June 12: 26 years after landmark elections

It seems Nigeria still has a long road to travel, 26 years after the annulment of a presidential election widely acknowledged as the fairest and freest in the annals of the country, writes KUNLE ODEREMI.

IT was on March 3, 1998, and the event was a five-million-man match scheduled for the ever-bustling point of convergence called Yaba Bus stop in the heart of Lagos mainland, Lagos State. Part of the motives for the event was to checkmate a one million man match put together by acolytes of military dictator, General Sani Abacha, led by an obscure defiant youth called Daniel Kanu under his organisation, Youth Earnestly Ask for Abacha (YEAA).

Lagos was completely shut down as the residents stayed at home for fear of a backlash of the expected confrontation by the leaders of the United Action for Democracy (UAD), the organisers of the Lagos rally with security operatives already given an express order to crush those behind the event. Nonetheless, journalists had braced all odds to get to the venue even as early as 6.00 a.m. so as not to miss a piece of the action, not minding the risk it portend for their lives. The previous day, there were speculations that the organisers could chicken out because of the heavy security deployment to the nooks and crannies, especially at the major axis leading to Yaba Bus stop—Ojuelegba, Mushin, Jibowu, Fadeyi, Murtala Muhammed Way, Oyingbo and Idi-Oro. But the security web was most pronounced at the main venue, as riot and regular policemen in combat gears, hovered and cordoned off the place, displaying lethal menacingly to frighten the populace. Armoured vehicles were stationed at various strategic corners and within the bus-stop, as well as on the road from Jibowu entering the venue with sniffer dogs indulging in scary postures, threatening to pounce on and pierce with their canines anyone in sight.

It soon turned into a war situation. The armed operatives began to shoot sporadically when they sighted leaders of the pro-democracy and rights activists along the long stretch from Jibowu to Oyingbo. Unperturbed, they walked steadily; no arm, no cudgel; no body guards; they were completely devoid of any device  for self-defence or counter-offensive in the face of the seeming provocation. In the front roll as they walked without looking back were the leaders of NADECO, Dr Beko Ransome-Kuti, late Chief Anthony Enahoro; Senator Abraham Adesanya; Chief Olisa Agbakoba; Chief Olu Falae, Chief Bola Ige; Dr Chukwuemeka Ezeife, and hordes of other leading lights in the struggle against annulment. While their subordinates, armed to the teeth, dramatised with their feet and guns in an attempt to forcibly disperse the activists, senior police officers scattered around the precinct of the bus-stop engaged in overwhelming calls to their superior officers at the Zonal Police Command headquarters and Abacha. As the security men tried to shove aside the activists from moving into the venue, the activists kept their cool, meandering to gain entry despite the sustained shooting, just as they battled with being asphyxiated by teargas largely from riot policemen on sentry by the armoured vehicles.

By then, a huge crowd had formed at the park, as youths defied the security siege. They beat the security cordon through Ojurelegeba, Mushin, Sabo through Murtala Muhammed Way and other adjoining communities in Yaba. Realising the superiority of people’s will over crude force, the operatives, ostensibly acting on a directive from ‘above,’ decided to apply a relative maximum force through physical assault on the crowd, causing serious bodily harm on majority of the youths. Worst hit was the UAD leader, Chief Olisa Agbakoba who  was physically assaulted with his face dangerously battered; in fact, one of his eyes literarily ‘gone.’ Reporters later rescued a former governor from one of the states in the South-East from gutter having sustained deep cuts over his body in the process of trying to escape from the horrific attack by security operatives on the leaders.

This is part of the story of June 12, 1993 elections struggle and how Abacha rolled out military tanks against hapless citizens that remain partially sold so far. Before that seeming horror, hundreds of other protesters had been killed, especially in Ojuelegba, Mushin, Idi-Araba, Obalende, CMS, Oshodi, Agege, Iyana Ipaja; Iyana Isolo;  Idumota, Idi Oro, Jibowu; Ojota, Ketu. Mile 12, Mile 2; Tinubu Square; Orile Iganmu, Cele Bus stop; Aguda; Lawanson. Surulere, Ikorodu Road, Ikeja, Igbosere, City Hall on Lagos Island. Hordes of young men and girls, as well as artisans and professionals bubbling with vigour and energy had been mowed down through the hail of bullets of soldiers, riot and regular policemen, as well as plain-cloth operatives. It was close to re-enactment of the savage massacre of African patriots at massacres at Sharpeville in South Africa on March 21, 1960 during the struggle against apartheid policy, or the peaceful Soweto uprising  led by black school children in South Africa that began on June 16, 1976, with close to 200 of them killed. Unlike the Tiananmen Square protests in China over reforms, the Yaba agitation was led by a coalition of variegated persuasions. In China, the protests were led by students demanding for democracy, freedom of speech and press, and who initially marched through Beijing to Tiananmen Square. The government deployed about 250,000 troops, with hundreds to thousands of protesters killed and more than 10,000 arrested out of the more than one million of the protesters that converged on the square on June 4, 1989.

Though the Tiananmen Square in China was averted in Yaba, it left wounds and scars that dot the path of the June 12 struggle till date. Political gladiators, professionals from different backgrounds, including artistes of all shades, who romanced with acolytes of Abacha from March 3 to 4, 1998 at the one million-man march organised by Daniel Kanu in support of Abacha’s transmutation plan, reveled in several performances, choreography and carnivals in the live coverage of the shenanigan on Federal Government-owned electronic media, while the estimated 10, 000 hapless citizens that converged on Yaba bus-stop under a jackboot of the military leaving in its trail blood and sorrow. Agbakoba, journalists were among the no fewer than 37 people that were arrested over the Lagos rally.  Agbakoba was later released the next day after being charged under the Criminal Code with unlawful assembly, with the prosecution/the police alleging that he and others that organised the rally did not obtain official permit.

During the intense struggle for the sanctity of June 12, similar near fiasco took place at Awolowo Road, Keffi Streets both on Lagos Island, where NADECO had its coordinating secretariat; as well as the residence of the leading figure in the June 12 struggle, Pa Solanke, in Surulere when he hosted a former US Ambassador to Nigeria, Walter Carrington. The history of the bitter struggle also includes the ignoble role of the infamous Association for Better Nigeria (ABN), led by the Oguta, Anambra State-born controversial Senator Arthur Nzeribe. Neither him nor Daniel Kanu claimed to have any regrets for their actions and inactions that threw the country into a needless season of anomie and flux. “My action was futuristic in nature…And I did what I did for that regime because I bought into that vision, unfortunately, few people or what I will call vocal minority were against that vision and at the end of the day they obstructed the regime and since then many of the things I predicated have come to pass,” Daniel Kanu said in a recent interview.

Upon his emergence as the new leader of the apex Yoruba organisation, Afenifere, the late Senatror Abraham Adesanya gave a graphic picture of the colossal damage the annulment and the attendant campaign to reverse the cancellation done to the country, especially its politics. Adesanya, who escaped assassination by hair’s breadth over his principled stance on June as a NADECO stalwart, lamented the gruesome killings of both the young and the old by agents of the government because of the clamour for the sanctity of the polls. He stated: “The legitimate protests of our people were met with brutal and callous massacre of hundreds of our youths in 1993. Dozens of articulate critics of the annulment were driven into exile and our foremost leaders, including the president-elect, Chief MKO Abiola are detained and imprisoned in a very humiliating condition….since, like Pa Alfred Rewane and Alhaja Kudirat Abiloa were assassinated.” Adesanya also gave a vivid account of how Yoruba leaders in the forefront of the de-annulment became the prime targets for intimidation, harassment and assault and elimination by state agents. One of the instances the Second Republic senator cited to buttress his assertion occurred at the country home of his predecessor in Afenifere leadership, Pa Michael Adekunle Ajasin. “We recall that in 1995, the core Yoruba leadership in afenifere held a meeting in the Owo home of its leader, Chief M A Ajasin (CFR). The Nigeria police disrupted the meeting, arrested and datined the leaders for over 48 hours for no other reason than that they exercised their constitutionally guaranteed right to assemble in the private residence of their leader. “Again, the public would remember how Commander Anthony Onyearugbulem, the junta’s point-man in Ondo state assaulted Chief Ajasin in 1996 in his private residence at Owo and further decreed that the octogenarian should no more hold meetings of the organisation led by him in his private house. We were not in any doubt that since the assault on Papa Ajasin by Onyearugbulem, the Afenifere patriarch’s health rapidly deteriorated and Chief Ajasin never recovered until he died on October 3, 1997.”


MKO Abiola and June 12

For the man at the centre of all the clamour for June 12, Chief M K O Abiola, the annulment was beyond his person. It was about the will of the millions of Nigerian voters that sacrificed their time, energy, resources and other valuables at their disposal to make a choice between him as the standard- bearer of the defunct Social democratic Party (SDP) and his counterpart of the National Republican Convention (NRC), Alhaji Bashir Othman Tofa. In his speech marking the first anniversary of the struggle to reclaim his mandate, Abiola said, whereas “Nigerians in millions freely voted for him, those politicians in uniform, who call themselves soldiers but are more devious than any civilian would want to be, deprived the citizens of their God-given right to be ruled by the President you had yourselves elected.” He accused them of ambushing the people through a hitherto unknown word, annulment by smuggling it into the political lexicography of the country.  It was his view that, “Since that abominable act of naked political armed robbery occurred, I have been constantly urged by the people of goodwill, both in Nigeria and abroad, to put the matter into the people’s hands and get them to actualise the mandate they gave me at the polls. People of Nigeria, you are all witnesses that I have tried to claim the highest mountain, cross the deepest river and walk the longest mile, in order to get these men to obey the will of the people. There is no humiliation I have not endured, no snare that has not been put into my path; no ‘set-up’ that has not been designed for me, in my endeavor to use the path of peace to enforce the mandate that you bestowed one year ago.  It has been a long night. But the dawn is here. Today, people of Nigeria, I join you all in saying enough is enough.”

In another instructive message delivered to commemorate June 12 in 2001, Senator Adesanya provided an insight into the significance of the issue, which he said some unscrupous forces had tried to trivilaise and stigmatise as an ethnic struggle. According to him, the winner of the election was a mere symbol of the struggle as Abiola got a pan-Nigeria mandate based on the spread of the votes he garnered at the polls. That despite Abiola and his running mate, Ambassador Babagana Kingibe being Muslims, Nigerians rose above primordial factors to vote for the ticket. “The irresponsible annulment of June 12 is not that of just robbing Chief MKO Abiola, a Yoruba man, of his victory. This is what detractors would like us to believe. June 12 is also not the defeat of the Hausa-Fulani by the Yoruba nor is it victory of the south over the north. No! June 12 represents much more fundamental issues. With Chief MKO Abiola, a Yoruba contesting with a Kanuri and winning majority votes in such northern states as Kano, Jigawa, Kaduna, Borno, Yobe, Platuea, Taraba and Benue, June 12 proved that Nigerians could overcome the North-South divide. On that historic day, Nigerians of different ethnic origins put this country first above ethnicity,” he stated.

As the nation marks the first edition of June 12 as Democracy day, it is instructive for the citizens to ponder on some teasers raised by Senator Adesanya at the eight anniversary of the annulment: “How have we fared since June 12, 1993? How have we measured up to the true demand of the spirit of June 12? Have we been vigilant enough to protect and preserve the dividends and gains of June 12?” He added: “What we are currently witnessing is indeed cause for concern. All over the country and in frightening proportion, incidents of corruption, lack of accountability, fraud, greed, avarice abound. Poverty, death, and diseases stare the majority of our people in the face. This is hardly surprising as many of those who looted and raped our treasury, who mismanaged our economy, impoverished us, turned us to debts and beggars, who caused us painful and punishing isolation from the rest of the decent and civilised work, who caused the death of some of our finest and precious sons and daughters are those who are in power today.”