The winner of the June 12, 1993 presidential election annulled by the then President Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida regime, the now late Chief Moshood Kashimawo Olawale Abiola (MKO), is one personality that I find it very difficult to write about. I was a journalist with his Concord Press newspapers during the momentous days of his electoral campaigns; the election which he undoubtedly won; his unjust incarceration and his eventual death in government custody during the regime of the equally now late military ruler, Gen. Sani Abacha. So, I should ordinarily have much more to write about the hopes, travails and eventual death of the outstanding politician, than the average Nigerian. I, however, find the remembrances of those events traumatic in a way that I cannot explain. It is, to me, like writing about the death of my own mother, or any other extremely close relative. It is very, very painful.
The sheer injustice of the annulment of Abiola’s election, his incarceration and his death at a time when many Nigerians thought his travails were about to come to an end is a painful blow that does not go away after some time like a blow to the solar plexus. It is a pain that stays just below the surface, continuing to radiate over the years.
President Muhammadu Buhari brought back all the memories of the injustice to Abiola last week when he awarded him the nation’s highest civil honour – Grand Commander of the Federal Republic (GCFR) in Abuja, recently. Buhari, at the investiture ceremony in Abuja, apologised to Abiola’s family over the annulment of his election, and the families of those who lost their lives in the course of the June 12 struggle. He also announced that from 2019, the date of the historic election won by Abiola would be Nigeria’s Democracy Day, instead of the May 29 instituted by the Olusegun Obasanjo regime 18 years ago.
Buhari’s apology and recognition of Abiola as the winner of the June 12, 1993 election has been widely received by lovers of democracy throughout the country especially those of South Western Nigeria. The President is believed to have used the decision to right the wrong of the annulment. The decision has certainly placed him on a higher pedestal than former President Olusegun Obasanjo and the nation’s other past leaders who refused to recognise Abiola’s glaring historic victory at the election and the fact that he had been cheated out of it.
As Buhari put it, the government “cannot rewind the past, but we can at least assuage our feelings; recognise that a wrong has been committed and resolve to stand firm now and in the future for the sanctity of democracy.”
This recognition of Abiola has been received with mixed feelings in the country. While some see it as a meaningless gesture designed by the Buhari regime to win the hearts of the South West towards the 2019 Presidential elections, it is undoubtedly a step in the right direction in that it is an admittance of a wrongdoing, which will go a long way in healing the pains of the great injustice against Abiola and free the nation of the natural consequences of such injustice, especially since it culminated in the death of the politician. For me, Abiola’s electoral victory with a Muslim-Muslim ticket, with Baba Gana Kingibe as his running mate, was a watershed in Nigeria’s electoral history.
He not only won about 58 per cent of the popular vote, he had at least one-third of the votes in two-thirds of the states in the country. His candidature and victory erased the notion that the nation was so racially and religiously divided that it was impossible to have a Muslim President and a Muslim vice-President. But, Abiola’s brilliance and winning personality made it easy for him to be accepted by Nigerians in all parts of the country, whether Christian or Muslim. He bridged the Muslim-Christian divide in a way that is, sadly, no longer possible in the country.
With the developments in the country today, and the herdsmen killings and bombing of churches in some parts of the country, it is hardly now imaginable that a Muslim-Muslim ticket will ever be contemplated, or emerge victorious in any election in today’s Nigeria. MKO also broke the ethnic boundaries as he was as popular in the North as he was in the Southern part of the country
The lesson from Abiola’s election which we should all hold dear today is that the nation can be one, without all the ethnic prejudices and ill will that are capable of sending the nation asunder. Now, more than ever before, ethnic cleavages are getting stronger and the incendiary language with which both youths and older persons of the various ethnic divides hit at one another on social media is simply troubling. The seeming raging hatred is such that would make anyone wonder if there is any basis at all for the country’s existence as a single country, other than the decision of our colonial masters to weld our various ethnic groups into one country.
With the emergence of credible leaders who are strongly focused on the unity and development of the country, the tendency to ethnic bigotry will reduce and the nation can move towards truly becoming one.
Abiola’s election was also a lesson to Nigerians to embrace true democracy in which the person with the highest number of votes cast is declared winner, without any attempts to manipulate the votes in favour of, or against, any candidate. The people’s votes should count in all polls. It is the great injustice done to Abiola through the stealing of his electoral victory that necessitated the reconciliation and healing which Buhari has now executed.For those who are unhappy about this initiative, similar initiatives in the past include the payment of retirement benefits of ex-Biafran soldiers by the same Buhari regime, following a court order, and the grand state burial accorded the late Dim Emeka Ojukwu, leader of the Biafran revolution, several decades after the war ended.
Reconciliatory moves like these are necessary and should be commended, not derided, in a polity that is badly divided and riddled with ethnic suspicious like Nigeria.