For eight years, the Obasanjo government ignored both the June 12 phenomenon and MKO Abiola's heroism. Within a week out of office, former President Olusegun Obasanjo finally made a passing reference to Chief MKO Abiola. This certainly was not good enough. Nations build values and public memory around heroes and historic events to remind the citizenry of the past and its lessons. There are many lessons to be learnt from Abiola's heroism and the June 12 phenomenon, which in itself is a much larger factor. June 12 transcends MKO Abiola. It is directly linked to the Nigerian question in all its complex aspects; it marks a significant moment of national re-awakening.
Fourteen years ago, on June 12, 1993, an estimated 14 million Nigerians voted in a presidential election to choose a successor by popular mandate to General Ibrahim Babangida, then Nigeria's military strongman. It was the 33rd year of our country's independence and the election of the day was the climax of a political process that had produced new leaderships for the local and state governments. Excitement was palpable and expectation high among Nigerians. To all intents and purposes, this election could present no difficulty - it was a straight fight between only two candidates, the rules were clear, so was the procedure: the Modified Open Ballot System.
Presidential Elections were held all right on June 12 and the people made a choice in, as widely agreed, the freest, the fairest, and we would add, the most exciting election - debates and all - which Nigeria has had to date. Chief MKO Abiola was widely believed to have won the Presidential election. But then, the Babangida government began to play games with the process, by refusing to announce the results in full. All kinds of rented hacks and groups including the notorious Association for Better Nigeria (ABN) and a kangaroo court of law presided over at midnight by unconscionable judges were used by the government of the day to scuttle the completion of the process. On June 23, 1993, the Babangida government purportedly annulled the June 12 Presidential elections. It was a grievous error, which became a catalyst for the re-making of Nigeria.
On June 12, some assumed impossibilities about Nigeria and its peoples were set aside. It was received opinion, for example, that Christians would generally oppose a Muslim-Muslim ticket. On June 12, 1993, Nigerian Christians voted for precisely such a ticket represented by an Abiola-Kingibe candidacy.
It also used to be taken for granted that Northerners and Southerners would, generally, vote on ethnic grounds in a contest involving one against the other. June 12 debunked this in facts and figures. Abiola received 52.28 per cent of the total votes cast in Kano State to defeat homeboy Alhaji Bashir Tofa. June 12 was no mere episode in the history of Nigeria: it was indeed an event of epochal implications for good and for ill.
In respect of the latter, the annulment of the results was a failed opportunity to build on the expression of unity in diversity. But it exposed the chicanery of the military elite, and brought the military to great ridicule. June 12 was the day that we made the pan-Nigerian statement that though tribes, tongues, and faiths may differ, the 400 or so nationalities that constitute this multi-ethnic and multi-religious country can agree on some fundamental issues.
Nigerians reached a consensus on who was a good man, trustworthy enough to lead them. They voted for a rejection of military rule, and expressed, beyond a shadow of doubt, to their leaders and to the world, their preference for democracy anchored on free and fair elections, the rule of law, and the protection of basic freedoms.
The annulment of the elections united the Nigerian civil society and brought out its yet unseen resolve to defend the cause of freedom and justice. It created heroes among the ranks of pro-democracy activists who at great risk to their lives stood up to the military junta for six years, until civilian democracy was restored on May 29, 1999. There were many martyrs of the struggle: there were many who paid the supreme price for standing by the truth when the soldiers in power chose to stifle the opposition and put a gun to the head of all progressives.
MKO Abiola was not the only hero of the struggle but he was the symbol of it all. And he too paid the price with his life. Apart from the civil war, perhaps no other event has yet shaken Nigeria to its fundaments as vigorously as the June 12 struggle. Why deny its significance? A proper accent on June 12 by the Federal Government and the country at large would be a good means of remembering those who died in the struggle and they cut across all groups and constituencies in the country. It would be a good way of learning from the past in order not to repeat the same mistakes.
Nigerians must 'come to terms' with the spirit and symbolism of June 12.