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June 12, Nigeria and a history of failed promises

Since the return to democracy in 1999, there hasn’t been a political campaign as colourful as that leading to the June 12, 1993 elections. It…

Since the return to democracy in 1999, there hasn’t been a political campaign as colourful as that leading to the June 12, 1993 elections.

It had funfair, pizzazz, drama and spectacle. In hindsight, these are also the elements one would find in a classical tragedy, which was what this episode in Nigeria’s history eventually became.

A generation has passed since the events of 1993, 27 years in which a brood of Nigerians have been born, bred and nurtured on an education that is fiercely silent on the history of the country. It is no surprise then that there are many young Nigerians for whom June 12 is only a mantra for dissent and a cry that represents, even if only whimsically, the dashed hopes Nigeria habitually visits on its citizens.

My memories of those campaigns comprised of planes flying over Jos and dropping campaign leaflets of “Hope 93” and MKO Abiola’s manifesto, with the “farewell to poverty tagline-his promises of free healthcare for Nigerians and free education, among others. These flyers and the promises they contained fell like confetti and it was easy to imagine those days as a world cup final when the victors hoist the trophy in a shower of confetti and cheers.

The atmosphere then, even before those elections held, could not be more similar. There were fanfare and freebies-soaps, rice, milk, imported clothing items, all the things that would now qualify as “stomach infrastructure” that were being handed out to electorates.

Bashir Tofa, Abiola’s opponent in the election and candidate of the National Republican Convention (NRC) did not have Abiola’s flamboyance, could not match him for popularity or his philanthropy. His campaign simply could not match Abiola’s.

After a decade of uninterrupted military rule, since General Buhari toppled Shagari’s regime on New Year’s eve of 1983, the promise of a return to democracy seemed real, tangible even. The decision by General Ibrahim Babangida’s government to break the regional structure of Nigeria’s politics by setting up only two political parties, the Social Democratic Party (SDP) and the National Republican Convention (NRC), fund these parties and build secretariats for them in every corner of the country was tough love, one that the country needed. Every politician of any leaning would have to fit into these two-party system, and fit they did.

This was what made it possible for the SDP to field two Muslims, Abiola and Babagana Kingibe, as candidate and running mate. And they would have won-or they did, by some accounts, even though official results were never announced-defeating Bashir Tofa, even in his native Kano. It was universally acknowledged that the June 12, 1993 elections were free and fair.

What potentially could have been Nigeria’s finest hour, however soured within hours. First, there was a court ruling by Justice Dahiru Saleh of an Abuja High Court annulling the elections. Then General Babangida, in a nationwide broadcast, announced the annulment of the election, much to the shock and chagrin of Nigerians. And the international community. No one bought the story by military strongman IBB that he was “pressured” by his Armed Forces Ruling Council to annul the elections.

Abiola himself, in his famous Epetedo Speech described the annulment as an “abominable act of naked political armed robbery.”

What we would never know is if June 12 would have been the moment that Nigerian electorates would begin the dismantling of the ethnic sentiments that had characterized our politics.

Considering how religion, ethnicity and regionalism played second fiddle during the campaigns, it was shocking how quickly those sentiments made a return in the post-annulment soap opera that would follow, starting from the street protests that followed IBB’s announcement, where people from one part of the country were targeted, regardless of their support and votes for Abiola.

“Hope ’93,” quickly turned to Despair ’93 and soon ended up as Outrage ’94. Through the phases of the transitions, the narrative coming from the Abiola camp was that the north, which had overwhelmingly supported his candidacy and voted for him at the expense of one of their own, was against his election. The tension this generated forced many northerners in the southwest to flee and many south westerners made the opposite journey.

Why they chose to push that narrative is unclear, why they chose not to contest his annulment in court will have to be revealed by those around him at the time.

However, one thing was clear. In the months following the annulment, and the changing narrative from saving Nigeria to pitting regions against each other, alliances were broken. So much so that when Gen. Sani Abacha upended businessman Chief Ernest Shonekan, whom Babangida had installed as interim president, in a palace coup, the divisions were clear. Abiola’s running mate, Kingibe, was appointed a minister in Abacha’s new cabinet. When the BBC Hausa Service asked him about June 12, his response in Hausa was: “Su waye za su yi maganan?” (Who are those who would talk about it?). It was something about the tone, the way he kept repeating those words, the way the reporter cowered from his barrage that made that interview stick in my memory. It was one of the most shocking volte face in the history of Nigerian politics, perhaps on par with Abiola’s transformation from a figure of national unity across regions and religion to a regional state man. If he was not in support of the regional slant of the post-election drama, he certainly did nothing to stop it. He would not be the only Nigerian politician to do that.

In the months, Abiola was making extensive foreign trips to shore up support for his cause, the country was stewing in tension and the drums of a possible civil war rumbled. When Abiola returned to Lagos, and on June 12, 1994 in his Epetedo Speech declared himself president and was promptly arrested for treason by a convoy of 200 police and military vehicles on the orders of Gen. Abacha, the tension slipped underground. It would be the last time Abiola would breathe the air of freedom. The message was clear. Abacha was not a man to be trifled with. When this became clear even to pro-democracy activists, and that it would take a miracle to oust Abacha and enthrone Abiola as president, the call for “divine intervention” became the new mantra.

This intervention came from left field, and no one saw it coming, even those fervently praying for it. First, Abacha upped and died on June 8, 1998.

After four years in detention, Abiola returned home, finally. Not as a free man, but as a dead one. While the process of releasing him from detention was under way, he suffered what an autopsy said was a heart attack and died on July 7, 1998, almost a month to the day Abacha died. This coming after Abiola’s wife, Kudirat, who had been rallying calls for her husband’s release, had been brutally murdered on June 9, 1996.

Yet, no one knew what to do with the divine interventions Nigerians sought and got. It didn’t come in the form we expected. There we were, a baffled people, with a clean slate to start afresh on. What did we do with that chance? Return to old habits.

Today, twenty-seven years have passed since that day in 1993 when Nigerians thought they would finally get the country they deserved, as they cast their ballots in those elections.

In those 27 years, we had never been close to the Nigeria Abiola promised during his campaign, perhaps because Babangida did not fulfill his own promise to hand over to a duly elected president that year. The tragedy is not only losing that chance to finally get it right, it is also that we lost so many good men and women while failing to get it right.

That is the sad reality of our nation’s history.


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