Dear MKO Abiola, I write to inform you that June 12 has evolved. “From a commemoration observed by scattered bands of devotees, members of the Abiola family, and human rights activists, confined mainly to the South-West,” as Ayo Olukotun carefully worded it, “June 12 has now mutated into a national observance and symbol of nationhood in the same class with other national holidays, totems and identity markers of statehood.”
You already know that you have been awarded the highest national honour the Nigerian state could give. It should be a proud moment. Fists should be up in the air, but they are not. We mark the day with mixed feelings even as we remember the ideals you stood for.
With deep discomfiture, I bring to your notice that Nigeria today is the exact opposite of what you envisioned. You had a vision for this country and you communicated that vision so clearly. You wanted to “make Nigeria a better place for all.” Nigerians agreed with you and overwhelmingly gave you their mandate. That dream was aborted. In its place, Nigeria was turned to be a better place for some, or, worse still and more realistically so, a worse place for all.
You aspired for Nigerians to transition and “bid farewell to poverty.” That aspiration, like the election, was annulled. And poverty was taken to the next level. Nigeria, yes the very Nigeria you bled and died to liberate, is now the poverty capital of the world. During your famous declaration on that fateful day in 1994, you passionately expressed your concerns: “Our factories are crying for machinery, spare parts and raw materials. But each day that passes, instead of these economic diseases being cured, they are rather strengthened as an irrational allocation of foreign exchange based on favouritism and corruption becomes the order of the day.” If it is permissible, you need to come and witness the state of our nation.
You were “sickened to see people who have shown little or no personal achievement, either in building up private businesses, or making success of any tangible thing, being placed in charge of the management of our nation’s economy, by rulers who are not accountable to anyone.” You know you could have made that exact remark in 2019 and still be right.
You were worried about the hegemonic few playing “a permanent game of military ‘about turns’” You cried that “appeals to their honour as officers and gentlemen of the gallant Nigerian Armed Forces have fallen on deaf ears. Instead, they have resorted to the tactics of divide and rule, bribery and political perfidy, misinformation and (vile) propaganda. They arrest everyone who disagrees with them.”
Today, despite the deafening claims of integrity, it is as if Nigeria consistently “ranks high in matters of dubious distinction.”
You were worried about “the consequences of high inflation, a huge budget deficit and an enormous foreign debt repayment burden, dying industries, high unemployment and a demoralised populace.” The youths gave you the biggest emotional burden. You wept bitterly about our condition: “Our youths, in particular, can see no hope on the horizon, and many can only dream of escaping from our shores,” you lamented. As it turned out, you were only weeping about the figurative frying pan; we have been pushed off that frying pan into the fire.
As you saw it in 1994, “a scarcity of books and equipment has rendered our schools into desolate deserts of ignorance.” Well, things have not gotten any better. Several years after, that desert continues to encroach even at a more alarming speed.
In mourning a Nigeria that was not allowed to be, we are not disillusioned. You wouldn’t have been a perfect president. But, given your worldview, disposition, successes in many areas of life, the little change you wrought through philanthropy, and the meaningful connections you made, you would have been a damn good president of a multi-cultural Nigeria.
Having received the highest chieftaincy title a commoner could get in Yorubaland, you – the Aare Ona Kakanfo of Yorubaland – didn’t yield to the temptation of reducing yourself to an ethnic champion. As proud as you were to be a Yoruba warlord, you fought, bled and died for ordinary Nigerians from all parts of the country, and in so doing became “an unexpected symbol of democracy” and national unity.
You had people you could trust, and those who could trust you too, from all sides of the ethnic and religious spectra. You surrounded yourself with competent people drawn from all parts of the nation. Little wonder citizens from all parts of the nation felt their interests would be better served with you at the helm of affairs. June 12 should be a crystallisation of that national unity you envisioned. But today, we are, for the very first time, marking it as a national holiday even while we observe that since the civil war Nigeria has never been divided as it is presently. The fault lines are there, and very visibly so.
These are some of the issues we look at and ask, “should we be mourning or celebrating?” In trying to answer that question, we draw from the wisdom of ancient Koreans who admonished their wards to “catch not at the shadow, and lose the substance.”
Those in government today say you have been honoured and will be forever remembered. We agree, but struggle to reconcile the fact that they are antithetical to your vision for Nigeria, your ethos and the spirit of the struggle. We give it to them. In the transmutation of June 12, Buhari’s government struck a massive emotional chord. They have caught your shadow. We are more interested in the substance.
Dear MKO, we seek your wisdom, please, answer us from the beyond. Should we be pained or joyous that wreathes are today being laid on the tomb of a visionary, on the account of his vision, by people whose actions and utterances are snuffing life out of whatever remained of that vision? Perhaps, rather than reaching for the emotions of June 12 as they have done, the President Muhammadu Buhari-led government should have asked for a lesson on the ethos you espoused. The cosmetic display nonetheless, we find it in our hearts to give due credit for the thoughtfulness in bringing to the fore the issues of June 12. After all, it is commonly said in Nigerian street parlance, “all die na die.”
Beloved MKO, as you are celebrated, we are torn apart by those celestial and immortal words you declared in Epetedo: “It has been a long night.” Sadly, 25 years after, Nigeria remains in twilight: but we still can’t say that “the dawn is here.”
With hope, we continue to believe; it is well.
•Chima is a research associate at Selonnes Consult, Awka, Anambra State