Buhari, Abiola and the Memorialisation of June 12


Ibidapo Balogun

“Only real democracy can move our nation forward towards progress and earn her the respect she deserves from the international community” – MKO Abiola

Whether before or during his incarceration, leading to his eventual death, Chief MKO Abiola was unrelenting in his struggle for the restoration of the June 12 mandate freely given to him by Nigerians. Unknown to many, and in synch with the import of his chieftaincy title, the Aare-Onakakanfo, the Yoruba generalissimo, the late Abiola fought doggedly for his right, for his mandate, even in detention.

At some point in detention, his oppressors, the military dictators, took the decision to keep him in complete darkness going forward, without any further contact with the outside world. In that detention camp in an obscure part of Abuja, he was denied access to newspapers which he was initially accorded. One day, the late Abiola was given the newspapers and a security officer, following orders from the above, moved to retrieve the papers from him, apparently in line with the directive given him, the late Abiola held on tenaciously to the papers until he broke his back in the scuffle that ensued. It was not clear if he recovered from that encounter until he died in controversial circumstance in July 1998.

Abiola was killed instalmentally until he eventually gave up the ghost. A man of immense means, he lived with all the deprivations and indignities he suffered when the tormentor-in-chief of the country seized him for declaring himself president. But he fought like a man for what he believed in. He paid the supreme price for Nigeria to have democracy. There was never a doubt that Abiola won the June 12 election to the utter consternation of the military president Ibrahim Babangida regime, which had predicted defeat for him. In his desperation to hang on to power at all cost, Babangida annulled the results of that election seen as the freest and fairest ever conducted in Nigeria. A befuddled Abiola and Nigerians across the various divides would not accept that. They took to the street, protesting the annulment. That protest led Babangida to step aside, paving the way for General Sani Abacha to come in and complete the onslaught against June 12 and Nigerian’s collective victory.

Since then, the various regimes in the country have continued to live and rule in denial of the place and force of June 12 in our political life. Lest we forget, June 12 was the day Nigerians from the North and South, East and West, broke the various divides-ethnic and religious-, that hitherto kept them apart and voted for the defunct Social Democratic Party candidate, Abiola, even with the party’s Muslim-Muslim ticket. Twenty-five years after the country’s leaders lived in that denial and almost 20 years after Abiola’s death, the matter of June 12 was brought to a closure, as it were, on Wednesday by President Muhammadu Buhari.

In a rare Executive Order, President Buhari replaced May 29 with June 12 as Democracy Day. He also awarded the late Abiola the highest national honour in the land reserved for presidents and heads of state, the GCFR. Abiola’s former running mate, Ambassador Babagana Kingibe, and the late irrepressible lawyer who fought stridently for human rights and social justice, Chief Gani Fawehinmi, the president gifted the GCON award. President Buhari also made June 12 a public holiday. He then ordered that the various awards be immediately gazetted.

With that decision, the late Abiola and late sage, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, have now emerged as the only non-presidents to be honoured with the Grand Commander of the Order of the Federal Republic (GCFR). Both were presidential candidates, but whereas Chief Awolowo lost both the 1979 and 1983 presidential elections, Abiola won the June 12, 1993 presidential election, annulled by Babangida. What President Buhari has done, therefore, is to gift and decorate Abiola in death with the victory badge he was denied while alive.
Former President Olusegun Obasanjo was widely expected to accord Abiola this honour when he was elected president in 1999 from the prison yard he was clamped into by the same Abacha who incarcerated Abiola, but in his usual arrogance and self-centredness, Obasanjo failed to seize the moment. Rather than accord Abiola, his townsman and former schoolmate, the honour he deserved, he seemed to have poured scorn and hate on his grave by announcing May 29 as Democracy Day, instead of June 12.

President Buhari has, however, done the right thing. The president deserves commendation, in my view, for the exemplary courage and fair-mindedness he showed in taking the decision, which resonated well with the vast majority of Nigerians. Many have applauded that decision, saying it is the best thing to do to acknowledge the struggle and sacrifice of Chief Abiola for democracy in Nigeria and to also bring the ever-recurring June 12 saga to a fitting close. Activist pastor, Tunde Bakare, made this point succinctly in his prediction of a befitting honour for Abiola and June 12, before President Buhari’s proclamation. That prediction has gone viral on social media to great aplomb.

Some have alleged that there was Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu’s imprimatur in President Buhari ‘s action because the APC national leader is a close ally of President Buhari and a renown advocate of June 12. Only the president can confirm this speculation. Incidentally, however, Asiwaju Tinubu is one of the close associates of the late Abiola who fought for the de-annulment of June 12. For that agitation, he and others like the late Pa Alfred Rewane, Chiefs Anthony Enahoro, Adekunle Ajasin, Abraham Adesanya, Bola Ige, General Alani Akinrinade, etc formed NADECO (National Democratic Coalition). When his life was at stake in Nigeria as the Abacha junta had put a price on his head, he and other pro-democracy activists were forced on exile abroad where they continued with the struggle.

It is heartwarming that the government’s decision gladdens the heart of many Nigerians. The Abiola family, which has been yearning for justice since, has now been assuaged. They are beside themselves in joy that their patriarch’s sacrifice for democracy has not gone in vain. So excited was one of the daughters of late Abiola, Tundun, that she painted the president in many bright colours. Speaking in an interview on Arise News Channel, she said President Buhari’s had shown remarkable leadership by his decision. Condemning Obasanjo who refused to honour Abiola, Tundun said the former president rose to power in 1999 on the blood of her father.

As to the argument that the award cannot be conferred posthumously as canvassed by former Chief Justice of the Federation, Justice Alfa Begore (rtd), who argued that post-humours honours under the Honours Act are reserved for senior military officers, or the ridiculous variant espoused by controversial Senator Dini Melaye that the late Abiola should not have been a recipient of the honour because he is no longer a Nigerian because he is dead, I think we should consider the spirit behind the laws guiding the award, I mean the intendment of the drafters of the law. The national honours are for those who have made invaluable contributions to the country and it is unthinkable that anybody would argue that the late Abiola is undeserving of the award given his role in the emergence of democracy again in our land, given his rare sacrifice.

––Balogun, a political commentator, writes from Abuja