24 years ago, June 12, 1993, Nigeria held presidential elections adjudged to have been the most free, fair and credible ever, since the country gained political independence in 1960, and which the late Chief Abiola won decisively. But in a streak of authoritarian madness, the election was annulled by then military ruler, Gen. Ibrahim Babangida and the Armed Forces Ruling Council (AFRC). Twenty-four years after, the scars of June 12 still run very deep and healing is far from complete as a traumatized nation, poised then for a real taste of joy, still reels in the pain of a cruel and vicious abortion. The annulment of June 12 was probably the most wicked act perpetrated against this nation by IBB and one for which he should be held accountable. Suffice to say with that annulment, Nigeria snatched defeat from the jaws of victory and the nation’s manifest rendezvous with glory was halted by the singular action of a mindless dictator. Twenty-four years on, there is democracy without true democrats. The result is a Nigeria still questioned by many Nigerians; a nation full of promise but still in doubt of itself.
June 12 was certainly a milestone in Nigeria’s quest for its true identity. It was the manifestation of the hopes and aspirations of all Nigerians to be governed by leaders chosen on the basis of democratic principles. Babangida and the AFRC, had set up two political parties, the National Republican Convention (NRC) and the Social Democratic Party (SDP), assigned logos to them from the country’s coat of arms, wrote their manifestoes and spent billions building party headquarters in state capitals and 774 local councils. Part of the attempts at sanitizing the political space was the banning and unbanning of major actors which paved the way for the emergence of new breed politicians enamored to the democratic ethos in line with the concept of the military rulers.
Nigerians meticulously followed the winding transition, registered as members of the new parties and elected MPs and governors for the 30 states of the federation. From 1991, a diarchy involving military rulers at the centre and elected officials at the state levels operated in Nigeria that was to end on June 12, 1993, with the presidential election. On that day in 1993, Nigerians said goodbye to parochialism and primordial considerations that had governed the country. An all-Muslim ticket was not seen as an incongruity; but simply as a Nigerian ticket. Nigerians voted for Abiola and Babagana Kingibe, despite their religious affiliation, in a classic statement of an end to the usual appeal to base instincts and the dawn of a New Nigeria. Indeed, a new nation was being born in which there was one ethnic group: Nigeria and only one religion: Nigeria. But Babangida annulled that great movement of history and pulled Nigeria into the abyss of despair in which it still gropes today.
Chief Abiola of the SDP won the election fair and square, defeating Alhadji Bashir Tofa of the NRC. Abiola won 8,341,309 or 58.56% of the over 14 million votes cast, winning the states of Akwa Ibom, Anambra, Benue, Borno, Cross River, Delta, Edo, Jigawa, Kaduna, Kwara, Lagos, Ogun, Ondo, Osun, Oyo, Plateau, Taraba, Yobe and Kano, the home state of his rival, Tofa. He also won the FCT Abuja. With a near-total victory, Abiola failed to obtain one-third votes in Sokoto and Kebbi. Tofa won Abia, Adamawa, Bauchi, Enugu, Imo, Katsina, Kebbi, Kogi, Niger, Rivers and Sokoto States, garnering 5,952,396 or 41.64% of total votes across the country.
Midway into the announcement of the results, the process was halted through an injunction procured by the infamous Association for Better Nigeria (ABN), a group of elements acting out a script written by the military cabal. Days later, Babangida annulled the exercise, but reaffirmed the military’s pledged hand over to civilian rule on August 27, 1993. IBB hinged the cancellation on saving Nigeria’s judiciary “from being ridiculed and politicized locally and internationally.” What followed was the biggest challenge to Nigerian nationhood since the civil war. The National Democratic Coalition (NADECO), made up of senior politicians leading a pack of old brass knuckle politicians, young Turks and retired soldiers who joined the people to fearlessly confronted the military and succeeded, first in forcing IBB to step aside on August 26, 1993, a day earlier than his planned exit date, and later waged a relentless war against Ernest Shonekan’s Interim National Government (ING) contraption hurriedly put together by IBB and the subsequent brutal regime of Gen. Sani Abacha, who seized power in the ensuing anomie, and placed Nigerians under siege.
Authoritarianism returned with a vengeance when the people vehemently sought the actualization of their will. A bestial culture of impunity again seized the foreground and in the process, a once united country was bifurcated along Muslim-Christian, North-South and East-West divides. The rights of the people were trampled upon under the jackboot of military despotism; many Nigerians were jailed and others were extra-judicially executed. A reign of terror was unleashed on the land. While many heroes emerged in the struggle that claimed lives and limbs, the conflict eventually consumed the major actors, Abacha and Abiola in controversial circumstances a month of each other. Following Abacha’s death, Gen. Abdulsalami Abubakar took power and set the machinery that led to the Fourth Republic in 1999.
Every major anniversary celebration has become a ritual in chronicling all that has failed in Nigeria. Year after year, things continue to go from bad to worse. Lamentations are, therefore, not just inadequate, but inappropriate for a time like this. On the 24th anniversary of the June 12, 1993 presidential election, Nigerians must reflect on the significance of June 12 and stressed it was a watershed in Nigeria’s history since primordial considerations were jettisoned and instead, the people voted for peace and unity. As it is, Nigerians are marking the annulment of June 12, under a climate of fear following the quit notice served Igbos in the north by some Muslim groups. The country is still laboring under intense strain, palpable uncertainty and extreme apprehension because it has failed to learn the lessons of June 12.
Twenty-four years on, elections have been held, but the will of the people has not had the kind of expression it had on June 12, 1993. Leaders have come, but none has come free of religion or ethnic baggage as was the case on June 12, 1993. It was, of course, the struggle to revalidate June 12 and end military rule that ushered in the current civil dispensation in the country. The current President who was nowhere near the frontline in the battle for democracy should, therefore, realize with humility that it was the epochal struggle, which began on June 12, 1993 that gave birth to the political space he now occupies. It is this strong sense of history that has made many Nigerians to continuously mark June 12 yearly. The same sense and strength of history is behind the call to recognize June 12 as the authentic Democracy Day. Unfortunately, successive governments, reaping from the sacrifice of June 12, have not been imbued with that much sense of history, let alone grace to trace their source to June 12.
It is high time the government immortalizes the symbol of June 12; not through a dubious renaming of the University of Lagos after Abiola, but at the very least, recognize him as a martyr of democracy and acknowledge him, as a President-elect. And, in the face of many national challenges, including abject poverty of the masses and insecurity of lives and property, today’s leaders will do well to assuage the desire that won the June 12, 1993 election by running a better government and acting in ways that could earn them the trust of all Nigerians. Else, like the military dictators of old, they too would, sooner or later, be consigned to the dustbin of history. June 12 was the benchmark for integrity and due process and to return to stability and development, Nigeria must revert to the principles that defined June 12, 1993.