The posthumous award for the late Chief Moshood Kashimawo Olawale (MKO) Abiola, the presumed winner of the June 12, 1993 elections announced on June 6, 2018 by President Muhammadu Buhari was certainly least expected.
It came to many as a surprise, but still a welcoming and cheering news, a quarter of a century after the unprecedented June 12, 1993 elections that was annulled by the military under the leadership of then President Ibrahim Babaginda.
What was even more surprising was the declaration of June 12, as Democracy Day, to replace the previous May 29, which was the day in 1999 that a democratically-elected government was put in place in Nigeria after a long period of military rule.
From next year 2019, June 12 will be observed as a public holiday to commemorate the day true democracy came to Nigeria.
Since that infamous day 25- years ago, especially after the death of Abiola on July 7, 1998, who passed on without realising his mandate, many well-meaning Nigerians from the predominately Yoruba speaking states of the Southwest have been calling for MKO to be honoured posthumously.
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Many believed that with democracy now fully entrenched in Nigeria and with the era of military rule receding into history, it was time to give MKO his due and recognise him as a true democrat.
Unfortunately, not even General Olusegun Obasanjo, who hailed from the same town as Abiola, Abeokuta, the Ogun State capital, could do anything about a posthumous award for his townsman and tribesman when he became the President in 1999.
It was the belief then, as it is even today, that there was some rivalry between Obasanjo and Abiola, and the former would not do anything to enhance the prestige of MKO.
Be that as it may, it was only the Ogun and Lagos state governments that did anything to honour the memory of MKO by naming some institutions, including a stadium and a polytechnic after Abiola. It is also on record that the Federal government in 1998 awarded him the third highest national honour, the Commander of the Federal Republic (CFR).
It has to take somebody of the calibre and stature of Buhari to throw caution to the wind to do what many Nigerians desired. Since it was the military that was responsible for the travails of Abiola, it needed a strong soldier to reverse some of the tragedies that befell MKO.
Even though Abiola can never be brought back to life and neither can he be reinstated as the President of Nigeria, 25 years after he won that controversial election, at least his family, supporters and human rights advocates such as Nobel laureate, Wole Soyinka, appear to be satisfied with the turn of events.
So last Tuesday, June 12, a day after he returned from a state visit to Morocco, President Buhari, at a very impressive ceremony in Abuja in the presence of well-meaning Nigerians, including Abiola’s family member, conferred the highest national honour, the General Commander of the Federal Republic (GCON) posthumously on Abiola.
At the same time, he also conferred on Abiola’s running mate, Ambassador Baba Gana Kingibe, with the General Commander of the Niger (GCON) together with the human rights lawyer, Gani Fawehinmi, who also bagged a posthumous GCON.
Buhari apologised to the family of Abiola and all those who died as a result of the annulment for the injustice but stressed that the apology was not to rake old wounds but to right the wrongs committed.
So what really happened on June 12, 1993? It can be described as a red-letter day in the political history of Nigeria.
I was there
It may interest my readers to know that at that period of Nigeria’s history, I was domiciled in that country. At the time of the elections, I happened to be the editor of the Kwara State government-owned The Herald newspaper based in Ilorin. In fact, I was appointed editor in May 1992 while working at the Daily Times in Lagos.
So I was part of the history of that time and was deeply involved in the events leading up to the elections, the annulment and its aftermath.
I can say June 12, 1993 precipitated my return to Ghana since there was chaos after the elections. With Gen. Sani Abacha seizing power following the confusion, when Babangida stepped down for Ernest Shonekan, the centre certainly could no longer hold.
The Kwara State was one of the states that supported Abiola and the state voted massively for him. Abacha deployed military administrators to all the states when he seized power. It appeared, for no apparent reason, Kwara State was made to suffer for supporting MKO. The Herald was starved of funds and we could not come out.
It was a terrible moment for me and I had to return to the Daily Times in Lagos since I was only on leave of absence. A lot happened and I had to take a drastic decision to return to Ghana in 1996.
On the election itself, one can say Abiola took the whole country by storm. He had built a reputation for himself as an astute businessman whose tentacles stretched from communications to newspaper publishing.
He set up Abiola Farms, Abiola Bookshop, Bakeries, Concord Press, Concord Airlines, Summit Oil International Ltd, Africa Ocean Lines, Habib Bank, Decca W.A. Ltd and Abiola Football Club.
He was also the chairman of the G-15 business council, president of the Nigerian Stock Exchange, patron of the Kwame Nkrumah Foundation, patron of the W.E.B. Du Bois Foundation, trustee of the Martin Luther King Foundation and director of the International Press Institute.
In addition to his work in Nigeria, Abiola supported the Southern African Liberation Movements from the 1970s and he sponsored the campaign to win reparations for slavery and colonialism in Africa and the diaspora.
Abiola was indeed all over the place. He was seen as somebody who was born into poverty and through hard work became one of the wealthiest men in Africa. He was also seen as a philanthropist who was ready to help the under trodden.
So when he won the nomination of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) with Ambassador Kingibe as his running mate, the whole nation rooted for him. Nigerians were really expectant, believing that the best man was about to ascend the Presidency.
In what was believed to be the greatest and fairest presidential election ever, by national and international observers, Abiola overwhelmingly defeated his rival, Bashir Tofa of the National Republican Convention, even winning in his northern opponent’s home state of Kano.
Abiola was believed to have won at the national capital, Abuja, the military polling stations, and over two-thirds of Nigerian states. Men of northern descent had largely dominated Nigeria’s political landscape since independence. MKO, a Southern Muslim, was able to secure a national mandate freely and fairly, unprecedented in Nigeria’s history.
However, results were never officially announced since Babangida annulled the elections, claiming irregularities in the conduct of the elections. This led to political crisis leading to the emergence of Sani Abacha.
In 1994, Abiola declared himself the lawful President of Nigeria in Lagos after his return from a trip to win the support of the international community for his mandate.
Following this declaration, he was accused of treason and arrested on the orders of Abacha who sent 200 police vehicles to bring him into custody. Many world leaders, including Kofi Annan, then Secretary General of the UN, pleaded for his release but Abacha insisted that Abiola should renounce his declaration before any pardon could be granted.
Abiola died in mysterious circumstances shortly after the death of Abacha, on the day he was due to be released on July 7, 1998. His second wife, Kudirat Abiola, was assassinated in Lagos in 1996 for supporting his declaration.
With the present turn of events, one would be wondering what would be going on in the mind of Babangida, who in a TV interview in 2009 described the annulment as “unfortunate” and that he did what he did because of security threats to the enthronement of a democratic government at that time.