It is ironic that it had to take a member of the military establishment, that is, General, now-President Muhammadu Buhari, for June 12 to be accorded its pride of place in the socio-political calendar of the Federal Government of Nigeria. Before now, the recognition/celebration of June 12 as a watershed moment in Nigerian history had been observed majorly by the states of the South West of Nigeria, thus making its symbolism and significance a restricted and ethnic referent. But that has changed, thanks to President Buhari. His decision to declare June 12 a national holiday, his award of a post-humous honour of Grand Commander of the Federal Republic (GCFR) to Moshood Kashimawo Olawale (MKO) Abiola, and the subsequent amendment of the Public Holidays Act to accommodate June 12 as a federal holiday, is a welcome development.
President Olusegun Obasanjo (1999-2007) had pointedly ignored all entreaties for his administration to take the same step. President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua (2007 – 2010) did not address the June 12 issue. President Goodluck Jonathan (2010 -2015) had taken steps to immortalize MKO Abiola when he decided to name the University of Lagos after the late icon of democracy, but the staff, students and the alumni of the University rejected this, as they insisted that the name University of Lagos must not be changed. The Jonathan administration would later recognise Chief MKO Abiola as one of the major Nigerians of the 20th century. That administration also considered giving Chief MKO Abiola a post-humous national award, but the then-President was advised against doing so on the grounds that national honours in Nigeria are never given post-humously. Obviously, the controversy over the re-naming of the University of Lagos was so overwhelming, President Jonathan chose to listen to the Justice Alfa Belgore-led committee on national honours.
Whereas all other presidents before him failed to make a statement with June 12, President Muhammadu Buhari chose to do so. Tomorrow, all Nigerians will observe June 12 as a national holiday. It will be the first time that this will happen. This should lay to rest all the conspiracies and the revisionism involved in the attempt to reduce June 12 to a narrow, ethnic event, which it is not. The recognition of June 12 as a special national event would be one of those developments for which President Buhari will be positively remembered.
It is, again, ironic that 26 years after, it took another member of the military elite to correct the problem caused by the military. It has taken President Buhari to correct the error committed by General Ibrahim Babangida and his group on June 23, 1993, when they chose to annul the presidential election held in Nigeria on June 12, 1993. That unwise decision became General Babangida’s Achilles heel, and the ugly thing around his neck.
General Babangida, or IBB as he is fondly known, could have ended up as one of Nigeria’s greats, given the performance of his government, but what is now remembered as his legacy, despite the best efforts of his biographers and PR managers, is that singular negative act, his violation of the people’s sovereignty. President Buhari is now being lauded for the courageous manner in which he has taken Nigeria beyond the denial and conspiracy foisted on the people by both the military and a segment of the professional political class. We look forward to what President Muhammadu Buhari would say to Nigerians and the international community, tomorrow, June 12. His speech writers have a good opportunity to put words in his mouth that can reverberate like the claps of thunder. They must not waste that opportunity with their sleepy prose. President Buhari should have a word for those who have kept this country down by perpetually denying the truth and turning back the hands of the country’s clock. He should take credit appropriately for the wise decision that he has taken on the matter of June 12.
I remember June 12, 1993, as clearly as if it happened only yesterday. On that day, Nigerians trooped out en masse to make a choice between the presidential candidates of two political parties, MKO Abiola of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) and Bashir Tofa of the National Republican Convention (NRC). General Ibrahim Babangida was military president, ruling the country with his Armed Forces Revolutionary Council, and getting to the final stage of a slow-moving democratic transition programme. By 1993, Nigerians were already tired of military rule, and particularly of the Babangida government, which seemed to have mastered the art of deception.
The people wanted the military out of the way, to allow for a return to civilian rule, which had been truncated by the military at regular intervals since independence in 1960. On that day, Nigerians voted massively for the Social Democratic Party and its candidate, MKO Abiola (8, 341, 309 million votes – 58.36%). The NRC candidate, Bashir Tofa came second (5, 952, 087 million votes – 41.64%). This was an election in which neither religion nor ethnicity – two major dividing factors in Nigeria – was an issue. MKO Abiola, a Southerner got as much support in the North as he did in the South, even beating his rival, Bashir Tofa, in his home state of Kano. The National Electoral Commission (NEC) was headed by political science professor, Humphrey Nwosu.
As the results were collated, it was clear that MKO Abiola (SDP) was leading in nineteen states, with Bashir Tofa (NRC) winning in eleven states. On June 16, however, NEC announced that it would no longer announce the results “until further notice.” Civil society and pro-democracy protesters objected to this. It had been a free and fair election, the most peaceful that Nigeria had ever known. On June 23, 1993, the Babangida government annulled the election and suspended the Electoral Commission. The NEC Chairman, Humphrey Nwosu, went underground and became incommunicado. MKO Abiola claimed victory. The people demanded that their will as expressed on June 12, 1993 should be respected, and that the results of the election be declared.
The refusal of the military establishment brought it into direct collision with the people and the international community. June 12 became a catalyst for much that would happen to Nigeria. The crisis escalated so quickly, General Ibrahim Babangida, known then as the “evil genius” had to “step aside” as president of Nigeria. He put in place as he left an Interim National Government (ING), led by UAC chief, Ernest Shonekan with General Sani Abacha as Defence Chief. That ING survived only 83 days. General Sani Abacha, a veteran of military coups in Nigeria, pushed aside the ING and its head and proclaimed himself Head of State. To put it as it was, hell broke loose.
Civil society became tempestuous. Concerned professionals, democrats, progressives – voices of reason in Nigeria across all divides, the church, market women, every one with a voice, took to the streets to say: “Never Again to military rule.” The general consensus was that the annulment of the June 12, 1993, election was after all a subterfuge by the military to remain in power, and that IBB had played a “Maradona” game against Nigerians. “On June 12 we stand,” the people proclaimed as they took to the barricades. The diplomatic community even joined the protests, with the likes of US Ambassador Walter Carrington, leading the charge on the diplomatic front. The Abacha government was bound to fail. It died a-borning. It descended on Nigeria’s civil society and the progressive camp, and as Nigeria began to witness the worst form of dictatorship since 1960, the people fought back. And Abacha fought back. Not even newly born babies were spared. Journalists were special targets: those who were not hauled into prison were made to flee abroad or go underground. Those were the days of guerilla journalism in Nigeria. The people at home fought. Those abroad set up a short wave radio, Radio Kudirat, which reported Abacha to the world. In due course, Nigeria became a pariah nation.
Three major events made this happen: the first is the declaration by Chief MKO Abiola of his due right to the mandate that Nigerians gave him on June 12, 1993. On June 11, 1994, Chief MKO Abiola, in the Epetedo area of Lagos, declared himself the democratically elected president of Nigeria. That speech is now known as the Epetedo Declaration. It should be widely circulated tomorrow, June 12, and on every June 12 henceforth, for it has become one of the landmark speeches in the mapping of Nigerian history, and the trajectory of our country’s democratic evolution. I am tempted to quote from that eminently quotable speech, but I recall that it was in that speech that the phrase “Enough is Enough” was first pronounced as a revolutionary call to action. Abiola said: “Today, I join you all in saying Enough is Enough! We have endured 24 years of military rule in our 34 years of independence. Enough of military rule…” And he went on and on.
The Epetedo Declaration became another catalyst for the Nigerian Spring. It was a call to action. The people responded. Abiola was arrested by the Abacha junta, but the genie had left the bottle. The people of Nigeria heard Abiola: “Enough is Enough,” and they too responded: “Never Again to military rule.”
Second event: On November 10, 1995, Ken Saro-Wiwa, a writer and internationally renowned environmental rights activist, was hanged by the Abacha administration.
Third event: On June 9, 1996, Abiola’s wife, Kudirat, was assassinated by Abacha’s killer squad. There were attempts on the lives of key pro-democracy activists as well, including Alfred Rewane, who was murdered, and Abraham Adesanya, who survived. Journalists were murdered. It was as if at the Epetedo Declaration, Abiola had placed a curse on General Abacha. Nigeria suffered, but the people wanted an end to it all. On June 8, 1998, General Sani Abacha died. There was dancing in the streets. But as it happened, Abiola also died, in very suspicious circumstances, while still in detention, on July 7, 1998. By then, General Abdusalami Abubakar had succeeded General Abacha as military Head of State. Nigerians still didn’t give up. They wanted democracy. They wanted to be liberated from the shackles of military autocracy. On May 29, 1999, their will prevailed. General Olusegun Obasanjo, who had also been framed and jailed by the Abacha government, became Nigeria’s civilian president after all the turmoil.
It is sad that those who have benefitted most from the June 12 debacle have been the most desperate in denying the value and symbolism of that date, and what happened therein. June 12 was a turning point for Nigeria as the foregoing narrative indicates, and it became, in its trajectory, the catalyst for Nigeria’s second liberation; that is, liberation from internal colonialists. But as things stand 26 years later, we may still need to construct a strategy for a third liberation: liberation from the rent collectors who seem to have resolved that Nigeria’s progress is a threat to their own interests.
By declaring June 12 a national public holiday, President Buhari has given us all an opportunity to reflect, to think and to remember. In a country where memory is short, people don’t like to think, state institutions are constructed to erase memory, and the teaching of history was even at a point “outlawed,” although it is now taught as an optional subject, it is a good thing that President Buhari in making June 12 a national holiday. He has given us all an opportunity to do what we do not like to do in this country: to think, reflect and remember. June 12 is an idea that cannot be ignored. It is about national unity. On that day in 1993, we saw that it is possible for Nigerians, “though tongue and tribe may differ,” to unite around an idea. June 12 is a philosophy, a way of thinking by a people who resolved at a critical moment in their lives to move forward. The evil agents in the military tried to block that and suppress the people’s sovereignty, but tomorrow, the point shall be made that the truth is indestructible. We hope that there will be celebration in every state of the federation.
The story of June 12 has inspired a bibliography that should be promoted. Indeed, apart from the civil war, it is probably the most dramatic and telling incident in post-colonial Nigeria. I have been privileged to read many of the books, which I recommend to the reading public. They include, not necessarily in any order of importance, Abraham Oshoko‘s June 12: The Struggle for Power in Nigeria, Abraham Oshoko’s June 12: The Annulment; Frank Kokori‘s The Struggle for June 12, Omo Omoruyi‘s The Tale of June 12: The Betrayal of the Democratic Rights of Nigerians; Humphrey Nwosu‘s Laying the Foundations for Nigeria’s Democracy: My Account of June 12, 1993 Presidential Election and Its Annulment; Wale Oshun‘s Clapping With One Hand; Wale Oshun’s Open Grave; Wale Oshun’s Kiss of Death; Kayode Fayemi‘s Out of the Shadows: Exile and the Struggle for Freedom and Democracy in Nigeria; Joe Igbokwe’s Heroes of Democracy; and Wole Soyinka‘s The Open Sore of a Continent. These works represent, in varying degrees, the literature of resistance against military rule in Nigeria.
The revisionists led by General Ibrahim Babangida have tried to rewrite and revise the same story (there would have been a coup if the result was allowed(!), a cabal within the military didn’t want Abiola, it was an unfortunate incident… story…); see: their narrative is not selling. On June 12 we stand!
I have also heard some people express the view that the Buhari government should go a step further and formally announce the results of the June 12, 1993, election and thereafter declare Chief Abiola the rightful winner of that election. I disagree. The June 12, 1993, process having been inchoate, and the beneficiary dead, such a declaration will have no probative value. For me, what has been done serves the purpose. It would all have been better though, if June 12 had been declared MKO Abiola’s Day. He was the symbol, the rallying point, the icon of Nigeria’s second liberation in whom is fully embodied the essence of the struggle from June 12, 1993, to May 29, 1999. But have we learnt any lessons from June 12? Sadly, I don’t think so.