For the record, I did not vote on June 12, 1993. Not that I did not want to vote, but the situation conspired with the circumstances to disenfranchise me: I was out of Lagos. If I was in town, though, I would have voted for Chief MKO Abiola, the candidate of the Social Democratic Party (SDP). Ironically, I was originally against Abiola. To be more direct, I did not like him. I saw him as a proxy for Gen. Ibrahim Babangida, the military president, and — out of spite — I had opted for Alhaji Bashir Tofa of the National Republican Convention (NRC). But after the TV debate between the two candidates, my heart softened, although I was still pretending to dislike him.
My friend, Lanre Issa-Onilu, engaged me in a long argument, challenging me to list areas where I would say Tofa was better than Abiola. I lost the argument. I decided to vote for Abiola. He would go on to win the election convincingly but he was denied his mandate. The events leading to the annulment looked well orchestrated. On June 11, a court ruled that the election should not hold, despite the electoral law ousting the jurisdiction of courts. On election day, NRC accused Abiola of breaking the law by “campaigning”. He had worn an “agbada” that had SDP’s horse logo to his polling unit. SDP argued that the image on Abiola’s dress was that of a donkey, not a horse.
We thought it was a joke until events started unfolding, culminating in the dramatic annulment. Nigeria dissolved into chaos, death and destruction — and the ensuing political impasse lasted for at least five years, not counting the pain, hurt, bitterness and resentment that still live in some people’s hearts 25 years after. With Babangida having exhausted his cards in his unending transition programme full of deceit, he left power in a hurry on August 26, 1993 — a day earlier than planned — and put up the smokescreen of an interim government that paved the way for the ascendancy of Gen. Sani Abacha, who turned out to be the most sadistic ruler in Nigeria’s history.
Why was June 12 so significant? For one, it confounded us. Context matters. Religious acrimony and tension was perhaps at its zenith at the time. The differences between Christians and Muslims had taken a highly hostile, political turn when Nigeria became a full member of the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC) in 1986 under Babangida. Christians continuously accused him of harbouring an Islamisation agenda, an allegation he denied. The polity was polluted and tense. Muslim/Christian clashes became a way of life in northern Nigeria: from Kafanchan to Tafawa Balewa, Zangon-Kataf, Kano, Zaria and even the usually peaceful Ilorin, the land of my birth.
It is safe to say it was under Babangida that the Muslim/Christian animosity became overly entrenched in our polity. When Babangida appointed new service chiefs in August 1990, the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) pointed out that all the service chiefs were Muslims — Gen. Sani Abacha (chief of defence staff); Major General Salihu Ibrahim (army); AVM Nuraini Yussuff (air force); Rear Admiral Murtala Nyako (navy); and Alhaji Aliyu Attah (inspector-general of police). This, CAN alleged, was one of the conditionalities for Nigeria’s full membership of OIC. Indeed, the religious tension in the country was touchable. A little spark and there would be an inferno.
Meanwhile, in Kaduna state, Sheikh Ibrahim El Zakzaky, the Shi’ite leader, was heightening tension and disturbing public peace with his brand of Islam, but he was somewhat contained by the military. Then in May 1992, a horrendous religious violence broke out in Zangon-Kataf LGA with hundreds killed. The Justice Benedict Okadigbo tribunal, set up by Babangida to probe the carnage, sentenced Major-Gen. Zamani Lekwot and six others to death for “culpable homicide”. They were all Christians. CAN said Babangida only took action because Christians finally “defended” themselves, asking why nobody was punished for the previous clashes when Christians suffered heavy losses.
The death sentences and other religious troubles were still hanging when the June 12 election came calling. The idea of a Muslim/Muslim ticket was unthinkable. You can understand the crisis in Abiola’s hands about picking a running mate. Conventional wisdom was for him to pick a northern Christian to “balance” the ticket. His dilemma was compounded by a historical Christian perception of him as a bigot who used his newspaper to support Nigeria’s membership of OIC. Christians had been asked to boycott Concord in the heat of the OIC controversy in 1986. Faced with the religion dilemma, Abiola toyed with picking a Christian to appease the Nigerian Christians.
CAN even offered a list of northern Christians for consideration — Paschal Bafyau, Ishaya Audu, Chris Abashiya and Bala Takaya, etc. Problem was: they were no political heavyweights. In reality, to pull northern votes, Abiola had to pick either Amb. Babagana Kingibe, who had tightly fought for the SDP ticket with him, or Alhaji Atiku Abubakar, who had come third in the primary and aligned with Abiola in the run-off to defeat Kingibe. Both were Muslims. Abiola eventually picked Kingibe despite the risk with Christians north and south. Incredibly, the distrust and bigotry went out of the window and Abiola coasted home to victory. This is the Nigeria of my dream.
Abiola did so well nationwide at the poll. He even defeated Tofa in his home base in Kano, winning nine of the 16 northern states then. In my opinion, Igbo pulled one hell of a surprise. Despite having virtually nothing to benefit from SDP, despite the Muslim/Muslim ticket, despite the fact that an Igbo, Dr. Sylvester Ugoh, was the NRC vice-presidential candidate, despite the age-old animosity towards Yoruba over the civil war, south-easterners voted impressively for Abiola, giving him 49.45% of their votes. Tofa, with an Igbo son on his ticket, got just 50.54%. Remember, also, that NRC controlled three of the four states in the south-east. This is the Nigeria that I love.
Why was June 12 so significant? One of its biggest miracles, if you ask me, was that it threw up Abiola as an unlikely hero. Here was an establishment man having a “Road to Damascus” experience. If any politician was going to stand up to the military, it was never going to be Abiola. He was expected to simply lick his wounds and move on. Babangida was his friend. But he became a new man and insisted on his mandate. He was clamped into detention; his wife was assassinated; his businesses paralysed. Yet he refused to give up or give in. Nigerians also showed remarkable resistance to iron rule. Over 300 demonstrators were killed by soldiers in one day!
The struggle for June 12 was, regrettably, abandoned by most members of the political class who felt it was Abiola’s problem. Regrettably, too, the narrative down south was that it was annulled because northerners hated southerners. At some point, I analysed the results. When I saw the number of votes Abiola got in the north, I told myself northerners do not hate southerners. That was when I began to make a distinction between the ruling elite and the people on the streets. It has shaped my worldview ever since. The trouble with Nigeria is not one religion against the other, or one ethnic group against the other; it is the mindless manipulation of ethno-religious sentiments by the elite.
Tragically, President Olusegun Obasanjo, the ultimate beneficiary of Abiola’s struggle and sacrifice, blatantly refused to honour him or give June 12 its place in history. He scoffed at the idea of June 12 becoming Democracy Day. Yet, if Abiola had not insisted on his mandate, if he had not been arrested and detained, if he had not died in government custody, Obasanjo would not have been president. President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua did not honour Abiola or celebrate June 12 either. President Goodluck Jonathan, to his credit, finally recognised Abiola, but his choice of monument did not cut it. He also fell short of declaring June 12 as Democracy Day. But, at least, he made an effort.
God bless President Muhammadu Buhari for finally according June 12 its rightful place in our democracy. The historic election needed official recognition. The winner of the mandate needed official acknowledgment. We needed closure. We needed to stop running from our shadow. Buhari has done what others before him failed to do. I have heard a legion of critics accuse Buhari of playing politics. If it’s politics, it’s beautiful politics. I hope Buhari will play more of this brand of politics. We condemned those who refused to honour the heroes our democracy; we are now condemning Buhari who has chosen to honour them. That’s the way life goes.
In sum, June 12 means more than Abiola to me. If you confuse June 12 with Abiola, you are missing the point. June 12 brought out the best in us. It showed what is possible in spite of our sharp differences and fragile fraternity. June 12 was not perfect, but it was peaceful, fair and devoid of hijacking of ballot boxes. The figures were credible and realistic. We showed the world what Nigerians can do if given opportunity and encouragement. Sadly, the annulment destroyed key gains and denied us a golden opportunity to recalibrate our nationhood. Instead, we were re-fractured. We are struggling, till this day, to patch things up. But Nigeria will surely rise again.