Twenty-two years ago, on June 12, 1993, Nigerians voted for a man to be president in what was supposedly the last electoral act of a transition process that had started a few years earlier. Unfortunately, the mandate was stolen and the elected man wasn’t sworn in as president. In fact, that transition process would drag on for another four bloody and dark years. Today, some of us will honour the memory of that stolen mandate and our collective strength in the journey to our present constitutional democracy.
Yes, May 29 is Nigeria’s Democracy Day. But May 29, 1999 is the successful and internationally renowned grandchild of the enslaved June 12, 1993—it is impossible to praise one and ignore the life of the other. These dates are not merely different calendar days, the culmination of one follows directly from the struggles of the other.
These days, active Nigerian citizens talk about “protecting” one’s vote. But the voters of June 12, 1993 protected their votes in the ultimate way—by taking to the streets and being felled by the bullets of General Abacha’s command under the dictatorship of General Babangida. Today exists because the voters—and activists—of 1993 did not give up the fight. The military won the street battles, but the war went on under Abacha’s junta. Too many Nigerians died resisting Abacha, too many were jailed till the prisons overflowed and executions ranged, too many Nigerians had to run on exile to stay alive for the fight. These things went on until Abacha himself died, solitary and paranoid, unable to step out in public–never mind the hungry clowns of Youths Earnestly Asking for Abacha and other jokers.
And so, when we celebrate June 12, we do not celebrate a man: instead, we celebrate our resistance to General Abacha and we celebrate our democratic spirit and the struggle for constitutional democracy.
We celebrate Nigerians.
Nevertheless, like Mandela and the anti-apartheid movement, the man MKO Abiola is identified, almost synonymously, with the struggle of June 12.
As a politician and businessman, Abiola was deeply flawed. He was in commercial cahoots with the military for a long time, but when, unlike other politicians in 1993-1994, he refused to renege on his mandate and lost favour with them, he achieved some sort of redemption.
This isn’t just a generous view. Whatever he thought he was gaining by holding on to his mandate, Abiola stood to lose even more—and he did. In the years following 1993, Abiola’s business was destroyed, his friends hunted, his family attacked, and his most vocal wife assassinated. Never before had a Nigerian politician lost so much to hold on to his vote.
This situation is even more profound when you consider that Abiola was not the only elected official at the time. In 1993, there had been elected legislators at state and federal levels, elected governors, elected local government officials—but only a few stood their ground against Abacha. Most of them quietly caved in to the dictatorship or even took jobs under the military. The legislature of 1993—like those of 2015—were more interested in power sharing arrangements between the party and the office-holders, and did little to help restore the transition process. They happily acquiesced to an interim government rather than stick to the June 12 vote. Abiola’s refusal to cut a deal even when it was the “rational” thing to do is what makes him the rallying personality of the June 12 transition.
And so again—like the Civil War—we have to remind ourselves of these things. But when you see the deliberate or ignorant dismissal of June 12, 1993 by some Nigerians, one has to sigh in the despondent realisation, again, of how badly our educational syllabus has failed our history as a Nigerian state.