Where were you on June 12, 1993? I was in Ilorin, Kwara state, enjoying the weekend with my cousins. I could not vote because I registered in Lagos. If I had voted, I would have thumb-printed the space for the Social Democratic Party (SDP) whose presidential flag bearer was Chief MKO Abiola. I had been rooting for Alhaji Bashir Tofa, the candidate of the National Republican Convention (NRC). But after watching the televised presidential debate and having an argument debate with my dear friend, Mallam Lanre Issa-Onilu (now APC national publicity secretary), I was finally persuaded to vote for Abiola, although I eventually disenfranchised myself.
I learnt a dozen lessons from the June 12 debacle. First, northerners were unfairly vilified in the political crisis that engulfed the nation after the annulment. The narrative was that they did not want Abiola to become president. There was a conspiracy theory that the north wanted to hold on to power by all means. However, the election results did not support this claim. Abiola won nine out of the 16 states in the north while Tofa won only seven. The romantic part of the story was that Abiola defeated Tofa in his home state, Kano, and even in his ward. I do not want to believe it was the Yoruba or southerners in the north that did the magic. That would be a disingenuous claim.
To be sure, I accepted the conspiracy theory then. The north, I mean the “core north”, had so dominated the political landscape that resentment had built up considerably in the south against the “northern oligarchy”. So it was easy to read the annulment as a northern agenda. If you ask my opinion today, I would say there was no conspiracy. I would say the military guys just did not want to let go of power. That is the benefit of hindsight. After all, the previously cancelled primaries had three northerners in the lead: Gen. Shehu Musa Yar’Adua having pocketed the SDP ticket and Alhaji Umaru Shinkafi and Mallam Adamu Ciroma about to face a run-off for the NRC ticket.
The second lesson is that Igbo and Yoruba are not irreconcilable political enemies. Historically, the two dominant southern ethnic groups had appeared to be political rivals fiercely at war with each other — always going in opposite directions in the struggle for supremacy in the Nigerian power game. However, despite the SDP fielding a Muslim-Muslim ticket that held virtually no attraction to the Igbo, they still voted massively for Abiola, a Yoruba. There were four Igbo states then. Although Tofa won in Enugu, Imo and Abia and Abiola won only in Anambra, the total scores provided better evidence: 790,371 to Tofa, 739,748 to Abiola. A mere difference of 50,623 votes!
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I believe Yoruba still owe Ndigbo one. You would appreciate these figures better if you realised that there was an Igbo on the NRC ticket: Dr Sylvester Ugoh was Tofa’s running mate. Abiola getting 48 percent in the south-east was definitely not an ordinary gesture. Dim Chukwuemeka Ojukwu had angrily left SDP for NRC after the Muslim-Muslim ticket was announced, arguing that SDP had marginalised the Igbo — even though Abiola was always going to pick a northerner as his vice-presidential candidate. Informed that Abiola would appoint an Igbo as secretary to the government of the federation (SGF), Ojukwu famously quipped: “That’s a glorified tea boy!”
The third lesson is that the Nigerian political class can be petty. NRC behaved badly after losing the election. Rather than join forces with the SDP to defend our democracy and confront the military which was the mortal enemy, it became a matter of “if I don’t have it, then nobody else should”. NRC backed out of the fight very easily. To make matters worse, SDP members who had been unhappy that Abiola got the party’s presidential ticket in the first place were very eager to negotiate away the mandate. SDP leaders were soon engaged in meetings with the military to set up an interim government to “save Nigeria from the precipice”. You won the election, guys!
The fourth lesson is that anyone can become a symbol of resistance no matter their past. Abiola was an establishment person, one who wined and dined with the powers that be, starting with the military government of Gen Murtala Muhammed in 1975. He was a known friend of Gen Ibrahim Babangida. If anyone was expected to accept the annulment of June 12 quietly, enter his car and go back to his house, it was Abiola. I am sure Babangida and his team were dumbfounded that Abiola led the rebellion against what was supposed to be a routine cancellation of elections. I honestly did not expect the resistance from Abiola, much less that he would go to his grave fighting.
What this seems to tell me about Nigeria is that the much-expected turnaround may come from unexpected quarters. I am not saying I saw any vision, but the usual suspects may not lead the ethical and political revolution that will unleash the potential of this country. Nigeria is too blessed to be crawling on its chest. How can we have all these resources — human and material — and be stuck in the cesspool of poverty, disease, unemployment and corruption? But the change leader may turn out to be the least expected person, one whom we despise or treat with suspicion. Abiola was an unlikely symbol of resistance. He did not look the part but he played the part.
The fifth lesson is that Nigerians have short memory. Many of those parading themselves today as heroes of democracy were actually in bed with the miscreants who annulled June 12. They fought vigorously to make sure the annulment was not reversed. They said and did despicable things for political gain and filthy lucre. But nobody remembers again. They now grandstand and lecture us on democracy and the resistance to military rule. If you want to have a list of these villains-turned-heroes, please get a copy of Olusegun Adeniyi’s “The Last 100 Days of Abacha”. You will marvel at the conduct of the sycophants who have become latter-day saints of the democratic order.
Finally, this may be minor but it is not irrelevant: I also learnt that presidential debate is a good thing. Actually, if Babangida had not annulled the presidential election, he would have bowed out a hero after a lot of missteps in his eight years as president of Nigeria. He had tried to create a new political order after performing many experiments, including banning and unbanning “old breed” politicians and creating, controversially, two parties based on competing ideologies and manifestoes. Watching the two presidential candidates debate was something completely new to me as a Nigerian and it really helped me weigh my options before making up my mind.
Unfortunately, debates have become a joke in Nigeria. Rather than make progress and build on what we experienced in 1993, we have gone terribly backwards on many counts. Studies have shown that if you want to win the presidential election in Nigeria, you must not participate in TV debate. Okay, that is a joke, but all the presidents we have produced since 1999 never participated in debates. In 1999, Chief Olusegun Obasanjo stood Chief Olu Falae up at the Hilton Hotel in Abuja on the night of the debate. Eventually, Falae had to do it alone. I remember him saying “I don’t find it funny debating with myself” — or something like that — when the programme started.
In 2003, Obasanjo was absent again, even though Gen Muhammadu Buhari and Prof Pat Utomi were waiting for him. In 2007, Alhaji Umaru Musa Yar’Adua did not feature. No reasons were given, although we knew Yar’Adua to be articulate and capable of taking on his rivals. He did not prove it. In 2011, President Goodluck Jonathan avoided the company of Buhari, Mallam Nuhu Ribadu and Mallam Ibrahim Shekarau, and chose to debate with himself. In 2015, he spoiled for a debate with Buhari, but Buhari’s handlers advised him to keep clear. This year again, Buhari avoided debating Alhaji Atiku Abubakar. Debate dodgers always win presidential polls in Nigeria.
We need a culture of debate. I would be the first to say that to debate is one thing and to govern is another, but I would add that avoiding debates does not guarantee good governance either. I won’t even say debates determine the outcome of elections. I think most people’s minds are made up irrespective of the pedigrees and eloquence of the presidential candidates, but my point is: what do we stand to lose if we hear them debate their ideas and policies in a room? It is a feature of democratic culture we need to imbibe. It certainly swung me in Abiola’s direction in 1993. Overall, I have some good memories from the June 12 debacle, although the pains were devastating.
AND FOUR OTHER THINGS…
I’m quite happy that President Buhari has followed through on his national recognition of Chief MKO Abiola, winner of the June 12, 1993 presidential election, by making June 12 our Democracy Day and naming the national stadium in Abuja after him. Former President Obasanjo must be livid. For eight years, we begged him to celebrate Abiola but he refused. Yet if Abiola had accepted the annulment of June 12, there would never have been an Obasanjo presidency. He died and Obasanjo became the chief beneficiary. And here is Buhari naming a stadium built by Obasanjo after Abiola! At least, nobody can say Buhari is looking for south-west votes again. Lovely.
CORRUPTION AND POVERTY
One interesting debate we have been having in Nigeria since 2015 is: is our problem corruption or the economy? Many think President Buhari has prioritised fighting corruption above the economy; Mr. Peter Obi, PDP vice-presidential candidate, even said anti-corruption is not an economic policy. Others have argued that without fighting corruption, the economy cannot grow and poverty will worsen. President Paul Kagame of Rwanda has weighed in, pointing out to African leaders that it is not enough to fight corruption – they have to create wealth to fight poverty. Let’s hope President Buhari got the memo. Shared economic prosperity can actually help the anti-corruption war. Deep.
Now that the leadership of the All Progressives Congress (APC) has succeeded in installing its preferred candidates as leaders of the national assembly, Nigerians have a right to expect a smoother working relationship between the legislature and the executive — especially for the quick passage of budget. However, a part of me does not believe this is our problem. PDP installed most of its preferred candidates for the 16 years it was in power but that did not make much difference. In fact, the PDP became an opposition to itself. We can only hope that something will change this time around and that Nigerians will indeed see the benefits in form of good governance. Waiting…
I recently got a WhatsApp broadcast that tried to recreate the murder of foremost journalist, Mr Dele Giwa, via a parcel bomb in 1986. It said the bomb was delivered to Giwa’s son, Billy, by Major Buba Marwa, accompanied by Major Tunde Ogbeha. It said they came in a Peugeot car which they burnt thereafter, and Gen Babangida made Marwa governor of Lagos and “pumped” money into the state. All credible accounts said the bomb carrier used a motorcycle. And why has Billy Giwa not identified Marwa as the courier in 33 years? Meanwhile, Babangida left power in 1993 and Marwa became military administrator in 1996. How did Babangida pump money into Lagos? Phoney.