Nigeria gained independence on 1st October, 1960 from Great Britain. Not long after, Nigeria fell prey to the first of so many military coups on 15th of January, 1966, and then, a civil war. For most of its independence history, Nigeria was ruled by a series of military juntas, interspersed by brief moments of democratic rule.
In Nigeria, Democracy Day is a day set aside to celebrate the day the Military returned power to an elected Civilian government in 1999, marking the beginning of the longest continuous civilian rule since Nigeria’s independence from the colonialists in 1960. It is now a ritual that has been held annually, since the year 2000.
It was held annually on May 29th, marking when the newly elected Olusegun Obasanjo took office as the President of Nigeria in 1999, ending multiple decades of military rule that began in 1966 and had been interrupted only by a brief period of democracy from 1979 to 1983.
However, on June the 6th, 2018, exactly eight days after May 29, 2018 had been celebrated as Democracy Day, the President Buhari-led Federal Government of Nigeria declared June 12 to be the new Democracy Day. This was a step taken to commemorate the democratic election of MKO Abiola on June 12, 1993, in what has been adjudged to be Nigeria’s freest and fairest elections which was later cancelled by the Ibrahim Babangida Junta.
June 12 was previously known as Abiola Day, and was celebrated only in Lagos and some other south western states of Nigeria as these were the only States which at that time, agreed with Abiola’s victory in the elections.
Abiola was a businessman, publisher, politician and aristocrat of the Yoruba Egba clan. He made his fortune through various enterprises, including communication, oil and gas. He made his first, unsuccessful run at the presidency in 1983. By then, Nigeria had endured a great deal of political upheaval since its 1960 independence. It was a deeply divided nation, riven along ethnic, religious and regional lines. Political and military power was held by the north.
Then came Abiola, a man from the South. He brought a different perspective to the table and was able to connect with people across divides. Come 12 June 1993, he tried for the presidency again.
On the day, an estimated 14 million Nigerians – irrespective of ethnic, religious, class, and regional affiliations, (in a period when religious acrimony and tension had reached its zenith) – defied bad weather to elect their president with the hope of ending eight years of military dictatorships.
The euphoria was short-lived. The results of the election were never released. But unofficial results gathered through the various polling stations by civil society groups across the country indicated broad national support for the presidential candidate of the Social Democratic Party, Chief Moshood Kashimawo Olawale Abiola.
Despite his popularity, and the turnout, the elections stalled. The then military head of state, General Ibrahim Babangida, decided to annul the results of the election. He justified the annulment on the grounds that it was necessary to save the nation. He alleged that political activities preceding the election were inimical to peace and stability in Nigeria.
Some people however believe that the military underrated Abiola’s popularity. It also did not envisage the level of crisis after the annulment of the election result.
The June 12 election and subsequent annulment marked the beginning of a decade’s long struggle to see the election result restored and democracy rehabilitated.
The annulment of the election result was not taken lightly in the south-Western part of the country. Civil violence in the South Western states provoked by electoral fraud and political exclusion previously contributed to the breakdown of the first and second republics. These ran from 1993 to 1999 when Nigeria had its return to democratic rule.
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Protests later turned violent. At least 100 protesters were killed, shot by police. The violence prompted a mounting exodus from the major cities, as southern ethnic groups (most especially the Ibos), fearing a recurrence of the communal purges which had preceded the 1967 Civil War, fled to their home regions. Author B.O Nwabueze lucidly and graphically described the crisis like this:
The annulment of the June 12 presidential election plunged the country into what indisputably is the greatest political crisis in its 33-year life as an independent nation.
Never before, except during the murderous confrontation of 1966 to 1970, had the survival of Nigeria as one political entity been in more serious danger. The impasse created was certainly unequalled in the country’s history.
PUSH FOR CHANGE
Civil society groups pushed for the re-democratisation of Nigeria. Their first call was that the mandate be returned to Abiola. During this period there was a great deal of fear and insecurity in the country. But, as Ebenezer Babatope, in his book “The Abacha Regime and the June 12 crisis” notes, people mobilised to face the challenges of a military leadership that had reneged on its promise to hand over power to democratically elected leaders.
Under tremendous pressure, the Abubakar administration arranged for elections to be held.
These took place – for state governorships, the senate and local councils – over a few months from late 1998 to February 1999.
Finally, Abubakar’s transition reached the climax with the declaration of General Olusegun Obasanjo, who had retired from the military, as the president elect in late February 1999. He was duly sworn in on 29 May 1999.
This explains why May 29 became the official public holiday on which Nigerians celebrated the country’s return to civilian rule.
Here are 12 Facts you should know about June the 12th in Nigeria:
• In March 1993, Chief MKO Abiola, from Ogun state, was chosen by the Social Democratic Party (SDP) as its candidate after beating his eventual running mate Ambassador Babagana Kingibe, and Alhaji Atiku Abubakar. The National Republican Convention (NRC) chose Bashir Tofa from Kano State.
• Abiola’s wife, Simbiat Abiola had kicked against the idea of him going into politics. But after her death in late 1992, MKO saw the opportunity to fulfil his ambition. MKO Abiola became a rallying figure for many Nigerians with his ‘Hope’ campaign, as his June 12 campaign slogan ‘HOPE’ was later used by former United States president, Barack Obama in his 2008 election campaigns in America.
• The June 12, 1993, presidential election was declared Nigeria’s freest and fairest presidential election by national and international observers, with Abiola even winning in his Northern opponent’s home state.
• The results of the election have never been officially certified. However, African Elections Database says Abiola won with 8,243,209 votes, while Tofa polled 5,982,087 votes.
• Abiola is thought to have won majority votes in 20 of the then 30 states in Nigeria, thereby securing the constitutionally required tally to be declared a winner. But that did not happen.
• The result of the election was annulled by the then military head of state, Ibrahim Babangida because of alleged electoral malpractices in all states of the federation. The quote below lends veracity to this assertion:
“There was, in fact, a huge array of electoral malpractices virtually in all the states of the federation before the actual voting began”, Babangida said in a nationwide broadcast on June 23rd, 1993.
• When Babangida annulled the presidential primaries of SDP & NRC, he also banned Abiola and Tofa from contesting in the rescheduled election. He subsequently ‘stepped aside’ on August 27, 1993, paving the way for an interim national government headed by Ernest Shonekan, who like Abiola is an indigene of Ogun State. The interim government was later overthrown in November of that year by General Sani Abacha.
• On June 11, 1994, Abiola declared himself as the president of Nigeria at Epetedo, Lagos.
“As of now, from this moment, a new Government of National Unity is in power throughout the length and breadth of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, led by me, Bashorun M.K.O. Abiola, as President and Commander-in-Chief”.
• After declaring himself president, he was declared wanted and was accused of treason and arrested on the orders of the military head of state, General Sani Abacha, who sent 200 police vehicles to bring him into custody.
• He was arrested on June 23, 1994.
• Abiola was detained for four years, largely in solitary confinement. Apart from a Bible and Qur’an, he had no source of information.
• Abiola died on July 7, 1998, the day he was supposed to be freed from detention.
It is important to note that the end of military rule brought about a new era of regular elections, as well as the return of civil liberties, free press and an end to arbitrary arrests and torture, although human rights violations still occur regularly. Nigeria also began a long campaign against the bureaucratic and military corruption that had paralyzed its economy and severely tarnished its international reputation.
Buhari’s decision to mark June the 12th as Democracy Day should be viewed as an attempt to placate the South Western Nigerian States which have always set aside the day to remember Abiola’s stolen mandate and an annulled election that many still view as the country’s freest and fairest in the history of Nigeria and democracy.
A few days back, the Presidency announced that a documentary titled;
“NIGERIA: Consolidating Democracy & National Unity” in recognition on MKO Abiola as the winner of the June 12, 1993 elections will be airing today, June the 12th, 2021 across TV Stations in the country.
This is indeed a bold step taken by the present day administration to foster Democracy & National Unity.
Compiled & Written by: Theophilus Adeniyi AWOTUNDE for Inside OAU Innovations (IOI)