The saying by an American clergyman that a leader is “one who knows the way, goes the way, and shows the way” appears apt in describing the decision last Wednesday by President Muhammadu Buhari to officially recognise June 12 as Nigeria’s Democracy Day.
While some believed that it was a political “masterstroke” from Buhari to gain some political mileage ahead of next year’s presidential contest, others see it differently. For former national secretary of the defunct Social Democratic Party (SDP) and ex-governor of Jigawa State, Alhaji Sule Lamido, there was nothing anyone could do to placate the Yoruba politically, when the issues centre on the late Chief Moshood Abiola and former President Olusegun Obasanjo.
According to him, regardless of what anyone does, the Yoruba race would always remember the role played by the newspaper owned by the late Abiola to “denigrate, demonised and expose” the late Chief Obafemi Awolowo. In the same vein, he said, the Yoruba race is yet to forgive Obasanjo for not handing over to Awolowo in 1979.
Before Buhari’s June 6 declaration, attempts by prominent Nigerians and civil society groups to make successive administrations, from 1999 to 2015, to give recognition to June 12 met with brick walls. Although today is not a national public holiday, from next year, by Buhari’s proclamation, June 12 would not only be marked as a public holiday nationwide, it would now be set aside as the country’s Democracy Day celebration.
Interestingly, Buhari is not alone on this. He has the support of the Senate, which had demanded that, beyond honouring Abiola with the highest honour of Grand Commander of the Federal Republic (GCFR), the full results of the June 12, 1993, presidential election should be announced and all entitlements due to Abiola and his running mate, Alhaji Babagana Kingibe, be accorded them. This is just as the Senate also resolved that, as June 12 becomes a public holiday, May 29 remains the date of inauguration of elected executive officers.
The Senate’s decision followed a motion last Thursday brought by Senator Abiodun Olujimi (PDP, Ekiti) calling on the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), to declare the results of the June 12, 1993, presidential election.
However, by law, no one can be declared a president or vice president without taking an oath of office. What, therefore, would be the fate of Abiola and Kingibe? Pundits ask: if Abiola and Kingide did not take oath of office and oath of allegiance as President and Vice President, does the law warrant them to be paid for jobs they never did or offices they never assumed? While Nigerians are pondering over the questions, former Foreign Affairs Minister, Prof. Bolaji Akinyemi, said, on the award of CGFR to Abiola, “the legality of the executive order, which has been raised, is not tenable and is a red herring. First is the issue of precedence. President Shagari awarded a national honour posthumously to Chief Israel Adebajo and his son collected it on his behalf.
“Secondly, the award cannot be subject to strict legal interpretation. I would rather suggest a Dennington approach, where determination is based on the need to achieve justice. MKO Abiola was elected in 1993 when he was still alive and remained alive for six more years.
“That is when he earned the GCFR. Acts of illegality prevented him from being decorated with it. Those acts of illegality have just been annulled.”
How it all began
Today is exactly 25 years since Nigerians filed out in an unprecedented manner to cast their ballot for Abiola and Kingibe, who were both Muslims. In the contest, Abiola ran against Alhaji Bashir Tofa of the National Republican Convention (NRC), with Dr. Sylvester Ugoh as his running mate. Abiola/Kingibe contested on the platform of the SDP.
Unlike today, where the Nigerian electorate bothers about the religious and ethnic inclinations of candidates, nobody cared about this in 1993, as the majority of voters lined behind Abiola and Kingibe in the historic June 12 presidential election.
In that election, which Abiola and Kingibe were adjudged to have won, the federal Military Government ordered the stoppage of the release of results and consequently annulled the entire results.
Prof. Humphrey Nwosu speaks on the annulment
Speaking for the first time on the matter in public about four years ago, chairman of the defunct National Electoral Commission (NEC), Prof. Humphrey Nwosu, revealed that himself and his team worked hard to deliver a credible, free and fair election because they were promised national honours, if local and international observers could certify the election as credible.
Explaining how he put his life on the line, first to ensure that the election held, after the earlier injunction to stop it, and later to push through the court to ensure the final result was announced by NEC, Nwosu said: “Halfway, as the results were being collated, Abuja High Court, presided by the chief judge of Abuja, came out with a decision that the results of the election should no longer be announced. This time, the national commissioners were around. We mounted a big board at the headquarters of the commission, where the results were recorded and announced publicly, Abiola, Tofa – Abiola was leading. I told you the military was divided. The same pro-Abacha group met at the National Defence and Security Council and summoned me and asked if this was the way Nigerians would be hearing about this election through the signboard. I said: ‘this is the provision of the law, to make it transparent. I don’t interfere, no one does, this is what Decree 13 approves.’
“Abacha said, ‘so you went ahead to conduct the election, which the court said you shouldn’t conduct? Go and dismantle the board.’ You know it was a military regime. In fact, at the point we received this, almost all the results were in. The only result remaining was Taraba, out of the 30 states of the federation; that was about June 15. It was when I was coming out of Aso Rock that I was served the court decision by a Commissioner of Police. I went back to the commission’s headquarters; the Taraba man, was just coming in with the result.”
Nwosu said he called an emergency meeting to discuss how to vacate the judgement of the court and conclude their job. But there was no one to do it for him, since, according to him, the Attorney-General at the time, Clement Akpambo, agreed with the government to suspend the process.
He said while that was going on, government had also set up the Abacha committee to look into the election matter and advise it on way forward.
According to Nwosu, the committee had David Mark, former Senate president; Murtala Nyako, former governor of Adamawa State, who was next in command to Abacha in the committee; Gen. Aliyu Mohammed; Akilu; secretary to the commission; Akpamgbo and himself.
“When we got to Abacha’s residence, another sub-committee was set up, a smaller committee comprising Akilu, Akpamgbo, I, secretary to the commission, Aliyu Umar, who is late now, and director of legal services (Buhari Bello). When we got there, I told them we had no business challenging the process, as the law had already set out the process, and anything we did would be outside the law. The law provides that the result should be released and if anyone objects to it, he should go to the tribunal. I said if the government, which is the highest sovereign authority representing the people of Nigeria, wanted a political solution, the winner was Abiola, so they should invite Abiola and negotiate with him. They said we should go back and report to the larger committee, which Abacha headed. I told the chairman of the committee we were a technical body set up to conduct and release election results; we were not a political body, that Abiola had won the election and the only result not collated was that of Taraba. I said if they wanted political negotiation they should invite Abiola.
“Abacha shouted on me, saying: ‘you went ahead with an election the court said you shouldn’t hold; you are not even a member of the National Defence and Security Council. You are telling us what to do. Who are you? Call your commissioners to appear before the National Defence and Security Council.’ It was the era mobile telephone was just beginning in Nigeria and David Mark was the Minister of Communications. I was about to call them; then, he said I should tell him the name of my personal secretary and he would do that for me. It was he who called my secretary, Andrew Umanah, to tell the national commissioners they were wanted in Aso Rock.”
Nwosu further said: “I, Professor Ideria, Bello, Umar arrived Aso Rock and were put in a room pending the arrival of my other colleagues. As soon as they arrived, we joined the others, Babangida was presiding. He said, ‘what is your official position regarding the election, the court says don’t announce.’ I asked the president to give us three minutes to confer so that whatever we came out with will be the decision of the commission and not my personal opinion. I reminded my colleagues the enormity of the national assignment on our hands and how we were even promised national honours if we got it right, and we were getting it right until the sudden changes. I told them we must vacate the judgement and have legal authority to complete the announcement of the results so that we are not seen as undertaking an illegal task, by going to the Court of Appeal in Kaduna. We agreed on this position. This was what we announced to the body and they said, ‘you are now on your own.’
“Now, who would have gone to the court for us, it was the Attorney-General, but he was not available. I took the initiative and Bello went to the appeal court in Kaduna quietly within the next two days and appealed. The court was summoned. Abiola was represented by GOK Ajayi. Tofa was also represented, and we submitted all the results showing that Abiola won the election. Were it to be in the United States, the journalists would have published the results. Where were Nigerian journalists? They were only busy saying Humphrey collaborated with Babangida rather than following the sequence of events. All the results were submitted to Okey Achike’s court – he was heading the appeal court.
“In its preliminary meeting, the court agreed that the Abuja High Court had no business interfering with Decree 13. It said there was a procedure on how results should be released and if anyone was not satisfied they could go to the tribunal, not the High Court. The appeal court gave a date, June 25, for accelerated hearing of the case so that we could conclude the good work we started.
“But on June 23, 1993, they dissolved my commission. No court or journalist has commented on the dissolution of NEC on June 23 when the court would have sat on June 25. I submitted all the results showing that Abiola won. His lawyer, Ajayi, would have seen the result, and any investigative journalist would have seen it. If it were the United States, Britain or any of the Western democracies, they would have queried why Humphrey and members of the commission were sent away with nothing, no severance allowance, nothing! That was how our journey, fighting for Nigeria, ended. And people are saying I collaborated with Babangida. Tell me what any reasonable Nigerian would have done under that circumstance? And throughout Abacha’s rule, almost five years, he never agreed that that election should have been conducted. His Minister of Information is there; he was always calling it an illegal election. What have Nigerian journalists done about all these? I played my part. And that is why I don’t talk much.”
The annulment, the protests, the agitations
The annulment led to series of uprisings in the country, especially in the South-West, a situation that forced the then Military President, Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida, to hurriedly step aside, and put in place an interim government, led by Chief Ernest Shonekan, who hails from Ogun State, like Abiola.
In spite of the fact that Shonekan, an Egbaman, was in charge of the affairs of the country, the agitations in the country for the actualisation of the June 12 mandate did not abate. And barely three months in the saddle, the Interim National Government (ING) was kicked out by the military, led by the late Gen. Sani Abacha after a court pronounced it illegal.
When Abacha first came in, the protests across the country, especially in the South-West reduced ostensibly because there was an alleged understanding between Abiola and the military government that the June 12 mandate would be restored.
Lending credence to the above allegation, Chief Tony Anenih, who took over from Kingibe as the national chairman of the SDP, said Abiola kept the leadership of the party in the dark when he entered an agreement with then Secretary of Defence, Abacha, to overthrow the ING headed by Shonekan on November 17, 1993.
He made the revelation in his book, “My Life and Nigerian Politics,” which was presented in November 2016, at the International Conference Centre, Abuja. He said Abiola mistakenly sealed the accord thinking that Abacha would hand over power to him after sacking Shonekan.
Anenih said: “When the Abacha takeover was announced, there was jubilation by all those who knew of the ‘agreement’ between Chief MKO Abiola and General Sani Abacha. The Nicon Noga Hotel was in celebration mood as all those senators who had a pre-knowledge of so-called agreement and who anticipated that Abacha would handover to Chief Abiola the next day or immediately were shouting ‘MKO! MKO!! Presido! Presido.’
“Chief MKO Abiola, as indicated earlier, had said if you want to go to Kano, going by air or going by road does not make any difference as long as you get there. His interpretation of this was that going by air meant Abacha taking over from Shonekan and he, Abiola, being sworn in the next day. Going by road was waiting till March 1994, when Shonekan would use the National Assembly to hand over to him because he actually won the election.
“Unfortunately, for Chief Abiola, he had, in fact, no landing, and Kano as the desired destination proved to be a fantasy. It is a pity, indeed, that Chief Abiola kept the leadership of the party away from his arrangement with General Sani Abacha to take-over from Shonekan. If he had brought it to the notice of the leadership of the party, he would have been well advised. The ‘agreement’ was phony and hollow. It was an agreement, which was inexplicable and inexcusable in its folly and terrible in its consequences.”
However, when it became clear that Abacha was not sincere and was unlikely to keep to the alleged understanding, the agitation started all over again, with the Oodua Peoples Congress (OPC) leading the struggle, in the South-West.
The struggle culminated in the arrest and detention of Abiola by Abacha in 1994. By June 1998, Abacha died. Incidentally, Abiola also died the next month in detention. The struggle to actualise the June 12 mandate inevitably forced the military government of General Abdulsalami Abubakar, which took over after Abacha’s death, to hurriedly put together a transition programme which saw Nigeria’s return to democratic rule in May 1999.
But rather than set aside June 12, as the country’s Democracy Day, May 29 was set aside for the day. In spite of that, since then till date, no June 12 date has passed without some Nigerians marking the day.
Only last year, at an event by the OPC in Lagos, to commemorate June 12 anniversary, former Abia governor, Dr. Orji Kalu, who was chairman of the occasion, urged the Federal Government to declare June 12 the Democracy Day in honour of the late Abiola.
Kalu said the date was a precursor to the democracy the nation is enjoying and should be set aside as a symbol of fairness and equity.
He declared: “The Democracy Day celebration should not be on May 29 but on June 12. That date should be the symbol of fairness, equity and obedience to the rule of law.”
It must be noted that Kalu, while in government in Abia State, was the only governor outside South West to declare June 12 as public holiday.
Also speaking on the occasion, the national coordinator of OPC, who is now the Aare Onakakanfo of Yoruba land, Chief Gani Adams, said he was saddened because those he said were beneficiaries of the June 12 election had forgotten the late Abiola and his mandate.
He criticised what he described as the conspiracy of those he said were determined to forget the ideals the date represents.
He said: “June 12 will always be remembered by those who have defied the culture of silence and conspiracy against a significant moment in Nigeria’s history, to remind us of how today, the battle against the exit of the military from power was fought at the ballot by a determined Nigerian people.
“It is sad that apart from the South-West states, there has been indifference to the June 12 phenomenon by the Federal Government and the rest of Nigeria. That election was adjudged to be free, fair and peaceful, but the military government of that time, led by Ibrahim Babangida, played games with the transition to civilian rule, and so it chose not to announce the final results of the election. That singular act was seen by many as a coup against the Nigerian people and an act of brazen injustice.
“It is sad today that those who benefited most from Abiola’s martyrdom do not want to be reminded of him. Those who used to talk about injustice have since, given opportunity, inflicted their own injustice on the people. Those who used to swear by Abiola’s name have since found new political patrons. Those who proclaimed Abiola as the symbol of democracy and the rallying point for the people’s hopes have since been dancing on his grave.
“It is unfortunate that Nigeria forgets too soon, for when the Jonathan administration tried to address this injustice by naming a significant national institution after Abiola, the attempt resulted in controversy and a storm. Jonathan had renamed the University of Lagos after Abiola, but the students and members of staff trooped to the streets in protest. Politics and opportunism was read into the gesture and the government had to eat the humble pie,” Adams said.
Today, as Nigerians remember the June 12, 1993 presidential election, Buhari’s gesture will be in the front burner. And following the demands for the release of the final results of the election, the declaration of Abiola as president and payment of his “entitlements,” it is obvious that the agitation for June 12 will never end.