By Dare Babarinsa
It is a matter of irony that President Muhammadu Buhari, who was decidedly hostile to Chief Moshood Abiola when he was our military Head of State, is the one to honour my old boss by recognising June 12 as a national holiday.
Wednesday, the first time the day was marked by the entire nation, Buhari named the National Stadium, Abuja, after the late hero. Buhari has paid what he owed Abiola and other heroes of our democratic struggle against military dictatorship.
June 12, 1993 was the day Nigerians in their millions trooped out to elect Abiola the President. He contested on the platform of the Social Democratic Party, SDP and defeated his only challenger, Alhaji Bashir Tofa of the National Republican Convention, NRC. Though Abiola’s victory was annulled by the dictator, General Ibrahim Babangida, it was the struggle to validate Abiola’s victory that transformed the Nigerian political landscape and gave us the current democratic dispensation.
Three of Abiola military friends, Generals Shehu Musa Yar’Adua, Babangida and Sani Abacha, played decisive roles in Abiola’s political odyssey in his concluding years.
When Abiola’s friend, Babangida, toppled the draconian Buhari regime on August 27, 1985, the coup was welcomed by most Nigerians.
After almost eight years of dribbling Nigerians (Chief Bisi Onabanjo nicknamed Babangida Maradona, after the famous Argentine footballer), Babangida finally announced that he would hand over power to an elected successor come August 27, 1993, the eighth anniversary of his coup. Abiola believed him despite glaring evidence that Babangida was insincere.
Initially, Abiola was not too sure whether he should plunged into politics again especially after his bitter experience in the National Party of Nigeria, NPN, during the Second Republic.
In 1992, I was one of the about 40 journalists who travelled with Abiola to Goree Island, Senegal, during his universal campaign for reparation from the West for victims of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade.
On our return flight to Lagos, I sat next to Abiola for a scheduled interview. I asked him whether he was interested in running for the Presidency as was being speculated then. “What else do I want in running from Lagos to Taraba, and between Imo and Ondo?” he asked with a flourish. “Some of us have gone beyond that! I want things that would unite us, not divide us.”
Few weeks after this disclaimer, Abiola joined the SDP and sought to run for President under the option A4 formular which pitched him on the home front against other contenders like Chief Lai Balogun, Otunba Olabiyi Durojaiye, Professor Bolaji Akinyemi and Mr Gbolabo Ogunsanwo.
By the time of the SDP Convention in Jos, Plateau State, the battle had been reduced into a three-corner combat. Despite the massive support Abiola had across the country, he knew it would be difficult for him to win because one of his opponents, Babagana Kingibe, a smooth-talking former diplomat and estranged protégé of General Yar’Adua, had the support of most of the governors.
In his South-West home base, only Governors Olusegun Osoba of Ogun and Governor Isiaka Adeleke of Osun, were with him. Both Governors Kolapo Ishola of Oyo and Bamidele Olumilua of Ondo have pitched their tents with Kingibe.
Yar’Adua, banned from running for president by the Babangida regime, was fielding a young former custom officer, Atiku Abubakar. When there was no clear winner at the first run, Abiola entered into an alliance with the Yar’Adua group and Atiku stepped down for him with the promise that if Abiola becomes the candidate, Atiku would become the vice-presidential candidate of the SDP. Abiola won. He did not name Atiku as his running mate. Instead he left Jos without pronouncing his running mate.
Babangida called to congratulate Abiola and offered his advice on who should be his running mate.
At their meeting in Aso-Rock, the new presidential villa, Babangida said Abiola should name the president of the Nigerian Labour Congress, Paschal Bafyau, as his vice-presidential candidate. He said the Nigerian military would not support a Muslim-Muslim ticket and because of that dismissed the idea of an Abiola-Atiku ticket. At that time, there was no love-lost between the dictator and Yar’Adua.
With the help of Mrs Kudirat Abiola, I was able to meet Abiola to present our position to him. I and my friends preferred Kingibe.
Abiola said Kingibe was the choice of the governors but he would prefer Air-Commodore Dan Suleiman, a former air force officer and military governor. We did not want anyone with a military background.
On May 1, 1993, my former boss, Dr Doyin Abiola, the Editor-in-Chief of the Concord Group of Newspapers, issued a press statement announcing the choice of Alhaji Babagana Kingibe as Abiola’s running mate. That singular choice was to effectively end the friendship between Abiola and his two friends, Babangida and Yar’Adua.
From that point on, it was difficult for Abiola to get Babangida on the phone. Abiola went ahead to contest against the candidate of the National Republican Convention, NRC, Bashir Tofa.
The presidential election on June 12, 1993, was generally seen as free and fair and unofficial result gave victory to Abiola. We were eagerly waiting for the results to be announced only for Professor Humphrey Nwosu, the chairman of the National Electoral Commission, to keep us in endless suspense.
Few weeks later, one of our old colleagues in the Concord who was now working with the government, distributed a statement to the press in Abuja, announcing that the election had been annulled. A new and final chapter had thus been opened in Abiola’s colourful and rewarding life. He decided to challenge the annulment of his victory by his old friend, Babangida.
Yar’Adua, who controlled the SDP party machinery through his ally, the durable Chief Antony Anenih, refused to rally the SDP to support Abiola. The governors, elected on the platform of the party, were not sure of what to do. Abiola decided to look for new friends. He found General Sani Abacha. It was the kiss of death.
It was a strange friendship. While Abiola was flamboyant and gregarious, Abacha was taciturn and deep. He was the great survivor whose craftiness and staying power overwhelmed men who appeared more brilliant and outgoing. With the encouragement of Abiola, Abacha toppled the effete regime of Chief Ernest Shonekan, the board room titan who had been shoved in to manage the turbulent interregnum after Babangida fled from Abuja.
His early moves showed that Abacha was a master tactician whose capacity for profitable dishonesty was first class. Few weeks after Abacha came to power, one of my elderly friends, a leading member of the Awoist Vanguard, came to my office and announced: “Abiola has collapsed!”
He explained that Chief Abiola had agreed to collaborate with Abacha to form a new government and that he would nominate some ministers and he said with that singular decision, it would be difficult for Abiola to retrieve his mandate. He said Abiola should have extracted concrete agreements on the June 12 debacle before collaborating with the new regime. When Abacha finally announced his cabinet, even the Vice-President presumptive, Alhaji Kingibe, was on the list.
It took some months for Abiola to realise the shenanigans and convoluted mendacity of his new friend, General Abacha. Then he rose up to answer the summons of history. Nigeria must be free from military rule. He paid the price with his life. His wife was assassinated. His business empire was ruined. It is heartening that our country has finally come to embrace the enormity of Abiola’s sacrifice by declaring June 12 as official Democracy Day.
By honouring Abiola, Buhari has not only honoured a great man, he has also honoured the memory of Kudirat, his brave wife, and thousands of Nigerians who died in the struggle to make our country the land of the free.
The next step is for us to re-examine and reform the current Abacha Constitution, for I have a feeling that the current spates of killings and kidnappings across the country may be part of the sickening symptoms of its deformities.