FELIX NWANERI reports that the 28th anniversary of the annulled 1993 presidential election, which comes up tomorrow, offers Nigerians another opportunity to reflect on the country’s stride to true and representative democracy and the man, who symbolises that struggle, Chief MKO Abiola
There is no doubt that the June 12, 1993 presidential election remains a watershed in Nigeria’s electoral process. The election was after a transition programme to return Nigeria to democratic rule that spanned eight years. However, the then military government led by General Ibrahim Babangida, voided the result of the poll, which would have produced his successor.
The election’s result was inconclusive before it was annulled on June 23, 1993, in a most bizarre manner. Initial figures released by the then National Electoral Commission (NEC), showed that business mogul, Chief Moshood Abiola, was coasting to victory before the military junta directed the electoral body to stop further announcement of results from the remaining few states. What later ensued was wide spread protests that forced Babangida to resign on August 26, 1993. He signed a decree establishing the Interim National Government (ING) led by Chief Ernest Shonekan.
The ING was ousted three months later (November) by the then Minister of Defence, General Sani Abacha. However, the coming of Abacha did not deter MKO (as Abiola was popularly known) from insisting on his mandate. In 1994, he declared himself the lawful president of Nigeria in the Epetedo area of Lagos Island.
He had then returned from a trip to win the support of the international community for his mandate. Abiola was consequently accused of treason and arrested on the orders of Abacha. The Ogun State born businessman turned politician was detained for four years, largely in solitary confinement. While some notable world political and religious leaders lobbied for Abiola’s release, the Abacha-led junta insisted that he renounce his mandate, a condition MKO rebuffed. Abiola insisted that he won the poll although the claim was a subject of debate for years until Prof. Humphrey Nwosu, then chairman of NEC, set the record straight 15 years later (June 12, 2008), when he affirmed that the Ogun- State born businessman turned politician won the election.
Nwosu, in his book titled: “Laying the Foundation for Nigeria’s Democracy: My Account of June 12, 1993 Presidential Election and its Annulment,” stated that out of the 14,396,917 votes cast in that election, Abiola, who was the candidate of the defunct Social Democratic Party (SDP) polled 8,323,305 votes, while his opponent, Alhaji Bashir Tofa of the defunct National Republican Convention (NRC) had 6, 073, 612 votes.
The professor of Political Science further wrote that Tofa had one-third of votes in 23 states out of the then 30 states of the country and the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja, while Abiola had one-third of votes in 28 states, thereby satisfying the constitutional requirement to be declared winner. According to results of the election published on pages 296 to 298 of the 392-page book, the states which Abiola won included Akwa Ibom, Anambra, Benue, Borno, Cross River, Delta, Edo, Enugu and Jigawa. Others were Kaduna, Kano, Kwara, Lagos, Ogun, Ondo, Osun, Oyo, Plateau, Taraba, Yobe and the Federal Capital Territory. On the other hand, Tofa won Abia, Adamawa, Bauchi, Enugu, Imo, Katsina, Kebbi, Kogi, Niger, Rivers and Sokoto states.
Nwosu thereby declared: “With these results from the states, Abiola won the election” but blamed an order by the Abuja High Court, served on the commission on June 15, 1993, for the inability of the electoral umpire to release a conclusive result of the election. Babangida, on his part, some years back, explained that he was compelled to nullify the poll because of security threats to the enthronement of a democratic government at the time. He pointed out that the Armed Forces Ruling Council (AFRC) that he headed then knew that Abiola, if inaugurated as president would be toppled through a military coup, which his government did not want. According to him, his regime decided that it would be the last that would ascend the seat of power through coup, adding that it would make no sense to install a democratic government that would be truncated within another six months.
However, he admitted that the poll was the best ever conducted in Nigeria’s history, saying: “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 were in government at the time and we knew the possible consequences of handing over to a democratic government. We did well that we wanted ours to be the last military coup deta’t. To be honest, the situation was not ripe to hand over at the time.
“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. I went through a coup deta’t and I survived it. We knew that there would be another coup deta’t. But not many people believed what we said. They could have allowed me to go away and then they (coup plotters) would regroup and stage another coup.”
While many still believe that Babangida’s reasons did not justify the election’s annulment, others have continued to wonder how Abiola was able to secure the landmark victory on a Muslim/Muslim ticket in a country where religion plays an important role in its politics.
The fact remains that Abiola at the time, symbolised the aspirations of many Nigerians. His “Hope ‘93 Manifesto,” which became a sing-song, also played a significant role. The policy paper was received with optimism by many, especially the downtrodden and the middle class. Abiola’s political message was an optimistic future for Nigeria with slogans such as “Farewell to poverty,” “At last! Our rays of Hope” and the “Burden of Schooling.”
His economic policy included negotiations with foreign creditors and better management of the country’s international debts. Unfortunately, Abiola never lived to implement the policy paper in which he had provided answers to pervasive poverty and dearth of infrastructure that still bedevil the country till date The man, who would have been president between 1993 and 1998 and even beyond, died on July 7, 1998, in the custody of the Federal Government.
Abiola died under suspicious circumstances shortly after the death of Abacha and on a day that he was due to be released. His wife, Kudirat, had earlier (1996) been assassinated by agents of the government. But events after Abiola’s demise have shown that death could not becloud what he stood for as he remains in the consciousness of many, especially pro-democracy activists, who still view June 12, 1993, as a defining moment in Nigeria’s political history. This explains the yearly convergence to mark the anniversary of the annulled election.
Until 2018, the annual ritual offered Abiola’s political associates, activists and his family to continue to insist that beyond the pockets of honour done to the late politician, the most worthy thing for the Federal Government to do is to posthumously acknowledge him as Nigeria’s second duly elected president. While post-1999 administrations of Chief Olusegun Obasanjo and Alhaji Umaru Yar’adua and Dr. Goodluck Jonathan failed to heed to this demand, it is however on Jonathan took a major step to immortalize Abiola, when he renamed the prestigious University of Lagos (UNILAG) to Moshood Abiola University, Lagos (MAULAG) on May 29, 2012.
The then president, in a nationwide broadcast to mark that year’s Democracy Day, said the honour was in respect of Abiola’s sacrifice in his pursuit of justice and truth. “Destiny and circumstances conspired to place upon his (Abiola) shoulders a historic burden, and he rose to the occasion with character and courage. He deserves recognition for his martyrdom, and publicspiritedness and for being the man of history that he was,” Jonathan said. However, the gesture, which ordinarily should have earned the then president commendation, sparked-off a protest by students of the university, who trooped to the streets to reject the new name.
The students, who made it clear that they had nothing against Abiola, described the name change as “provocative and unpopular.” The university’s lecturers also condemned the name change. Beyond the students and the lecturers, most political leaders in the South-West, who were then in the opposition described the gesture as a political strategy by the then ruling Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) to break into their zone as well as playing to the gallery given the position of successive governments by the same party before then.
Despite the criticisms, the Federal Government insisted on its decision to rename the university, but the protests continued. A legal suit was equally instituted against the government over the name change. These, perhaps, forced Jonathan to reverse the decision.
But the campaign to get the government to declare Abiola president received a major boost in 2018, when President Muhammadu Buhari declared June 12 as the nation’s Democracy Day as against May 29. Buhari also conferred on Abiola with the highest national honour of Grand Commander of the Federal Republic (GCFR). Others honoured alongside the late business mogul were his running mate in the 1993 presidential election, Alhaji Babagana Kingibe and late human rights activist, Chief Gani Fawehinmi, who were conferred with the second highest national honour – Grand Commander of the Niger (GCON). The President said of the annulled election: “June 12, 1993 was the day when Nigerians in millions expressed their democratic will in what was undisputedly the freest, fairest and most peaceful election since our independence.”