Like a stubborn sphinx that refused to be interred, June 12 has risen after 26 years to get its rightful place in the annals of the country’s history. When those that procured and sustained the annulment of the June 12 1993 election thought they had successfully buried that epochal historicity in the thick grave that enshroud the country’s chequered political history, that date has shot up and assumed its rightful place as the foremost Democracy Day when the labours of the patriots and martyrs that fought against militarism and civilian democracy was restored and rightly documented.
This year, precisely June 12, 2019, Nigerians will celebrate the real Democracy Day which highlights the gritty and nervy fight Nigerians undertook to rout the military from the country’s politics and re-establish civilian democratic rule. This historical celebration of the rightful date that midwifed the present democratic dispensation was granted by President Muhammadu Buhari via a Presidential Order last year, which boldly decided to break from the sash of thick-hooded conspiracy that sought to bury that historical date and rather divert its glory to May 29 when civilian governments took off in 1999. In releasing the Executive Order that rightly accorded June 12 its rightful place as the country’s Democracy Day. President Buhari decided to lead the country to strike a clean break from a dubious past that was webbed to misappropriate the rightful roots of the present long stretch democratic epoch, deny the heroes of the struggle that brought democracy their rightful and earned places in history and replace these with impostors and transient fortune hunters who misappropriated the fruits of those that laid down their lives for the enthronement of the present democracy.
So after a long 26 years living in denial, the country is, this year, celebrating Democracy Day on its rightful date. In invoking that Presidential Order, President Buhari had rightly mended history, healed open and festering wounds and indeed brought to fruition those indelible words in our national anthem that ‘the labours of our heroes past shall never be in vain’. In recognizing some of the leading lights of the fitful struggle to bring democracy, the government demonstrated a desire to stop the misapplication of honours and recognize it for what it really is. That June 12 rose, several years after its brutal suppression and equally brutal efforts to sustain that wrong shows the staying power of truth over blemished lies.
As a core participant in the efforts to restore the sanctity of June 12 and accord it its rightful place in our country’s history, I see the decision of President Buhari to do right to the festering sore as a crowning of our efforts to do right and stand by that. I see the validation of June 12 as the right move Nigerians need to fire their moral unction and do what is right in all situations, no matter the cost. I see the hallowed place June 12 is getting from this year as a timely message to a citizenry that is being persuaded to trifle with lasting values and mores and embrace base interests because of their mundane pecuniary value. For me and millions of Nigerians who struggled against the brutal military and their civilian collaborators to restore the sanctity of June 12, the declaration of a National Holiday on June 12 and its recognition as Democracy Day is enough reward for the struggle. That this year, twenty-six whole years after that epic event, Nigerians are doing away with the lie that robbed the date of its value and are going back to the roots of this democratic order shows the staying power of truth. It can be persecuted, rubbished, deprived but it can never get buried.
Those who were undeserved beneficiaries of the June 12 struggle did everything to bury June 12. Those who anchored their selfish interests on suppressing June 12 did everything to kill it. Those who see their future selfish interests nestled on killing June 12 did everything to inter that date but, because it is a struggle anchored on justice, it rose triumphant when they least expected and this year, Nigeria is in one boundless crescendo celebrating this date for what it rightly is.
When we recall that some of those that made the loudest noise standing on June 12 are today seized by bitter pain and agony because June 12 is given its rightful place by the Buhari regime, we will better understand what fired some of the people in the struggle. It is obvious that most of these that hustled for photo-ops with Chief MKO Abiola and who vowed and swore to stand and die by June 12 were only hustling for their selfish interests. They neither had the conviction that encased this struggle nor the selfless desire to see that justice was served by the actualization of June 12. They were only positioning themselves for the anticipated nectars of the struggle. That is why most of them are seized with fits of bitterness and anger this year when they should be in their Christmas bests. Their anger is ruled by selfish desires and narrow interests that have made some of them disgruntled stakeholders in a PDP, whose leading lights played pivotal roles in annulling and sustaining the annulment of June 12. Their bitterness betrays their pretensions of standing for the lofty ideals of June 12. It was obvious that when Chief Abiola died, most of these players surveyed the ground for where best to attend to their carnal desires. Some of them were seduced to serve the subsequent military governments. With the advent of civilian government, most of them cozied up to Obasanjo and his PDP who were natural foes of June 12 and what it represents and for 16 years the PDP controlled power, these impostors were comfortable with the shoddy manner June 12 was treated. They went to bed with PDP and forgot June 12 and for them, the struggle was ended because there were no further prospects for their elephantine interests in a June 12 their new allies did everything to inter.
Like a Daniel come to judgment, not many were surprised that the Buhari regime restored June 12 when almost every Nigeria thought the date has become history and had cozied up with the lie that May 29 was the Democracy Day as Obasanjo and his PDP confederates sold. What was rather surprising is that many of those that struggled for photo-op sessions with Chief Abiola and were waving the bandana of June 12 are not happy today because the right thing was done by Buhari. Many of those that reveled as friends and associates of Abiola and who made loud noise about their pre-eminent roles in the struggle for the actualization of June 12 are today very sad that June 12 was indeed actualized. They felt at home that an impostor in May 29 was drafted as democracy day by their collaborators in PDP and are bitter that June 12, the real democracy day is being restored. What more, many of them had frantically tried to pour cold water on that gargantuan effort by Buhari because they are today activists for PDP and the very interests that killed and buried June 12.
But the flipsides of June 12 will not prevent millions of Nigerians from celebrating that historical date for what it is; the very root of the present democratic order. The betrayals that attend June 12 started from the very early days of the struggle when party chieftains that should protect its sanctity traded it to the devious regime that annulled it. It dates back to when the Vice Presidential candidate of that ticket sold out to the military for a price lesser than what Judas betrayed Jesus Christ for. The betrayals were enormous and expansive since then but even in their hefty nature, they are not strong enough to stop its triumph when the Buhari government declared it a national holiday, restored its status as the Democracy Day, apologized to Abiola family, presented Chief Abiola the country’s highest national honour, declared him the winner of June 12 1993 election and honored many who were prominent in the fight for the actualization of June 12 and the restoration of democracy in Nigeria. These were healing balms that attends to such open sore as inflicted not only on Abiola but Nigerians in general.
As Nigerians celebrate the actualization of June 12, its rightful role as the Democracy Day, its dethronement of the impostor of May 29, what should rule our minds is the resolve to say never again will some self-serving interests play the nation that hard card again. And never again will bestial interests deal us such evil bad card of injustice as was done to June 12. Happy celebrations to all Nigerians!
Peter Claver Oparah
In The Spotlight
Finally, June 12 as a historically iconic date is official. It is no longer a mere symbol of what could have been. It is now encoded as a take-off date for the resurgence of the democratic experience in Nigeria.
And the credit goes to President Muhammadu Buhari, a man whose comrades-in-arms, led by Ibrahim Babangida had, in a streak of authoritarian madness, vitiated the peoples’ will in 1993. Whenever the injustice of June 12 is remembered, it will always be said that Buhari was the man who righted that wrong. History will be kind to him in this regard. But June 12, known euphemistically as the 26-year old pregnancy and national albatross, which has haunted the trajectory of Nigeria’s precarious democracy, can only get final closure if, and when Gen. Abdulsalami Abubakar tells Nigerians why he kept Abiola to die in detention while other political prisoners were released.
Without doubt, Nigerian democracy has come a long away. Most Nigerians who are old enough to remember the significance of June 12, hailed the decision of the Buhari administration to recognize June 12 as Democracy Day. Whether it was an obligatory atonement emanating from genuine contrition, or an expedient after-thought contrived for political reasons, Buhari’s conferment of the national honor, Grand Commander of the Federal Republic (GCFR) on Abiola, and his public apology to his family were acts of nobility and magnanimity.
Viewed as an act of statesmanship, the apology and multiple honors granted Abiola underlines the move towards appeasement, reconciliation and national unity. Buhari claimed the reason for the double honor rightfully granted the late Abiola was not “to open old wounds but to put right a national wrong.” To assuage the feelings of Nigerians and “recognize that a wrong has been committed,” the president made his offering: “This retrospective and posthumous recognition is only a symbolic token of redress and recompense for the grievous injury done to the peace and unity of our country. Our decision to recognize and honor June 12 and its actors is in the national interest. It is aimed at setting national healing process and reconciliation of the 25-year festering wound caused by the annulment of the June 12th election. I earnestly invite all Nigerians across our entire national divide to accept it in good faith.”
The travails of the prevailing democratic order make imperative the interrogation of what June 12 called Democracy Day is all about. Do Nigerians really appreciate what democracy means? Are Nigerian politicians making democracy worthwhile or perverting its content and process? Undoubtedly there are many Nigerians who have stories to tell about the great men and women who participated in those stirring events that culminated in the final stage when Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo was sworn-in as the third elected president of Nigeria. Perhaps the most significant actor in those events of 1998 and 1999 was Gen. Abubakar, the last serving soldier to hold the office of Head of State and Commander-in-Chief of the Nigerian Armed Forces.
Gen. Abubakar was known among his colleagues as a rigorously apolitical soldier. He joined the nascent Nigerian Air force in 1963 but crossed into the army in 1966, a move that proved to be quite fortuitous. He was a member of the military tribunal that tried and condemned the soldiers who staged the Gideon Orkar coup of April 22, 1990 - the bloodiest attempt to topple IBB. After that event, Abubakar faded from the news. In the wake of the annulment of the June 12, 1993 presidential election, Nigeria was grip by crisis. Abubakar played a significant role in installing Gen. Sani Abacha in power in November 1993. When Gen. Oladipo Diya fell suddenly in 1997, it was Abubakar’s turn to rise in the byzantine politics of the Abacha court. He became Chief of Defence Staff and Abacha’s de-jure second-in-command.
But Abubakar was not a favorite of the Abacha court. He had an uncanny ability not to betray his emotions and would rarely volunteer any comment during meetings. His trademark poker face like a ventriloquist confounded even his most ardent critics and detractors. After the arrest of Diya and the generals in the fake coup of 1997, many of the top generals who survived were falling over each other to deify Abacha. They knew Abacha wielded absolute power of life and death. Abacha’s sudden death in 1998 changed the power geometry in Nigeria forever. The military announced Abubakar as the new Head of State. In an unprecedented twist, the Chief Justice brought out the tattered 1979 Constitution to swear-in Abubakar as new military ruler. The five political parties that had hitherto unanimously nominated Abacha for President collapsed like a pack of cards. Chief Bola Ige had famously described the five parties as “the five fingers of a leprous hand.”
When Abubakar took office, he had to clear all the old files pending on the late Abacha’s desk. In one of the files, there was a letter addressed to Abubakar awaiting Abacha’s signature. The letter demanded Abubakar’s compulsory retirement which was to be announced on the date Abubakar was sworn-in as Head of State if Abacha had survived to that day. The irony was not lost him. He knew his offence. He had refused to wear the Abacha loyalty badge that many generals were wearing. He had told those who cared to listen that his loyalty was to Nigeria and not to an individual. Abacha died. Abubakar survived.
But Chief Abiola, the presumed winner of June 12 did not survive. By the time Abubakar took power, Abiola had been in detention for four years. He was kept in solitary confinement and seldom allowed to see the sun. The circumstances in which Abiola was being detained were surreal. Then UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan, was one of the last people to see him alive. Annan described how Abiola was watching the England-Argentina World Cup match on television without the sound when he entered the room. When Annan asked the guard to turn up the sound, he was told this was not possible.
When Annan greeted him, Abiola asked: “Who are you?” On hearing he was the UN secretary general, Abiola was overcome with emotion and kissed his hand. “What happened to the Egyptian [Boutros Boutros Ghali]?” he asked. Annan explained he had taken over the position in January last year. Abiola had no idea that the Pope had visited Nigeria and had pleaded for his release. He had only heard the day before Annan’s visit that Abacha, had died. He had been almost completely isolated from the world for nearly four years. Abiola said he had been allowed a radio in prison for his first month, but in mid-1994 was cut off completely. His guards refused to talk to him and he had stopped trying to get information from them. He had no newspapers and was only given two books - the Bible and the Qur’an.
Gen. Abubakar had asked Annan to get a written assurance from Abiola that, if released, he would not immediately declare himself president as a result of the 1993 elections. Abubakar feared massive disruption, with Abiola being hailed in the south, while the northern Hausa controlled the army. He wanted Abiola to support a period of transition until new presidential elections in which he and others could compete and Annan said Abiola appreciated much had changed since 1993 and he did not want to come straight out of prison into Aso Rock. But he was apparently reluctant to give a signed undertaking. Instead he opted to meet Abubakar and give his word. Instead he died on July 7, 1998.
Although many seem carried away by the prospects for national reconciliation, which the recognition of June 12, exemplifies, the deeper import of the injustice of the Babangida regime would be lost if the country doesn’t muster the courage to exhume and resurrect what certain quarters consider a fossil of Nigeria’s political history. Abubakar must tell Nigerians why he kept Abiola in prison, until he collapsed and died after drinking tea during a meeting with two US envoys –Thomas Pickering and Susan Rice. The US diplomats, who travelled with Abiola to a nearby hospital and watched as doctors tried to revive him, said Abiola was in a poor state of health after four years of brutal imprisonment. “He had some record of hypertension,” Pickering said. “Both of his legs were swollen and he showed them to us.”
For the record, upon taking office, Abubakar received a delegation of Afenifere, the Pan-Yoruba group led by Senator Abraham Adesanya. The meeting ended in an upbeat note as Abubakar promised to release Abiola and other political prisoners. Days later, Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo, Dr. Beko Ransome-Kuti, Kunle Ajibade, Chief Bola Ige, Mrs. Chris Anyanwu and Gen. Diya were all released. But Abiola remained detention. Even more shocking, there was no change of circumstances as Abiola remained in the same solitary confinement where Abacha’s Man Friday, Major Hamza Al-Mustapha, had consigned him.
Yet there was no apparent reason why Abiola was not released with the other prisoners of conscience. Abiola’s claim to power had been weakened by the destruction of the political structures that supported his mandate. The political parties, the national and state parliaments and elected executives were all gone. What sort of negotiation could be imperative that could not be done with Abiola as a free man? By the time of his sudden death, neither Abubakar nor any agent of his government had volunteered to see Abiola, talk less of negotiating with hm.
Gen. Abubakar delivered on his promise to return Nigeria to democratic rule in 1999, and for that the country owes him a debt of eternal gratitude. But he also owes the country an explanation why Abiola was still kept in detention after many of the leading political prisoners had been release. It is one secret he must share with Nigerians, 26 years after the death of the man who paid the ultimate price for the current democratic dispensation that Nigerians have enjoyed for the past 20 years. Until Gen. Abubakar breaks his deafening silence, June 12 as Democracy Day will remain a mockery of justice and atonement.
The continuous silence of Gen. Abubakar speaks to an unwillingness to confront the monstrosity of that great injustice, and constitutes an act of violence to the collective memory of Nigerians. Feelings might be assuaged, and emotions dissipated over June 12, but Nigerians in their minds and hearts remain open to revisiting this vexing national question of why Abiola was never released. The clamor for national reconciliation transcends the recognition of June 12 and if genuine honor is to be accorded to what June 12 symbolizes, Abubakar must address the hovering controversy; there must be investigation of persons or institutions; who were willfully culpable in the atrocities of the military junta. The assassination and unexplained disappearance of pro-democracy activists, journalists, human rights lawyers; the brutal murder of perceived enemies of the junta and the wanton destruction of property and deliberate incapacitation of opponents must now be brought to light.
This is an opportunity for all such acts of injustice hanging on Nigeria to be addressed, and all found guilty must face the lawful consequences of their actions. As a first step towards atonement, there should be a roll call of honor of all the victims of June 12, dead or alive. Most importantly, there is need for the dramatis personae, including Gen. Abubakar to come out and offer an unreserved apology to Abiola and other victims of June 12. This is necessary for them to make personal atonement and seek inner peace for the injustices perpetrated. Atonement and reconciliation are volitional for the attainment of peace; it can rarely be done on behalf of another, especially when the perpetrators are alive. The successful foreclosure of the June 12 controversy will only be complete when Gen. Abubakar tells Nigerians why he allowed Abiola to die in detention. The country deserves to know the truth.