Nigeria’s Democracy Day: Incipience

Democracy, a concept taught to many as early as primary school days, has undergone a shift in meaning in various parts of the world. Although viewed in many ways, the standout, generally accepted definition is that postulated by the 16th President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln, who defined it as the “government of the people, by the people and for the people.” In lucid terminology, democracy is all about the people and no one else. It’s not a shared ownership but a sole proprietorship of the people. The Western world was the principal advocate of this system of government, spreading it via colonialism and other ventures. Centuries later, it has been adopted in most parts of the world.

Nigeria gained its independence in 1960, predominantly run by military governments, with a brief hiatus between 1979 and 1983 when Alhaji Shehu Shagari, through the National Party of Nigeria, ruled the country via democracy. In 1983, the military government seized back power up until May 1999, when Major General Abdulsalami Abubakar, who took over power on June 9, 1998, after the death of Major General Sanni Abacha, handed over power to Major General Olusegun Obasanjo. It was a peaceful transition from the military government to the democratic government, much to the surprise of many. Until 2018, when then-President Muhammadu Buhari assented to a change of dates, Nigeria’s Democracy Day was celebrated on May 29th, in commemoration of the swearing-in of President Olusegun Obasanjo. In the past six years, however, it’s been June 12, and for good reason. 

The Press Statement announcing the change to June 12 Source: BBC

Saturday, June 12, 1993, is seen by many as the day that our country, which was about thirty-two years, eight months and eleven days old, died. And the man at the centre of it all was MKO Abiola.  Chief Moshood Kashimawo Olawale Abiola (GCFR), also known as M. K. O. Abiola, was born on the 24th of August, 1937 to an Egba family. He was a businessman, publisher, and politician. MKO’s upbringing is one many wouldn’t want to be a part of if they had a choice. He was the twenty-third child of his father and mother, who were produce traders in cocoa and kola nut, respectively, but the first to survive infancy; thus, the name Kashimawo, which means “Let us wait and see.”  It was not until he turned fifteen that he was adequately named Moshood by his parents. 

Despite his family’s ordeals, financially and all around, MKO wasn’t one to drop his head. He took life by the scruff of the neck. His business acumen came to light at nine when he began selling firewood, which he gathered at dawn before school hours to support his family after his father’s cocoa business crashed. At fifteen, he founded a band which performed at several ceremonies in exchange for food initially, but as they matured and grew in popularity, for money. He was also academically sound as he was the editor of his secondary school magazine, The Trumpeter, with his deputy, coincidentally, being Olusegun Obasanjo. Yes, the Olusegun Obasanjo. His academic prowess didn’t stop there as, in 1960, he earned a government scholarship, which saw him pursue a degree in accountancy at the University of Glasgow, Scotland. Upon graduation with first-class honours, he qualified as a Chartered Accountant, becoming a Fellow of the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Nigeria (ICAN) while also earning a distinction from the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Scotland. From there on out, he blew up, setting up successful establishments like Abiola Farms, Abiola Bookshops, Radio Communications Nigeria, Wonder Bakeries, Concord Press, Concord Airlines, Summit Oil International Ltd, Africa Ocean Lines, Habib Bank, Decca WA Ltd, and Abiola Football Club. He was also Chairman of the G15 Business Council, President of the Nigerian Stock Exchange, Patron of the Kwame Nkrumah Foundation, Patron of the WEB Du Bois Foundation, trustee of the Martin Luther King Foundation, and Director of the International Press Institute. But MKO wanted more than these. He sought to add a very specific feather to his already decorated cap; the Presidency. To do that, he needed to wield a lot of political power. 

The National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC) was Abiola’s first contact with politics. This was at nineteen. In 1980, he moved to the then-ruling party, the National Party of Nigeria (NPN), where, due to his vision and political skill set, he was elected State party Chairman (Ogun).  In 1983, Abiola qualified to run for the presidential seat after the tenure of the re-elected president at the time, Alhaji Shehu Shagari. His hopes, however, were dashed as a military coup d’etat led by Maj. Gen. Ibrahim Badamusi Babangida swept out the re-elected president, his party, and civilian rule in general. A decade later, the Babangida-led regime came under much fire and pressure to return the nation to democratic rule. They succumbed to this fire. By February 1993, MKO made public his intentions to run for the office of the president,  this time under the banner of the Social Democratic Party (SDP). His declaration was greeted with much fanfare, primarily due to his antecedents, which include but are not limited to making books available at affordable rates through his Abiola Bookshops at a time when the Naira was low, making grains and farm produce available at cheap rates through the Abiola Farms and a host of others. But even with this, there will still reputable opponents to contend with. 

The men of the Social Democratic Party Credit: Daily Times

At the SDP primaries, he had Baba Gana Kinigibe and Atiku Abubakar to contend with. The SDP had two main factions, the People’s Front (PF) and the People’s Solidarity Faction (PSP). The PSP immensely supported Abiola, while Atiku was supported mainly by the Yar’Adua-led PF faction. Kinigibe, on the other hand, was supported by a loose coalition of party members. On D-day in Jos, in a primary election divided into two different ballots, Abiola emerged victorious across both, securing his spot as the party’s flag bearer for the June 12 General Elections. Upon successfully scaling through the hurdle of the primaries, he selected his arch-rival at the primaries, Baba Gana Kinigibe, as his running mate. 

 From the onset, Abiola appeared to have a clear vision for the country, as he supposedly drafted a clear-cut plan on how he intended things to run. Given the economic situation at the time and the struggles he had to face and overcome, his campaign was centred on slogans such as  “Farewell to Poverty”, ” At last! Our rays of Hope”, and the “Burden of Schooling”. His proposed economic policy included negotiations with foreign creditors, better management of the country’s international debts and increased cooperation with the foreign community, intending to win the international community’s trust early. His manifesto was titled “Hope ’93, Farewell to Poverty:  How To Make Nigeria a Better Place for All.” For many Nigerians, it was the first time since independence, that they had belief and trust that indeed ‘the time of redemption had come; the prospect of a new Nigeria well in sight.

Days ran into weeks and weeks into months until, the long-awaited day to vote. June 12 had arrived, and it was time for the citizens to lend their voices at the polls. The ‘unofficial’ results of the elections saw Abiola pull 8,341,309 votes while his opponent, Bashir Tokar,  of the National Republican party, polled 5,952,087 votes. Sequel to this, it was crystal clear that Abiola had won the elections. The election was declared Nigeria’s “freest and fairest presidential election” by national and international observers, with Abiola even winning in his opponent’s home state of Kano. Abiola won in the national capital, Abuja, the military polling stations, and over two-thirds of Nigerian states. Men of Northern descent had – and still are – dominated Nigeria’s political landscape since independence; yet Moshood Abiola, a Western Muslim, could secure a national mandate, unprecedented in Nigeria’s history. All was going well and everything seemed to be in place for a historic outcome. Then, the unexpected happened, an event that may have derailed Nigeria’s trajectory forever. 

Omoyele Sowore, then a student, protesting the outcome of the elections Source: Nairaland

The then Head of State, Ibrahim Babangida, in earlier preparations for the 1993 Elections, had set up the National Electoral Commission (NEC) to oversee the process and it was expected that they would announce the winner of the elections. To the surprise of many, they never did, as Babangida annulled the elections. This didn’t sit well with many. In July, there were violent protests, spearheaded by the South-Westerners. The protests were so intense that an estimated 100 lives were lost. The annulment didn’t only have an effect locally as it attracted heavy criticism and condemnation from the international community, so much so that the United States, the United Kingdom and the European Union suspended aid in any form to Nigeria. In response to the global community and in a bid to justify the annulment, the Babangida-led military government accused foreign governments of meddling in the country’s affairs and attempting to destabilise it.  Ex-heads of State, Olusegun Obasanjo and Muhammadu Buhari, as well as ten other former generals – under the umbrella of the Association for Democracy and Good Governance – were not having it, issuing a joint statement demanding the removal of Babangida from power. In an attempt to curtail the uprising, which seemed to have been much more than was expected, the government proscribed the shutdown of media houses and arrested journalists. They also issued decrees preventing court cases on the annulled election. The NEC’s activities were also terminated.

Abiola, on his part, made efforts to reclaim his mandate. In early August 1993, he flew to London and Washington to seek international support for his presidency. After all he tried proved abortive, he returned to the country on the 24th of September. His unsuccessful outing, which led to his quick return, sparked another wave of civil unrest in the Southwest, with banks and businesses shutting down. Students were not left out, and they also took to the streets. Babangida, under much pressure from the Defence Council to stick to the handover date, resigned on 26 August. The country was led by an Interim National Government headed by Ernest Shonekan, with Sani Abacha, a confidant of Babangida, serving as Defence Minister. A year after the annulled elections, Abiola was arrested and charged with treason in June 1994 after he declared himself President and Commander-in-Chief. His arrest led to protests and strikes by petroleum, banking, and academia workers, for nine weeks. The strike by the petroleum sector, in particular, paralysed the economy. The Abacha government subsequently arrested union leaders and dismissed civilian members of the cabinet to end the strike action. Gradually, the knock-on effect of the June 12 election died down, and right before everyone’s eyes, what rightfully belonged to Nigerians was taken away. On July 7, 1998, Abiola was pronounced dead due to a long-standing heart disease (according to autopsy reports). A country, primed for a great future, had fallen. The mandate of millions was stolen. And a generation was forced to grow up, thinking “What could have been?”. 

MKO Abiola’s sepulchre in his Ikeja residence, a grave for one man and the dreams of millions. Credit: Freedomonline

Today, we celebrate Democracy Day on June 12 in honour of MKO.  But in the real sense, there’s little to be proud of. Nigeria’s electoral system, since the 1993 elections, has fallen apart. The system has been eaten up by corruption, year after year. And even though annulments do not take place, many announcements in the past two decades of democratic rule might as well be repeats of ‘93. In all of this, however, Nigerians, rather than wearing defeat, should look at today as a ray of hope, reminding us that someday, we will get what was snatched away precisely thirty-one years ago. 

Nmesomachi Okoronkwo


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