It took the Federal Government 19 years to acknowledge his place and contribution in the Nigeria’s march to democracy. Moshood Kashimawo Olawale Abiola‘s outstanding outing in the June 12, 1993 presidential election changed the political landscape of the country. On that day, Nigeria recorded its fairest and freest election. OLAOLU OLADIPO highlights the controversies trailing the government’s decision to honour him and the views of Nigerians on the best way to immortalise the late Abiola.
President Goodluck Jonathan during this year’s annual Democracy Day speech did what his predecessors failed to do, to accord honour to the memory of late business mogul and politician, Chief Moshood Kashimawo Olawale Abiola.
On that day, he did not stop at recognizing his martyrdom as the precursor of the current democratic order, President Jonathan went ahead to rename one of the nation’s foremost institutions, the University of Lagos, after him for his efforts at restoring democratic order in the country.
Acknowledging late Chief Abiola’s accomplishment and heroism, who said he had directed the renaming and the setting up of an institute for Democratic Studies, said “It is also in this regard that the Federal Government has decided that late Chief M.K.O. Abiola be honoured for making the ultimate sacrifice in the pursuit of justice and truth”.
President Jonathan went further to state, “Destiny and circumstances conspired to place upon his shoulder a historic burden and he rose to the occasion in character and courage. He desired recognition for his martyrdom and public spiritedness and for being the man of history that he was”.
With the move rebuffed and greeted with scorn by erstwhile advocates for immortalization, opinions have continued to differ on how best the symbol of June 12 be appropriately honoured.
Hardly had the speech been completed that it began to generate controversy. First, the students, staff and other stakeholders in the school went up in arms protesting the decision, alleging that they were not consulted in anyway.
The announcement prompted students to storm the Lagos-Ikorodu Expressway as early as possible in the morning of Tuesday, May 29 shortly after the broadcast which many of them including members of their management staff described as shocking.
Swiftly, the rampaging students moved onto the road thus causing untold vehicular gridlock not only on the road but also in many of the other major routes in the metropolis.
They defied the dissolution of the students union as they mobilised themselves forming a huge mass that eventually developed into a procession that moved from the campus located at Akoka area of Yaba to Jibowu to demonstrate their discontent.
Led by the Mobilisation Officer for Education Rights Campaign, South-West, Mr Oloyede, the protesting youths urged government to rescind its decision on the matter. “We are not saying that the late Chief MKO Abiola should not be immortalised, but UNILAG is not the appropriate representation of the late business mogul, who was more popular in the area of sports than education”.
Elated, the family of late Abiola wrote an open letter to President Goodluck Jonathan, thanking him for the decision. The family, in the letter signed by its head, Alhaji Mubashiru Abiola and seven others, also urged the President not to be disturbed by the protests trailing the name change of name, saying “the protesters lack a sense of history”.
Aside from Alhaji Mubashiru Abiola, other signatories to the letter are Chief (Mrs) Adebisi Abiola, Chief (Mrs.) Omolola Abiola – Edewor, Alhaji Olalekan Abiola, Miss Ayobami Abiola, Alhaji Jamiu Abiola, Mrs Bolanle Akande and Mr Abdul Abiola.
Titled, “Appreciation” it reads in part: “We wish to publicly offer our profound appreciation for your unprecedented recognition of the late Chief MKO Abiola, the ideals he lived by and the noble cause he died for. As you honoured him, we honour you”.
The family also had harsh words for those protesting. They wrote, “No honour is too great for one of the men and women who laid down their lives for the democracy we enjoy today; that enables some to take to the streets, uttering irresponsible, abhorrent nonsense”.
Further castigating protesters, Mubashiru said the honour was apt as the government of Egypt had similarly named a school after him in appreciation of his contribution to rebuilding efforts after a devastating earthquake in their country.
Initially, there was muted response from the human rights community with regards to the gesture but when many of the leading elites finally found their voices, they thanked the government for the gesture but faulted the timing and the object for which the honour was being done.
First to break the ice was the Oyo State governor, Senator Abiola Ajimobi who through a release issued on his behalf by his Special Adviser on Media, Dr Festus Adedayo, said the recognition had become long overdue.
While commending President Jonathan for seeking to name the University of Lagos (UNILAG) after the late politician, Ajimobi said that naming a school after “this icon of democracy” was too much of a token when placed side by side the battle the late Abiola fought to have democracy entrenched.
To him, the advantages of recognising the late Abiola as a former president, posthumously, far outweighed its disadvantages. “Many of our children, born post-June 12, 1993, today do not know whom MKO Abiola was. Such recognition of the man would, first, show us as a grateful nation, grateful to a man who paid the supreme sacrifice for our today.”
Also, one of late Abiola’s wives, Akasoba Zainab Duke - Abiola wrote a separate letter to Jonathan, thanking him for renaming UNILAG after the late politician.
An opportunity for a more coherent response to the gesture from both the opposition party and the human rights community came on the 19th anniversary of the annulment of the polls. The series of events took place in various parts of the country.
Though most of the events were held in Lagos, others were held in other states in the South-West. The National Leader of the opposition Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN), Senator Bola Tinubu, made a plea that Abiola be declared the winner of the 1993 election.
Like Ajimobi, the former Lagos State governor, thanked the President for immortalizing the late business icon but quipped that “the recognition with renaming of University of Lagos amounts to a tokenism which is not unique.”
He stated, “Naming of the University of Lagos after Chief M.K.O. Abiola is a move that reduces the national mandate to a sectional mandate” he stated, adding that “what should be done is for the Federal Government to posthumously recognize Chief Abiola as the winner and President elect of the 1993 elections”.
Former Kaduna State governor, Alhaji Balarabe Musa added another twist when he called for the setting up of a judicial panel of enquiry to investigate the circumstances surrounding the annulment of the 1993 election, adding that all those found guilty of having contributed should be punished.
In Abeokuta, the country home of MKO, the state government commemorated the June 12 anniversary with a democracy day walk round major streets in the state.
In Oyo state, the state governor, Abiola Ajimobi, made a very strong case for the declaration of MKO as a posthumous president of Nigeria. He also demanded that he should be conferred with the highest honour in the land, the title of the Grand Commander of the Federal Republic (GCFR) which according to him, is befitting of a president.
Constitutional lawyer Professor Itse Sagay (SAN) said: “I would suggest that attention should be paid to areas where the late MKO performed very well and he was very effective. For instance, we all know that MKO was a lover of sports; we can name the National Stadium Abuja after him. I mean a proper edifice.
“We can also look at democratic institutions in Abuja like the one Prof Omo Omoruyi used to head, that is the Centre for Democratic Studies (CDS) considering what Abiola did for democracy in Nigeria”.
To another constitutional lawyer, Chief Fred Agbaje, what the Federal Government has done was a show of hypocrisy and playing political ostrich with Abiola. He argued, “They know that Abiola is not just a South West hero as the federal government wants us to believe. Therefore, only a monument in the federal capital territory which has both local and international flavour, befitting of a national hero of the stature of MKO Abiola would be good enough
While receiving protesting students of the school in his private office, Tinubu listed options opened to government on the issue. “The National Stadium, Abuja, is one. The Eagles Square, Abuja, is two. Even Aso Villa is another because what Abiola did for the country through the struggle for his mandate and his eventual martyrdom are all for the sake of the democracy which we are all enjoying today. And that makes it apposite that he should be so honoured.
He further urged that June 12 be set aside as a date for a national holiday. “You could call it MKO Abiola Day. We are all aware of what has been done for Martin Luther King Jr in the USA. We can do same here for Abiola and June 12.
So far, Nigerians have agreed on three issues. First is the consensus that MKO Abiola is very deserving of being immortalised. Second, that such an act must not be localised or restricted in interpretation and finally, that it must be commensurate with the enormity of the sacrifice he had paid for the sake of democracy in Nigeria.
When a consensus on the issue is forged, then it would be seen that the country has actually done well to accord Abiola his due in the history of the country.