When Chief Moshood Kashimawo Abiola, popularly called MKO Abiola decided in 1993 to throw his hat into the nation’s political ring to contest the presidential election, after many well-known frontline politicians were disqualified from running by the then Military President, Gen Ibrahim Badamosi Babangida, no one would have thought that Abiola was on his way to being the nation’s political martyr.
Indeed, Abiola has become the hero of Nigeria’s democracy, even though he never lived to be the President of the most populous black nation on earth as he had desired, but he became the sacrificial lamb that needed to be sacrificed to permanently keep the military out of the nation’s political space.
The death of Abiola in the June 12, 1993 struggle, to actualise the mandate he was given freely by Nigerians has become the elixir the nation needs to cure its perennial military incursion into its political space.
That the nation has today enjoyed 21 years of interrupted democratic rule, the longest democracy that it has enjoyed since its independence in 1960 is partly credited to the contributions of Abiola in the struggle for the actualisation of the June 12, 1993 election.
When Chief Abiola, a multi-billionaire industrialist and philanthropist decided to stake his reputation on the political field after Babangida had changed the mode of election severally, including deregistering all existing political parties at the time, banning many of the frontline politicians from contesting the election and creating two new political parties, the Social Democratic Party (SDP) and the National Republican Convention (NRC), as the parties that everyone interested in contesting must use, not many believed that the process will last to the very end.
However, when Abiola, a well-known friend of Babangida and many top military officers decided to run, it gave hope to some and confidence that perhaps there is hope after all.
Indeed, Abiola named his campaign Hope 93, and that hope was there for everyone until after the election contested by Abiola of the SDP and Alhaji Bashir Tofa of the NRC and convincingly won by Abiola across the country.
Unfortunately the joy that came with the election was short lived as halfway into the announcement of the results by the then chairman of the National Electoral Commission (NEC), Prof. Humphrey Nwosu, there was an interruption as the military announced that the election had been annulled due to what they called several irregularities.
The annulment of the June 12, 1993 election by the Babangida led military brought out another side of Nigerians which many never knew existed.
A brand new democratic struggle, the kind never seen by that generation was born.
The annulment of that election also brought to limelight many pro-democracy activists and gave birth to many pro-democracy and human rights groups, some of which still dot the nation’s political landscape today.
The struggle for the restoration of that election gave birth to one of the most formidable political group the nation has ever seen, which became a thorn in the flesh of the ruling military, the National Democratic Coalition (NADECO).
The birth of NADECO, the brain child of many political elders, some of whom had been part of the independence struggle in Nigeria, like Chief Anthony Enahoro changed the face of democratic struggle in the country and gave the military a good run for its bullets.
Besides Enahoro who was the leader of NADECO, another leader that showed his capacity in the time of trouble was Chief Abraham Adesanya Adesanya, one of the few Nigerian pro-democracy campaigners who did not flee the country in spite of the personal danger to their lives during the struggle, he was the deputy leader of NADECO.
Indeed Adesanya almost paid with his life when he was attacked and shot at severally while on his way to his Simpson Street, Lagos Island law office with his driver.
In the heat of the struggle when Gen. Babangida was forced to step aside and handed over to Chief Ernest Shonekan, who in turn was shoved aside by Gen. Sani Abacha, NADECO leader, Chief Enahoro, was hounded abroad, along with many others whose lives were either threatened or who got wind of the fact that they were on the hit list of the military junta.
Prof. Omo Omoruyi, a professor of political science, was the Director-General, Centre for Democratic Studies (CDS). He it was who had the fortune of being friends to both Abiola and Babangida and was believed to have often acted as go-between for the two.
It was rumoured that it was Omoruyi who gave Abiola the encouragement to run for office of the president when he wasn’t so sure Babangida was really serious about relinquishing power or wanted to transform into a democratic president.
Omoruyi actually fell out with Babangida for not honouring his words on June 12 and making Abiola president. Omoruyi was privy to some of the internal wranglings within the military and among the northern establishment about power shift from the north to the south and the consequent denial that Abiola suffered.
Omoruyi is believed to have developed the innovative Option A-4 and Open Ballot system adopted for the conduct of June 12 election, as CDS boss, though he is hardly credited for it.
Frank Ovie Kokori as secretary of the powerful oil workers’ union, Nigerian Union of Petroleum and Natural Gas (NUPENG), took on the military establishment and held it in the jugular.
The union called out strikes that paralysed the country and put the military on edge. He was later imprisoned for long months for his activism. But he was undaunted about his personal travails as he forged on for the actualisation of June 12.
Prof. Humphrey Nwosu was the chairman of the National Electoral Commission (NEC) that conducted the June 12 election, believed to be the freest and fairest election ever conducted in the political annals of Nigeria.
Nwosu resisted the courts in their attempts to scuttle the exercise and courageously went ahead to conduct the election and had started reading out results before Babangida, ordered him to stop further announcements and consequently annulled the election.
Also the roles of former Lagos State Military Administrator, Rear Admiral Ndubuisi Kanu (rtd), Chief Ayo Adebanjo, Chief Ayo Opadokun, both chieftains of NADECO and former Lagos State governor, Bola Ahmed Tinubu who also joined the NADECO league abroad, comes handy while discussing the events that led to the current democracy that the nation enjoys today.
The roles of other notable players in that struggle, including, but not limited to the Nobel laureate Prof. Wole Soyinka who had to disguise to go on exile, one time branch president of Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) of the University of Benin, Prof. Festus Iyayi, lawyer, writer, and activist, Dr. Ogaga Ifowodo, Campaign for Democracy (CD) activist, Chima Ubani, writer and guerilla journalist, Mr. Odia Ofeimun, journalist, who was later jailed for his work for democracy, Mr. Kunle Ajibade, lawyer, writer, and NADECO chieftain, Fred Agbeyegbe, medical doctor, activist, and Civil Liberties Organisation chieftain, Dr. Beko Ransome-Kuti, lawyer and activist, Chief Olisa Agbakoba, are all well known.
Activist, Ayo Obe, Chief Adekunle Ajasin, former Military governor of old Kaduna State, Col. Abubakar Umar, former governor of Kaduna State, Balarabe Musa, Lt.-Gen. Alani Akinrinade, two-time governor of Ekiti State, Dr. Kayode John Fayemi, former presidential candidate of Action for Democracy (AD) and chairman of Social Democratic Party (SDP), Chief Olu Falae, and former president of Nigerian Labour Congress (NLC), Paschal Bafyau, will ever remain ever green in the political history of the country.
The story of June 12 can never be fully told without the mention of the like of the wife of Abiola, Alhaja Kudirat Abiola who became one of the martyr of the June 12 struggle.
She was a relentless fighter both for the campaign for the release of her husband, who had been arrested by the Abacha government from prison and for the actualisation of the June 12 mandate, but she was assassinated on June 4, 1996 on the streets of Lagos at Oregun.
Abacha and his military goons could not stomach her activism, as she had become a thorn in their flesh as she espoused the ideal of democratic values and stood solidly behind her husband and the Nigerian people who voted for him. She was to pay the supreme price as she fell to the bullets of Abacha’s hitmen.
Also to fall to the bullets of the military hitmen was Chief Alfred Rewane a progressive politician, and one of the financiers of democratic struggle; he was cut short on October 6, 1996 in his Ikeja, Lagos residence.
He was chief financier of NADECO and pro-democracy meetings were regularly held in his house. His long-standing relationship with Chief Obafemi Awolowo established him in the direction of progressive politics even as he was a known businessman and industrialist.
The story of June 12 will not be complete without a mention of the role played by Alhaji Babagana Kingibe.
As chairman of the SDP, he was imposed on Abiola as running mate by the SDP governors at the time after he (Abiola) had initially settled for Alhaji Abubakar Atiku. Kingibe had initially stood toe-to-toe with Abiola in the struggle for the actualisation of June 12.
But as the struggle intensified and alliances began to shift, Kingibe would later switch position and join Abacha, his Kanuri kinsman to uncut the struggle and join government as Minister of Internal Affairs. He served actively in the government that would detain Abiola for five years, until he died in questionable circumstances in prison.
Though the expected result of the June 12 struggle, which is the actualisation of the intendments of that election was not actualised, the struggle gave birth to the current democratic rule and the event of 1999 which saw the presidential candidates of the two main ruling parties, the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and the merger of the All Peoples Party and the Alliance for Democracy producing candidates from the South West of the country as a recognition of that struggle is quite significant.
As the nation marks 27 years of June 12, 1993 and 21 years of uninterrupted democratic rule and the first celebration of June 12 as Nigeria’s Democracy Day, President Muhammadu Buhari is standing tall as the man who honoured the memory of Abiola with that declaration where others failed.
Buhari had as part of the agitation for the honour of Abiola and the recognition of June 12 as the nation’s democracy day, taken the bold step and named the Abuja Stadium after Abiola, declared June 12 as the nation’s Democracy Day and awarded Abioila and his running mate at the time, Kingibe, with the highest honours in the land reserved for past Presidents and vice Presidents.
This honour for Abiola, which President Goodluck Jonathan attempted to do by naming the University of Lagos after him, but changed the position after several protests against it, finally put to rest the struggle for June 12 and now only see pro-democracy activists coming out to commemorate the day rather than a day for carrying placards.