On this day in 1993, an estimated 14 million Nigerians thronged polling units across the country in their numbers to exercise their franchise in a bid to elect a leader to pilot the affairs of the country in the Third Republic.
Expectations, accompanied with high hopes, triggered an unquenchable desire to put an end to military rule which had constantly eroded the country’s democratic growth in the past.
These were coming at a time when tension from different facades of the society, religious and ethnic hostility had reached its peak. It was, of course, expected that the outcome of the election would set the motion for building ethnic bridges, trust as well as healing old wounds.
June 12 carries a significant meaning in the anal of Nigeria’s democratic and political history. That election till today is adjudged the freest, fairest and most peaceful presidential poll ever conducted in the country.
Former military president, General Ibrahim Badamasi Babaginda (rtd), had few years after toppling the Buhari regime through a coup detat’ established a political bureau in 1987 under the chairmanship of Professor Sam Cookey to advise on the much expected transition to civilian rule.
Babangida went ahead to invoke Decree 25 of 1987 to ban politicians and public officials of the Second Republic from participating in political activities of the Third Republic. This was to prevent the old breed of politicians from participating in future elections in the country.
The Bureau had, among others, recommended a two-party system, modeled after the United States party system. Through a military fiat, the former military president in 1989 inaugurated two major political parties for the country. Under the Social Democratic Party (SDP), the late Moshood Kashimawo Olawole Abiola and his running mate, Baba Gana Kingibe, contested against the candidate of the National Republic Convention (NRC), Bashir Othman Tofa and his running mate, Dr Sylvester Ugoh.
There were a number of orchestrated efforts to frustrate the election from holding despite clamour for the return to civilian rule. On June 10, 1993, Arthur Nzeribe, attempted to stop the election under a group suspected to be pro-Babangida.
But this did not deter the Humphrey Nwosu-led National Electoral Commission, which snubbed the move in line with section 19 (1) of the presidential election Decree 13 of 1993: “That no form of order of ruling or judgement in respect of any intra-party dispute or any other matter would affect the date or time of holding the presidential election”.
Going into the election, Nigerians had hoped that it would not only have cemented the peace building process across ethnic divides in the country but also enhanced the country’s democratic growth. Elections were held, with the people irrespective of class, religion and ethnic divides voting in line with party programmes and ideologies.
Abiola from the South introduced a different political perspective to the table and was able to connect with people across divides. He brought a different shade to the politics at the time.
Sadly, the euphoria was short-lived. The results of the election were never released, while unofficial results gathered through the various polling stations by civil society groups and election monitoring groups across the country indicated broad national support for the presidential candidate of the SDP, Chief Abiola.
However, on June 15 1993, the National Electoral Commission (NEC) released the results from 14 states, including the Federal Capital Territory. Of the 14,293,386 valid votes counted, Abiola garnered 8,341,309 (58.36%) of the votes recorded, while Tofa received 5,952,087 votes (41.64%). Two days later, an Abuja High Court ordered that further announcement of the results should be suspended.
Political analysts and scholars of that age warned that withholding of the election results had far reaching negative effects not only on the psych of the people but also on democratic process in the largest and populous black nation of the world.
The assertion was that if Abiola had been declared the winner it would have been the first time a Southerner would be elected as president of Nigeria breaking through ethno-religious divides having received support from all regions of the country.
The late Prof Omo Omoruyi, then head of the Centre for Democratic Studies, had in a paper he presented during the first term of the Olusegun Obasanjo administration said, “If the system was not aborted in 1993, the year 2001 would have given the two political formations the opportunity to face over three major elections. There was a gradual reduction of the political salience of ethnicity, religion and region in 1993 as the data on the series of elections between 1989 and 1993 would demonstrate.
“Nigerians were beginning to see politics political affiliations and political programming as something that should cut across the known divides in Nigerian politics such as ethnicity, religion and region’’.
The Root Of National Misgiving
This was the beginning of what degenerated to the June 12 imbroglio that once again battered democratic development in Nigeria.
In the middle of rising tension in the country and the clamour to declare Abiola winner of the election, Nigerians woke up on July 23, 1993 to the shock from Babangida’s national broadcast annulling the results of the presidential election.
In annulling the poll, IBB alleged conflicts in the process of authentication, intimidation at the polling units and wild spread malpractices and financial inducement during the election for his decision to annul the election.
He said, ‘‘Apart from the tremendous negative use of money during the party primaries and presidential election, there were moral issues which were also overlooked by the Defense and National Security Council. There were cases of documented and confirmed conflict of interest between the government and both presidential candidates which would compromise their positions and responsibilities were they to become president.
“There was in fact a huge array of electoral malpractices virtually in all the states of the federation before the actual voting began. There were authenticated reports of the electoral malpractices against party agents…’’
The public outrage that greeted the annulment of the election compelled Babangida to introduce the term, “step aside”, in the country’s political lexicon. With that term, he vacated the seat of power and Ernest Shonekan was quickly conscripted to take over as head of the interim government on August 26, 1993. He was subsequently overthrown on November 17, 1993 by General Sani Abacha.
In the South West part of the country, the annulment of the election result was not taken lightly. Civil violence in the region provoked by the electoral fraud and political exclusion previously contributed to the breakdown of the first and second republic. This continued till 1999 when Nigeria returned to democratic rule.
Abacha And The June 12 Debacle
The late General Sani Abacha stepped in after pressure, both locally and internationally, had forced IBB to resign with high hopes that things would change. But Abacha failed to acknowledge the June 12 election leading to further uproar within the Nigerian polity.
This time, the persistent nationwide protests led to the death, injury and incarceration of hundreds of Nigerians. MKO Abiola continued to receive support from the international community to the extent that attention was now shifted to pressurising General Sani Abacha to relinquish power.
The growing political rift between Abiola and Abacha became even sour when on May 10, 1994 Abiola sat on the seat reserved for Nigeria’s head of state during Nelson Mandela’s inauguration in South Africa and thereafter declared himself the legitimate president of the Federal Republic of Nigeria on his return to Nigeria.
Abiola’s Arrest And Incarceration
One year later, after waiting endlessly for the announcement of his victory, Abiola declared himself president on June 11, 1994 in a speech he dubbed the ‘Epetedo Proclamation’ at Epetedo area of Lagos Island.
‘‘As of now, from this moment, a new Government of National Unity is in power throughout the length and breadth of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, led by me, Bashorun M.K.O. Abiola, as President and Commander-in-Chief. The National Assembly is hereby reconvened. All dismissed governors are reinstated’’, MKO declared. This led to his arrest and imprisonment till his death.
Enter Abiola’s Kinsman, Obasanjo
In a cruel twist of fate, Abacha died on June 8, 1998 paving the way for General Abdulsalami Abubakar to emerge the new head of state. Sadly, a month later, precisely on July 7, 1998, Abiola died of cardiac arrest after taking ill during a meeting with Nigerian and United States’ officials. This also led to massive riot in some parts of the country.
Subsequently, Gen Abubakar unveiled his political transition programme, declaring May 29, 1999 as handover date. He cancelled all elections, dissolved NECON and the five political parties, freed all political detainees, dropped charges against exiles and made commitment to respect human rights.
Also in a bid to placate the South West, the two leading presidential candidates for the presidential election, Olusegun Obasanjo of the Peoples Democratic Party and Olu Falae of the All Peoples Party (APP) were from the South West. Obasanjo eventually won the election, signaling the beginning of the fourth Republic.
At the return of democracy in 1999, it was expected that Obasanjo, who was a beneficiary of zonal sentiment that necessitated shifting of power to the South West to atone for the life of the late MKO Abiola and the annulment of his election, would change the narrative of June 12. But this never saw the light of day despite pressure from interest groups in the region.
Expectedly, people from the South West were looking up to Obasanjo who was from the region to recognise June12 as Democracy Day in honour of Abiola instead of May 29 but he refused to accede to their demands. In the South West states, June 12 was celebrated as Democracy Day. It went on for the eight years of the Obasanjo administration.
Both his successors, the late Umaru Musa Yar’ Adua and Goodluck Jonathan refused to acknowledge June 12 even with mounting pressure from all over the country. In Yar’Adua’s short stint as president, the usual practice of celebrating May 29 as Democracy Day continued.
On May 29, 2012 Jonathan renamed the University of Lagos after MKO Abiola. The erstwhile president said the renaming of the University of Lagos Moshood Abiola University in commemoration of Democracy Day was in honour of the late MKO Abiola who paid the ultimate sacrifice in pursuit of justice and peace.
In a broadcast to the nation, Jonathan said destiny and circumstances conspired to place upon Abiola’s shoulder a historic burden and he rose to the occasion in character and courage. But the congruence of opinion among majority of Nigerians then was that Jonathan’s effort was not good enough to appease the ghost of June 12.
Jonathan’s feeble attempt to rename UniLag after MKO Abiola was vehemently resisted by the people of the South West, compelling him to rescind his decision. In 2015, he lost his re-election bid to Buhari of the All Progressives Congress (APC).
How Buhari Changed History By Healing Old Wounds
June 12 marks the beginning of a decade-long struggle to see the election result of 1993 declared and democracy renewed. 21 years later, Nigeria will for the second time celebrate democracy day outside May 29.
President Muahammadu Buhari in 2018 declared June 12 the new Democracy Day. Buhari in a statement said his decision was stemmed out of the view of Nigerians as shared by this administration that ‘‘June 12, 1993, was far more symbolic of democracy in the Nigerian context than May 29 or even October 1.
“Accordingly, after due consultations, the federal government has decided that henceforth, June 12 will be celebrated as Democracy Day”, he added.
The president did not end it there. He continued: “Therefore, government has decided to award, posthumously, the highest honour of the land, GCFR, to the late Chief M.K.O Abiola, the presumed winner of the June 12, 1993 cancelled elections. His running mate as vice president, Ambassador Baba Gana Kingibe, is also to be invested with a GCON. Furthermore, the tireless fighter for human rights and the actualisation of the June 12 elections and indeed for democracy in general, the late Chief Gani Fawehinmi is to be awarded the GCON.
“The investiture will take place on Tuesday June 12, 2018, a date which in future years will replace May 29 as a national public holiday in celebration of Nigeria’s Democracy Day.”
Declaring June 12 as the new Democracy Day to the surprise of critics and foes, Buhari further signed the Public Holiday Amendment bill into law, recognising June 12 as Democracy Day and a public holiday, while outlawing May 29 as a public holiday.
Also, on June 12 , 2018 at the Special National Honours Investiture and award presentation to heroes of June 12, 1993 poll, President Buhari offered unreserved apology on behalf of the federal government to the family of MKO Abiola over the annulment of the June 12 presidential election.
He said the decision to hold the event was not to open old wounds but to bury negative sides of June 12 and its ill-feelings, hatred, frustrations and agony. Accordingly, he called on all Nigerians across national divides to accept the annulment of the June 12, 1993 poll in good faith.
Buhari stated: “I honestly invite all Nigerians across all our national divides to accept it in good faith. Our action today is to bury the negative sides of June 12, the side of ill feelings, hates, frustration and agony.
“What we are doing is celebrating and appreciating the positive sides of June 12; the June 12 which reinstated democracy and freedom, the June 12 that overcame our various divides and the June that produced unity and national cohesion. This is the June 12 we are celebrating today and we will nurture it to our next generation
“Accordingly, on behalf of the federal government, I tender the nation’s apology to the family of late MKO Abiola who got the highest votes and to those that lost their loved ones in the course of June 12 struggle”.
President Buhari asked for a minute silence in honour of the late MKO Abiola and those that lost their lives in the struggle for the actualisation of June 12. Officially, he conferred on the late Chief MKO Abiola the title of Grand Commander of the Order of the Federal Republic (GCFR), the highest honour of the land normally given to an incumbent President of Nigeria, and Grand Commander of the Order of Niger (GCON), the second highest national honour of the land, to his then running mate, Babagana Kingibe.
Political analysts admitted that this singular move, President Buhari laid to rest the ghosts of June 12 and etched his name in the history books as the man destined to right the wrong and injustice done to MKO Abiola and the South West.
Despite attempts by his critics to input perceived political undertone to the Buhari’s action, he received copious commendations from socio-cultural groups across the country. Ultimately, Buhari’s political will to address the June 12 debacle has put an end to the long clamour for the recognition of what is considered one of the greatest political robberies in the history of elections.
IBB, Humphrey Nwosu And The 2018 Declaration
For the first time since the annulment of June 12, 1993, Babangida, in 2018 gave reasons for annulling the June 12 presidential poll, citing pressure on him and security threat not to enthrone MKO Abiola. In a TV programme, Moments with Mo, anchored by Mo Abudu and broadcast on MNet channel of DSTV, IBB described the situation as “unfortunate”.
The former Nigerian leader said, “June 12 was accepted by Nigerians as the best of elections in Nigeria. It was free and fair. But unfortunately, we cancelled that election. I used the word unfortunately, for the first time….. We did well that we wanted ours to be the last military coup deta’t. To be honest with you, the situation was not ripe to hand over at the time’’.
“Forget about the wrong things that happened in politics. The issue of security of the nation was a threat and we would have considered ourselves to have failed, if six months after handover, there was another coup”.
On his part, Prof Humphrey Nwosu, the chairman of the National Electoral Commission (NEC) also came out in 2018 to reinforce the popular believe that Chief Moshood Abiola won the June 12, 1993 election in a letter he wrote to President Buhari in honour of the recognition of Abiola as winner of the controversial election and June 12 as Democracy Day to ‘‘rekindle the national consciousness of all Nigerians for a better nation”.
Nwosu who oversaw the election thanked President Buhari in part of the letter that reads: “I thank His Excellency, the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, Muhammadu Buhari and the Federal Government of Nigeria for recognizing June 12 as Democracy Day and also honouring the winner of June 12, 1993 presidential election, Chief M.K.O. Abiola”.