Obasanjo’s skilful stabilisation of the polity between 1999 and 2007, which led to the first successful civilian to civilian democratic transition and subsequent seamless transitions that have nurtured Nigeria’s democracy to maturity is the greatest honour done to M.K.O Abiola.
In a democracy, when two elephants (political leaders) fight the grass (masses) becomes greener as a result of manure (good policies) from their droppings (actions). Such is the beauty of democracy, whereby political advantage over opponents can only be gained by getting the support of the majority of citizens. This majority can only be obtained by mechanisms of sustained good governance that satisfy the political aspirations and socio-economic needs of the people.
Like an unexpected lightning bolt out of a bright star studded night sky, President Muhammadu Buhari’s proclamation of June 12 as Democracy Day and investiture of the winner of the annulled 1993 presidential election of that date, Bashorun M.K.O Abiola with the highest national honour of the Grand Commander of the Order of the Federal Republic (GCFR) came to many as a shockingly pleasant surprise. This latest move has spun a web of mixed reactions across the length and breadth of the Nigerian nation, cutting across partisan and ethno-geographic divides. Buhari was the least expected to entertain the consistent demands of pro-democracy individuals, groups and civil society activists, who had fearlessly demanded democratic rule from the brutal military regimes of Ibrahim Babangida and Sani Abacha, for the federal government to immortalise the late martyr of democracy, who died in the cause of his uncompromising stand for the validation of his freely and fairly obtained democratic mandate.
Many have questioned the real motive, timing and intent of the Buhari administration in making this June 12 proclamation. Buhari is not known to be a democracy advocate, much more a June 12 enthusiast. However, within 48 hours of the announcement, supporters of the administration provided the answers when this move was triumphantly described as a “political master stroke”. This declaration of political intent was closely followed by a torrent of orchestrated attacks on the person of former President Olusegun Obasanjo for failing to honour M.K.O Abiola when he was in power, despite being the chief beneficiary of his martyrdom. It is as though the sole purpose of Buhari’s June 12 declaration was to spite Obasanjo, who is today his most formidable one man squad political opponent. Such is the beauty of democracy. The epic battle between these two political elephants has turned the grass greener by berthing perhaps President Buhari’s first statesmanlike action in the three years of his administration. M.K.O Abiola deserves the honour and recognition done him by a nation he sacrificed all, including his life, for.
The overt politicisation of this important national event, as seen in the sustained attack against the Obasanjo personae over the June 12 saga and M.K.O Abiola’s misfortune has almost obliterated certain salient facts of history in an attempt to make heroes out of villains and vice versa, in the struggle for the enthronement of democratic rule in Nigeria. The glorious memory of M.K.O Abiola and the essence of June 12 should be protected from political score settling between two fighting elephants.
Obasanjo is as much a hero of democracy as anyone else in Nigeria, living or dead. As a soldier, Obasanjo never participated in any military coup against a civilian administration and capped these illustrious records with overseeing a transition to civil democratic governance as military head of state in 1979. The Shehu Shagari civilian democratic administration that took over from the Obasanjo military regime would be toppled by a military coup led by then General Muhammadu Buhari four years and three months later in December 1983. The Buhari military Junta did not announce a time frame for a return to civil democratic rule before he was overthrown by his colleagues in August 1985.
Upon his election as president in 1999 by a pan-Nigerian mandate that even excluded his own home region of the South-West, Obasanjo could not have acceded to the demands for June 12 to be made Democracy Day by a section of the country… Obasanjo, who enjoyed a pan-Nigerian mandate, could not afford to be seen to be pandering to ethno-geographic sentiments that the June 12 struggle had been reduced to.
In retirement, Obasanjo was a statesman and an outspoken advocate of good governance throughout the African continent. While Obasanjo boldly stood up to successive military administrations after Shagari and demanded good governance and a speedy return to democratic civil rule, Buhari remained a recluse, nursing his botched foray into power, and never demanded a return to civil rule from any government. His apparent disdain for democratic governance saw him remaining aloof from the political scene throughout the turbulent years of the struggle for democracy in the ’80s and ’90s.
While Obasanjo was involved in a lifelong mutually beneficial friendship with M.K.O Abiola, Buhari loathed him (M.K.O) for his role in toppling his military regime, as well as his continuous fraternity with his successor, Ibrahim Babangida. In the build up to the June 12 presidential elections, Obasanjo who had severally criticised Babangida for his endless transition to civil rule programme, threw his modest political weight behind his friend M.K.O Abiola’s presidential aspiration. Among other efforts, Obasanjo was known to have helped Abiola broker a deal with SDP chieftains from Eastern Nigeria who had reservations about the M.K.O Abiola candidacy. In exchange for their support for M.K.O Abiola, the East was promised the top job of secretary to the government of the federation.
Following the annulment of the June 12 election by military President Babangida, Obasanjo made a hurried return to Nigeria from his overseas engagements and demanded for explanations. After a series of engagements with the military regime of Babangida, it became apparent to Obasanjo that they were unwilling to revalidate M.K.O Abiola’s June 12 mandate for very complicated and complex reasons. As a man whom fate had enabled to participate in every epoch making event that has shaped Nigeria’s modern history, Obasanjo the statesman had deeper knowledge of all issues militating against the revalidation of the June 12 mandate than pro-democracy activists and tribal chieftains, who were in the struggle for the interest of kith and kin.
Despite Obasanjo’s engagements with the military authorities, he was resolute in his demand for them to go back to the barracks. He insisted that an unelected civilian government was better than any form of military government and suggested the formation of an interim national government, while urging Babangida to step down from power. Under enormous pressure from labour, pro-democracy civil society groups and progressive politicians, Babangida ‘stepped aside’ and handed over power to the Ernest Shonekan led civilian interim national government. Unfortunately, this stop-gap arrangement did not meet the aspirations of civil society democracy activists and the core traditional western Nigeria political support base of MKO Abiola. Denouncing Shonekan’s ING as illegal by pro-democracy activists played well into the power grab agenda of Sani Abacha, a military officer with a notorious history of rogue soldiering.
By November 17, 1993, Abacha announced the sacking of Shonekan’s ING to the delight of pro-June 12 forces. The Abacha take-over of power was hailed by leading pro-democracy stalwarts, prominent among whom was Gani Fawehinmi, in the erroneous believe that the military general would revalidate the June 12 mandate of M.K.O Abiola. This benefit of doubt for Abacha conferred on his rogue regime some measure of legitimacy in the early period. This legitimacy was enhanced when M.K.O Abiola met with Abacha and reportedly nominated some of his supporters into his government as cabinet members. When Abacha proved his enthusiasts wrong by sitting tight in power, agitations were renewed, calling for democratic rule through the actualisation of Abiola’s June 12 mandate.
…Obasanjo was as much a beneficiary of M.K.O Abiola’s martyrdom as much as he (Obasanjo), the “Yoruba” nation and Nigerians were beneficiaries of his impeccable nationalists’ credentials, which distinguished him as a statesman that could be trusted to hold a nation together in times of deep divisions. Without the Obasanjo option, it would have been difficult to achieve the needed consensus for power shift to the South-West.
When this honeymoon between Abacha and M.K.O Abiola collapsed, leading to his incarceration, Obasanjo, who neither welcomed Abacha’s take-over of power nor nominated members into his cabinet in a clear case of non-collusion, was to emerge as a leading voice for the release of M.K.O Abiola. When a compromise could not be reached between Abacha and M.K.O Abiola, Obasanjo went back to his lifelong passion of telling truth to power. Obasanjo severely criticised Abacha’s repressive governance style and urged him to return Nigeria to a constitutional democracy. For standing up boldly to the Abacha regime and demanding constitutional and democratic good governance, Obasanjo was soon given the same treatment meted out to other pro-democracy activists; he was framed up in a phantom coup plot and sentenced to death, which was later commuted to a life imprisonment term. Like M.K.O Abiola, who didn’t compromise his June 12 mandate while in detention, Obasanjo similarly didn’t compromise his hardline stance against the oppressive regime of Abacha by going back on his advocacy for democratic rule in Nigeria. While Obasanjo was in prison for this advocacy, Buhari was seated pretty comfortably as chair of a well-funded social intervention agency, known as the Petroleum Trust Fund (PTF).
Between November 1993 and June 1998 when Abacha ruled Nigeria, the June 12 actualisation movement had been substantially reduced to a South-West affair. This was not because the South-West excluded other Nigerians from its activities but because other Nigerians excluded themselves from it, particularly the North. The Abacha regime, in which Buhari featured prominently, had succeeded in polarising the country along ethno-geographic faultlines to discredit the entire June 12 mandate. The indoctrination throughout Northern Nigeria that June 12 was now “‘a Yoruba affair” was successfully carried out with fascist precision. Key actors who were part of the makers of the June 12 mandate, prominent among who was M.K.O Abiola’s running mate – Babagana Kingibe, had pulled out of the struggle, with Kingibe pitching tent with his fellow Kanuri brother, Abacha. By 1998, June 12 had become a taboo not to be advocated for in public in Northern Nigeria. M.K.O Abiola, the hero of the collective mandate, had been reduced to a villain in the eyes of many. The Abacha regime was also successful in re-opening the age long rivalry between the “Yoruba” and “Igbo”, using the June 12 saga as a tool. Five years after June 12 election, it was as though Nigerians outside the South-West regretted that momentary unity of political purpose that defined MKO Abiola’s June 12 mandate.
The animosity between the “Arewa” and “Yoruba” nation was so intense that the conservative North opposed the clamour for a power shift from the North to South; a move that was being contemplated in the build up to the transition from military rule to civil democratic governance by 1999. In due recognition of the fact that June 12 had become a South-West agenda, progressive leaders from other geo-political zones of the Nigerian federation acquiesced in principle to the pacification of the “Yoruba” nation by ceding the presidency to them. In doing this, the choice of the Obasanjo candidacy was very crucial in the behind the scenes negotiations for a successful pan-Nigerian power shift agenda. A majority of power brokers within the military and the legion of non-June 12 actualisation (not to be mistaken for anti-June 12) democrats were swayed to accept the power shift because of the choice of Obasanjo as the candidate. Therefore, Obasanjo was as much a beneficiary of M.K.O Abiola’s martyrdom as much as he (Obasanjo), the “Yoruba” nation and Nigerians were beneficiaries of his impeccable nationalists’ credentials, which distinguished him as a statesman that could be trusted to hold a nation together in times of deep divisions. Without the Obasanjo option, it would have been difficult to achieve the needed consensus for power shift to the South-West.
Upon his election as president in 1999 by a pan-Nigerian mandate that even excluded his own home region of the South-West, Obasanjo could not have acceded to the demands for June 12 to be made Democracy Day by a section of the country. The clamour for June 12 to be designated as Democracy Day did not enjoy the needed popular support among the generality of Nigerians from other geo-political zones. Obasanjo, who enjoyed a pan-Nigerian mandate, could not afford to be seen to be pandering to ethno-geographic sentiments that the June 12 struggle had been reduced to. Therefore, Obasanjo was pragmatic to have designated May 29th every year as Democracy Day, being the date that the Fourth Republic was inaugurated. Any attempt to honour M.K.O Abiola or declare June 12 as democracy day would have inflamed passions, especially in the Northern part of Nigeria, whose influence within the military was overwhelming. Obasanjo didn’t create the situation; Buhari’s friend and ally, Abacha, did. Ironically the inability of Obasanjo to confer honour and recognition on M.K.O Abiola can partly be blamed on the animosity towards the June 12 struggle that was entrenched by Buhari and his legion of conservative Northern political associates. Even today, the decision to declare June 12 as Democracy Day cannot be said to enjoy popular support among Nigerians, as only six out thirty six States of the federation are already commemorating that fateful day in honour of democracy. Not pandering to issues that were regarded as ethno-geographic sentiments was to enable Obasanjo to carry out more expedient far reaching actions that would stabilise Nigeria’s nascent democracy then.
Obasanjo followed up by establishing the Human Rights Violation Investigation Commission, popularly known as the Oputa panel, in June 1999. The Oputa panel was roughly fashioned after South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. This initiative of Obasanjo is one of his uncelebrated efforts to unravel the truth about the circumstances surrounding the annulment of June 12, as key witnesses publicly exposed those behind the saga.
Obasanjo’s purge from the military, of politically exposed officers of mostly Northern extraction who posed existential threats to democracy because of their penchant for power grab through the barrel of the gun, was a more expedient move than declaring June 12 as Democracy Day. By this ingenious move as an experienced former military leader, Obasanjo was able to provide a protective cover for Nigeria’s infant democracy from early mortality by preying rogue soldiers. Proclaiming June 12 as Democracy Day and the symbolic honouring of M.K.O Abiola, while purging the Northern dominated military, would have been politically inflammable. Obasanjo followed up by establishing the Human Rights Violation Investigation Commission, popularly known as the Oputa panel, in June 1999. The Oputa panel was roughly fashioned after South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. This initiative of Obasanjo is one of his uncelebrated efforts to unravel the truth about the circumstances surrounding the annulment of June 12, as key witnesses publicly exposed those behind the saga. The numerous cases of gross human rights violation and murder of pro-democracy activists, following the annulment of June 12 under the Babangida and Abacha regimes, were revealed in gory details. For the first time, the suspected killing of Kudirat Abiola by agents of the Abacha regime was confirmed in graphic details.
In addition to these revelations, the Obasanjo administration faithfully continued the criminal prosecution of the suspected killers of Kudirat Abiola, in the effort to serve justice to the dead. These suspects included the former chief security officer to Abacha, Hamza Mustapha; former chief of army staff, Ishaya Bamayi; former commissioner of police of the Lagos State command, James Danbaba; former military administrator of Zamfara State, Jubril Yakubu; and former head of the Aso Villa, Anti-riot squad, chief superintendent of police, Rabo Lawal.
Interestingly, all these efforts and more evoked resentment among Northerners towards Obasanjo. The conservative North that was a prime beneficiary of the Abacha regime considered Obasanjo with deep animosity for what they described as his political and economic destruction of the North. Soon, the clamour for a return of power to Northern Nigeria became a populist anthem throughout the region.
By 2003, a forceful attempt was made to wrestle power from the South-West by the conservative North through the platform of All Nigeria Peoples Party (ANPP), an offshoot of the All People’s Party (APP), a northern conservative party that was commonly referred to as the Abacha People’s Party. The man who was the standard bearer of this attempt to truncate the power shift arrangement arising from the martyrdom of M.K.O Abiola is the current President Muhammadu Buhari. On this occasion, Buhari’s demonstration of insensitivity towards the touchy issue of June 12 and the need to pacify the South-West with the Obasanjo presidency was in brazen display. Therefore, to vilify Obasanjo for not symbolically honouring M.K.O Abiola, while praising Buhari who by held him [Abiola] in contempt, stood shoulder to shoulder with his tormentors and attempted to truncate the power shift agenda arising from the martyrdom of M.K.O Abiola – as shown in his recent desperate opportunistic and symbolic honouring of M.K.O Abiola on the eve of his re-election bid, smacks of mischief.
Obasanjo’s skilful stabilisation of the polity between 1999 and 2007, which led to the first successful civilian to civilian democratic transition and subsequent seamless transitions that have nurtured Nigeria’s democracy to maturity is the greatest honour done to M.K.O Abiola. To reduce the essence of MKO Abiola’s martyrdom to a symbolic recognition, while discountenancing genuine efforts to sustain democratic governance in Nigeria is a dishonour to his glorious memory.