Chief Moshood Abiola was widely regarded as the winner of the presidential election of June 12, 1993 even though it was annulled by the maximum ruler, Ibrahim Babangida. But, the incident has been regarded as the event that birthed the current democracy in Nigeria. However, 24 years after the election and 19 years after Abiola’s death, the country has yet to record meaningful democratic gains, writes JESUSEGUN ALAGBE
So far in Nigeria’s history, the presidential election of June 12, 1993 has been regarded as the most peaceful, freest and fairest since the country got independence on October 1, 1960.
It was also the first election that was held after the 1983 military coup and the result was a victory for the late Chief Moshood Kashimawo Olawale Abiola of the Social Democratic Party, who defeated Alhaji Bashir Tofa of the National Republican Convention.
Abiola had polled a total of 8,341,309 votes to win Tofa, who got 5,952,087 votes, results from the Professor Humphrey Nwosu-led National Electoral Commission had shown.
The election was declared as historic and unprecedented in many ramifications because since independence, northerners had largely dominated the country’s political landscape and the fact that Abiola (a Southern Muslim from Abeokuta, Ogun State) was able to secure a national mandate freely and fairly was never imagined.
Apart from this, it was also never envisaged that people would vote for a Muslim-Muslim ticket as Abiola’s running mate, Baba Gana Kingibe, was also a Muslim from Borno State.
However, 11 days after the election, then military ruler, Gen. Ibrahim Babangida (retd.), annulled the election, thereby abandoning his promise of handing over to an elected civilian government.
Babangida had given an excuse that the step was taken “to save our judiciary from being ridiculed and politicised locally and internationally.”
In a brief announcement, Babangida had also suspended the National Electoral Commission, which, since multi-party elections were first announced in 1986, had been the main body responsible for restoring democracy to the country.
After Babangida’s declaration, a renowned opponent of military rule and Nobel laureate, Prof. Wole Soyinka, warned that further attempts to block the transition to civilian rule could plunge the country into anarchy.
“A very tiny but powerful cabal is toying with the future of our nation,” Soyinka had said in a statement. “Any further delay in making the people’s verdict official is a deliberate cultivation of chaos.”
Similarly, lawyer and human rights activist, late Gani Fawehinmi, said that the country was in danger and that it was “abundantly” clear that the military government was leading Nigeria into a political crisis of “immeasurable, chaotic proportions.”
Soyinka’s and Fawehinmi’s words came to pass as the annulment of the election led to a bloody crisis and later, a coup d’etat led by the late Gen. Sani Abacha.
However, in 1994, Abiola declared himself the lawful President of the country at the Epetedo area of Lagos Island, after his return from a trip to win the support of the international community for his mandate.
The declaration saw him landing into trouble as he was accused of treason and declared wanted on the orders of Abacha, who reportedly sent about 200 police vehicles to bring him into custody.
Two years after his detention, Abiola’s second wife, Kudirat, was assassinated in Lagos in 1996 after declaring public support for her husband.
Abiola remained in detention for two more years, with the military government stating that the sole condition for his release was to renounce his mandate, which Abiola refused to do.
On July 7, 1998 — the day that he was due to be released — Abiola died at the age of 60 under suspicious circumstances shortly after the death of Abacha, who had died a month earlier.
The struggle and death of Abiola have been widely regarded as the event that helped Nigeria return to democracy, with Abiola himself being regarded as one of the greatest elder statesmen the country ever had.
Nonetheless, 24 years after the election that saw him emerge as winner and 19 years after his death, political observers and human rights activists have said democracy has yet to yield its expected gains.
There are those who believe that if Abiola and those who lost their lives during the post-election crisis of 1993 were to be alive, they wouldn’t be happy about how poorly democracy has been managed in the country.
Be that as it may, the said democracy has been described being better than the best form of military rule and that returning to military rule would amount to committing suicide.
A Lagos-based lawyer and human rights activist, Mr. Jiti Ogunye, said it was unfortunate that democracy had not resulted into development in the country, blaming the situation largely on politicians who focus on making money in politics at the detriment of governance.
He said, “Our democracy has not been translated into development because there are scholars who have linked democracy to the development of the society. They believe that democracy, human rights and civil liberties lead to development. Therefore, democracy is a sham without development, meaning that if there is no development, democracy is in vain.
“The election of June 12, 1993 was annulled by a willing and consummate dictator, Ibrahim Babangida, who was leading a transition without an end. He looked at countries like Egypt and Libya, where military dictators translated to civilian rulers. He planned to do something similar in Nigeria by wanting to continue to rule the country as a civilian. So he allowed the election to hold, thinking there would be no clear-cut winner, but the result went against his expectation.
“Abiola won and he [Babangida] annulled the election. Then, a very indescribable titanic struggle began and Abiola was ready to lead that struggle. For the democratic dispensation we are having today, it was because of that struggle. As brutal as it was, it was that struggle that changed the political landscape. It made the military to never disregard the will of the people again.
“If there was any democratic gain so far, it would be because democracy has survived this long. However, we are not seeing any development because politicians have messed up; they have taken politics to be business and have abandoned the real business of governance. They have left the people to suffer. They have destroyed our health care and education.
“But the question of whether democracy is now worth it should not be asked. We still cannot compare democracy to military rule. Despite that our democracy is malfunctioning, it doesn’t mean we should go back to the military rule. It will amount to committing suicide. Freedom of speech, resolution of conflicts and meaningful discussions that could fuel development would all be gone.”
Asked what should be done to ensure that the struggle of Abiola is not in vain, Ogunye metaphorically said Nigerians should stop praising their enemies and shunning their friends.
By this, the lawyer said if the people wanted the country to develop, they should identify leaders who want to genuinely serve Nigeria and not because they want to enrich their pockets.
He said, “In 2003, the late Chief Gani Fawehinmi wanted to be President, but it was the ex-military dictators that the people were romancing. This man had a genuine heart to serve the country, but he was rejected. People like him have always been rejected.
“Until Nigerians identify those who are genuinely ready to serve them, there will be no progress. Until they see the society in stark class segmentation, until we stop aligning people who are only promoted in the media, until we stop rooting for leaders based on their religious and ethnic alignment, there will be no development.
“We should identify such people who want to serve us freely. They may not be rich, but they have what it takes to run a country. If we don’t do all these, in the next 48 years, we will keep asking ourselves the gains we have harnessed so far in terms of the democracy which Abiola struggled for.”
An activist and National Publicity Secretary of Pan-Yoruba socio-cultural organisation, Afenifere, Mr. Yinka Odumakin, said the country would not make much progress in terms of democracy until Abiola was officially acknowledged as winner of the June 12, 1993 election.
He said, “Looking back at that beautiful day (June 12, 1993), we are worse off as a country. There’s nowhere in our country today where you can say we have made great progress. We lost the greatest opportunity to become a nation. We cannot say we’ve held any real elections after that election.
“The North/South division we have in the country today was not there at that time. Just imagine, just few days to the June 12 anniversary, some Northern groups issued an ultimatum to the Igbo living in the North to leave the region or there would be problem.
“We have missed the road; we have lost the track and until we get back on that track, we are going nowhere. We can’t make any progress until we atone for the death of Abiola and his wife, Kudirat. Until we do that, Nigeria cannot work.”
Asked how to atone for the duo’s death, Odumakin said, “We have to officially acknowledge him as the winner of the 1993 election. We also have to name some monuments after him. Also, those who killed Kudirat must be brought to book.
“I remember that on July 7, 1993, during the post-election crisis, we counted about 365 dead bodies on the Lagos-Ikorodu Road in Lagos. We have to make things right to be on the path to development. We must not allow the blood of those killed to be shed in vain.”
Also speaking to Saturday PUNCH, a Warri, Delta State-based political analyst, Mrs. Jumoke Olosunde-Okeoghene, said the struggle and death of Abiola should not be allowed to be in vain.
“I am sure Abiola and those who died would be shaking their heads in their graves and be feeling sorry for Nigeria. They are probably lamenting, ‘Is this the democracy we fought for?’
“We are not yet there because we allowed many things to go wrong after that 1993 struggle. Abiola died for democracy that some politicians are messing up right now. Abiola didn’t want to make more money when he won the election. I believe he wanted to make this country great.
“My belief is if he had become President, we would have moved greater than this pace. This man won an election that was the freest and fairest in the country. He even won in the North, where his opponent was from. That was because people saw that zeal in him to make us great.
“We cannot say we have those who genuinely want to serve the interest of this country for now. Look at how funds have been looted. Just as in 1993 when the people voted, not for religion or region or class, we have to get back on that track.”
Just like Ogunye and Olosunde-Okeoghene noted, political analyst and activist, Anthony Okosun, in his piece, “June 12, 1993 election and the hope for a culture of free and fair polls in Nigeria,” said it was until Nigeria has a truly representative government that democracy could yield any gains.
He said, “When the people’s true representatives are put in power, stability, progress and prosperity will be fostered. Representatives, who are truly elected, always see themselves as agents of progress and they are always accountable to the electorate.
“There is a vital link between free and fair elections and national stability, economic and social development. The government of the day determines much of the economic and social destinies of the polity and peoples of the polity.
“Those elected initiate policies that determine whether the masses will prosper or sink in poverty. Those who are elected determine whether to throw the country into a war or allow space for peace. Those elected by the people decide whether to build new hospitals, roads, bridges and schools and maintain old ones or whether to rob the common treasury of the masses and allow the masses to wallow in poverty and disease.
“The inter-connectivity between free and fair elections and the socio-political and economic destinies of the people cannot be overemphasised. Thus, Nigeria must first pursue a culture of free and fair elections as a platform for social economic and political advancement in the polity.”