By Sunny Awhefeada
Time does fly. That is why the events woven around the phenomenon that came to be known as June 12 seem to have happened only yesterday when they actually took place nearly thirty years ago! June 12 refers to June 12, 1993. That day like tomorrow’s June 12 was a Saturday. It was the day that a presidential election that was adjudged to be the nation’s freest and fairest took place. Unfortunately, the election was annulled by the very hand that made it to happen. June 12 was not just an election, but it was also a harbinger of a hope that was aborted and a dream that was dealt a deathblow. It was an ideal that signified a new dawn that never dawned, but receded into the ongoing interminable night. June 12 spelt tragedy for Nigeria and we are yet to recover from its devastating effects. June 12 met me in Ughelli. The air was heavy with anticipation. Hope was on all fours as the long suffering citizens thought that a new dawn was beckoning. The preceding ten years were those of the locusts. Nigeria strayed into the wilderness and nothing added up for her. Military rule was the bugbear that tormented the citizens no end. Nigeria was like an entity that was marooned on an island called the past. Despondency of the acute type engendered hope at the thought of regime change from dictatorship to democracy.
The events leading to June 12 were a complex web woven by a treacherous clique in the military. Those who know think that the military never wanted to quit power. It was said that the khaki boys who overthrew governments in 1983 and 1985 had a plan to succeed one another as was the case in some Latin American countries or at best run Nigeria as a diarchy. Unfortunately, the soldiers didn’t reckon with the resolve and grit of Nigerians should they choose to fight for a cause. The arrowhead of military dictatorship in Nigeria from the mid-1980s to the early 1990s was General Ibrahim Babangida. It was under his watch that June 12 happened. His military cum political alter ego was General Sani Abacha under whose jackboot the resistance against the annulment of June 12 was crushed in a brutal manner.
My generation never participated in any general election until June 12. Nigeria’s electoral history running through 1947, 1951, 1959, 1965, 1979 and 1983 were phenomena we read about in books and newspapers. What was however not lost on us was that election was a political tool or means of putting people in power and also removing them when necessary. Elections were a feature of democracy which allowed citizens to have a say in how they are governed. We were thus fascinated with not just the thought of voting in the June 12 election having come of age, but were enchanted with the possibility of the citizens taking centre stage in how our beloved Nigeria would be governed. What was more? Abraham Lincoln’s thought on democracy as the “government of the people for the people and by the people” rang in our heads. After all for a full decade the citizens were not only marginalized, but were denied rights of popular participation in politics.
My generation was not only taught history in school, but we loved history and were charmed by it. We saw history being made before our very eyes when the Babangida administration commenced what was thought to be a transition programme to civil rule. What Nigerians thought was a consolidation of the steps to civil rule culminated in the formation of two political parties namely; the National Republican Convention (NRC) and the Social Democratic Party (SDP) in 1990. Babangida took on the role of a political dribbler and took the nation on a wasteful and convoluted transition ride that climaxed with the June 12 presidential election. The road that led to June 12 was fraught with brambles and Nigerians were elated when it was eventually seen as a reality. It was the day before June 12 that a friend announced that “tomorrow is June 12” and we all chorused “yessssssss”. That announcement and the affirmative chorus that greeted it carried hope.
Then, the much awaited day, June 12 came and it was a bright Saturday. The NRC fielded Bashir Tofa as presidential candidate, while the SDP had Moshood Abiola. Both candidates had campaigned all over the country and their faces and antecedents were well known. Nigerians came out in their numbers to vote. From Ugep to Ughelli, Warri to Wukari, Calabar to Kano and Agbowo to Ugbowo, the people came out to vote for a new order. The last time they voted in a presidential election was ten years earlier in 1983. So they looked forward to voting on June 12. The electoral body chaired by Humphrey Nwosu a professor of Political Science worked hard to give Nigeria a credible election. Babangida also put in place other initiatives that brainstormed and fashioned out a path for the transition programme. A Political bureau was chaired by Dr. Samuel Cookey while Professor Omo Omoruyi ran the Center for Democratic Studies.
An absurd drama did take place the night before June 12. A group went to court praying that the election should not hold. A midnight judgment granted that request. But the election went on as scheduled. Days later, the results coming out indicated victory for Abiola. Nigerians held their breath waiting for the announcement of the final election result. The wait soon turned macabre when Babangida annulled the election on the 23rd of June! What followed was the titanic struggle to actualize June 12. The struggle was actually a battle and Nigeria tottered towards war. Babangida was forced to leave office and in his stead came in Chief Ernest Shonekan as Head of the Interim National Government (ING).
The struggle for June 12 was a movement that was founded on patriotism and the quest to redeem Nigeria. It pitched two forces against each other. The military aided by renegade politicians on one side and the citizens inspired by altruism on the other side. The struggle left deaths in its trails. Imprisonment, exile and other forms of brutal repression became the experiences of many Nigerians who stood for the nation. The struggle assumed an international dimension. The old and the young, human rights groups, CSOs, students, workers’ unions, and all enlisted in the struggle. Journalism, through newspapers and magazines, became a formidable ally in the struggle. June 12 threw up heroes and villains.
Abacha who succeeded Babangida should have had “brutal” as his first name. He ruled the nation with an iron fist and imposed a reign of terror. He attempted a transformation from being a military ruler to a civilian president. He was already adopted by the five political parties of the time when death came for him in June 1998. Abiola, the winner of the June 12 election, who had been in detention died soon after Abacha signaling a kind of anti-climax. Abacha’s successor Abubakar Abdulsalami, initiated another transition programme that ended with the inauguration of civilian rule on the 29th of May 1999.
Although, the new order that began in 1999 tried to obliterate June 12, the voices that survived the struggle didn’t give up. The voices grew louder and insistent saying that 29th of May was roguery. Many years later it became one of the ironies of our history that June 12 came to be institutionalized by the most undemocratic of civilian regimes last year thus denuding 29th of May of the tag of Democracy Day. June 12 now wears that toga. The struggle for June 12 should transform into a new struggle. The new struggle must be pan-Nigeria in temperament and it should set our country on the path of redemption and greatness. The Nigerian dream must not die. This seeming interminable night must break into a new dawn. Let hope and the struggle keep it alive. We shall get there.