Ruling Council (AFRC), while claiming to be desirous of sanitizing the political space, had set up two political parties, the right-of-center National Republican Convention (NRC) and the left-of-centre Social Democratic Party (SDP), assigned logos to them from the country’s coat of arms, wrote their manifestoes and spent billions of naira to build party headquarters in state capitals and 774 local councils.

From all indications, especially with the strengthening of the National Electoral Commission (NEC) headed by Professor Humphrey Nwosu, who later after declassification, exposed many underhand dealings that went into the management of the election, the military seemed to be wary of skepticism about its sincerity in the transition programme.

Part of the attempts at sanitizing the political space was the banning and unbanning of major actors which paved the way for the emergence of new breed politicians who were supposed to imbibe the new democratic ethos in line with the concept of the military rulers.

If Nigerians were discouraged by the antics of the military, they did not show it. Instead they followed the winding transition, registered as members of the new platforms and elected members of the National Assembly and governors for the 30 states of the federation.

For two years, a sort of diarchy that involved military rulers at the centre and elected officials at the state levels was in practice. Yet Nigerians were undaunted at following the course of the transition programme to a logical end with the election, on June 12, 1993, of Chief M.K.O Abiola of the SDP, as the President of the country.

Abiola, politician and business mogul who had a history of business relationship with the military hierarchy and who was believed to be a personal friend of Babangida, won the election, in the words of Alhaji Adamu Ciroma of the rival NRC, “fair and square.”

In the exercise that involved over 14 million voters, Abiola won in the states of Akwa Ibom, Anambra, Benue, Borno, Cross River, Delta, Edo, Jigawa, Kaduna, Kwara, Lagos, Ogun, Ondo, Osun, Oyo, Plateau, Taraba, Yobe and Kano, the home state of his rival, Alhaji Bashir Tofa of the NRC. He also won Abuja, the Federal Capital Territory scoring 8,341,309 or 58.56 percent of total votes. With a near-total victory, Abiola only failed to record one-third votes in the two states of Sokoto and Kebbi while he scored sweeping victory in the Southwest states including Lagos where he got 85 percent.

The NRC candidate, Tofa won in Abia, Adamawa, Bauchi, Enugu, Imo, Katsina, Kebbi, Kogi, Niger, Rivers and Sokoto States and garnered 5,952,396 or 41.64 percent of total votes across the country.

Midway into the announcement of the election however, the process was halted through an injunction procured by the infamous Association for Better Nigeria (ABN), a group of elements suspected to be under the influence of the military cabal and few days later in an unsigned statement, the military government declared the exercise annulled.

After sealing the deal of the annulment with a decree that also pledged, albeit falsely, that the military junta was still committed to handover power to civilians of August 27, 1993, its earlier promised date, Babangida hinged the cancellation of the election on saving the nation’s judiciary.

According to him, as quoted by the New York Times of June 23, 1993, which among many international media organisations, drew international opprobrium against the junta from across the globe, “”these steps were taken to save our judiciary from being ridiculed and politicized locally and internationally.”

Sani Abacha

As expected, the critical mass of the Nigerian population, which was unanimous in their quest to chase the military from the corridors of power by democratic means, had no option than to face the daunting task of ensuring that the June 12 votes counted.

In a statement, Nobel laureate, Professor Wole Soyinka who was to play a significant role in the battle of wits that pitched pro-democracy activists and the military against each other in the months that followed, captured the essence of the whole political crisis when he said, “A very tiny but powerful cabal is toying with the future of our nation. Any further delay in making the people’s verdict official is a deliberate cultivation of chaos.”

In the same vein, while still waiting for the military to resume the process of announcing the results of the election, which nevertheless were already known since collation had been concluded at each state level, irrepressible human right lawyer, Gani Fawehinmi said, “The nation is in danger. It is abundantly clear that the military government is leading Nigeria into political crisis of immeasurable, chaotic proportions.”

What followed was the biggest challenge to Nigerian nationhood since the civil war. The National Democratic Coalition (NADECO), made up of senior politicians like former Ondo governor, Chief Adekunle Ajasin and Anthony Enahoro leading a pack of old followers of Chief Obafemi Awolowo, young Turks like Senator Bola Tinubu and retired military officers who took side with the population like General Alani Akinrinade and Ndubuisi Kanu, fearlessly confronted the military and succeeded, first in forcing Babangida to step aside on August 26, 1993, a day shorter than his planned exit date, and later waged a relentless war against the Interim National Government (ING) contraption hurriedly put together by Babangida and the subsequent brutal regime of Sanni Abacha.

While many heroes emerged in the struggle that claimed lives and limbs with many taking the NADECO route to flee abroad on self-exile, the political conflict that eventually consumed the major characters, Abacha and Abiola in controversial circumstances a month of each other, also dimmed many political stars who, since their unpopular rapports with the military junta, have neither find their feet in the political terrain nor find their voice among their peers any longer.

Considered widely as the freest and fairest election in the country’s history of troubled democracy, the June 12 election broke so many jinxes about the Nigerian nation that if it had been build upon, representative democracy devoid of the idiosyncrasies that always threaten the continuous existence of Nigeria as a nation, would have been achieved.

For instance, if the election, won by the Muslim-Muslim ticket of Abiola and Ambassador Babagana Kingibe had been allowed to stand, Nigeria would have gone past putting religious consideration as a major factor in filling political offices.

The Nigerian electorate that have become sharply divided along regional and religious lines due to the antics of the elite who are always desirous of engaging every advantage to their personal political development, would have also built on that memory of a victory for an Abiola in Tofa’s Kano, to cement the unity of the country.

The lessons not learnt
History has a curious way of enacting an encore. A cursory look at the present socio-economic circumstances and temperature of Nigeria polity reveals certain repeat of nuances that preceded the calculated denial of a true democratically elected leader for Nigeria.

The recent three-month quit notice served on Igbo from some youth groups in the northern part of the country, seems to throw up fresh concerns that the existential political challenges facing Nigeria have not received remedial attention.

The annulment of June 12 elections manifested similar disturbing symptoms beneath the present hullabaloo over the socio-political peace and stability of the country.

Before connecting the present political unease in the country to the extenuating circumstances the denied Abiola access to the Presidency, it is necessary to look at certain personalities in the unfolding drama against the background of what preceded June 12 annulment.

Late Dr. Umaru Dikko presented the very first clue about the perception of the north against a possible Abiola or even a Southern presidency. At the return of the country to presidential system and democracy in 1978, both Abiola and Dikko were members of National Party of Nigeria (NPN).

NPN was the 1979 equivalent of 1999 Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). Its membership cut across men and women of means from various parts of the country, with clear dominance of northern politicians.

Like the PDP after it, NPN had a power sharing arrangement, which presupposes alternation of presidential power between the North and South. With the presidency zoned to the north, from where Alhaji Shehu Shagari emerged as the first executive President under the presidential system, Abiola positioned himself to take a shot at the presidency after Shagari.

But no sooner had he outlined his plans for a possible presidential contest than Shagari’s brother-in-law, Dikko, made the notable statement that infuriated Abiola to the extent of quitting party politics: “The Presidency and NPN ticket is not for sale to the highest bidder.”

With his wide network of contacts and clout, Abiola knew that Dikko was not making an empty boast, because apart from the formation of political parties, the north has a formidable membership of politically exposed and conscious persons in the military.

To a great extent, it was generally believed that national politics was but an echo from the politics in the military high command. And as the nation was coming back to civil rule after so long a time, the key positions in the army were occupied by young and ambitious elements from the north.

They include the following: Lt. General Mohammed Wushishi (Chief of Army Staff), Major-General Muhammadu Buhari (GOC, 3rd Armoured Division, Jos), Major-General Ibrahim Babangida, (Director, Staff Duties and Planning); Brigade Commander, Brigadier Ibrahim Bako and Lt. General Gibson Jalo, (Chief of Defence Staff).

Based on the perceived excesses of Dikko, including allegations of monumental corruption, four years after the civilian regime of Shagari, the military boys began fresh moves to put their hands back into the political jar. Sources claimed that having noticed the insult and condescending manner in which Dikko treated Abiola, the politically minded elements in the military approached him for logistic support.

Yet unknown to Abiola, his deep pocket and affluence did not sit well with the officers, most of who enjoy generous handouts from the billionaire businessman. But with a common enemy in the underhanded and corrupt regime of Shagari, Abiola was said to have granted the request by the militricians for logistic support.

The sack of Shagari
The election that returned President Shagari to a second term was not only fraught with massive irregularities, but NPN also prosecuted it with highhanded display of federal might and violence.

Unknown to the powerful figures in the administration, particularly Dikko, the military which had been planning to depose the government found the general complain against monumental corruption and vote heist as  ready alibi to execute their plot.

And so the government was toppled on December 31, 1983. The voice of Abacha, which announced the overthrow of Shagari that fateful morning, informed Nigerians: “You are all living witnesses to the great economic predicament and uncertainty, which an inept and corrupt leadership has imposed on our beloved nation for the past four years.”

Barely two years of the coup and inauguration of the Federal Military Government, the Buhari/Idiagbon junta was overthrown for high handedness and privatization of political power. And Babangida took over.

As part of measures to correct the shortcomings of Buhari/Idiagbon regime, Babangida styled himself as a military President and repealed some obnoxious decrees. But while he was embarking on quasi-democratic policies, Babangia was also digging in and strengthening his grip on power.


After six years he decided on a transition to civil rule programme. He was banning politicians and disbanding political parties according to his whims, ostensibly to elongate his stay in power. But after several twists and turns, particularly when his ‘friend’ Abiola appeared on the scene, Nigerians believed that the evil genius had come to a dead end.

The political architecture in the country, which saw only two registered political policies made it plausible that a genuine electoral process was afoot. Before the June 12 election it was popularly held that the voting population in the north would always decide the outcome of any presidential election.

Consequently, with Tofa on NRC and Abiola on the platform of the SDP, the calculation within the military was that Tofa would trounce Abiola. What reinforced that optimism in the military hierarchy was the fact that SDP was fielding a joint Muslim/Muslim ticket.

But on June 12, 1993 after enthusiastic Nigerians long enamoured of democracy, trooped out to the polling booths and results started trickling in, the calculations in the military constituency presented the picture of a grave miscalculation. The annulment was the product of that faulty judgment.

Annulment as metaphor for the present
Had PDP decided to do it the NPN way in 2015, President Goodluck Jonathan would have repeated Shagari’s feat and ultimately reaped similar treatment. However, after resisting the temptation of a possible Muslim/Muslim ticket, the All Progressives Congress (APC) threw up a Buhari/Professor Yemi Osinbajo ticket to defeat the incumbent President.

Two years after the victory, President Buhari has been having frequent interactions with medical doctors, which culminates in long spates of absence from duty post. And given his advancing age and nature of his health challenges, the perception in certain quarters is that if the come comes to become, Prof. Osinbajo could be called to benefit from the dictates of the constitution.

What is currently playing out in the country suggests that Nigeria does not seem to have learnt useful lessons from the June 12 election episode. First, Chief of Staff, General Tukur Buratai, raised the alarm about overzealous politicians and military officers.

Then there was the Ile Ife crisis, which produced one-sided arrests. The attempt to provoke Yoruba through the Ife fracas did not fly, so also accusation against Osinbajo of nepotism, something Buhari started.

But the recent quit notice handed down to Igbo to leave the north on or before October 1, bears similar alarm bells as Dikko notice to Abiola. The north may have seen that the power they craved its return bears not much fruit. Again contrary to the belief that Nnamdi Kanu was a lone actor, he succeeded in providing the sureties of political and religious leaders.

Nzuko umunna, an Igbo group of intellectuals, had earlier come out to denounce the Buhari score on rule of law and human rights, particularly handling of IPOB agitation. When those failed to distract the nation from the woeful outing of governance in the past two years, they remembered the real bearers of brunt of Nigeria’s skewed federal structure, Ndigbo. In the quit notice, the north hit a bull’s eye.

The northern youths expressed equal frustrations with the current structure of the country. It is obvious that the country needs restructuring. What the northern youths did was to support the notion that after 100 years, the amalgamation was due for a review.

When Buhari expressed fears about 2019, he knows it might not be after all. Let there be an immediate convocation of a conference of ethnic nationalities to revisit the June 12 election, declare a winner and reconfigure the architecture of the country. That would be a fitting memorial for Abiola and tribute to Nigeria’s love for democracy.

Speaking along this line yesterday in a statement to mark the anniversary of the election, former Vice-President Abubakar Atiku, who also played prominent roles in the politics of the SDP, urged the Federal Government to immortalize Abiola as he noted that June 12 could not be wished away.

According to Atiku, “June 12 and the events that brought it are part of our country’s history and cannot be forgotten, especially because of the unity and comradeship displayed by Nigerians on that Election Day in 1993.’’