On the 12th of June 2018, history was made in Nigeria when President Muhammadu Buhari honoured the late winner of the June 12, 1993 presidential election, MKO Abiola, with the highest honour in the land, the Grand Commander of the Federal Republic (GCFR), declared June 12 as Democracy Day and apologized on behalf of Nigeria for the annulment and subsequent torture visited on the Abiola family.
On the 12th of June, 2019, the President took a step further to rename the National Stadium in Abuja after the late Abiola. While the President has received plaudits for taking the bull by the horns and trying to lay the June 12 matter to rest, some Nigerians believe honouring the late icon is not enough while a lot of happenings that are contrary to the ideals of the event stand for are allowed to take place under the President’s watch.
Nigeria, like every other nation-state of the world, has its own peculiar history as well as historical cases of injustice meted on certain individuals or groups. While other nations have in recent decades tried as much as possible to address their own cases of injustice, Nigeria’s successive leaders had up till this moment pretended as if nothing ever went wrong. That’s why irrespective of whatever intent or purpose he had in mind, both the critics and admirers of President Muhammadu Buhari agree, for once, that he deserved commendation for honouring the clear winner of the June 12, 1993 presidential poll, late MKO Abiola.
It all started on Saturday, 12th of June 1993, when Nigerians abandoned their religious preferences and ethnic cleavages and decided on one man as their next president. Abiola’s campaign slogan was ‘Hope 93’ and this significantly symbolized the hope and faith Nigerians had in his ability to deliver on his promise to banish poverty and bring prosperity.
After days of grandstanding, legal rigmarole, confusion, drama, suspense etal, the then self-acclaimed military president, General Ibrahim Babangida, finally on June 23, 1993 announced the ‘annulment’ of the poll, then the hope of the common man to have an outstanding philanthropist, pillar of sports and globally-acclaimed people’s advocate and business mogul as their leader was aborted.
As far as some historians were concerned, that was the day IBB annulled peace, progress and prosperity in the country and brought upon the people strive, hunger, uncertainty, political instability, sorrow, agony, tears and blood. After exhausting his dribbling skills, he eventually stepped aside at the end of the year and handed over to the ‘Interim National Government (ING) headed by Chief Ernest Shonekan. On November 17, 1993, General Sani Abacha, struck and that was the beginning of another chapter in the June 12 history.
Both Abiola himself and the millions of people who believe in him and the Hope 93 Mandate had declared war on the military establishment and sought to make the country ungovernable for them. On the streets of Lagos, and other major cities, the pro-democracy activists and June 12 crusaders protested, blocked all major roads, fought security agents and made life difficult for constituted authority.
The final straw that broke the camel’s back for Abiola was the ‘Epetedo declaration’ of June 11, 1994 when Abiola dared the military junta and test the resolve of Abacha to rule forever by declaring himself president. He was arrested and detained and he never came back….
Rather than discourage them, Abiola’s supporters trooped to the streets in larger numbers, in continuous protests and rallies in Nigeria and all over the world… while some were suffering in the sun and rain, being inflicted with bullet wounds, horse whip and tear-gas, others were fighting in courtrooms and some others agitating with pen and paper in newsrooms.
In the battle to restore Abiola’s mandate, so many Nigerians stood out and deserve special mention. Late human rights advocate, Gani Fawehinmi (SAM, SAN), was a thorn in the flesh of the military and thousands of others were captured by the conviction, erudition, brilliancy, altruism, consistency and vibrancy in his crusade and joined him to wrestle the soldiers to the ground. Great Nigerians like Wole Soyinka, Femi Falana, Beko Ransome-Kuti, Balarebe Musa, Col Umar Dangiwa (rtd), Frank Kokori, Chima Ubani, Bamidele Aturu, Shehu Sani, Olisa Agbakoba, Kunle Ajibade, Bayo Onanuga, Babafemi Ojudu Sylvester Odion, John Odah, Osagie Obayuwana, Biodun Aremu, Gloria Kilanko, Jiti Ogunye, Abdul Oroh and so many others also put their lives on the line and staked their freedom and the safety of their respective families for the struggle.
Other leading figures, mainly from the National Democratic Coalition (NADECO) who paid heavy prices for the struggle were Pa Adekunle Ajasin, Ayo Adebanjo, Olanihun Ajayi, Bola Tinubu, Chief Tony Enahoro, Dan Suleiman, Ndubusi Kanu, Arthur Nwankwo, Ralph Obiora etc.
While the afore-mentioned ladies and gentlemen had terrible prison tales to tell when victory was won in 1999, many didn’t live to share their experience. The symbol of the struggle, MKO, died in detention after repeated, failed attempts to make him renounce his mandate and go home in peace. His beautiful and dogged fighter of a wife, Kudirat Abiola, who kept the fire of the struggle burning, was caught down by Sergeant Rogers’ bullet in Ikeja, Lagos on June 4, 1996. Equally unlucky was 79-year-old Pa Alfred Rewane, who on October 16, 1995 received several bullets from assailants, in his Ikeja, Lagos home and died on the way to the hospital. As for brave, frontline investigative reporter, Bagauda Kaltho, who disappeared in December 1995 and was later said to have been bombed in Kaduna hotel, no one, not even his wife and two daughters know exactly the day he died and where his corpse is.
Attempts were also made on the lives of Olusegun Osoba, Pa Abraham Adesanya, Alex Ibru etc in the struggle for June 12 and the enthronement of democracy in the country.
Ironically, in 1999, a certain General Olusegun Obasanjo (rtd), who was alleged to be an enabler of the June 12 injustice, became the biggest beneficiary of the blood of Abiola and other heroes and heroines. A combination of the military heavyweights and powerful politicians tried to douse tension in the southwest and conceded the presidency to him, being a Yoruba and also an Egba man like Abiola.
Paradoxically, Obasanjo was president for 8 years but he never mentioned MKO Abiola even once. He never gave the late icon any credit for his efforts and sacrifices. The former president also rebuffed all efforts by the Afenifere and other pro-Yoruba bodies to honour Abiola and change the country’s democracy day to June 12. It is on the basis that many persons argue that President Buhari must be commended for taking up the initiative and honouring Abiola and other martyrs.
When he first honoured Abiola in 2018, some political observers were also of the view that President Buhari may have opted for this political masterstroke to kill two birds with one stone i.e neutralize both Obasanjo and IBB who had called on him (Buhari) to perish the idea of seeking a second term in office. This is because for many political watchers and historians, the June 12 shame is on IBB, who spent billions of naira on an election and failed to handover to the winner and Obasanjo who went to Harare, Zimbabwe during the peak of the June 12 struggle and told the world that “MKO is not the Messiah Nigeria is looking for,” and who ironically became the biggest beneficiary of MKO’s blood but failed to honour the hero.
President Buhari on the other hand was not known to have uttered a word or lifted a finger in support of the June 12 struggle. He in fact was a beneficiary of the injustice as he served as chairman of the Petroleum Trust Fund (PTF) under Abacha. Since Abacha’s death, President Buhari also has never hidden his admiration for the late ‘maximum dictator.’ And since he became president in 2015, he has never spared a thought for Abiola. That was why all Nigerians, at home and in the Diaspora, were surprised (many of them pleasantly) when on June 6, 2018 the President announced plans to correct the historic injustice done to MKO, his comrades and the generality of the Nigerian voters by honouring, Abiola, his running mate, Babagana Kingibe and Fawehinmi.
To demonstrate he that understood the uniqueness and appreciates the solemnity of what June 12 represents, the President’s speech on June 12, 2018 was short, sharp, deep and straight to the point. His brief speech was emotional as it was touching.
“The decision and this event are not meant to open old wounds but to put right a national wrong. Nigerians of their own free will voted for Late Chief MKO Abiola and Amb. Baba Gana Kingibe, the Presidential flag bearer and running mate of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) in the 1993 elections. The Government of the day inexplicably cancelled the elections when it was clear who were going to be the winners.
“We cannot rewind the past but we can at least assuage our feelings; recognize that a wrong has been committed and resolve to stand firm now and in the future for the sanctity of free elections. Nigerians would no longer tolerate such perversion of justice. This retrospective and posthumous recognition is only a symbolic token of redress and recompense for the grievous injury done to the peace and unity of our country.
“Our decision to recognize and honour June 12 and its actors is in the national interest. It is aimed at setting national healing process and reconciliation of the 25 year festering wound caused by the annulment of the June 12 elections. I earnestly invite all Nigerians across all our national divide to accept it in good faith.
“Our action today is to bury the negative side of June 12, the side of ill-feelings, hate, frustrations and agony. What we are doing is celebrating and appreciating the positive side of June 12. The June 12, which restates democracy and freedom. The June 12 that overcome our various divide and the June 12 that produced unity and National cohesion. This is the June 12 we are celebrating today and we will nurture it to our next generation.”
“Accordingly, on behalf of the Federal Government, I tender the nation’s apology to the family of Late MKO Abiola, who got the highest votes and to those that lost their loved ones in the cause of June 12 struggle,” the president said amidst an unprecedented nationwide applause.
Fast forward to June 12, 2019 when the day was first marked as a national holiday, the President said: “The purpose (of honouring Abiola) is to partially atone for the previous damage done in annulling the Presidential elections of that year.
“ Today, I propose the re-naming of the Abuja National Stadium. Henceforth it will be called MOSHOOD ABIOLA NATIONAL STADIUM.”
Just like it happened in 2018, the announcement threw the whole nation into jubilation as many now thought the historic injustice has been significantly addressed.
Asking the President to take a step further, the Yoruba socio-cultural group, Afenifere, had in 2019 thanked him and said history will be kind to him for seeking to erase the injustice but also asked that Abiola be officially recognized as a former president and that his family members be paid the entitlements of a president and former president.
While a leading light in the struggle, Falana, agreed that the President has to do more, he argued that the president had already recognized him as former president by conferring on him the highest honour in the land, the Grand Commander of the Federal Republic (GCFR), which is reserved for former presidents.
In the statement he made on the investiture at the State House, Abuja and in several media interviews, Falana also urged the President to, in the spirit of June 12, reverse some of the anti-democratic tendencies in his administration especially in the area of obedience of court orders regarding the release of certain detainees which have been ordered by the courts.
On other fundamental matters which the Yoruba have been agitating for, for years, Falana said the issues of state police, devolution of powers and fiscal federalism remain and cannot be overshadowed by the June 12 as “the recognition of June 12 is not an alternative to the popular demand for the restructuring of the country.”
In agreement with Falana, elder statesman and Afenifere chieftain, Ayo Adebanjo, had also praised the President for excelling where Obasanjo failed. He however insisted the President must take concrete steps to restructure the federation.
“What we are saying is that if he wants to honour the memory of Abiola and June 12, he should implement what June 12 stands for, which is good governance and democracy. He should restructure the country. This is because all that June 12 stands for is democracy and good governance. It is not about people being killed right, left and centre and pretending that you don’t know what is happening. It is not people being killed every day and after three months, you now wake up and say you are beefing up security. People have been complaining about the awkwardness of the lopsided appointments of heads of security agencies since he came into office.
“For anybody to think that he is going to do anything for us in Yoruba land now, he should restructure the country. And not that we will continue with a constitution imposed on us and you begin to harass us, keep all the security people in your hand, and use this (June 12 declaration) to bamboozle us and yet, you say you are a democrat. That time is gone. As some people have said, he can change Christmas Day to June 12, it wont be enough. If he restructures the country to true federalism, I am the first champion of Buhari because it will solve the problems of the country; that is what will keep the country together. That is why I said if he is sincere about keeping this country together in peace; that is what he should do. We don’t want a constitution imposed on us by a section of the country through the army,” he said.
The issues raised by the above national figures are still relevant in 2020 as many Nigerians insist that if the President must honour the memory of June 12, he must go beyond symbolic statements and actions. For example, many Nigerians declined to join the celebration this year due to the wanton killings of citizens by Boko Haram, suspected herdsmen, bandits, kidnappers etc across the country.
The 2020 edition of the celebration is also coming at a time poverty, which MKO sought to end, is at an all-time high while the country is battling Covid-19 in the face of poor health facilities.
It is, however, gratifying that President Buhari spoke on some of the issues in his nationwide broadcast in commemoration of June 12 as Public Holiday. In spite of the challenges, many political observers are of the opinion that MKO can now rest in peace having watched from above how for two consecutive years, his beloved nation marked Democracy Day on his day, June 12.