By Chido Onumah
Punch, Friday, June 14, 2013
“I betrayed my very genuine friend for 25 years. From the day we met, there was rapport. I had my friend there waiting to take over. Truly, it would have been a great destiny”.
—Ibrahim Badamosi Babangida
“There were other generals, including Sani Abacha, who said if power was ceded to a southerner like Chief Abiola, the North will have nothing left. They then put my father in a corner, they threatened him”.
June 12, 1993 was a golden opportunity to set the country on the path of genuine democratic reconstruction, but Gen. Ibrahim Babangida squandered it. Expectedly, our politicians moved on. They were co-opted into Gen. Sani Abacha’s transition programme and for them June 12 became history. Abacha’s Minister of Information, Prof. Jerry Gana, was one of earliest people to sing the dirge of June 12.
In May 1994, as Nigerians prepared to mark the first anniversary of the June 12, 1993 election, Gana reminded us that, “The (Abacha) military administration did not actualise the June 12 election in spite of its opposition to the annulment for fear that certain sections of the country could rise against it. If it actualised June 12 when it came in, another section would rise”.
Gana admitted that the annulment was a terrible error, but that Nigeria’s corporate existence could not be sacrificed for it. According to him, “The annulment is a painful one, but we cannot because of it allow the people of Nigeria to be destroyed. Somebody has made a mistake like somebody made in 1966; like somebody made in 1984; like somebody made a mistake by stopping Jerry Gana from becoming a president by annulling my own primaries”.
Of course, it was a costly mistake that cost lives and threatened the very existence of the country. On June 11, 1994, president-elect Moshood Kashimawo Olawale Abiola, declared himself president. The Abacha administration hunted Abiola down, arrested him and imprisoned him. Abiola would die in prison on July 7, 1998, a month after Abacha died.
While I was working on this book, I had a phone conversation with Odia Ofeimun, the famed poet and former president of the Association of Nigerian Authors, who informed me that he was working on a book on June 12. He said it was important that Nigerians did not forget; that for too long progressives had yielded the political stage to recidivist politicians to the detriment of the country. I couldn’t agree more.
How can we forget that there was an election on June 12, 1993; that the election was annulled; that some of those who oversaw the annulment and their collaborators still call the shots in the country? How can we forget the ignoble roles of the likes of Arthur Nzeribe and Abimbola Davies of the infamous Association for Better Nigeria who put themselves and their organisation at the service of the military junta?
Any nation that lacks memory is doomed. How can we forget Mrs. Kudirat Abiola, wife and mother, who was gunned down in broad day light in a Lagos street because she dared to question the rationale for her husband’s detention; Pa Alfred Rewane who was brutally murdered in his bedroom for supporting pro-democracy activists as well as many unsung heroes and heroines of the June 12 struggle?
Six years after he “stepped aside”, Babangida was on hand to help install Olusegun Obasanjo, Abiola’s kinsman, as president of the 4th Republic, perhaps as part of efforts to “compensate” the South-West for the loss of Abiola. In retrospect, 20 years after he caused the June 12 debacle, this is how the self-proclaimed Evil Genius explained his treachery: “The emergence of Obasanjo came about as a result of what happened in the country; the country was in a very serious crisis and we had to find a solution to these problems and therefore we needed a leader known in the country.
“We did not believe in foisting somebody who is not known; so, we looked for a man who has been involved in the affairs of this country, who held positions either in the military or in the cabinet and who has certain beliefs about Nigeria. Now, all of us that were trained as armed forces, there is one belief that you cannot take away from us; we believe in this country because this is part of our training. We fought for this country, so when you have a situation like that, you need a leader that has all these attributes and quite frankly, he quickly came to mind”.
Babangida actually used the word “foisting”. We all remember how Obasanjo – the pseudo-democrat who told us that Abiola, winner of the June 12, 1993 election, was not the “messiah” – foisted an ailing Umaru Yar’Adua on the nation in 2007 after eight years of misrule.
The “Abiola is not the messiah” mantra was Obasanjo’s simple way of dismissing Abiola’s victory on June 12, 1993, and upholding the subsequent annulment of the election. Obasanjo may have believed that Alhaji Shehu Shagari was the real messiah. That was why he handed power over to him in 1979 even though it was clear he (Shagari) did not win the presidential election of that year.
Thanks to the likes of Babangida, Obasanjo and their “politics of settlement”, today Nigerians are saddled with a President Goodluck Jonathan, one of the greatest beneficiaries of our “negotiated existence”. Unfortunately, Nigeria was first negotiated on the terms of a marauding band of merchants and empire builders; and subsequently by a military cabal and its civilian collaborators. Now is the time to negotiate it on the terms of the mass of our people who bear the brunt of its lopsided and unjust features.
As part of the process of reconciliation, President Jonathan can honour Abiola as the second democratically-elected president of Nigeria. If he can pardon convicted serial treasury looters and grant amnesty to militants and terrorists, he certainly can honour Abiola.
That should kick-start the much needed national dialogue on the future of Nigeria.
- (This piece is an excerpt from the forthcoming book, Nigeria is Negotiable.)