June 12: The Lessons Not Learnt


TODAY marks the 20th anniversary of the landmark Presidential election of June 12, 1993 that was won by the late billionaire businessman, Chief MKO Abiola, but was inexplicably annulled by the then military junta, led by Gen. Ibrahim Babangida. Sadly, with the gradual passage of time, the nation appears to be stuck because no lessons have been learnt from that momentous event.
Two decades after that gratuitous annulment, Nigerians, and indeed close watchers of events in the country, still refer to that election as a watershed in the history of Nigeria. It was seen then as the freest and fairest election ever held in this country. Exactly 20 years on, that opinion has remained incontrovertible.
The June 12 election, it was believed, was part of a process to end the 10 years of military rule that started with the overthrow of the Shehu Shagari government by Maj.-Gen. Muhammadu Buhari on December 31, 1983. But, unknown to millions of enthusiastic Nigerians that trooped out to vote that day, it was the beginning of a long and tortuous journey, dubiously designed by Babangida to lead to nowhere. Indeed, it was a journey full of booby-traps to elongate military rule, rather than end it.
Before the presidential poll, elections had been held to fill the offices in the other arms of government. In what appeared like a grotesque mix of military and civilian government, there were elected governors in all the states, just as there were legislators at the national and state levels. The oddity was that they were all functioning under a military head of state, Babangida. Political parties had been formed only for them to suffer summary proscription; while presidential aspirants in all the parties were swiftly and gratuitously disqualified, evidently working towards a predestined end.
Even when two political parties were eventually decreed into existence, Nigerians were not deterred as they were ready to acquit themselves well. The two political parties – the Social Democratic Party and the National Republican Convention – with ideological inclinations towards “a little to the left and a little to the right,” were meant to have “equal joiners and equal owners,” according to Babangida, who was the manipulator-in-chief.
Observers might have seen some of the strange rules introduced as genuine innovations deserving of commendation, but they were actually obstacles meant to scuttle the process. But, miraculously, things did not work out as planned. And so, the “Option A4” used in conducting party primaries, rather than trigger confusion, as predicted by some, succeeded in producing presidential candidates that were acceptable right from the ward to the national levels; while the Open Ballot voting system ensured that it was difficult to rig.
The first real sign of danger, however, occurred when a perverse 9.30 pm court judgement, delivered by the late Justice Bassey Ikpeme, granted the prayers of a dubious group known as the Association for Better Nigeria to halt the election. Coming just two days to the election, the judgement was ignored because the electoral law had a provision ousting the jurisdiction of the courts to tamper with the election.
On the day of the election that pitted the SDP candidate, Abiola, with his running mate, Babagana Kingibe, against the NRC candidate of Bashir Tofa and his running mate, Sylvester Ugo, there were no polling booths to protect electoral materials against the elements. Yet, there was no rain throughout the day, which enabled Nigerians to come out to vote for candidates of their choice. Despite fielding a ticket of two Muslims in a country often polarised by faith, the SDP ticket triumphed overwhelmingly over the NRC ticket that featured a Muslim and a Christian.
Unfortunately, the mandate given to Abiola by Nigerians was truncated and the country was set back by decades. The tragedy was further compounded when Abiola was arrested. He eventually died in incarceration. The events of June 12, doubtlessly, altered the course of Nigerian history permanently.
Since then, the search for free, fair and transparent elections has remained a painful mirage. In 2007 alone, no fewer than nine governorship elections results were either reversed or reruns ordered by election petitions tribunals. The late President Umaru Yar’Adua, while acknowledging the flawed election that brought him to office, set in motion a process of reforming the electoral process. Unfortunately, the recommendations of the Justice Muhammadu Uwais panel are still gathering dust in government shelves.
Also, while Nigerians were able to do away with religious and ethnic sentiments to elect a President of their choice in 1993, elections today are inexorably tied to where a candidate comes from. It is difficult to find a true nationalist in Nigeria today as the political space has been hijacked by ethnic and religious bigots. Gone is the spirit that produced the Muslim-Muslim ticket of Abiola and Kingibe.
Tofa was quoted recently as saying, “We want this country to survive and people are still talking about June 12.” To him and many of his persuasion, June 12 may be dead and buried. But for those who believe that the past is the compass for the future, June 12 remains as relevant today as it was 20 years ago. The politics of June 12 was defined by issues, not religion or ethnicity. It brought out those things that united this country, not the divisive elements.
June 12 was a missed opportunity to unite the country, enthrone democratic values, build a just society and join the fast lane of development as a nation. While it is not possible to actualise June 12 in its original form, there is the need to honour the patriot who laid down his life for the democracy that is being enjoyed today. But more importantly, there is the need to learn the lessons that came with June 12. Failure to imbibe those lessons will continue to be a stumbling block to our desire for a cohesive federation.

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