By Senator Babafemi Ojudu
Distinguished guests, friends and colleagues in the Afenifere Renewal Group, Ondo State chapter, gentlemen of the press, ladies and gentlemen:
It is with a mixture of joy and sadness that I share my thoughts with you today as we celebrate – or perhaps, I should say ‘mourn’ – the anniversary of the freest and fairest presidential election that this country has ever held – the June 12, 1993 election. June 12 has since become an iconic day in the calendar of a fumbling and struggling post-colonial entity; a country which has not only refused to face the fundamental challenges that make it a laughing stock of the rest of the world, but also one, which despite its stupendous human and natural resources, has refused to march towards her manifest destiny as the greatest black nation on earth.
I say we might as well be mourning as we remember June 12 today because it was a day that a Nigerian nation, in the proper sense, was almost born. But that it turned out to be a still-birth. June 12, 1993 was the day in the calendar of an agglomeration of disparate and mutually-antagonistic nations and groups when a truly united nation was to be validated.
The possibility of actual nationhood in Nigeria and not mere statehood was to be actualised on June 12 1993. Beyond the colonial accident of 1914, beyond the marriage of connivance sustained by the proceeds from the oil in the Niger Delta, beyond a violent and violated “unity” maintained by the force of arms, June 12, 1993, was the first day in the calendar of our country when Nigerians of different faiths and tongues united in their expression of a belief in the possibility of a truly united, prosperous, egalitarian and development-oriented Federal Republic. Abiola’s resounding victory was confirmed East and West, North and South.
He even beat his opponent, in his home state of Kano. It was the first time in Nigerian history, that one claim in our old national anthem was affirmed: “Though tribe and tongue may differ/In brotherhood we stand.”
Even though since President Olusegun Obasanjo returned to power in 1999, the surviving members of the cabal that annulled the June 12 election, including the Obasanjo group, have “relentlessly engaged the machinery of the state to foist collective amnesia on the citizenry by memorialising May 29 as ‘Democracy Day’, instead of June 12,” as some scholars have noted, their actions “became necessary as the remembrance and memorialisation of June 12 could have dire implications for [their] survival and reputation.”
This is why we can understand the perfidy of this group when one of their representatives, Alhaji Bashir Tofa, who lost the election to Abiola, recently said that “June 12 is dead forever.” He was only expressing the wish of the “annullers” and their agents. How can a man who could not even win his home state in a contest with a candidate from another part of the country be credible when he talks about the relevance of that date? Indeed, June 12 is a date forever.
The victory of Chief Moshood Kashimawo Olawale Abiola on June 12, 1993 was the first time that the largest majority of Nigerians truly said “yes” to the idea and reality of Nigeria. The perfidious annulment of this election by the General Ibrahim Babangida regime was not only “unfair, unjust, and consequently unacceptable” as Basorun Abiola said in his fateful June 24, 1993 world press conference, it was also a criminal offence committed by the most retrogressive and nation-destroying cabal that Nigeria has ever produced. It is not a surprise therefore that the legacy of this perfidious group of soldiers and their civilian collaborators has been passed on to their collaborators, friends and successors in the Fourth Republic.
Only a few weeks ago, we witnessed another small scale attempt at annulling the voice and choice of the majority in a small group of only 35 electors. People who are supposed to be the bearers of the burdens and responsibilities of our hard-won democracy are the ones who are now experimenting another trial-run for what appears to be another debacle in the making.
However, for the sake of these children of the “annullers” and their collaborators, most of them who were either enjoying the benefits of patronage by the perfidious soldiers during the struggle, or hiding their tails behind their hind-legs when some of us were paying the price for the democratization of the Nigerian space and the validation of the limitless potentials of this otherwise great country, it is important to restate the sacrifices that were made to make it possible for some of them to be in the state houses today or in the corridors of power.
As one of those who put their limbs and even lives on the line in the struggle for democracy, I say with all sense of humility that we can claim a greater stake in the current slide to perdition in the country, because when and if this experiment collapses, we are the ones who will carry the greatest burden of restoring Nigeria to the path of sanity.
The people who are playing dice with the fate of the nation today will either not be found when the push come to shove, or they will be joined with the forces of darkness to drive Nigeria deeper into the abyss. They have never stood up for the public good and they never will. Therefore, those of us who bear the scars of Nigeria’s current, though imperfect, atmosphere or freedom and civilian rule must not shack our responsibility to speak up.
June 12: A Personal Testimony
Let me therefore start my reflections on the sanctity of electoral mandates with a personal experience of the burdens of the violation of the sovereignty of the people, as was experienced under Nigeria’s semi-criminal soldiers-in-power.
In November 1997, I was in Kenya attending a conference organised by the US-based Freedom Forum. I had slipped out of Nigeria through the “NADECO Route” because myself and my colleague at TheNEWS and TEMPO magazines, Bayo Onanuga, had just been alerted that General Sani Abacha’s agents were looking for us on the orders of the maximum ruler. At this point, another of my colleagues, Kunle Ajibade, the Executive Editor of TheNEWS, had been jailed by the Abacha regime for “complicity” in a phantom coup plot.
While I was in Kenya, I was informed that Onome Osifo-Whiskey, the Managing Editor of TELL magazine, had been literary “captured” by Abacha’s security officers. The situation in Nigeria was getting more desperate, as General Sani Abacha was also getting more impulsive and murderous. The desperate situation in the country and the large prison yard that the military regime turned Nigeria into, let us remind ourselves, were the outcomes of the diabolical annulment of the June 12 1993 presidential election by Ibrahim Babangida, ably supported by Sani Abacha. Abacha would later seized power through the backdoor after his partner-in-crime had been chased out of office.
What Abacha faced was literally the situation that, in the wisdom of our elders in Yorubaland is called, “ara o ro okun, ara o r’adiye.” Abacha’s junta, like the proverbial chicken was literally on the ropes. He was in morbid fear of the terrible fate that awaited him, and his fear became the instrument of state terror.
In Nairobi, my hosts, the Freedom Forum officials, tried to persuade me not to return to Nigeria because it was certain that I would be arrested and detained upon return. They wanted me to go with them to the US from where they could arrange a job for me in South-East Asia until Abacha left power. Who knew when Abacha was going to be defeated by Nigeria? More important, how could I abandon my colleagues and friends in Nigeria, and the mass of our people who needed more voices to speak up for them and more courageous people to stand up to defend the mandate that they freely gave to Basorun Abiola? I rejected the offer and decided to return to Nigeria. I was sure that once I was able to slip into Nigeria through the “NADECO Route,” I would find a way of avoiding Abacha’s agents within Nigeria.
Early one November morning, I made my way from Ghana to Togo and then from Togo to the Republic of Benin. Due to a number of vehicular mishaps on the road, I arrived very late in the night in Cotonou. I couldn’t consider sleeping in a hotel in Cotonou because the city was crawling with Abacha agents. Only a few weeks before I arrived, they had kidnapped Moshood Fayemiwo, the editor of Razor magazine and dumped him in an underground cell at the Directorate of Military Intelligence in Lagos. He didn’t see the sunlight for many months after that. It was also too late for me to go through the “NADECO Route.” So, I took the risk of driving across the border into Nigeria.
At the first checkpoint, a security officer stopped the vehicle, saying “You are Mr. Ojudu. We have been waiting for you.” This was around ten in the night. I was arrested and driven to the Shangisha office of the State Security Service (SSS). The next day they took me to their notorious detention centre in Ikoyi.
They not only took my photographs, they also filmed me to be able to show their bosses in Abuja that I had been arrested. I was arrested on November 17, 1997. I never saw the sunlight again until Abacha died – and even many weeks after. At a point, I had to drink my own urine when I faced the risk of dying of dehydration in the cell. I was also made to wear the same clothe for eight months. I was not allowed to brush my mouth for six months.
You can then imagine my incredulity and eventual happiness when someday I heard some women in an adjoining cell singing praises and shouting “Hallelujah” one June morning in 1998. At first, I was wondering why the women were celebrating. Later, one of the SSS agents keeping watch over us told me that “Abacha don die!” When I came round to believing that the most murderous dictator in Nigeria’s history was dead, I looked forward to freedom, not only for myself, but for several others who were in detention, including the winner of the June 12, 1993 presidential election, the man who was truly the symbol of our struggle for democracy and nation-building, Basorun Abiola.
However, the first week went by without any news about my release. Then another week, then another…. Then one day, as my health deteriorated, a lady doctor was brought into my cell to treat me. After examining me, the doctor started crying. I was so scared because I thought she had discovered that I was going to die soon. She said I had a low blood count, typhoid, and other diseases I didn’t even know about. The woman not only recommended some drugs for me, she promised to buy the drugs herself. At that point, I was convinced that I was going to die in detention. I begged one of the agents for paper and pen to write my will which I smuggled out to my wife. My wife took the will to Mr. Olisa Agbakoba, the lawyer and head of the Civil Liberties Organisation (CLO).
When Agbakoba got my will, he called a press conference to announce that, contrary to the claims by the new regime headed by General Abdusalami Abubakar that all political detainees had been released, I was dying in detention.
We learnt later that agents of the Abacha regime had lied in a list they sent to the Pope when he visited Nigeria that I was one of the political prisoners released as a “gesture of goodwill” to the Pope. Therefore, when Abdusalami Abubakar ordered the release of detainees, I was not on the list because I had been “released” on paper by the Abacha regime. It was the press conference by Agbakoba that brought my fate to the attention of the new regime. The SSS then got an order to release me. After eight months in solitary confinement, I was a shadow of my old self. When I knocked at the gates of my house in the night, my landlord could not recognise me.
He asked who I was, when I mentioned my name, he didn’t believe me. To confirm, he asked me for his own name and I told him what we called him. Still unsure, he grabbed a cutlass as he approached the gate. By the time he looked closely at me and saw that beyond the bushy beard that I had grown in detention and my frail body, I was who I claimed to be, the man dropped the cutlass and burst into tears. Even my kids didn’t believe it was me. I later collapsed after trying to eat my first good meal in eight months and had to be rushed to the hospital….
I have told you this story not to show my own personal heroism. It is a story that is meant to show only a small fraction of the enormous sacrifices that many Nigerians had to make after the cruel annulment of the June 12 election.
Some even paid the supreme price for the democracy that we enjoy today. From the unnamed protesters on the streets who were mowed down by Abacha’s tanks to the symbol of the struggle, Basorun Abiola, his wife, Kudirat Abiola, and that most committed and magnanimous fighter for just causes, Chief Alfred Rewane, many lives were lost in the struggle for justice and freedom.
It is significant here to remember that, in a letter he wrote to Abacha, Abiola foresaw what might happen to some of the major dramatis personae in the crisis of June 12. He told Abacha that both of them should meet to “sort out” the problem of June 12 before the problem “sorted” them all out. This was precisely what happened. Abacha died in strange circumstances. But before he died, he made sure that Major General Shehu Yar’Adua too was killed in detention. Also, he almost killed General Olusegun Obasanjo in prison.
The man has now forgotten about his experience as he goes about creating one crisis after another to ensure that Nigeria will never be a country about which we all can be proud. He spent eight years in power and did nothing to deepen democracy or widen the space for the remaking of Nigeria. Instead, he was busy trying to perpetuate himself in power. Such embarrassing figures from our past and present history are the ones who are most responsible for lack of sanctity of electoral mandates. The man who constantly exhibits a messianic complex said that Abiola was not the messiah. But we told him then that we did not elect a messiah, we elected a man to lead our effort to salvage the country.
When he had the same opportunity later, Obasanjo converted elections to a “do-or-die affair,” as he described it, and helped in destroying the sanctity of elections and the fundamental sovereignty of the people expressive in, and expressed through, elections. The legacy of the Obasanjo years of electoral robbery, serial violation of democratic rule, subversion of the principle of separation of powers and check and balances, and his sabotage of the tenets and principles of federalism, is what we are living with today.
In our own part of the country, under Obasanjo’s leadership, we witnessed an unprecedented level of electoral theft. He led the brigade of vote-rogues who stole the mandate of our people in broad-day light by imposing all sorts of political tramps on the Yoruba states. A people who had, since the 1950s, been used to the best form of democratic governance with the associated benefits of good governance, development, social services, including free and qualitative education, health services, and social welfare, were forced to experience the worst form of criminality in the name of state governments in southwestern Nigeria.
From Ogun, Oyo to Ondo, Ekiti and Osun states, political vagrants seized the space of our region of the country. And for almost eight years, and for full eight years in some cases, with the exception of Lagos State, Yoruba people ate the terrible fruits of bad governance. When the progressives seized our heritage back from the political tramps, starting from Ekiti State and followed by Osun State and later Ogun and Oyo States, we announced to the world that we were back on the path of good governance. Anyone who goes to all these states today will agree with me that “igba otun ti de pada n’ile Yoruba.” We are back on the back of progress and good governance. For this, we must commend our governors in all the progressive states of Southwest Nigeria. Governors Babatunde Fashola, Governor Kayode Fayemi, Governor Rauf Aregbesola, Governor Abiola Ajimobi and Governor Ibikunle Amosun,we salute you all.
However, the war is not over. We have only won some battles, as I said earlier. As you can see from the preparations by the political vagrants, they are fully ready to disrupt our march to the sun. They want to take us back to the era of brigandage, embarrassing incompetence and lack of vision. Therefore, we must remain vigilant. Elections are at the centre of the battle to protect our common heritage from these people who our elders would call “akotile ta.” Against the background, it is important to reflect on the lessons that we have learned two decades after the June 12 election that gave Nigeria a good shot at becoming truly the giant of Africa.
Two Decades After June 12
On June 24, 1993, at a world press conference, Basorun Abiola, in reacting to the annulment of the presidential election, stated: “I say categorically that this decision is unfair, unjust and consequently unacceptable…. As I speak today, I am by the infinite grace of God, and the wishes of the people of this country, the President-elect of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. I am the custodian of a sacred mandate, freely given, which I cannot surrender unless the people so demand, and it is by virtue of this mandate that I saw that the decision of the Federal Military Government to cancel the election of June 12, 19993 is invidious, unpatriotic, and capable of causing undue and unnecessary confusion in the country… The people of Nigeria have spoken.
They have determined that 27 August shall be the terminal date of military dictatorship in Nigeria. On that date, the people of Nigeria through their democratic decision on June 12, 1993 expect me to assume the reins of government. I fully intend to keep that date with history.”
Twenty years after Abiola made that beautifully crafted and lofty statements, we can still feel a sense of pride and admiration that we elected a man who had the guts to stand up for our collective will. This statement and Abiola’s consequent display of courage and conviction are the stuff of good leadership.
Today, we can still go back to this statement as one of the touchstones of our history as a people. Abiola’s decision to proclaim himself as “the custodian of a sacred mandate” and his refusal to surrender that mandate until his death, are some of the finest examples we have in our democratic history of leaders who understand the sanctity of the ballot or the inviolability of the vote.
It is not a surprise therefore that those who stood with Abiola to the end have in recent times also displayed a similar belief in the sanctity of the ballot while refusing to surrender their “sacred mandate …freely given.” In Ekiti State, Governor Kayode Fayemi displayed a similar resolve, although under different circumstances. For almost four years, he never gave up in pursuing his sacred mandate. He eventually kept his date with history. The same is true of Governor Rauf Aregbesola of Osun State. Through thick and thin, in rain and in shine, through harassments and even arrests, he refused to surrender his mandate until he was able to reclaim it. What this kind of leaders show us is that some important lessons have been learned from the June 12 debacle.
However, we still have many rivers to cross. There are several other lessons to be learned from the June 12 debacle, especially with the benefits of hindsight and based on our experiences in the last two decades. There were many issues that surrounded the June 12 election and the annulment. These include some of the issues I have just mentioned, such as the possibility of nation-building in a fractious multi-ethnic polity such as Nigeria, the sovereign rights of Nigerians to elect their leaders, the transparency of elections, the emergence of popular and competent leaders, civilian control of the military, etc., etc. At the bedrock of all of these issues is that of the sanctity of elections.
Why are elections this important? The most distinguishing characteristic of a democracy is the “expression of effective choice by the mass of the people in elections.” In liberal democracies, the electorate occupies “the position of the principal organ of governance; it acts through elections.” Elections constitute the strongest pillar of democracy. Democracy is described as the government of the people, by the people and for the people essentially because it is based on the sovereignty of the people expressed primarily through voting. It cannot be a government of the people if the people do not authorise it; it cannot be a government by the people if the people do not decide who will represent them; and it cannot be a government for the people if the people do not constitute and decide the basis of its legitimacy. Elections are, therefore, a “viable means of ensuring the orderly process of leadership succession and change and an instrument of political authority and legitimation.”
There are two important elements which are critical in understanding the value of elections in a democracy. These are representation or mandate and accountability. Because everyone cannot be in government, we select some people to represent us in government and therefore take decisions on our behalf. In this context, we must remind ourselves of the Yoruba saying that eni to ran ni n’ise laa nb’eru, akii b’eru eni ti aje’se fun. (Meaning: one owes an obligation to the authority who gives one a duty to perform and not to the target of the duty).
In this context, some experts have argued that governments are representative in a democracy because they are elected. There is an assumption therefore the “if elections are freely contested, if participation is widespread, and if citizens enjoy political liberties, then governments will act in the best interest of the people.”
In the first view, which is the “mandate view,” what happens is that “elections serve to select good policies or policy-bearing politicians. Parties and candidates make policy proposals during campaigns and explain how these policies would affect citizens’ welfare; citizens decide which of these proposals they want implemented and which politicians to charge with their implementation, and governments do implement them. Thus, elections emulate a direct assembly and the winning platform becomes the ‘mandate’ that the government pursues.”
Relatedly, in the second view, which is the “accountability view,” is it assumed that “elections serve to hold governments responsible for the results of their past actions. Because they anticipate the judgement of voters, governments are induced to choose policies that in their judgement will be positively evaluated by citizens at the time of the next election.” Consequently, both the mandate or representation view and the accountability view of elections point to the centrality of elections not only in determining leaders and government, but also in making choices in terms of public policies and public good.
One of the lessons we have learned since the annulment of the June 12 elections is that when people who are not validly elected take over power and when an unpopular government is in power, the people will suffer terribly. With the exception of a few state governments, particularly in our part of the country, between 1999 and 2003, and since 2010 when we recovered some states, and since 2011 when we won the remaining states, in addition to Lagos that was uninterrupted since 1999, most so-called democratic governments in Nigeria have only multiplied the suffering of Nigerians. The worst culprit, of course is the PDP Federal Government from 1999 to the present. We have been moving from the absurd through the morbid to the tragic. The PDP federal government has been an unmitigated disaster since 1999. The truth is that if Abiola had been allowed to be the present of Nigeria in 1993, the country would never have experienced the reign of the embarrassing presidents that we have been having since 1999.
One other key lesson we learned from the June debacle is the centrality of political parties in the consolidation of democratic rule. The collusion of the National Republican Convention (NRC) and even Abiola’s party, the Social Democratic Party (SDP) with the military, was part of the reasons why the annulment was possible and sustainable. One of the saddest stories of the collapse of the Third Republic and the annulment of the June 12 elections is the role of the existing political parties in these tragedies. Party political leaders were like the agents of the military.
That experience reminds us of the importance of solid political party organisation. We have to go back to the First and Second Republics to learn important lessons about how to build solid political parties. Fortunately, we have a good heritage in our own part of Nigeria. From the Action Group to the Unity Party of Nigeria, party supremacy was a culture that was rigidly observed. It is no wonder therefore that the heritage of modernisation and sustainable development that we enjoy today in southwestern Nigeria was built by governments which emerged from a solid party basis; governments which were as accountable to the electorate as they were to the party, which they also represented in power.
Another important lesson that we have learned since 1999 is the pivotal role of civil society in Nigeria. Without an energetic, activist and committed civil society, we would never have had democracy in Nigeria. It was clear that the military hierarchy from the mid-1980s Nigeria wanted the country to be a permanent dictatorship under whatever guise.
Whether by transmuting themselves into civilian president-for-life or by setting no limit to their rule as military heads of state, the martial adventurers were committed to perpetual rule even if that would mean the end of Nigeria’s history. It was a resurgent civil society that ended the vile ambitions of Generals Babangida and Abacha. We all suffered all sorts of inconvenience, and some even paid the supreme price, as I mentioned earlier, to ensure that we stopped military autocracy.
The civil society has also tried since 1999 to ensure that civilian autocracy will not take root in Nigeria. The civil society has done this, and must continue to do this, in many ways. Including acting as a check against the excesses of government, acting an accelerator of participation in different segments of society, acting as alternative to political parties, acting as a mitigator of fundamentalists, extremists and maximalists by providing alternatives for negotiation at different levels, and constituting a field for recruiting good leaders. Civil society should also constitute “an arena for the development of other democratic attributes, such as tolerance, moderation, a willingness to compromise, and a respect for opposing viewpoints.”
Reflecting on the outstanding vision of our past leaders in the Western Region and our experiences in the last two decades, particularly also since 1999, and taken into consideration the experiences of under the progressive governors in southwestern Nigeria, the issue of regional integration has become an important template for ensuring social and economic development. I will end this lecture by talking briefly about regional integration and its benefits. I am particularly interested in speaking about this because as a member of the Afenifere Renewal Group (ARG) which championed regional integration, I am very proud to defend our initiative. Also, as a member of a party which has been promoting the gospel of regional integration in our region, I am also very eager to sell the benefits of such integration.
Regional integration basically involves the process of political, legal, economic, social and cultural cooperation among the states in southwestern Nigeria so as to rapidly boost their growth and development. It is a process of the optimisation of the economic, cultural, social and spatial strengths of this region of Nigeria. Apart from democratic institutions and process, such as elections, political parties and civil society, which I discussed earlier, perhaps the most critical structural means of further democratising the country and providing development corridors which can be copied in other parts of Nigeria and which will lead to the economic transformation of Nigeria is regional integration. The atomised states that we currently have cannot do this on their own. They can only do it through integration.
The ARG, working in partnership with others, has produced a Development Agenda for Western Nigeria, otherwise called DAWN. I encourage you all to get a copy of this document and read it. Fortunately, the governors in our region of Nigeria have adopted this document and are working hard to ensure its implementation. What we hope to achieve with DAWN is to re-create an egalitarian, democratic and economically self-sufficient region of Nigeria, one which can again become an exemplar, not only for other regions of the country, but for the rest of the continent. There are specific goals that the DAWN document pushes us to accomplish. These includes global competitiveness, food sovereignty and nutrition, full and productive employment for our people, fiscal autonomy as constituent parts of Nigeria, first class social and physical infrastructure, and well-mobilised and committed citizenry.
With transparent elections, strong political parties that can deliver on the promises of good governance and regional integration, I am sure we can achieve the best potentials in southwestern Nigeria. This is one way to pay our greatest respect to the memories of those who have made great sacrifices in the past for our freedom and for democracy.
Among this people is the winner of the June 12, 1993 election, Basorun M.K.O. Abiola. In remembering him, we are also remembering all those who voted for a greater, democratic and egalitarian Nigeria and who continue to do so.
This is our task; this is our duty. We cannot afford to let down the present and coming generations. We must gird our loins and prepare for the battle ahead. The fate of our region and our country lies in our conscious decision to live up to the expectations and confront the challenges of our times.
I thank you for your attention.
Senator Ojudu delivered this lecture at an event marking the celebration of 20th anniversary of June 12 1993 Presidential Election organised by the Ondo State chapter of Afenifere Renewal Group (ARG) in Akure.