June 12: The making of the Democracy Day

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As from this year, May 29 will no longer be celebrated as ‘Democracy Day.’ According to President Muhammadu Buhari, June 12 is the authentic ‘Democracy Day.’ Group Political Editor EMMANUEL OLADESU writes on the significance of the historic June 12, 1993, presidential election won by the Social Democratic Party (SDP) candidate, the late Chief Moshood Abiola.

The controversy is over. June 12, and not May 29, is the authentic ‘Democracy Day.’ On May 29, President Muhammadu Buhari, Vice President Yemi Osinbajo (SAN), newly elected governors and their deputies will be sworn in. But, the presidential inauguration will be low-key. To the President, June 12 is more suitable as Democracy Day because of its place in the nation’s history. It was on that date in 1993 that the late Bashorun M.K.O. Abiola, won the presidential election under the Babangida transition programme. But the former military president annulled the election, setting off a chain of reactions.

Although the winner did not get the crown, his immortalisation has become a psychological palliative and a soothing balm. President Buhari has given Abiola a posthumous award of Grand Commander of the Order of Federal Republic (GCFR). It is the highest in the land.

To many observers, the June 12 poll was a watershed. Before and after it, there has been no more credible exercise. It has remained a reference point for obvious reasons. The election unified Nigeria. Also, it expressed the country’s capacity for democratic resilience and sanctity of the ballot box. It was the symbol of the epic struggle for liberation under neo-colonial military adventurists.

Domestic monitors and foreign observers were unanimous that June 12 was the freest and fairest in the country. It was the climax of the elongated transition programme midwived by Babangida, who tossed millions of Nigerians around with his political experiments that were designed to fail. June 12 underscored the audacity of hope and its illusion under an insincere military ruler whose hand was heavy on the country.  Its annulment was the height of betrayal by the gap-tooth General.

There were many casualties before the historic exercise. Old politicians of the first and second republics and some new breed were banned by the military after spending so much to campaign as presidential candidates. They were also clamped into detention along with their associates. The victims were Lema Jubril, Major Gen. Shehu Yar’Adua, Chief Olabiyi Durojaye, Mallam Adam Ciroma, Chief Layi Balogun, Chief Emanuel Nwnyanwun,  Alhaji Lateef Jakande, Chief Olu Falae and Dr. Olusola Saraki.

When the old brigade was shoved aside, the new brigade took the central stage. The two candidates-Abiola of the SDP and Alhaji Othman Tofa of the NRC- emerged from rigorous presidential primaries, following the exclusion of prominent chieftains from the exercise through the curious ban.  Abiola’s running mate was Alhaji Babagana Kingibe while Tofa’s running mate was Sylvester Ugoh, former governor of Central Bank of ill-fated Biafra. But, it was evident that the Abiola/Kingibe ticket was more formidable. It was unstoppable, even by the military.

On poll day, Nigerians were determined to draw the curtains on military rule. They were not swayed by the campaign by the Association for Better Nigeria (ABN). Nigerians trooped out from across the federation to exercise their franchise. There was no disruption. The umpire, led by Prof. Humphrey Nwosu, was up and doing. The poll became a model. Nigerians, irrespective of their tribe and religion, thronged the polling booths to elect Abiola as president. Up to now, they are still awaiting the results. The effort was in vain. A winner emerged. But, military cruelty aborted the collective dream. Never has a country been ambushed by a soldier of fortune.

Decades after the annulment, the bewildered nation-state is yet to recover from the colossal damage. June 12 was a pan-Nigeria movement. The goal was to halt military brutality and enthrone a legitimate leader with a national outlook. The exercise ended the partisan divisions cruelly exploited by self-serving leaders. The victor, Abiola, became a prisoner. He never returned from detention alive.

The indomitable leader, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, had predicted doom when many Nigerians embraced the Babangida transition programme. Having worked with the military, he understood the mindset of the soldiers. Military rulers, including Gen. Yakubu Gowon, under whom he served as minister, was reluctant to vacate power until he was toppled by Gen. Muritala Mohammed in 1975.  Awo also knew that Babangida, the ‘Evil Genius’ from Minna, was full of prevarication.

When Awo declined to participate in the discussion on the country’s political future by the Political Bureau headed by Dr Cookey, he shunned the invitation. The sage declared that Nigeria had embarked on a fruitless search for democracy, adding that, when they imagined that the new order had arrived, they would be terribly disappointed.

Having studied IBB’s chameleon’s styles, Awo urged his followers to exercise caution and learn to deal with IBB with a long spoon. A few months later, the great politician passed on.

Between and 1986 and 1993, Nigeria became another IBB laboratory, where various kinds of experiments were carried out. On three occasions, the transition programme was postponed by IBB without any convincing explanation. Babangida cajoled unsuspecting politicians into forming political parties, which, according to the guidelines, should have national spread. When the electoral commission came up with their result sheets, they, in IBB’s reckoning, failed to measure up. The hammer fell on the 23 political associations. When politicians were banned, unbanned, detained, released and re-detained, Lagos lawyer, the late Chief Gani Fawehinmi, cried out that the entire transition programme was a fraud.

However, after the initial successful primaries, the exercise was cancelled and participants were banned. Suddenly, the parties were in want of candidates. It was at that stage that Abiola and Tofa appeared on the scene.

Abiola was a veteran presidential aspirant, even at that stage. Ten years earlier, he had wanted to contest on the platform of the banned National Party of Nigeria (NPN). His albatross was the Transport Minister, Dr. Umaru Dikko, who organised the party secretariat be shut to deny him nomination form. When Abiola emerged as the SDP candidate, he was perceived as a stranger. Kingibe, who later became his running mate, following pressures by the 14 SDP state chairmen, described him as someone who was on the sideline only to come and reap where he did not sow.

Abiola actually consulted with his bosom friend, Babangida, who gave his blessing. He also apologised to the Awoists over his alleged sins against Chief Awolowo. The group, led by Chief Adekunle Ajasin, resolved to support him. Many people recalled his philanthropic activities. His message of hope, particularly the abolition of poverty, was captivating.

The presidential debate was interesting. Abiola dwarfed Tofa because of his grasps of the situation; the economy, politics, security and other challenges.

On poll day, Nigerians were united by the festival of political change. On long queues, they were orderly as they cast their votes for candidates of their choice.  As news filtered that MKO had won, the prices of goods and services came down

Abiola polled 8,341,399, which represented 58.36 per cent, defeating his rival, Tofa. Even, in Kano, where Tofa hails from, the SDP won. Fawehinmi also said that Abiola won in the Army barracks.

The Aare Ona Kankanfo of Yorubaland cried foul. A man of valour, he fought the military without the gun. He resisted frantic attempts to compromise him. At Epetedo, Lagos, he declared himself President, based on the unofficial results. He took a great risk. The consequence was fatal. Abiola declared: “On that day (August 27, 1993), the people of Nigeria, through their democratic expressions of June 12, 1993, expected me to assume the reins of government. I fully intend to keep that date with history.”

However, on August 27, 1993, Babangida set up an interim contraption headed by Chief Ernest Shonekan, after he stepped aside. While progressive elements, including Pa Ajasin, Pa Ayo Fasanmi, Falae, Senators Iyocha Ayu, Bol Tinubu, Nwite, Bola Ige,  Anthony Enahoro, Arthur Nwankwo, Ndubusi Kanu, Frank Kokori, Ayo Adebanjo, Olaniwun Ajayi, Balarabe Musa, Amos Akingba, Alani Akinrinade, and Beko ransom-Kuti decried the annulment, others like Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo said, although it was lamentable, the setting up of the ING was understandable.

Three months after the setting up of ING, Gen. Sani Abacha sacked the ING and set up a full military regime, after cajoling the political class to stabilise his regime As the clamour for the de-annulment of June 12 intensified, the military was on the prowl. Pro-democracy crusaders, including Tinubu, Prof. Wole Soyinka, Enahoro, Akinrinade, Commodore Dan Suleiman, Chief Raph Obiorah, Akingba and Wale Oshun-fled abroad. From there, they continued to fire salvos at the Abacha government. Before he fled abroad, Tinubu’s life was on the line. He was declared wanted by the military. His international passport had been impounded. He had to go underground. On October 9, 1993, his house on Victoria Island, Lagos was petrol-bombed. He also received threats on the telephone. He had to disguise as a ‘mallam’ on a motorbike to escape from the country through the ‘NADECO route’ to Benin Republic.

As the June 12 battle dragged on, some crusaders became weary. Religion and ethnicity were invoked. The struggle adorned an ethnic colouration. Gradually, the rank of June 12 travellers was divided. Some crusaders, including Lateef Jakande, Abubakar Rimi and Ebenezer Babatope, were trapped in the Abacha Government. It was suicidal to resign.

Abiola was sent into ‘prison’ without trial. He never returned alive. His wife, Kudirat, was murdered on the streets of Lagos. His business empire was crippled. His supporters dispersed. Although a brave High Court Judge, Dolapo Akinsanya, declared ING headed by Shonekan illegal, the verdict fell on deaf ears.

Later, political jobbers put the June 12 poll behind them as they jostled for seats in the 1994 National Conference set up by Abacha. The Ibadan politician, the late Chief Lamidi Adedibu, came up with inexplicable bail conditions for Abiola, who turned it down, vowing not to let Nigerians down.

June 12 continued to torment the military after Abiola’s death. Although Abacha passed on before Abiola, the symbol of the struggle was not released by Abacha’s successor, Gen. Abdulsalami Abubakar. The circumstances surrounding Abiola’s death has remained in the realm of conjecture.

The June 12 struggle may, in part, be described as a lost battle. However, it gave birth to the clamour for restructuring by Afenifere. It also led to a power shift to the Southwest. However, the beneficiaries of the struggle in 1999 were the same class of politicians, military confederates and cronies, whose activities culminated into the June 12 debacle.

For 20 years, there has been an argument over whether May 29 or June 12 should be Democracy Day. On the two extremes of the debate are Obasanjo and Tinubu. To the former president, May 29 should be Democracy Day.

His reason was that on May 29, 1999, democracy was restored to Nigeria, following a successful transition programme midwived by Gen. Abubakar. The process threw up Obasanjo as a civilian president.

Obasanjo may not understand the significance of June 12. He was not one of the pro-June 12 crusaders. In fact, he said Abiola was not the messiah Nigeria was waiting for. He also supported the setting up of the ING.

In the opinion of Tinubu, many Nigerians are emotionally attached to June 12 than May 29. Since 1999, pro-democracy forces have always celebrated democracy on June 12, owing to its symbolism and what Abiola stood for in his lifetime. Also, progressive administrations in the Southwest have always declared a public holiday to mark June 12 since 1999.

Reference has always been made to June 12 as a model exercise that the nation should strive to re-enact in the national interest. But, there have been gaps between expectation and reality.

The heroes of June 12 are too numerous. Apart from the symbol, Abiola, others are Kudirat Abiola, Ajasin, Adesanya, Adebanjo, Olaniwun Ajayi, Tinubu, Durojaye, Ganiyu Dawodu, Lam Adesina, Alfred Rewane, Kofo Akerele-Bucknor, Cornelius Adebayo, Ndubusi Kanu, Abu Ibrahim, Polycarp Nwite, Senator Dantoro, Ibrahim Tahir, Ayo Opadokun, Falae, Arthur Nwanko, Obiorah, Enahoro, Olawale Oshun, Ige, Dan Suleiman, Akinrinade, Olisa Agbakoba, Kokori, Ndubusi Kanu, Prof. Nwosu, Justice.

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