On June 12 1993, Nigerians poured into polling units to vote for MKO Abiola. And then, the man died.
In the wee hours of the morning, Mom would knock her wooden radio into life for the Voice of America. During the day, I would head to my Uncle’s house a few meters away to grab the week’s editions of TELL, TheNEWS or Newswatch magazines which I would then go on to consume voraciously.
In the evenings, we’d huddle over another uncle’s radio under a mango tree; with the antennae adjusted and readjusted until we could make out what the radio presenter was up to.
It was the age of AM, short wave, baggy jeans and bicycles.
My life was pretty idyllic and boy, did I love it!
1993 was the year before the USA ‘94 world cup when I had pictures of Jay Jay Okocha and Rashidi Yekini plastered on the walls of our rustic apartment--cuttings from the Complete Football magazines big brother was bringing home from Lagos.
In 1993, I wasn’t of voting age but I was old enough to notice events or ‘current affairs’ like we called them back then—current affairs that would shape the course of our nation for a long time to come.
Most folks in my countryside were rooting for the Social Democratic Party (SDP) as opposed to the National Republican Convention (NRC) just before Nigeria’s general elections.
Mom was SDP as were all of my uncles and extended family relatives. So, naturally, I was SDP at heart.
Chief Moshood Kashimawo Olawale (MKO) Abiola was flagbearer of the SDP heading into the presidential contest. Alhaji Bashir Tofa was candidate of the NRC.
Abiola and his running mate, Baba Gana Kingibe were Muslims. And back in my Christian community, it didn’t matter where or who they worshipped.
Outside our compound was a bus-stop where campaign posters of MKO were plastered from floor to ceiling. There were no posters of Tofa in sight. It was the same across the village.
Abiola’s campaign slogan was Hope ’93. Back in the day in my little village, we were banking on Abiola to renew our hope in Nigeria. As it would turn out, most of the country was hedging its bet on Abiola as well.
The media sold Abiola as the benefactor and philanthropist with deep pockets. We were told he was the candidate with a heart so large, he gave freely and willingly.
We were told that Abiola was the candidate who wouldn’t steal our money because he was already a man of means--so much money, he was campaigning with his own aircraft. It would have been foolish not to vote a man like that, we thought.
In my part of the world at the time, we didn’t care for Tofa. He was the 'poorer' candidate who didn’t deserve our time and attention. We also considered his NRC a loser. As a matter of fact, back in my village, we regarded NRC members as losers. How could they not know that Abiola was the man?
I recall the campaign jingle of the era vividly now as I write. “MKO na our man o…”
On voting day, Mom and uncles were moving from village door to village door to ask people to go vote.
And yes, rice was shared. Maggi was shared too to villagers by both political parties.
You see, the stomach infrastructure philosophy didn’t begin with Ayo Fayose of Ekiti State. However, without the rice, beans and Maggi, SDP and MKO were still going to carry the day in the little community I called home.
The stomach infrastructure was far from an incentive or inducement. It was seen more as an appreciation. But what did I know?
Such was the enthusiasm around the place that at the local primary school where voting was going on, the queue of voters for SDP and MKO spilled into the Calabar-Ogoja highway.
You could count on one hand, how many persons were going to vote NRC and Tofa. That queue was shorter than a ruler.
As I would learn, the scenario at the polling station in my village was being replicated across Nigeria.
MKO was the man.
The then National Electoral Commission (NEC) headed by Professor Humphrey Nwosu, deployed the option A4 voting system to rip-roaring success. It meant you all queued up and a headcount is conducted. The candidate with the longest queue was the winner.
So, I knew Abiola won in Ofodua, Ababene, Ovonum, Oyadama, Nko, Ochon, Apiapum and all other villages in Obubra local government. Heck, I knew Abiola won in Cross River!
I remember where I sat as Nwosu announced the final vote tally across the country.
It was under that mango tree with spiders and praying mantis hovering overhead.
My Uncle’s radio came through for us again.
Abiola was winning in the south west, south south, north west, north east, south east….
Abiola was thrashing Bashir Othman Tofa in his home State of Kano. It was all the confirmation we needed to break into a victory dance.
We were dancing around my uncle’s radio as the nation waited for MKO to be crowned Nigeria’s president—ending decades of military rule and their irritating coups and counter coups.
We were tired of the ‘Sojas’ and their khakis.
And then it happened.
With MKO leading in 14 States, the voice of Nwosu, chairman of NEC, morphed into a drawl before going eerily quiet.
We wouldn’t hear Nwosu’s voice again for a couple of days. MKO Abiola’s victory was being stolen from the man before our very eyes.
MKO’s victory was being snatched away from us by the ‘Sojas’ we knew we shouldn’t have trusted from the outset.
In his speech justifying the cancellation of what was a largely free and fair exercise, then head of state, Ibrahim Badamosi Babangida (IBB) said “there were allegations of irregularities and other acts of bad conduct leveled against the presidential candidates but NEC went ahead and cleared them. There were proofs as well as documented evidence of widespread use of money during the party primaries as well as the presidential election.
“It is true that the presidential election was generally seen to be free, fair and peaceful. However, there was in fact a huge array of electoral malpractices virtually in all the states of the federation before the actual voting began.
“Evidence available to government put the total amount of money spent by the presidential candidates at over two billion, one hundred million naira (N2.1 billion). The use of money was again the major source of undermining the electoral process.
“There were cases of documented and confirmed conflict of interest between the government and both presidential candidates which would compromise their positions and responsibilities were they to become president”, said the man we referred to as Maradona back in the day, because he was always shifting the transition to democracy goalpost.
Of course no one believed IBB's reasons for annulling the nation's freest and fairest poll yet.
IBB also went on to cite foreign interference as reason why the poll had to be cancelled.
“The administration did not and cannot accept that foreign countries should interfere in our internal affairs and undermine our sovereignty.
“The actions of these foreign countries are most unfortunate and highly regrettable. There is nowhere in the history of our country or indeed of the third world where these countries can be said to love Nigeria or Nigerians any more than the love we have for ourselves and for our country. Neither can they claim to love Nigeria any more than this administration loves our country”.
Our nation knew little peace after the cancellation of the June 12, 1993 election. There was plenty of unrest across Nigeria after June 12.
Civil society organisations and pro-democracy groups took to the streets and waged a war against the military junta. The press hit the IBB administration hard. The National Democratic Coalition (NADECO) with members like Bola Ahmed Tinubu went into exile as the military pounced. Nigerians were fleeing Lagos and other urban centers on the backs of mammy wagons and J5 buses.
Even IBB couldn’t stand the heat he had unleashed. On August 27, 1993, the nation’s military ruler announced that he would be “stepping aside”—a phrase that was interpreted to mean he could return whenever he wanted.
An Interim National Government (ING) headed by Chief Ernest Shonekan, was named as IBB made his way into the darkest recesses of Nigeria’s history.
Shonekan was only president for three months.
On November 17, 1993, General Sani Abacha sent Shonekan packing and announced himself president.
Such was the dizzying spate of events in one year that Nigeria had three presidents in 1993 alone.
On June 11, 1994 at Epetedo, Lagos, a frustrated Abiola declared himself president on the basis of the June 12 election--with Abacha on the other side of town.
He was asking for trouble.
“Since that abominable act of naked political armed robbery occurred, I have been constantly urged by people of goodwill, both in Nigeria and abroad, to put the matter back into the people’s hands and get them to actualise the mandate they gave me at the polls. But mindful of the need to ensure that peace continues to reign in our fragile federation, I have so far tried to pursue sweet reason and negotiation”, Abiola said.
After listing the ills of the military rulers, Abiola said; “today, people of Nigeria, I join you all in saying, “Enough is Enough!” We have endured 24 years of military rule in our 34 years of independence”.
On June 24, 1994, Abacha got Abiola arrested for treason following a manhunt that was broadcast on radio and NTA.
Abiola was in jail as Abacha ran the country with an iron fist that claimed the life of Kudirat Abiola—wife of the presumed winner of the 1993 presidential contest.
Several pro-democracy activists were also hounded to jail and many fled into exile as the Abacha strike force led by Hamza Al-Mustapha and Sergeant Rogers terrorized the land, trailing persons demanding for the restoration of Abiola’s mandate with guns.
I was working night and day shifts as a sweat-shop employee on the factory floor of a soap making company in the Satellite town area of Lagos, when news of Abacha’s death flooded the airwaves on June 8, 1998.
Waiting for the Molue in my factory overalls, I could see people celebrating Abacha’s death at a pub in the distance. All through the drive from Alakija bus stop to Okokomaiko, people were trooping out onto the streets to celebrate--not mourn-- the death of a man.
It’s the only time I have seen people celebrate a man’s death since I found my way into earth.
A month later—July 7, 1998—Abiola died.
As did his mandate. But not the values he stood for.
Because in 1999, the transition to civilian rule midwifed by General Abdulsalami Abubakar was real. Olusegun Obasanjo from Abiola’s south west region was the ultimate beneficiary. Nigeria has enjoyed 18 years of an unbroken democratic experience thanks to the Abiola and June 12 1993 experience.
Abiola’s death still triggers suspicions and conspiracy theories to this day.
He passed on after sipping from a cup of tea handed him by a U.S Under-secretary of state and secretary general of the United Nations, Koffi Annan, on the day he was going to be released following Abacha’s death.
Even Annan who was part of the delegation to pacify Abiola in his last moments, couldn’t understand it:
“On our return journey, everything seemed set for Abiola’s release”, said Annan. “But tragedy struck a week later when Abiola collapsed and died during a meeting with U.S. Under-Secretary of State Thomas Pickering. Despite the earnest intentions we had detected in Abubakar, the timing could only be considered suspicious,” said the former UN secretary general.
It is 24 years since Abiola’s mandate was stolen from him. To honour the man, we must collectively resolve never to return to military rule and regard khaki rule as the aberration that it is and will continue to be.
It is the very least we can do.
If we learnt anything else from the events of June 12, 1993, it is that Nigerians can put their differences aside and actually vote across ethnic and religious lines if the opportunity presents itself.