June 12th 1993 was a Saturday and it met me in Ughelli. June is a month of unpredictable rain, but that day was bright; bright and fair. We trooped out to vote for a new dawn. I was then an impressionable undergraduate of the University of Benin possessed by ideals instilled by youth. The build up to that day was momentous and exciting. The military regime of General Ibrahim Babangida had embarked on the rigmarole it called transition to civil rule programme. In the course of that tortuous experience, political parties were formed and disbanded. Politicians were classified as new breed and old breed and they were banned and unbanned. At the end of the day, Babangida decreed two political parties, the Social Democratic Party (SDP) and the National Republican Convention (NRC), into existence and branded them as a little to the left and a little to the right to foreground their ideological conditioning.
The period from around 1987 to 1993 was a great moment to be alive. In truth, Babangida postured as a great statesman. He invited some of Nigeria’s best brains and gave them free rein to experiment with Nigeria politically and economically. I recall with nostalgia the political bureau headed by Dr. S. J. Cookey, Professor Jerry Gana’s Mass Mobilisation for Self Reliance, Social Justice and Economic Recovery (MAMSER), the Better Life for Rural Women programme, the Directorate for Food Roads and Rural Infrastructure (DIFFRI), the relocation of Nigeria’s capital to Abuja and the hosting of the Organisation of African Unity now African Union. I can also not forget the Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) hoopla. I was in my teens and in secondary school when many of these phenomena occurred. But that era was infectious and both the young and the old were sucked in. Newspapers and magazines were affordable and the Nigerian Television Authority was still authoritative in news coverage and rendition, so was the Federal Radio Corporation of Nigeria.
The dramatis personae who bestrode the era were Tom Ikimi, Babagana Kingibe, MKO Abiola, Bashiru Tofa, Humphrey Nwosu, Omo Omoruyi, Gani Fawenhimi, Beko Ransome Kuti, Olisa Agbakoba, Femi Falana, among others. The climax of that magical period was what has been adjudged as Nigeria’s freest and fairest election, a phenomenon now known as June 12. The undeclared winner of the election was Bashorun M. K. O. Abiola, the Aare Ona Kankafo of Yorubaland, business mogul and philanthropist. His running mate was the ornate orator and wily Babagana Kingibe. Both flew the SDP flag, while Bashir Tofa and Sylvester Ugoh ran on the platform of the NRC.
Babangida annulled the election and launched himself into history’s hall of shame. Nigerians resisted the annulment and poured into the streets in massive protests. From Kano to Calabar, Lagos to Lokoja, Warri to Wukari, Nigerians came out in droves in defence of the pan-Nigerian mandate bestowed on MKO. Babangida’s perfidy saw him leaving office with ignominy and he foisted a wobbly contraption called Interim National Government under Ernest Shonekan, a boardroom doyen. Within three months Sani Abacha’s swagger stick landed on Shonekan’s back and the latter scampered out of Aso Rock. Abacha, who wore dark glasses even in the darkest of nights was Babangida’s inscrutable alter ego.
Abacha ruled Nigeria from November 18 1993 to June 8 1998 and took Nigerians to Golgotha. He foisted the most brutal military dictatorship on the nation, but Nigerians stood up to his repressive tendencies. Prodemocracy groups sprang up all over Nigeria; students’ groups mobilised, journalists enlisted in the struggle, market women marched the streets, workers dumped their tools in civil disobedience and clamoured for the actualisation of the June 12 mandate. At the University of Benin, we dug trenches, laid ambush for enemies of democracy, and mounted barricades. The story was the same across Nigeria. It was a bloody struggle.
Abacha died one morning in June 1998. Nigerians celebrated in anticipation of the validation of the June 12 election and the enthronement of MKO as president. Then he died one month later! His death sealed whatever glimmer of hope there was for the restoration of that popular mandate. Abiola became a martyr so was his wife Kudirat who was killed in 1996.
June 12 has become a milestone in Nigeria’s journey to nationhood. It birthed heroes and villains. When May 29 was proclaimed as Democracy Day many years ago, majority of Nigerians felt that June 12 aptly fits that label. That President Mohammadu Buhari has recognised the significance of that date in Nigerian history and conferring the nation’s highest honour on MKO simply meant justice has been done. Olusegun Obasanjo and Ibrahim Babangida must be squirming in shame.
But there are questions to be asked. What is the motive behind Buhari’s gesture? Will the recognition remedy Nigeria? Will it take the nation to its desired destination of democratic ideals and the imperative of restructuring? Will it end insecurity, fix our roads, schools, health sector, end corruption, end unemployment and revamp the economy? I doubt if Buhari is truly convinced about his action. The revalidation of June 12 is an APC trick intended to retain the votes of the South-West in the 2019 election. It is not a masterstroke, but a Greek gift. The endorsement of the ‘not-too-young-to-run bill’ and the House of Assembly and Judiciary financial autonomy bill are part of Buhari’s Greek gifts.
Sunny Awhefeada writes The Imperative Column for Independent on Fridays