by Olu Fasan
In June 2018, President Buhari declared that “Democracy Day” would no longer be May 29, but June 12. This was to immortalise June 12, 1993 when the freest presidential election in Nigeria’s history was annulled by the then military dictator, General Ibrahim Babangida. But the decision was a mere symbolic gesture, because ‘June 12’ lacks a true story behind it.
How many Nigerians really know anything about the annulment of the presidential election beyond the fact that it happened. How many people, apart from those directly involved in the annulment, know the behind-the scenes shenanigans that led to the momentous decision? How many Nigerians know the inside story of this epochal event called “June 12”?
Think of any significant commemorative event in any civilised country, the citizens are fully enlightened about the grand narratives of what they are commemorating. In fact, for any historic event that is deemed worth celebrating with a public holiday, there would be official inquiries and reports on it; there would be books and historical documents available on it. But nothing of substance has been done about the June 12 annulment to enrich Nigeria’s collective history.
Yet, the truth is that without an inquiry to expose the inside story of the annulment, e.g., why it really happened and what the roles different individuals played in it, declaring June 12 as Democracy Day is a meaningless symbolic gesture that simply creates an annual jamboree for the politicians and activists to get on the moral high horse and pontificate about democracy even though most of them were complicit in the chain of events leading up to the annulment, and in the subsequent failure to reverse the annulment.
Unfortunately, the politicians have appropriated the June 12 commemoration as if it’s about them. But ‘June 12’ should not be about the politicians. Indeed, while Chief MKO Abiola, the presumed winner of the annulled election, deserved recognition for paying the supreme price with his life, ‘June 12’ should not be about him. The truth is that the politicians knew or should have known what they were letting themselves in for when they opportunistically played along with the undemocratic antics of General Babangida, also known as Maradona or Machiavelli. As JF Kennedy famously said: “Those who foolishly sought power by riding the back of the tiger ended up inside.”
“Yet, this is beyond individual ambitions, whether soldiers’ or politicians. It is about the collective psyche of a nation. If “June 12” is to be immortalised and celebrated every year, it’s not enough simply to say the annulment happened”
Think of the events leading up to the June 12 presidential election. Before it was held, Babangida cancelled the results of the presidential primaries of the 23 political parties and banned all the presidential aspirants, including prominent people like Major-General Shehu Musa Yar’ Adua and Olu Falae, from contesting. Then, he disbanded all the 23 parties and created two, the National Republican Convention (NRC) and the Social Democratic Party (SDP). What’s more, his regime drafted the constitutions of the two parties and appointed administrators for them.
Now, which self-respecting politician would not see through this chicanery? Which democratic politician would not balk at an election based on such utterly anti-democratic actions? The truth is that the June 12 election came with a warning: caveat emptor – buyer beware! But the self-interested and opportunistic politicians deliberately ignored the danger signs and decided to ride the back of the tiger!
Which is why ‘June 12’ should not be about the opportunistic and perfidious politicians. Rather it should be about ordinary Nigerians who voted in that election, and were deceived and betrayed by General Babangida. Once Babangida called the election, he entered into a contract with the Nigerian people; by annulling the election, he breached that contract!
In a statement issued on June 23, annulling the election, the Babangida regime said: “In view of the spirit of litigation pending in various courts, the government is compelled to annul the election to protect our legal system and the judiciary from being ridiculed and politicised”. It said it wanted “to rescue the judiciary from intra-voyaging.” But who really believes that Babangida annulled the election to save the judiciary? As the renowned jurist Akinola Aguda rightly said, the reasons given were “flippant and ridiculous to the extreme.”
Understandably, the annulment sent shock waves across the world. I was a magazine publisher in London during the June 12 saga, and was thus an active watcher of the events. The British government strongly condemned the annulment but came short of calling for its reversal. As Baroness Lynda Chalker, Britain’s Overseas Development Minister, told the House of Lords, “We have been very careful not to be prescriptive in our approach. We have not offered to devise or broker political solutions to Nigeria’s problems”, adding that “Nigeria must decide its own future.”
In July 1993, Gordon Wilson, then President of the UK chapter of the Nigerian-British Chamber of Commerce, undertook a 12-day visit to Nigeria, and met General Babangida. On his return to London, Wilson told members of the chamber: “I stressed to him the British Government’s disappointment over the annulled presidential election of June 12 and he (Babangida) said: ‘Well, yes, so would they. Very sad about it but we had special reasons at the last minute for taking the actions, which were imperative’. He would not be specific. I did not expect him to.” However, Wilson said that as Babangida ushered him to his car, he told him: “Sir, I believe this would be the last time that I should meet you in your position as Head of State”, and he said “Yes, Gord, you’re correct.”
Of course, General Babangida “stepped aside” on August 26, 1993. He created a face-saving contraption called “Interim National Government” and named Chief Ernest Shonekan, then Chairman of the Transitional Council and Head of Government, as head of the interim government. But, with General Sani Abacha as Minister of Defence, the interim government was dead on arrival. On November 17, 1993, Abacha seized power from Shonekan and restored military rule.
With Abacha in charge and running a Gestapo-style regime, many of the political activists fled to London. But the activists were frustrated and deeply disappointed with the UK government for refusing to impose stringent sanctions, including oil embargo and trade sanctions, on Nigeria.
When I interviewed Baroness Chalker at the House of Lords in June 1995, she told me that imposing sanctions on Nigeria, apart from withdrawal of military assistance, would “harm the interests or the livelihoods of ordinary Nigerians”, adding: “In talking to Wole Soyinka the other day, he made it absolutely clear to me that we should go on helping the people of Nigeria.”
Of course, it was wrong to expect Britain to help Nigeria solve its self-inflicted problems. In 1995, General Oladipo Diya, Abacha’s deputy, said in an interview. “June 12 was a reality. Abiola actually won the election. But General Babangida should be held responsible”. He continued. “Babangida didn’t consult anybody. I was the 8th or 9th in the hierarchy. Babangida won’t say he called us to discuss the annulment.” Then, he added: “If Babangida’s son had contested that election, he would have annulled it because he didn’t want to go.”
But if the Abacha regime agreed that Abiola actually won the election, as Diya said, why did they hand power to him but rather arrested and charged him with treason when he declared himself president? Of course, this was about power and just as the politicians acted without morality, Abacha felt no obligation to act morally.
Yet, this is beyond individual ambitions, whether soldiers’ or politicians. It is about the collective psyche of a nation. If “June 12” is to be immortalised and celebrated every year, it’s not enough simply to say the annulment happened. The true story of why it happened and the roles that different individuals played in it should be exposed and documented for posterity.