June 12: 15 Years After


Chido Onumah



About two weeks ago, the Guardian carried an intriguing story on the mysterious death of Chief Moshood Kashimawo Olawale Abiola, presumed winner of the June 12, 1993, presidential election in Nigeria. The story which didn’t get much media attention said Abiola was beaten to death while in detention. Abiola died on July 7, 1998, a month after the man who detained him, Gen. Sani Abacha, died under circumstances that still befuddle the mind.


According to the Guardian, “Al-Mustapha, an intelligence officer with the Nigerian Army and a major player in the despotic regime of the late Abacha, made the declaration in a sworn affidavit dated May 20, 2008 and filed at the Ikeja High Court Registry before Commissioner for Oaths, Mr. E. O. Ajiboye. The 14-paragraph affidavit deposed to by the embattled Major said that Abiola died as a result of severe beatings he received from agents of the state after he was denied medical assistance by those in whose custody he was”.


Abiola’s personal physician, Dr. Ore Falomo, has buttressed Al-Mustapha’s story, arguing that “The people that carried out the torture were professionals. They knew how to go about it without leaving any mark ... after the autopsy was carried out, I said that the heart of Abiola was three times its size. What could have caused that? It couldn’t have happened on its own.”

When Abiola died ten years ago, there was speculation that he was murdered. The military regime of Gen. Abdulsalam Abubakar had told a bewildered nation that Abiola took ill and died after sipping tea during a meeting with a visiting U.S. delegation led by Thomas Pickering. We may never know what truly transpired during the days and hours leading up to Abiola’s death, but it is clear we are nowhere near the truth on that issue.


Al-Mustapha’s confession didn’t come as a shock. It only supports what majority of Nigerians think happened to Abiola. It is ten years since what can be described as the greatest cover-up in Nigeria’s political history and it may take much longer to expose the conspirators, both local and international, in that heinous act. There is enough reason why Al-Mustahpa’s story won’t make it beyond the pages of national newspapers: the personages in that sordid affair are very much around. They are not only around; they run the show in Nigeria!


This piece, however, is not about Abiola’s death. Throughout June and July, there will be outpouring of emotions, articles, lectures, rallies, etc, to celebrate the life and death of Abiola and his wife, Kudirat, one of the many martyrs of the struggle for democracy in Nigeria, who was assassinated in Lagos this month 12 years ago. The thrust of this article is the significance of the June 12, 1993, presidential election which Abiola was set to win before it was annulled by then military president, Gen. Ibrahim Babangida.


Babangida has yet to explain why he annulled the election that was judged by all and sundry as the “freest and fairest” in the nation’s tortuous electoral history. The only thing we can deduce from Babangida’s many vain glorious pronouncements on the election is that he did it in the interest of the country, whatever that means.


This space is not enough to delve into the intrigues surrounding the presidential election of June 12, 1993. The Babangida regime did everything to ensure that the election did not hold. It redefined the political process by creating two parties, designed their constitutions and manifestoes, and orchestrated the eventual outcome of the election. Everything was primed to fail considering Babangida’s reading of the psyche of Nigerians. But Babaginda and his collaborators underestimated Nigerians. They took Nigerians for granted, but they were beaten to their own game. Nigerians defied the elements and went to the polling booths in a peaceful and orderly manner. In the true spirit of democracy they made their choice even though at the end their votes did not count.


That was a decade and half ago! Since then, the country has conducted three presidential elections – elections that would insult the sensibilities of any true democrat. One could rightly say that June 12 was a watershed in the nation’s history; Nigeria’s best opportunity at democratic reconstruction. It failed because of the inordinate ambition of a few individuals. No one knows for sure when the country would have such a glorious opportunity again. On June 12, 1993, the country found an occasion that lifted up its collective spirit. It was a momentous day full of potentials, something akin to what we are witnessing in the U.S. with Senator Barack Obama clinching the nomination of his party for the November 2008 presidential election.


We may never know where Nigeria would be today if June 12 had been allowed to stand. Some people have tried to belittle the import of June 12. Abiola was not the answer or the messiah we were told. Regrettably, when they had the opportunity to save Nigeria, they turned out to be no better than soldiers of fortune dressed in democratic garb.


I know genuine democrats and humanists who will argue that the June 12 election could not have been free and fair because Babangida literally handpicked the contestants and forced them on Nigerians. In a sentence, there was really no choice! There is some merit in that argument. But if allow ourselves to be carried away by such sophistry, it would amount to throwing the baby out with the bath water. The June 12 election was adjudged “free and fair” for the simple reason that within the limitations placed by the military regime of Gen. Babangida, Nigerians played by the rules. Compare that with what happened in 1999, 2003, and more recently, April 2007.


Of course no one expected that all the problems of Nigeria would have been solved with an Abiola presidency. Abiola was much a victim as a player in the system that eventually took his life. That system, intricately tied to a pernicious world order, can’t save the working class and millions of impoverished Nigerians who voted on June 12, 1993. My position is that the dynamics of June 12 offered something decades of pretentious posturing by successive governments (civilian and military) about national unity and ethnic integration could not offer.


Religious bigotry is as much a problem in Nigeria today as unemployment, poverty, corruption and abuse of human rights.  Ethnic chauvinism defines the Nigerian state. These cankers – ethnicity and religious intolerance – are two of the major problems of the Nigerian nation. June 12 confronted these monsters frontally. June 12 offered two Muslims on the presidential ticket. They had the chance to appear before Nigerians to articulate their positions, and Nigerians – east, west, north, south -- voted, without compulsion, for the candidate of their choice!


On June 12, Nigerians from all walks of life made a fundamental political statement. On that day, the country’s impoverished and forgotten masses were able to overcome the bogey of ethnicity and religious division by the ruling class and show that these are weapons in the hands of this inglorious class to maintain its stranglehold on the country.


June 12 would have defined the face of the new Nigeria: a nation unencumbered by religious and ethnic cleavages. Those who diminish June 12 seem to have a permanent fixation about Abiola and what he did or did not represent. They fail to realize that the election was much more than Abiola. It was about the ability of a people to decide on a course of action; and nothing could be more fundamental in moving a nation forward.  


Clearly, we have not learnt our lesson as a nation and the annulment of the June 12 election would remain a sad reminder of how far removed from nationhood we are. But we can still make amends. The first step in this national rebirth is for the present government to recognise June 12 as the turning point that made the current dispensation, with all its faults, possible. Of course, we can’t do that without paying tribute to all those who died in the process. Nothing else will do!