AUTHOR OF THE ARTICLE MKO ABIOLA JUNE 12: DEMOLA OLANREWAJU
And so, here goes: an article on MKO Abiola and June 12.
It is difficult to separate MKO Abiola from the story of June 12 and the June 12 struggle because as Gani pointed out back then, Abiola was the symbol of the mandate of Nigerians and his imprisonment became the rallying point of the struggle.
And MKO Abiola was a complicated man
Even more interesting, the June 12 story itself is a most complicated one with many sides but mainly two – the political and the ethnic; and two other ones – the activism around it and on a lesser scale, the family involvement. The common thread though is Abiola himself.
MKO Abiola was a man of very many parts but I’ll restrict this as much as possible to his politics or anything else about him related to his politics and the politics/struggle of June 12. Some say he’d been an NCNC member in the First Republic but I haven’t checked this yet.
If true, then that puts him as a Zik follower, at least as part of the Youth Wing – what is confirmed though is that he was with the NPN in the Second Republic and the NPN was a national party, contrary to what many historians from the SW and abroad especially like to claim.
UPN and NPP were essentially SW and SE parties because of Awolowo and Zik but their northern rivals, Ahmadu Bello and Tafawa Balewa had been killed in 1966 so they were not in any party as at 1978 – but historians like to claim the NPN was a Northern party, to balance it out.
Abiola was a major pillar of the NPN although the SW was firmly under the UPN so he made little headway but frustrated Obafemi Awolowo greatly as an irritant who had major money to spend for his party in the Ogun State they both came from.
His wife, Simbiat Abiola, ran for a Senate seat in Ogun in 1979 (which may mean that the story that she opposed Abiola’s political involvement in later years before she died in 1991 may not be true or something changed afterwards).
Anyway, MKO Abiola was with NPN as at 1979.
Some say that the initial agreement had been that Shagari would only serve one term and handover to a SouthWesterner (which may not be true as the SE was also positioning to run after Shagari) – the party chairman Adisa Akinloye actually wanted to run but quickly pulled back.
Abiola though continued to try, until the then Minister of Transportation (Amaechi’s predecessor in office and perhaps character), Umaru Dikko bluntly came out and said “The Nigerian Presidency is not available to the highest bidder”.
He was quiet only outwardly though as some say he began to fund coup plotters in the army, which eventually led to the ouster of the Shagari Govt on December 31, 1983.
But every coup needs one other thing to succeed: media support and it got it overwhelming from the SW media.
And Abiola and his money went home quietly.
He was quiet only outwardly though as some say he began to fund coup plotters in the army, which eventually led to the ouster of the Shagari Govt on December 31, 1983.
The SW media was largely pro-Awolowo and anti-NPN and so they announced the coup against NPN as divine retribution for the ‘moonslide rigging’ of 1983.
But every coup needs one other thing to succeed: media support and it got it overwhelming from the SW media.
Abiola had founded Concord newspapers in 1980 (or so) to counter the media strength of UPN but was now anti-NPN.
The recessionist tendencies of the military junta headed by Buhari soon manifested and everyone regretted the coup, including Abiola who then began to finance another coup which happened in 1985 and brought Babangida in. The Concord openly celebrated his ouster at this time.
Now, Babangida’s transition was a never-ending one, although the dilly-dallying led to a very deep political research on Nigeria’s future through the Political Bureau until FEDECO (as the electoral umpire was then called) held LGA elections on a no-party basis in 1991. The LGA elections were fraught with so many irregularities and pressure from the military brass that pushed Eme Awa, the head of FEDECO to resign.
Following this, political activities were resumed and politicians began to regroup as Humphrey Nwosu announced party registration. Nwosu was a protege of Eme Awa as they both came from the same Political Science Dept of a University in the SE (can’t remember and don’t want to google).
13 or so political associations applied for registration, all were summarily rejected and Govt announced two parties.
The SW leaders had wanted to participate in the elections – against the wish and advise of activist organisations like CD, CLO and others at the time but their association was also rejected and so they decided to boycott he whole transition thing based on ‘principles’.
Nwosu’s NEC (as the electoral umpire was now called) announced two parties: Social Democratic Party SDP And National Republican Convention NRC.
Ige summarized both as “2 sides of 1 coin” and said “Parties form Governments, Governments don’t form Parties”. God bless his memory.
Some SW people however decided to participate and supported Olu Falae who was friendly with the Afenifere at the time but not then considered a core of the group yet because he had served under IBB and so the SE leaned more towards the SDP but both parties had national spread.
As it is now in politics where if the chairman comes from the South, the Presidency goes to the North, it was also then: SDP had Babagana Kingibe against Mohammed Arzika and Kingibe, backed by Shehu Musa Yar’Adua who was then a force at the head of a major bloc in the SDP won.
The NRC had Hamed Kusamotu as its first Chairman (although a Northerner I think contested against him for the post). So it was almost certain that the SDP would field a Southern presidential candidate while the NRC would field a Northerner but politics is a game of numbers.
To digress a bit: both parties contested elections from State Houses of Assembly to Gubernatorial and National Legislature and were almost evenly matched:
NRC had more Governors (16 to 14 in 30 states at the time) but SDP had more federal legislators than the NRC.
For the presidential candidacy, Olu Falae, Shehu Musa Yar’Adua and several others including Lai Balogun vied in the SDP while Umaru Shinkafi and Adamu Ciroma were the major forces in NRC.
Babangida didn’t like any of them and soon cancelled the primaries of both parties.
Furthermore, all 23 presidential aspirants were banned from contesting again and a New Breed was asked to show up. This was how Abiola got into the race with SDP to inherit the Falae bloc, while Yar’Adua drafted Atiku Abubakar as the one he would back in the SDP.
So that was Abiola’s re-entry into the politics of Nigeria – he had since the 2nd Republic become known more as a philanthropist than as a politician, donating freely to all Nigerians and picking chieftaincy titles across 68 communities spread all over Nigeria.
In one year, he donated 1m to each federal university, 500k to each state university and 250k to polytechnics.
He also became a champion for Repatriation – that America should pay African countries for slavery – a campaign he took across the continent and the world.
Abiola’s repatriation cause was so strong that till today, I know some seniors who still believe that his death in the presence of US officials whom he took tea with was not coincidental because they feared if he became President, he would push the cause even harder for Africa.
Abiola donated freely to the anti-apartheid cause in South Africa and the black liberation causes across Southern Africa as well as in the US where he supported many civil rights causes and endowed chairs in various civil rights researches at top American universities.
For his efforts, he was honoured by the foremost NAACP and the Black American Congressional body. Back home, nothing indicates he had any particular fondness for the Yorubas except that he himself as a Nigerian, had to come from somewhere and he came from he SW.
Of course the Yorubas embraced him – and very tightly so in fact – money does that some times. In fact, kings were scrambling to give him honours – the Olubadan of Ibadan at the time, Oba Asanike, gave him the Basorun title and as soon as he got home, the Alaafin called him. The Alaafin told Abiola that he was to be bestowed with the title of Aare Ona Kakanfo – a title that had never been held along with the Basorun title by any living individual prior to that time.
Meanwhile: I wasn’t there o, these are things I read and many elders also swear by.
The conferment of the Kakanfo title along with Basorun didn’t go down well with one of the Alaafin’s chiefs – Ashipa, and he headed to court to file a motion to prevent it. Erudite Lawyer Afe Babalola was briefed by the Alaafin and he headed to court to be joined in the matter.
They say at the time that such motions are usually passed summarily before hearing from both sides would be fixed but Afe intelligently manoeuvred and claimed that the Alaafin should also have his say before any motion to suspend the conferment is passed.
Afe successfully halted the Ashipa’s motion only two days or so to the conferment, for which many international dignitaries had flown into Nigeria to support Abiola and Abiola became the only Yoruba man to hold both the title of Basorun and Aare Ona Kakanfo.
The belief that SDP wasn’t accepted in the SE is a conclusion of surface political analysis by lazy journalists who like to resort to ethnic archetypes to justify political failings or success. SDP in truth, won only one seat in the SE – Anambra through Chukwuemeka Ezeife. But if you research deeper, the SDP should have won heavily at the time in the SE but internal politics was often a problem.
Take Imo for instance: Arthur Nzeribe was the be-all and end-all of Imo politics at the time and he was in SDP but there was a political problem. Other stakeholders wanted Ezekiel Izuogu as the candidate but Nzeribe imposed Fabian Osuji as the party candidate. The court however overruled him and rather than pick Izuogu, Nzeribe who was close to the military regime, drafted a Local Govt Chairman, Alex Obi instead.
So most SDP stakeholders supported NRC in the gubernatorial election and then little known Evan(s) Enwerem became Governor. And it happens in politics, in fact, it is how NRC won Lagos due to the SDP infighting between Dapo Sarumi and Femi Agbalajobi with Yomi Edu emerging. To say that Michael Otedola’s Victory with the NRC in Lagos was due only to the SDP infighting though would be lazy – but that’s a story for another day (hopefully) because they ran a strong campaign and had some strategies which PDP should be using now with the APC
Back to SDP: aspirants vied but nobody mustered enough votes so three aspirants squared off:
Atiku Abubakar, backed by the Yar’Adua machinery;
Babagana Kingibe, backed by the Governors;
MKO Abiola, backed by himself mainly and the Yoruba minority who were still in SDP.
Abiola’s Campaign at the SDP primaries was a class act (according to those who were there with them in Jos). He and his sons had walkie-talkies for communication all over the grounds, he bought hotel rooms in Abuja for all delegates for weeks before the convention in fact. Knowing fully well that if Abiola emerged, he would pick a VP from the North, the SE aligned mainly with Kingibe as Atiku was then little known to them.
Abiola then aligned with Yar’Adua to consider him as second-choice candidate, promising to give the VP slot to Atiku. Immediately Abiola won however, the Governors in SDP cornered him and offered him their support only on the condition that he picked Kingibe as his running mate. Kingibe as chairman had helped most of them into office. He has relinquished the seat then however for Tony Anenih.
Tony Anenih then had come in, with the expectation that a Northerner would pick the presidential ticket of the SDP but even when Abiola emerged, the difference between the SS and SW is more readily seen than the one between a Kanuri Kingibe and a Fulani Yar’Adua – to outsiders.
Uthman Tofa emerged as the NRC candidate as a product of th Northern oligarchy – which I should explain: not all Northerners are part of the oligarchy but there is a Fulani core of conservative politicians who are extremely pro-North, perhaps as Afenifere is extremely pro-SW.
SE leaders in NRC through Sylvester Ugoh as his running mate aligned with Tofa. The erudite Ugoh had been governor of the Central Bank of Biafra with a very intimidating academic profile.
So the stage was set: Abiola/Kingibe for SDP, Tofa/Ugoh for NRC.
The SDP ticket was a Muslim/Muslim ticket which was naturally impolitic but the SDP fielded them anyway and soon, an Abiola who had constructed many churches and even donated money to various Christian bodies was soon been tagged anti-Christian in rural grassroots talk.
I always say: if you want to know the sexual position in which your father impregnated your mother, go into politics and someone will tell you, swearing they witnessed the act personally.
The story that Abiola sunk a shipload of Bibles is entirely a political invention.
And one of the deadliest men to confront ever in Nigerian politics was Arthur Nzeribe – the man had a long memory like that of a snake, never forgives like Obasanjo and could badmouth you from house to house like Adegoke Adelabu.
Abiola had the misfortune of clashing with him.
Abiola went to campaign in Imo and he held a meeting with Nzeribe in Oguta. Nzeribe asked what his stake was in the SDP and Abiola offered him the SGF position (which allegedly he had also offered to Ojukwu in a bid to secure his support).
Nzeribe rejected the position.
Following the breakdown of talks, Abiola was stoned coming out of Oguta and consequently refused to go back and campaign in Imo. When Nzeribe asked him to return, Abiola is said to have said that he doesn’t need the votes of those who will stone him to win the presidency.
Nzeribe took this statement personal and thereafter told everyone that Abiola had said that he would become President without the votes of the entire Igbos. Nzeribe also set up a group called Association for a Better Nigeria to frustrate Abiola’s presidential bid.
From May 1993, a series of newspaper adverts began to appear, calling on IBB to stay in power and they were signed by Keith Atkins – the name of a British PR agent who had been hired by the ABN.
IBB himself wasn’t too keen to handover power and assumed Abiola would never win. Abacha is alleged to have warned that Abiola could win but IBB dismissed it, saying Tofa would win. For Tofa meanwhile, the regime had a plan to disqualify him if he won, on the basis that he wasn’t a duly registered member of the NRC in the first place.
Indeed, the party membership number that Tofa had filled into his nomination form was that of a woman and the regime had made a photocopy of her own membership form and kept it in a dossier, waiting for Tofa to emerge before they disrupted the whole thing.
But Abiola was winning
Those who know Anenih know that he is a tireless political fixer with wide networks all over the country. In the Kano axis, SDP also had Sule Lamido as Secretary from Jigawa and Abubakar Rimi was onground in Kano, losing the gubernatorial contest to NRC by the Santsi/Tabo issue.
In May 1993 also, the ABN filed a case to halt the June 12 election. Two days to the date in 1993, Justice (Mrs) Bassey Ikpeme was allegedly flown into Abuja especially to hear the case and she ordered the election to be put on hold, contrary to a decree of the same IBB regime.The decree had stated that no interim or interlocutory order or ruling, judgement or decision made by any court or tribunal etc could stop the election.
So June 11, Sunbo Onitiri and Richard Adejumo filed another case in Lagos before Justice Moshood Olugbani. Olugbani ruled that election should go on and in June 12, roughly 30% of voters trooped out to vote – an abysmal percentage by most electoral standards but better than Eme Awa’s turnout for the LGA elections previously.
Humphrey Nwosu began announcing results: Abiola was winning
June 15, 1993: Abimbola Davies of the ABN returned to court seeking an order to stop further announcement of results. Justice Dahiru Saleh granted the order, NEC under Nwosu complied but appealed to the same court and on June 21, Saleh ruled that the elections was null and void. Saleh conveniently ignored the Olugbani ruling and claimed that the elections should never have held, based on Ikpeme’s ruling.
Babangida addressed Nigerians on June 26 to pronounce the June 12 elections annulled and a fresh election to be held by the end of July. To divide the political class, Babangida lifted the ban on the 23 initial presidential aspirants and the scramble began in earnest.
Noteworthy: those in the SDP stood by Abiola at this time, insisting on victory. NRC was understandably less enthusiastic about June 12 though. As a matter of fact, SDP convened a meeting on Sunday July 4 at the Edo State Govt House where Oyegun was Governor under the chairmanship of Tony Anenih and insisted that it stood by June 12.
Abiola himself didn’t react publicly until July 5 – still hoping to appeal to IBB. For me, this is where Abiola began to make mistakes – he was relying more on his friendship with the military brass rather than the solidarity of his political associates in the SDP.
In any case, IBB wasn’t picking Abiola’s call and was practically avoiding him all over Nigeria.It is said that when IBB went to condole with Yar’Adua in Katsina over the loss of his father around that period, he hurried out of the state as soon as he heard Abiola was flying into Katsina in his own airplane – which wasn’t cleared for landing until IBB had departed.Anyway, IBB invited both SDP and NRC on July to a meeting on a way forward – SDP had Anenih, Sule Lamido, Abubakar Rimi, Lateef Jakande, Amos Idakula
(Bez’ dad) and others in that delegation. The NRC was open to fresh elections but the SDP was adamant on its victory. It was clear to all that the military was reluctant to handover power but the NRC was being silly (as I see it) or politically savvy by hoping for a fresh contest. IBB insisted on fresh elections and so the SDP and NRC went on to hold talks on July 7 at a hotel in Abuja.
Both parties released a communique and affirmed that they were committed to the military handover date of August 27, 1993 and agreed to set up a joint committee to resolve all political issues before then – this committee idea later transformed to the Interim National Govt (ING).IBB asked for time to discuss the issues with his military fellows and another meeting was convened for July 12.
On July 12, Augustus Aikhomu was sent to meet with both parties and told them that the military had decided to set up an ING and handover to them on August 27.Kusamotu of the NRC reacted first and said either option was fine by the NRC – fresh elections or ING.
Anenih and the SDP leaders were furious and staged a walkout. Footage from news reports that night show that the SDP leaders were clearly miffed.
So, where was Abiola?
Before we look for him in all these, let’s conclude with how the SDP leaders reacted but keep the question in mind.July 14: Aikhomu addressed the nation on the outcome of the meeting with political parties and made clear that SDP was being adamant while NRC had capitulated.
Aikhomu made clear that there were only two options: fresh elections or ING.To be fair to someone like Shehu Musa Yar’Adua, he stood by the SDP position and Abiola – which was only commonsensical because it was obvious the military didn’t want to handover power to anyone.
Also to be fair to someone like Obasanjo, in July 12, 1993, he formed a group called Association for Democracy and Good Governance and publicly condemned the June12 annulment, calling for the military to vacate power.
So why do many say otherwise?
To answer that, let us now look for Abiola in July 1993:
He was invited to the meeting of SDP leaders in Edo State but he couldn’t to attend, he was shuttling between Lagos and Abuja, trying to get a sitdown with IBB in the hope that they could resolve issues directly.
By the time it became obvious to him that IBB was avoiding him, he had heard reports that he could be assassinated in Abuja and when the SDP leaders invited him to be around in Abuja for the party discussions with the regime, he refused and stayed firmly in Lagos.
As the politicians were trying to meet, the civil society and SW groups had suddenly clung to the June 12 issue – an election which they had initially condemned and asked citizens to boycott.
And Abiola was increasingly meeting with them and listening to them, not his party. Abiola began to be convinced that the reason for the annulment was because the northern oligarchy didn’t want a Yoruba to become President – which may have been true, but the main reason was that the military simply didn’t want to go.
They had even expected Tofa to win.
Tofa’s expected victory was also to be rubbished – they had prepared more for a Tofa emergence to be dismissed based on valid reports than Abiola and had expected Tofa to go away more quietly. Abiola wasn’t expected to win and his victory had disrupted their plans.
As more Yoruba leaders – who again had all along called the June 12 election a sham, began to speak up and craft the June 12 narrative as an offensive against the Yorubas by the North, they complicated matters even more for SDP which was still standing by June 12.
Abiola was also kept in the loop as much as possible though and SDP as a creation of Govt initially was a bone in the neck of the IBB regime: if they were abrogated, it would ruin the IBB transition plan but Abiola was fighting the war with other new friends outside SDP. With no headway by the end of July and the August handover date drawing nearer, SDP (and NRC) managed to get the IBB regime to concede to leaving all other democratic structures in place i.e. National Assembly, State Governors And Houses of Assembly as well as LGA structures.
On July 31, IBB inaugurated a tripartite committee to oversee the rest of the transition programme with Aikhomu as Chairman and other military folks like David Mark on it as well as representatives from the two parties.
NRC had the likes of Tom Ikimi, Hamed Kusamotu, Adamu Ciroma, Bola Afonja, Bashir Dalhatu, John Nwodo etc on the committee.
SDP had Anenih, Sule Lamido, Shehu Yar’Adua, Dele Cole, Okechukwu Odunze, Abubakar Rimi, Amos Idakula and so on as their representatives.
For the August handover, this committee agreed to set up the ING – the thinking with the SDP was that once the military handed over to a civilian government, it would be easier to win the battle for June 12.
SDP tried to push Abiola to head the ING but the military rejected it. The ING proposal was taken to Abiola and he agreed to it as a way to get the military out of Govt but refused the SDP to let go three specific positions to the NRC:
Secretary of State (as the SFG was to be designated), Secretary for Defence and Secretary for Foreign Affairs.
Unknown to many except a few Yoruba leaders within the SDP like Bola Tinubu who was then a senator, Abiola was still friendly with Sani Abacha and pushed him forward to be the Secretary of Defence in the ING.
Meanwhile, massive protests were still ongoing in the SW against IBB.
Ernest Shonekan was proposed to head the ING and IBB handed over to the ING on August 26. In a sly manner, Shonekan was only named as President and Head of States of the ING, not Commander in Chief.
IBB and his service chiefs dated their resignation from the army – August 27.
Abacha is said to have backdated IBB’s retirement from the military to August 26 which was the date of the handing over and then postponed the retirement of other service chiefs until September.
Rather than work with the ING though, Abiola opposed Shonekan at every turn and one newspaper report from that period has him on record as calling for the overthrow of the ING and the restoration of his mandate.
On November 18, 1993, the ING was overthrown and Abacha took power.
Abacha’s palace coup and Shonekan’s resignation was hailed by the SW media (as usual) and by Abiola’s newspaper especially – Abiola had been dealing with Abacha to takeover and handover to him all along, without telling his SDP associates.
In fact, when Anenih called Abiola to ask why he was calling for the ING to exit power, Abiola allegedly replied with one of his famous proverbial quips that if one is going to Kano, the means of getting there didn’t matter, that SDP was going by road but he wanted to go by air.
Abacha’s opening gambit put Abiola to sleep even further – Abiola personally nominated some of those who served on Abacha’s cabinet like Ebenezer Babatope who until this time was a core member of Awo’s political family which had now embraced Abiola fully as a Yoruba.
The pilot of Abiola’s air trip as per the proverbial quip, Abacha, got into power and consolidated his hold – he dissolved the National Assembly, stunning the likes of Bola Tinubu who had been going to meet Abacha with Abiola all along.
He removed all the Governors too.
The Governors were removed in March of the following year but by December of 1993, Abiola had begun to see Abacha’s game and on January 2, 1994, TELL magazine ran the headline:
“THE RETURN OF TYRANNY: ABACHA BARES HIS FANGS”.
Abacha goons seized 30,000 copies of their magazine.
In February, Obasanjo delivered one of his now famous State of the Nation addresses in which he lambasted Abacha publicly – these things are on record, but the SW political establishment monopolised the June 12 struggle consequently – NADECO wasn’t even formed until May of 1994.
Obasanjo compared Abacha to one member of a group that had decided to help a blind man cook soup only to return to the blind man’s house after all others had left and steal the pot of soup.
Again, this is an address that was delivered publicly like he did to GEJ and Buhari.
The tussle continued – Yoruba leaders called on Awoists Ebenezer Babatope and Lateef Jakande as well as Abiola’s Lawyer whom he had nominated into the Abacha regime – Olu Onagoruwa, to resign but the men refused and stayed on as Ministers.
Abiola at this time was moving freely.
About a year after June 12, 1993, Abiola suddenly surfaced in Epetedo, surrounded by core Yoruba leaders and declared himself President and Commander in Chief of the Federal Republic of Nigeria in what is now known as the Epetedo Declaration, based on his June 12 mandate.
This was a heroic act, full of courage but badly planned: his nationwide and political support base had been badly undercut and he had unwittingly restricted himself to the SW. Soon after this declaration, he flew out of Nigeria but again heroically, he returned. Upon return, Abiola was promptly arrested by the Abacha regime for treason.
Abiola’s arrest on June 23, 1993 was followed with further outrage as NUPENG and PENGASSAN went on strike, followed swiftly by the NLC. Street protests and the usual crackdown from the military also followed but it was mostly restricted to the SW and few other places down South. Various court cases came up – one had Soyinka asking the courts to declare Abacha’s Regime illegal, another one applied for Abiola’s release and it may have come from some members of his family but Abiola was not represented and his lawyer, GOK Ajayi was not aware of it.
Abiola was granted bail in that case by Justice Abdullahi Mustapha who was brought in from Benin to Abuja to sit on the case on Thursday, August 5, 1993; but some the case was on the 7th, a Saturday. The bail conditions forbade Abiola from holding any political discussion.
The case and the consequent bail was seen by some as Abacha’s gambit to get Abiola to abandon his mandate – Abiola was made aware of the bail conditions through his lawyer who hadn’t even been present for the case but he rejected the conditions and chose to stay in detention.
A minority think that he should have taken it but there again, you have Abiola’s unwavering courage on display – he chose to stay in detention rather than come out unable to discuss his political mandate with anyone.
Abacha meanwhile began to make plans for a new political order. To discuss Abacha’s regime would make this So Long A Thread even longer – so I’ll just chip in the bits that are incidental to the June 12 story and necessary to understand the context of the time and why players may have made the decisions they made.
Various human rights and pro-Democracy groups by this time had fully hijacked the June 12 struggle – an election which they had opposed at the time – and the hijack wasn’t ill-intentioned but it sidelined the politicians and many of them were consequently ‘blacklisted’.
The truth about Afenifere is that most of them were very much incapable of seeing political events in Nigeria apart from an ethnic perspective. To them, everything done against June 12 was done because Abiola, a Yoruba, won. This wasn’t wicked on their part, just how they saw it. So the June 12 struggle became easily isolated to the SW, with a few radicals from all over the country also joining it as they had all along being calling for the military to exit power.
From the SE, you had Ralph Obioha, Zik’s cousin Bobo Nwosisi, Rtd. Admiral Ndubuisi Kanu.
Ebitu Ukiwe was also there, (not sure he was SE or not though but crosscheck) and you had Arthur Nwankwo who was very frontal with the matter and formed the Eastern Mandate Union – very great man with a calm but fiercely resolute disposition, an absolute rock of a man – solid.
From the North you had the likes of Balarabe Musa who was arrested a few times, Abubakar Umar, Shehu Sani, Gambo Sawaba – a woman whose opposition to the military was from a point of opposition to any Govt that was high-handed in how it treated citizens.
Anthony Enahoro and particularly Alfred Rewane – a dogged Awolowo acolyte and financier who hosted many meetings of the National Democratic Coalition. A small digression to handle the various acronyms that came up at the time from civil society and various groups:
The history of activism in Nigeria started with the various professional unions such as the NUT, ASUU, NUPENG, NLC, PENGASSAN and co. It wasn’t until the IBB regime that independent or non-professional union groups started to come up, especially with Beko Ransome-Kuti’s arrest.
Beko has become ‘radicalised’ with a professional union himself – as head of the NMA branch in Lagos. CLO was formed first in 1985 with Olisa Agbakoba heading it before CDHR came on board in 1988 with Femi Aborishade.
On these ones, those who were insiders will know more. The Constitutional Rights Project broke away from the CLO over claims that some people were receiving Int’l funding but failing to declare it to the group – anyway, factions kept on coming up and mutating really quickly, almost all activists headed their own groups.
This was in the late 80s through the early 90s. So by the time Abacha took over power, many civil rights groups were active and virulent and Abacha tried to put them down with very brutal methods of arrest, random shootings and outright assassinations.
To aid understanding, let’s divide the opposition to Abacha persons into three really broad groups:
First you had the core activist groups which were pro-Democracy, anti-military, pro-human/civil rights but not necessarily pro-Abiola except that June 12 was now their major issue
Second group would have the pro-Yoruba groups who were pro-Abiola only because he was Yoruba, anti-military because they wanted the military to leave and Abiola to be installed as President.
Third, you had politicians who had hoped to get into office but were now confused.
A fourth group just came to mind: the likes of Arthur Nwankwo, Ebitu Ukiwe, Ndubuisi Kanu, Abubakar Umar, David Mark, Lawan Gwadabe – all except Nwankwo had been military men and wanted the military to leave and return to its traditional professional role in the barracks.
They of course granted interviews against Abacha which were seen as pro-democracy but they’d been part of the military system before.
To be fair though, their position made things difficult for Abacha and much of the looting info from the regime was got through them.
The human rights groups during the period included the Campaign for Democracy (CD), the Committee for the Defence of Human Rights (CDHR), the Civil Liberties Organisation (CLO), National Liberation Council of Nigeria (NALICON), the Democratic Alternative (DA)…
You also had: Constitutional Rights Project (CRP), the National Association of Lawyers for the Defense of Human Rights (NALDHR) etc.
At various points in the struggle, efforts were made to bring them all together under a single umbrella group but those too also had factions.
The two main umbrella groups I remember were the United Action for Democracy (UAD) and Joint Action Committee of Nigeria (JACON) led by Gani which emerged quite late in 96 or even 97.
Abroad, the umbrella group was the United Democratic Front of Nigeria (UDFN), I think. Curiously, Gani declared the NCP as a political party in 1994 – whether he hoped to contest elections under Abacha, I doubt, but it’s still curious.
Maybe @AbdulMahmud01 can clarify that later.
Anyway, Gani was dogged in the fight against the military and for Abiola’s release.
NADECO was a curious mix of the second group – politicians, as well as the first group of activists and it emerged as the most widely known platform of anti-Abacha and pro-Abiola elements. Ige was an arrowhead of this group and also was part of various physical struggles.
Abroad, it was also jumbled up: many ethnic associations joined the fight against Abacha and as long as you were Yoruba, you were automatically pro-Abiola. Actually, many of those who went into exile all claimed to be NADECO-abroad but truth is: some were just lounging abroad.
It is said that some of those who had fled into exile, like your MCM with the bulging eyes were actually feeding info back to Abacha about the NADECO movement while making money from drug trades.
It is said, I wasn’t there, but those who were there swear by it and I’m inclined. Abiola was in detention meanwhile and was only allowed two books to read: the Holy Quran and the Holy Bible.
He managed to write letters and I remember a particular one he wrote to Gani in which he started by addressing Gani as “my dearest Gani”.
Gani wept on TV reading it.
In that letter, Abiola immortalised himself by explaining lucidly why he had not acceded to the military demands that he should forgo the June 12 mandate – he chose to suffer detention rather than come out and it was in that isolation that Abiola died and resurrected a Democrat.
His thoughts were lucid and logical – evidence of a man who had spent a time within himself.
He quoted deeply from the Holy books and advanced democratic principles, chipping in his usual proverbs – that June 12 was a baby that had been born and could no longer be aborted.
To understand why the Yorubas deified Abiola, you’ll have to understand the Christian concept of trials and deaths.
To understand why the Yorubas cannot place Abiola on the same pedestal as Awolowo, you’ve got to understand the Christian concept of resurrection.
Awolowo went through trial and ‘death’ by detention but his vindication came eventually as Yorubas see it and his enemies were vanquished – this is why the Yoruba leaders celebrated the 1966 coup in which Akintola, Awo’s enemy died.
That Abiola did not come out of detention (death) but physically died in detention is seen as a human fault – his own mortal enemy Abacha, had suddenly died: so why wasn’t he glorified?
Some Yoruba ideologues say that it shows Abiola up as a sort of villain who became a hero.
The Christian links is not my invention meanwhile – it is a deeply researched issue in many Yoruba works.
But back to the story: the political class, bereft of direction with an Abiola/June 12 struggle that was now ethnic/ideological started to waver on what to do.
They had stopped hearing from Abiola even before he was detained, they had stopped knowing what he was planning and now in detention, it was total silence.
Abacha meanwhile was dangling the carrot of another transition programme before them and it looked really edible.
By 1997, some had started to make the argument that they were now free to move on because Abiola’s 1993 mandate was for four years and would have expired – a commonsensically nonsensical argument: the man had not even been President for one day!
Trust politicians though.
The June 12 struggle was a test of wills, principles, values and ideology. It was absolutely difficult to stand firm and I can sympathise with everyone who did not go as far as endorsing Abacha later on, even with those who served under Abacha but resigned.
For ideologues like Gani, it was an easy one: oppose the military, “boycott the boycottables” as Mazi Ojike would have said.
For one like Olu Onagoruwa though, it was a dilemma: Abiola had nominated him to serve Abacha, now he was being called a traitor, Abiola was in detention.
When the man eventually tried to leave Govt by resigning, his son was shot to death by assassins and the man was forced broken.
Gani though was unsympathetic but History should be kind to Onagoruwa without lowering the standard and importance of ideology and clear headedness.
Pa Alfred Rewane, Suliat Adedeji, Admiral Elegbede, Kudirat Abiola and far too many others were killed by a top assassin squad of the regime as confessed to by Sgt. Barnabas Jabila aka Rogers who is now born again.
Alex Ibru was shot and consequently half-paralysed.
Pa Abraham Adesanya was also attacked but he survived the over 40 bullets shot at his vehicle at close range from various angles. The Ijebu man got down and walked on his feet with his driver to his office afterwards.
The next day, the driver resigned and Papa wondered why Papa is said to have told people that didn’t his driver know that as long as the egg remained in the belly of the chicken, nothing could ever crack the egg without first killing the chicken? Ijebu sha…
Anyway, the killings were very serious and dastardly at the time.
The crackdown was also brutal – Yoruba men were considered to be NADECO members and all Yoruba leaders were routinely harassed by military Governors. Onyearugbulam is said to have gone into Pa Ajasin’s house in Owo and threatened Baba until the old man cried. He got his though.
One death I would be loathe to miss in this recollection would be that of Shehu Musa Yar’Adua in detention. One quick detour to talk about him before we come to round this up and link it to modern day events.
SMY was a very great man of blue blood and much wisdom.
Shehu was a part of the Northern oligarchy and by the time he started to ascend in power, the reality of One-Nigeria dictated that the North should adjust to power- sharing and friendliness to other ethnicities and he was quite accommodating but surprisingly, no less pro-North.
His office as 2ic to Obasanjo in the late 70s was where Mamman Daura and Ibrahim Tahir started to learn, along with a few others. SMY himself was remarkably more brilliant than they in working as Fulani in a diverse nation, judging by what Daura has become today.
SMY did not hold back against Abacha like other Fulani leaders sometimes did – he had given his word to Abiola and he never wavered. In fact, when IBB annulled the June 12 election and lifted the ban for old politicians like SMY to come into the race, he didn’t take the bait.
Another person who was like that was Ibrahim Dasuki, Sultan of Sokoto – he opposed Abacha (some say for personal differences though) and supported Abiola’s mandate. His son, Sambo Dasuki had to flee from the country and the man himself was deposed as Sultan over this issue.
In the face of this, one then wonders why Abiola allowed the June 12 struggle to become an ethnic one – but let’s finish first before we analyse. SMY was killed in detention – many accounts say he was injected with a deadly substance meant for him and OBJ but Ebora Owu resisted.
In the magic movie The Prestige, the script mentions “The Turn” as the moment of actual magic where The Promise begins fulfilment and finds expression as The Prestige of Magic.
In my mind, The Turn was in 1997 when 9 men decided to meet and align.
At this point, the Abacha transition was ongoing and five new parties (which Ige called “five fingers of a leprous hand”) were in play.
Old time politicians majorly abstained because they knew Abacha wasn’t ready to go but new politicians joined and started political activities. Suddenly, all the parties started adopting Abacha as presidential candidate – again, one of the very few men, I think they were only two in fact, who resisted him in the political parties was M.D. Yusuf – then of the UNCP I think but it can be googled by interested readers.
Anyway, the moment it became clear that Abacha was planning to transmute into a civilian dictatorship that I imagine would have run the way Buhari is running his own now, more politicians started reaching out to form alliances across borders and resist Abacha totally.
So those 9 men met in Lagos under the chairmanship of Alex Ekwueme and the meeting had leaders like Bola Ige, Francis Ellah, Jerry Gana, Adamu Ciroma, Abubakar Rimi, Solomon Lar and Sule Lamido (I’ve forgotten the last person – google).
See why I love Ige? He was the only Yoruba
Ige more than any other Yoruba leaders of his time understood the essence of working cross-culturally and it’s a lesson I can never fail to imbibe.
Many of his associates in Afenifere could never understand this and felt he was a traitor for that reason but Ige was dogged.
According to Lamido himself, Ige at that meeting frontally accused the Northern leaders present of clandestinely working for Abacha – “why else had they kept quiet all along?”
Rimi of course was as caustic of tongue as Ige and he also countered back quite strongly. More
Ekwueme and Lamido intervened and said since that was the opinion, the Northern leaders should go back to their homes and issue a statement condemning Abacha in totality.
This was done and a meeting of Northern Leaders G19, one from each state of the North was convened. A statement was issued by the Group, condemning Abacha and this group thereafter resolved to integrate with the South, which states were also mandated to pick one representative from each meeting – 36 in total. By a twist of fate, what should have been G36 however became G34.
On the day of the meeting, Rimi and Lamido, who were travelling together and representing Kano and Jigawa respectively were arrested by Abacha goons. Rimi was sent to detention in Ilorin, Sule Lamido was sent to Maiduguri.
So G36 became G34 but had 36 members, 2 in detention.
As though the God of Nigeria’s Creation, referenced in the second stanza of the national anthem, was waiting for this show of unity and cross-cultural condemnation of Abacha, He seemingly intervened and Abacha died mysteriously – wild jubilation broke out in the SW mainly.
Abacha died on June 7, 1998 – I was sleeping in my room in my dad’s house when my homeboy @dboydayo_ rushed in and started smacking my back furiously.
I woke up angrily, ready to insult him but he shouted urgently “Abacha don die”.
I pulled on my cloths and we rushed outside.
The jubilation was mad: strangers hugging each other, explosive fireworks being thrown (in June o!, those ones they call ‘banger’ or ‘knockout’); car horns blaring – an air of freedom come – and in that moment, I understood Democracy.
We will do it again in 2019, insha Allah. Curiously, rather than release Abiola, the new military regime headed by Abdulsalami Abubakar held on to him but allowed him better detention facilities and access to more visitors other than Ore Falomo, his personal doctor.
Calls for his release were ignored.
In a normal procedural country, Abiola should have been released to claim his mandate – but the military was still trying to get people to tell him to abandon the mandate and let a fresh political process start.
Abiola asked to first be released to consult with his associates.
Emeka Anyaoku of the Commonwealth and Kofi Annan of the UN who had been married to a Nigerian were brought in to negotiate with Abiola. So isolated had the man been that he didn’t know the new UN SecGen and asked “what of the Egyptian?” Referring to Boutrous Boutrous-Ghali.
At another meeting on July 7, 1998, this time with American diplomats, Abiola suddenly slumped and died. Some say he had tea with them and died, some say he suddenly felt hot and asked for a tea break then collapsed and died.
An autopsy revealed Cardiac Arrest as probable cause Cardiac arrest is usually the ultimate cause of death anyway – your heart stops beating. Anyway, some still believe Abiola was killed to resolve a political situation – I believe this too but I am too sure that anyone who was involved with his death will never speak up.
Uncle Bola’s column that Sunday was one whole page on which he wrote in big and bold letters, not many words:
MKO Abiola Dead???!!!!!
Oro p’esi je (which means a matter upon which it is too difficult to comment but one that demands a reaction nonetheless.)
Abiola died on a Tuesday and I think he was buried same day or the day after – his burial was a demystification ceremony for many whom the people felt had betrayed him.
Senator Anthony Adefuye (I remember vividly) was stripped of his clothes with only his underwear left.
Area boys and various NANS comrades declared “maximum shishi” on anybody even suspected to have been close to the military or not seen to have been active during the struggle.
Gani was in tears and I’m not sure he attended, Falana was the only one who could save anybody.
If Falana said “we don’t know this one” – slaps of all variations including ifoti (ears), ifomu (nose), ifoju (eyes), apama (to the belly) and oloyi (the headspinner) as well as kicks and headbutts followed. If Falana said “ara wa ni!” – you could escape with a few slaps.
Interestingly, most of your MCMs who had returned from the abroad after Abacha died, stayed away from Abiola’s burial and visited only by night. Many of them were accused of being traitors to the cause all along and even leaking secrets of NADECO-abroad to the regime.
With Abiola dead, the June 12 mandate died a natural death and the struggle also died but the struggle for democracy continued. The conundrum however remained: to participate in Abubakar’s transition or not?
Gani and JACON which he led, insisted on total abstention from it.
Gani demanded that a Govt of National Unity should First be put in place to convene a Sovereign National Conference that would write a new constitution, on the basis of which a new political order would begin. (I know @ayosogunro would have agreed).
Ige and others were pragmatic
The thought of the Iges at the time was that the military should just be allowed to exit power by all means and so they decided to participate but they wanted the exclusion of those who had participated in either the Abacha Govt or even in his transition programme.
G34 was first to seek provisional registration with the glorious name Peoples Democratic Party.
Abacha politicians – rejected in many places soon swamped into the All Peoples Party aka Abacha Peoples Party.
Ige and co joined both initially but soon formed Alliance for Democracy
Unfortunately for Afenifere, it was impossible to ward off those who had participated in the Abacha transition programme but hadn’t served under Abacha so the likes of Omisore, Funsho Williams, Obanikoro and co had to be allowed to join the AD because they had active structures.
AD was restricted to the SW, APP had some following in the core North and the SE but PDP was the only truly national political formation at the time, as it is now. Some powermongers were so stained by association with Abacha though that they were avoided – e.g. Your MCM Abuja.
The June 12 spirit and the travails and death of Abiola however saw the Fourth Republic start on a note of solidarity with the SW – all parties presented an SW candidate but Obasanjo’s emergence ruined the democratic vigour of the PDP within 8 years.
What happened to Gani though?
By the time the military left and Obasanjo was in power, Gani then started to try to register a political party afresh – NCP, which he had declared as mentioned, since 1994.
I believe his ultra-radical posture as at 1998 was a huge and terrible mistake of the left.
But here’s the thing: heroes are human and humans make mistakes, terrible catastrophic ones that sometimes change the course of history but in their moment of finality, the acts that define them are truly heroic.
I’m not particularly enamoured with Abiola, but he is a Hero.
Abiola made mistakes – so many, and he had too many flaws which I have not shirked from but in the moments when it mattered, he reached deep within himself and stood firm against the tyranny of Abacha and the military. He stood by the mandate of June 12 and paid the supreme price.
In our time, we draw inspiration from his story as well as the stories of other heroes who died in the struggle – inspiration to stand firmly by convictions and against tyranny, but we also learn from him – not to respond to political issues with ethnicity or isolate ourselves.
As a Yoruba who watched my father buy news magazines clandestinely and heard of Yorubas arrested only because they were found with activist journals like TELL, TheNews and Tempo – how can I in good conscience not sympathise with the SE when you label them as enemies?
One man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist – Soyinka wasconce accused of terrorism under Abacha.
Is it not possible, that Nnamdi Kanu was another Abiola in detention and would my reaction to him be the same as if one were (or not) of the same ethnicity as he?
The big irony of the whole June 12 saga is the conspiracy of the modern pseudo-Yoruba leadership of Tinubu and the core Northern oligarchy to win power.
The true leaders of Afenifere could never do that and they didn’t – they stand firm till date.
The past, for me, is never a conclusive matter – it never dies, it is living and active – constantly reaching out to shape our present and future and screaming to us with a loud voice called History.
History is important – it is our guide, but many fail to listen and they fall.
If you know how a storyline goes, you’ll know the ending once you start watching the movie again, even if the actors are different.
We know how these things end – we know how tyranny ended and we know how the man who trusted the tyrant ended – quite sadly.
But we dey watch…
Didn’t Abiola feel he would outwit Abacha?
Isn’t Tinubu feeling he will outwit Buhari?
I say we’re watching – but we’re also actors in this movie and will play our parts.
However it turns out, we’ll be prepared to learn the lessons again and take the test again in future.
Thanks for reading everyone and for the crucial corrections and additions – I’m grateful, some corrections are wrong though but they’ll be explained better and clarified when I write a proper book before the end of this year by God’s Grace.
It’s been so long a Article – my longest ever yet and some of you stuck with it – one day, they’ll tell our stories too and others will read: that’s why we try.