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MKO Abiola, perceived winner of the elections on June 12 1993

June 12 means nothing to me

It’s that time of the year again in Nigeria. So it is time to recycle an article on June 12 a few years ago, that should hopefully bring some perspective to the canonisation of Moshood Abiola and the elevation of June 12 beyond any other day on the calendar.

June 12 means nothing to me

June 12, 2011 by CIC Old Boy

Several states in southwest Nigeria made June 13 this year a public holiday (because June 12 was a Sunday) to commemorate the presidential election on June 12 1993, that Moshood Abiola was widely-believed to have won. The holidaying states were Oyo, Ogun and Ekiti. The position in Lagos was not entirely clear, although it was a normal working day from what I heard.

The significance of June 12 for many was that it was widely seen as the most free and fair election in the country and there was no doubt that Abiola won clearly against his hapless opponent Bashir Tofa, with voting patterns transcending ethnic and regional sentiments. But Abiola’s victory was annulled by the military dictator Ibrahim Babangida, who is yet to fully explain the reasons behind his decision. He recently mumbled in an Al Jazeera interview how “security reports” played a role in what he did.

In the heat of the crisis caused by Babangida’s decision, Abiola went abroad (some say fled) trying to get the help of the “international community” to “reclaim his mandate”. By the time he returned, the momentum he had from the election victory had been lost, with many of his senior colleagues, including his vice-presidential candidate Baba Gana Kingibe co-opted into the ruling government. Abiola would later be arrested and died in prison.

His death in such circumstances under a despotic military regime and the unfulfilled nature of his election victory seem to have turned Abiola into some sort of martyr of democracy. This is typical Nigerian myth-making that is divorced from reality.

For starters, not much was truly “democratic” about the elections organised under the military regime of Babangida. A country under military occupation, with the military tyrant setting and supervising the rules of engagement can’t possibly be building a democracy. Babangida had no real intentions of fostering democracy in Nigeria. We tend to conflate “democracy” with civilian rule. It is possible that Babangida intended to handpick a civilian to succeed him. He created the only two parties that were allowed to contest the elections – the Social Democratic Party (SDP) and the National Republican Convention (NRC), with one supposedly “slightly to the left” and the other “slightly to the right”. Both names and such notions were a ridiculous attempt to ape US politics. The concept of imposing parties on Nigerians was as democratically bankrupt as the idea that a billionaire business mogul like Abiola, who made his fortune from government contracts and via other allegedly dubious means was remotely “slightly to the left” in terms of ideology.

Abiola belonged to the National Party of Nigeria (NPN) the last time civilians were in power – a party not too dissimilar to the current ruling behemoth, the Peoples Democratic Party, in the sense of being a collection of chancers and all manners of beneficiaries from the public purse at the expense of ordinary Nigerians. The same characters were either in the SDP or the NRC and you couldn’t slip a Naira note between what either party stood for.

So in 1993 we had a poisoned political process that was so rigged by Babangida that the best it could offer was a choice between Abiola and Tofa, an obscure, but wealthy businessman from Kano. There is a school of thought of the view that Babangida had no genuine interest in relinquishing power and was just going along with the transition to fob off critics clamouring for the military to leave the scene. He was either scheming to make sure whoever took over was someone he felt he could control, or someone with whom he could create a scenario or arrangement that would result in his remaining in power in some shape or form, civilian or military. A sort of “army arrangement” as Fela Kuti would have said.

This is plausible considering that Babangida was close to both Abiola and Tofa. Abiola’s credentials as a democrat were questionable to say the least. Most of his money was allegedly made through his close ties with several military administrations in Nigeria, including Babangida’s. There were also allegations that he had funded military coups in one or two African countries in order to further his business interests. Abiola was also chairman of the ITT (International Telephone and Telegraph) Corporation in Nigeria. For Fela, “ITT” stood for “International Thief Thief” and in the song of the same name, he called Abiola an “international rogue”.

An election victory for the unedifying spectacle of Abiola was not cause for celebration in my book. While it was unfortunate and tragic that people would die in the unrest that followed the decision to annul the elections, it is worth remembering that Babangida’s game of charades was not democratic.

I watched Abiola on CNN, when he went abroad following the post June 12 crisis, trying to argue that he was popular across the nation. When asked for evidence of this, he replied he was given a chieftaincy title wherever he went. He must have forgotten that Fela said in “ITT”:
“Them get one style wey them dey use
Them go pick one African man
A man with low mentality
Them go give am million Naira bread
To become of high position here
Him go bribe some thousand Naira bread
To become one useless chief”

While Abiola was making his case for the “international community” to help him secure power, and many Nigerians were rioting against the decision to annul his election, Nelson Mandela, in a thinly-veiled criticism of Abiola’s flight, said that during their struggle against apartheid, they didn’t run off abroad, but stayed at home and fought their oppressors. While Abiola was abroad, as some of the people who voted for him were dying in the political unrest, bigwigs from his party were deserting him for the ruling administration. This is hardly surprising considering that the SDP included previous members of Nigeria’s military juntas like Shehu Musa Yar’Adua, Olu Falae a former Secretary to the Federal Military Government, and Arthur Nzeribe, who had campaigned for Babangida to remain in power. These were people who have benefited from the spoils of office before 1993 and benefited later under future administrations. Some of those characters are still relevant today in the PDP.

The election on June 12 1993 that would have swept these types of characters into power is not something any progressive Nigerian would have seen as worthy of remembrance. These people including Abiola have been in power or around the corridors of power before and after June 12 1993. They contributed to making Nigeria a mess for us all, before and after June 12 1993. Their record suggests that even if Abiola had become president, nothing much would have changed from the misrule we have been subjected to before June 12 1993 and since.

A game in which a tyrant was the referee, in which an “international rogue” became the “winner”, only for the referee to cancel the game, was a game in which no matter how it panned out Nigeria would have been the loser.

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