Thursday, June 12, 2008

June 12: 15 years after

EXACTLY 15 years ago, on June 12, 1993, Nigeria had what is today accepted as the freest and fairest presidential election in its post-independence history. The present flurry of activities, including declaration of public holiday by some states, to mark the day is therefore not unexpected. What is surprising is that the country's leadership, particularly at the national level, has continued to ignore the significance of June 12. To many pro-democracy activists, this attitude amounts to a denial of the truth, if not an abdication of responsibility.

To worsen this scenario is the reported comment of a former military Head of State, General Abdulsalami Abubakar (rtd) to the effect that June 12, 1993 is dead. Publicly, Abubakar urged Nigerians to forget June 12 on the ground that since it happened 15 years ago, the country should move forward. Expectedly too, his comment has attracted various comments including protests that he is trying to rewrite history.

Indeed, as a former national leader, Gen. Abubakar's remark is unfortunate, un-statesmanlike, and contemptuous of the facts represented by the June 12, 1993 election. We can discern from the comment, a deliberate attempt on the General's part to alter a glaring political fact, particularly when it is considered together with his insistence, at the same time, that the late despotic ruler, Gen. Sani Abacha was not in any way corrupt.

The General's position is not entirely surprising, since he is in any case, one of those who benefited, politically, in the long run, from the annulment of the June 12, 1993 presidential election. But he is not alone in this sad act of revisionism on the question of June 12. It will be recalled that the Obasanjo administration had failed consistently to recognise the June 12 election or the significance of the events surrounding it. Perhaps this is the most tragic historical misconception that the Obasanjo administration foisted on the country. General Abubakar may have felt duty-bound to protect the political interest of his predecessor in office. But he is wrong.

June 12 cannot be wished away. On that day, 15 years ago, Nigeria held a Presidential election that was presumably intended to end a tortuous and seemingly interminable transition to civil rule under Gen. Ibrahim Babangida, the self-styled military president. Babangida seized power in a coup against his commander-in-chief, Gen. Muhammadu Buhari in August 1985. After about two years, he buckled under public pressure to announce a timetable for transition to a democratic government.

Initially, the Babangida regime announced October 1989 as its terminal date, but this way later changed to 1992 on the ground that the earlier date was no longer feasible. Eventually the ban on politics was lifted and 13 political parties emerged; but the military had set difficult conditions for party registration. There were attempts also to blackmail and intimidate those who showed interest in the Presidential race.

Soon enough, the 13 parties were arbitrarily dissolved. Later, the Armed Forces Ruling Council unilaterally decreed two political parties into existence namely the Social Democratic Party (SDP) and the National Republican Convention (NRC). By 1992, government had banned and unbanned many prominent politicians who sought to participate in the political transition process, in a manner that was highly suggestive of insincerity to give up power. Somehow, Nigeria did not boil over from this constant and needless tinkering with the process.

Fresh party conventions by the SDP in Jos in March 1993 resulted in the emergence of Chief Moshood Kashimawo Olawale Abiola as the Presidential candidate of the party. Alhaji Bashir Tofa was the presidential candidate of the NRC. By this time, Babangida's unwillingness to vacate office was already an open secret. This was most evident in his constant manipulation of the rules of the political game.

Not a few Nigerians believed that the Babangida regime designed the election date, June 12, 1993 to fail. The election was meant to hold during the rainy season in most parts of the country. There was also the much talked about Option A4, a system of voting whereby supporters of a candidate were expected to queue up behind the candidate in order to cast their votes. Under this framework, a Modified Open Ballot System was adopted for the June 12, 1993 Presidential election. The system was new, and it was thought that it would most probably precipitate electoral violence.

To heighten the political tension, the SDP presented a Moslem-Moslem ticket represented by Chief MKO Abiola and Baba Gana Kingibe, an arrangement that was also intended to fail. But to the astonishment of many, even the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) supported that ticket and urged all Christians to vote for Moslems! In the days leading to the election, Nigerians had never been more united. There were healthy debates all over the country, informed by a general consensus that the military should leave office.

Throughout the election, there were no reports of rainfall, violence, the disruption of voting or attempts at rigging by the National Electoral Commission (NEC), party agents or the electorate. And when voting was over, every voter knew the result of the exercise in his/her voting centre, and there was no dispute in the collation of results. In a few states, the rains eventually fell later in the day, safely after the polls, it was as if the heavens endorsed the entire exercise. Both local and international observers hailed the election as free and fair. Within a few hours, the National Electoral Commission, led by Professor Humphrey Nwosu began to announce the result, covering up to about 14 states.

It was at this point that General Babangida struck, aided by an emergent group of anti-democratic forces who before and after the election, had gone to court to stop the election. First, the government ordered the suspension of the announcement of results. By then, results from close to 75 per cent of the country's political constituencies had been known, showing Abiola in an impressive lead; his NRC rival, Bashir Tofa lost even in his Kano home town. On June 23, 1993 however, the Babangida government officially annulled the election. And chaos ensued. It is needless to remind Nigerians of the turmoil, violence, and uncertainty that enveloped the nation. The country is yet to recover from that original crisis. Clearly, the annulment of the June 12, 1993 election resulted in a loss of national and international goodwill for the country. We lost a chance to institute merit in the country's leadership selection process, and to consolidate on the gains of the first election in the country in which the voter's choice truly counted.

The annulment deepened existing divisions in the country, and effectively truncated the country's political growth. Since then, Nigerians have not been able to recreate that special moment in their history. June 12 was a national phenomenon, which united persons across religious and ethnic boundaries; it further brought out the resolve in many Nigerians to stand firm in the face of tyranny and injustice. Unfortunately, the opponents of June 12 and the architects of the pain that followed have sought to denigrate the phenomenon on ethnic and religious grounds.

Gen. Abubakar, and other persons who argue that June 12 is best dumped and forgotten are insincere. June 12 represents so many missed opportunities in this country. The country must, in due course, come to full terms with this phenomenon. The country and its leaders should be concerned about how and why we lost June 12 and the hope for progress and renewal that it embodied.

It is shameful that successive administrations, since then, have failed to accord June 12 the place it deserves in the annals of our history. It is scandalous that while June 12 is being played down deliberately, those who annulled it and the beneficiaries of that crime against the Nigerian people are now being glorified and honoured.

The facts of June 12 are unmistakable and cannot be rewritten. Nigerians have not forgotten, 15 years after, even in the absence of the report of the Oputa panel which had dealt at length with the June 12 issue and the aftermath. Every June 12, Nigerians should be reminded of the betrayal of the Nigerian people by the military elite; the violation of the people's will, and the heroism of MKO Abiola and all pro-democracy forces who said No to tyranny.

The Federal Government cannot continue to ignore June 12. It has a duty first to accord due recognition to the phenomenon, recognise the late Chief Abiola as the undeclared winner and bring to book all those responsible for the annulment of that election. Failure to sanction them as bad leaders can only be a disincentive to good governance or the emergence of credible leaders.

Moshood Abiola should be immortalised at the national level. For all his failings, it cannot be denied that he paid the supreme sacrifice in defence of the democratic ideal. He became the symbol of the aspirations of the masses for democracy and good governance. There were others also, who stood firm on the side of truth, and who at great personal risk, defended democracy. They are the ones to be honoured, not those for whom democracy was a gambit or a mere phrase and who in the past 15 years appear to have thrived.

June 12 deserves to be the National Democracy Day, because it gave birth to May 29, which was mischievously elevated into a national holiday by the Obasanjo administration. Government should revisit June 12 with a view to identifying the lessons that can be learnt from that experience, particularly the conduct of elections. Those who say this is not important are either suffering from amnesia, or are unwilling to learn from history.