I had looked forward to being a guest speaker or, perhaps, a guest discussant when, for the second time in two years, Yemi Olowolabi, professional colleague and Ondo State commissioner for information, requested that I should be part of the June 12 celebrations in Ondo State.
Having been unable to honour a similar invitation in 2018, I was determined to make it this time around. It was only a couple of days to the event that his explanation came that it would not be the usual talk-talk affair because the state government had opted for a drama (dance drama, really) presentation of the June 12 phenomenon.
For this purpose some Nollywood actors were enrolled to stage the play, in conjunction with the state’s troupe. Along this line, my role would be to serve as a member of the panel that would review the drama with a view to filling important historical gaps, being an active interventionist and indeed a leader of the June 12 struggles.
I felt it was a welcome departure from what has become a June 12 ritual and was eager to see how it would all turn out.
The delays associated with the arrival of dignitaries over, the event finally kicked off at The Dome in Akure, following the arrival of the deputy governor who stood in for Governor Rotimi Akeredolu. And the tone of what to expect was inspirationally set by Oba Adedokun Abolarin, the Òràngún of Oke Ila in Osun State, a fellow Great Ife and activist. He welcomed the fact that drama was chosen to retell the June 12 story and argued that the ideals should not be forgotten.
Then came the performance by a large cast, including two very notable Nollywood stars, Toyin Adegbola (Asewo to re Mecca) and Ebun Olaiya (Igwe). The opening choruses and choreographies soon dovetailed into the story of General Ibrahim Babangida’s political transitional turns and twists, until he finally imposed two political parties and Bashorun MKO Abiola emerged the presidential candidate of the Social Democratic Party (SDP).
The semblance of the ‘stage IBB’ to the real IBB was striking; but that of the young man who played the role of MKO Abiola and ably mimicked his voice was much more so. They got loud cheers throughout the performance.
The play brought back memories of Option A4 system of voting as voters queued behind MKO and his rival Alhaji Tofa. The annulment came as MKO was coasting to victory and the protests soon started, continued during the interim government of Ernest Shonekan and did not abate under General Sani Abacha despite his brutal suppression of pro-June 12 forces.
The play brought back memories of women heroism in the June 12 struggle, with Kudirat Abiola, whose assassination was featured in the drama, standing out. So also the heroism of the likes of Chief Abraham Adesanya, Chief Gani Fawehinmi, journalists, young Nigerians, etc. The play also correctly interpreted and represented the mood of the nation at those crucial turning points, the death of Abacha (the scene where beautiful, well-endowed and apple-bearing ‘Indian’ ladies romanced Abacha to death indeed drew loud applause) and the wild jubilations that followed; so also the death of MKO and the sadness that enveloped the country under General Abubakar Abdulsalami.
The script did not stop at those junctures as the play also captured the return of General Olusegun Obasanjo to power in 1999 ostensibly to ‘appease’ the Yoruba over June 12; the coming into power of President Umar Yar’Adua and his death in office; the Goodluck Jonathan years (the lady who acted Patience Jonathan was also well applauded); the return of General Muhammadu Buhari in 2015 and now 2019; and of course the celebrations elicited by the declaration of June 12 as Democracy Day.
Lasting over one and half hours, the dance drama got the audience captivated and even those in the audience who had not been born or were kids during the June 12 saga would have made some sense out of the dramatic narrative. And that was the take-off point of my review after Prof. Wunmi Raji had made a scholarly critique of the performance.
I emphasised that the stage play was evidence that drama, among others, was also about history and what we witnessed was a good historical recall of the June 12 epic, suggesting that the play should go national and indeed be taken to Abuja for next year’s June 12 celebrations.
For future performances, however, I suggested some important corrections, especially as they relate to some false narratives about June 12. For example, the NADECO banner was displayed in the immediate protests that greeted the annulment whereas the organisation had not been formed in those July 1993 days of massive public demonstrations and resistance. NADECO was indeed only formed in May 1994, initially as an exile group fighting for the restoration of June 12. Meanwhile, there was no banner of Campaign for Democracy (CD) that actually called and spearheaded the protests. To the extent that June 12 movement was pan-Nigerian, I also said it would have also been good if characters that represented the likes of Alfred Rewane, Anthony Enahoro, Chima Ubani, among others, were featured being leading dramatis personae of the struggles. Another omission was not having the background name, EPETEDO, at the scene where the play recalled how MKO declared himself president-elect. The famous declaration was made at Epetedo in Lagos. Obviously, there is the need for more research while the play should be rid of excessive adulations of those currently in power much as it is proper to reflect the people’s appreciation of the recognition of June 12.
Going forward, I urged the state government to invest in drama in its secondary schools, working in concert with prominent indigenes in Nollywood in order to channel the energies of the students in creative directions. In this regard, I cited the fact that my ability to interpret and critique the play derives from my background in drama way back in the 1970s at Ekiti Parapo College (EKPACO), Ido-Ekiti, where we used to contest for a prize donated by the late Duro Ladipo, a great Nigerian playwright and actor, during the then annual inter-house drama competition.
I recalled that towards my final years, I was a lead character in “Kiriji,” a play based on the Yoruba internecine wars of the 19th Century as then directed by our English and Literature teacher, Mr. (now Chief) Bayo Adeniran, while I featured prominently in other ones, including “The Open Secret,” put together and directed by our vice principal, Chief Adeola Adebayo Fatoye, and “Son of the Slave Parents,” directed by Olu Erinola, a National Youth Corps member. Beyond Ondo State, I think we need to bring back or introduce traditions like this in our secondary schools.
Last line: The Akure visit was made the more refreshing by the opportunity of reunion with some Nigerians who qualify as what the French would call Ancien Combatant in the struggles of Nigerian peoples. Big brother, Prof. Bayo Aborisade, former ASUU leader, was there and bigger brother (he’s younger but if you know what I mean with his fiery polemics and flaming grammar!) Doyin Odebowale too, albeit highly priestly, in his all white Yoruba (jakan I suppose) attire. And there was the other re-union over pounded yam with EKPACO schoolmates, Ayodele Adeleye (McCarthy), our senior prefect, and Bola Ekundayo Akingbade.
•Arogundade is director, International Press Centre, Lagos