A day after I joined THISDAY from Concord Press in February 1999 as deputy editor of The Sunday newspaper, I was directed to proceed to Kaduna to cover the presidential primaries of the All Peoples Party (APP) then chaired by the late Senator Mahmud Waziri. As I recall, some of the aspirants jostling for the party’s ticket were Chief Arthur Nzeribe, Chief Emmanuel Iwuanyanwu, the late Dr Abubakar Olusola Saraki, Dr Ogbonaya Onu, Dr Bode Olajumoke and Chief Harry Akande who added razzmatazz to the occasion by flying into the city in his private aircraft which was parked at the airport and said to be loaded to the brim with bundles of new naira notes!
However, for three days in Kaduna, we were treated to a most bizarre political drama. From Hamdallah Hotel to Airforce Club to the Ahmadu Bello Stadium, the party leadership took us (journalists, party delegates and aspirants) on a merry-go-round as to when the convention would hold and where. At a point, a frustrated Saraki accused Waziri of attempting to rig the process and in turn, the APP chairman called a press conference where he displayed the copy of a cheque for N30 million with which he said Saraki tried to bribe him.
At the end of all the shenanigans, we witnessed no primaries but that is no problem for Nigerian politicians. The name of Onu was announced as having secured the party’s presidential ticket. Barely 24 hours later, the same APP leadership announced in Abuja the name of Chief Olu Falae—who had earlier been picked as the Alliance for Democracy (AD) presidential candidate by a conclave of 21 Yoruba elders who sat in Ibadan after administering an oath of secrecy—as their joint presidential flag-bearer for the election.
Meanwhile, when the local government elections were held two months earlier on 5th December 1998, the electoral guidelines had clearly stipulated that for any party to be registered, it must score at least a minimum of five percent of the total number of votes in no fewer than 24 states. Yet, despite the fact that the AD did not meet this particular threshold, it was registered as one of the three parties by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), essentially to secure the buy-in of the South-west in the political transition programme to which many Nigerians were very suspicious. It was against this background that Onu ceded the APP presidential candidacy to Falae and it became very clear that some forces, especially within the military establishment, were pulling strings along a predetermined direction.
That became even more evident when a certain General Olusegun Obasanjo, who ordinarily should not have been allowed to contest the primaries if there was strict adherence to the provisions of his party’s constitution, became the candidate of the majority Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). The party’s guidelines had specifically stated that anybody who failed to secure his ward for the party would be disqualified from contesting. Not only did Obasanjo lose his ward, he lost the polling booth where he voted in all the elections. And for the first time in the history of our country, the two candidates for a presidential election were from the same ethnic group (Yoruba) and both were Christians.
Nobody needed to be told that the 1999 presidential election was contrived to appease the Yoruba people for the injustice done to the late Chief M.K.O. Abiola, the acclaimed winner of the 12th June 1993 presidential election. But the trouble with the arrangement was that, with all the cards stacked in favour of Obasanjo, majority of the political elite in the Southwest saw the 1999 election as a deliberate act of provocation, especially where June 12 and the memory of Abiola were concerned. And it proved to be so because if there was anything Obasanjo never wanted to hear throughout his period in office, it was Abiola and June 12. For him and his enablers from the north who helped him to power, both Abiola and June 12 should be consigned to the dustbin of history.
What the foregoing says clearly is that there have been some cynical attempts in the past to deal with the June 12 challenge by those who misread history and its varied lessons, even though some find convenient excuses in the contradictions in the social, political and business life of Abiola (and there were many). Then came President Muhammadu Buhari, the last person you would imagine could honour Abiola or remember June 12, given what transpired after that election in the north aside from the fact that he had made some uncomplimentary remarks about Abiola in the past. But, in a way, it is also providential because Buhari is perhaps the only northern leader with sufficient clout for such a decision without any serious political backlash within his traditional support base. The question is: Why did he do it?
Before I go further, let me say very quickly that drawing up a list of those to honour for June 12 is a delicate business since it is now very sexy to be associated with the date. In the past, it was not so. On Tuesday, Falae said those Buhari invited to Aso Rock were more his party members than heroes of democracy or June 12. “Where is Alani Akinrinade whose house was burnt? Where is Dr. Amos Akingba? Where is Chief Ayo Adebanjo? My house was the headquarters where NADECO meetings were held; Abiola’s speech was written in my house. What are they talking about? I was in detention for 20 months, Akinrinade was in exile. They are only recognising as heroes of June 12, those who participated in the struggle and are members of their party.”
Falae has a point. Why, for instance, was Mr Olisa Agbakoba, SAN, not invited to Aso Rock on Tuesday? On the day the late General Sani Abacha, then as Chief of Army Staff but based in Lagos, ordered troops to mow down hundreds of citizens protesting the annulment of June 12 on the streets of Lagos, Agbakoba was the poster boy for the resistance with an iconic photograph of his bloodied face (after he was brutalized by the military) taken by the AP published in several newspapers across the world. How can we forget Colonel Abubakar Dangiwa Umar, one of Nigeria’s most respected officers with a glittering career, who resigned his commission because of June 12, a decision that could jolly well have cost him his life under a different circumstance?
And then we have the patrons of the National Democratic Coalition (NADECO). Chief Cornelius Adebayo and the late Chief Anthony Enahoro were arrested and detained for years before their release after which they fled to exile to join others. What about Prof Bolaji Akinyemi, Admiral Ndubuisi Kanu, Ms Gloria Kilanko, Chom Bagu, Joe Okei-Odumakin, Chima Ubani, Festus Iyayi and several others who risked their lives confronting the military over June 12?
Even within the armed forces, there were heroes. Both Admiral Alison Madueke, then Chief of Naval Staff and General Mohammed Chris Ali, Chief of Army Staff, were removed by Abacha following a tense Provisional Ruling Council (PRC) meeting where they broached the issue of Abiola’s continued detention. Chief Ajibola Ogunsola revived PUNCH newspaper after the death of the late Chief Olu Aboderin yet on June 12, he put everything on the line. In fact, on the day Abacha was proscribing Concord and PUNCH to render many of us redundant for several months, his anger was directed at the latter. “Concord I can understand since it is owned by Abiola so it is human that his boys would be attacking me but PUNCH; what is their own?” asked Abacha that day.
While there will be a day to remember those who fought for our democracy, including some upwardly mobile men and women then in their thirties and forties who acted as ‘Concerned Professionals’ (Atedo Peterside, Pat Utomi, Oby Ezekwesili et al), let us deal with the speculations as to why Buhari honoured Abiola and make June 12 Democracy Day.
As much as I subscribe to the notion that given the timing, the action is very political, even opportunistic, I am also aware that Buhari is not the kind of man who would take this sort of action without conviction, no matter the political implications. So, I believe he took the decision because he feels it is the right thing to do and he deserves to be commended for it. Besides, the ‘Not too young to run’ generation in the Southwest who now constitute the electoral majority may admire the spirit of June 12 based on the stories they are told by their parents but if you follow them on Twitter, they are more concerned about issues that directly impact on their lives. So, nobody should overplay the vote issue to diminish the significance of what President Buhari has done just as I abhor any recourse to provincial triumphalism that can only be counterproductive in a diverse society like ours.
In the 12th July edition of the Mohammed Haruna-led CITIZEN magazine (which was then the voice of the Northern political elite), Mallam Adamu Adamu, the current Minister of Education and one of the finest writers in Nigeria, had reviewed the transition programme of General Babangida and the fiasco created by the annulment of the June 12 election and concluded: “We are today stuck at the crossroads with eight years wasted; small problems have become bigger problems, mist on the tracks has turned into a thick fog. From here moving back is impossible without terrible costs and moving forward extremely difficult.”
President Buhari has found a way around that problem by going for justice rather than expediency on what has for 25 years been a tricky situation. While conferring the posthumous award On Abiola on Tuesday, the president admitted: “We cannot rewind the past but we can at least assuage our feelings, recognise that a wrong has been committed and resolve to stand firm now and ease the future for the sanctity of free elections.” He then added, “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.”
That precisely is the point many of the commentators miss. June 12 goes beyond the person of Abiola and what he may have represented in the past. It is not even about what happened that day, as significant as the voting pattern (Muslim-Muslim ticket securing the votes of Christians) was. It is about what happened afterwards, when several Nigerians stood up to the military and paid heavy price for demanding that the votes they lawfully cast could not be so cynically taken away. Of course I am well aware that at that period, there were also those who bought into the divisive politics of the military and decided to accept the peace of the graveyard.
Those who have always imputed ethnic motive to that principled stand taken by Yoruba people for the stubborn refusal to abandon June 12 forget that Chief Ernest Shonekan, like Abiola, is an Egba man yet he was rejected and so was Obasanjo in 1999. Therefore, the issue was never about having a Yoruba man in Aso Rock; it was/is about righting the wrong of June 12 in a manner that would take into cognizance the supreme sacrifice paid by Abiola and several people without which the military would never have returned to the barracks. That is why the symbolism of upstaging May 29 for June 12 as Democracy Day in Nigeria should not be lost: It is an affirmation of the supremacy of the ballot over bullet!
The damage inflicted on the psyche of Nigeria by the annulment of the June 12 election was enormous and to understand how divided the country had become just a few weeks after ordinary citizens had cast their votes for a united nation, I reproduce below an abridged version of a chapter in my book, ’POLITRICKS: National Assembly under Military Dictatorship’ which captures the debate that followed the annulment of the election in the Senate that had at time been inaugurated under a curious political arrangement.
General Babangida had on 17th August 1993 addressed a joint session of the National Assembly to propose an interim government to with the aim of conducting yet another presidential election, following a ‘tripartite agreement between the military and representatives of the two political parties, the defeated National Republican Convention (NRC) and the SDP whose leaders were trading away their victory without Abiola’s support.
In a speech designed to incite the National Assembly members against June 12, Babangida said, “The present negotiated choice of an Interim National Government by the Nigerian political elites is once again an imaginative and peaceful solution to the inevitable dilemma of democratization” before he added that the pro-democracy agitators were “disrespectful of your mandate and seize on the attraction of populist rhetoric to unleash vicious attack on the political leadership. They are after you, not me. They do not want to operate through the two party system. Please, invite them to join your parties; and work their way up from the grassroots as you did.”
At that period, the Senate, presided by Dr Iyorchia Ayu, had such members as Hamman Bello Mohammed, Chuba Okadigbo, Uba Ahmed, Paul Ukpo, Bola Ahmed Tinubu, Sunday Bolorunduro Awoniyi, Rasheed Ladoja, Ahmadu Idah Ali, Benneth Birabi, Ebenezer Ikeyina, Kanti Bello, Wande Abimbola, Magaji Abdullahi, Kofo Buckor Akerele, Idris Kuta, Aniete Okon, Paul Wampana and several others while the House led by Agunwa Anaekwe had Tehemba Shija, Lazarus Unaogu, Nicholas Agbo, Tokunbo Afikuyomi, Florence Ita Giwa and others. I am sure readers will find the debate that followed Babangida’s speech very instructive.
All said, what President Buhari has done on June 12 is not only significant, it has shown very clearly that he has the capacity to rise above certain narrow and clannish interests to do the right things, including rallying the entire country for the healing and reconciliation that is very much needed across board, if we must attain peace and prosperity. It is therefore my hope that the president can apply the same disposition to deal with the economic/lifestyle problems that now endanger inter-group relations in the North Central with dire implications for sectarian divisiveness as well as the ‘five percent versus 97 percent’ mindset that has almost alienated the entire South-east from his administration.
While these issues belong to another day and we will deal with them appropriately, President Buhari made the right call on June 12. But can he seize the moment or is it already too late in the day?