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Every June 12 presents an opportunity for everyone to remember the late MKO Abiola; the June 12, 1993 presidential election; its annulment, and the flurry of activities and events that followed. It is an anniversary remembered nationwide but celebrated especially in the South-west, which made a loud and clear statement with the last anniversary as states in the region defied political differences to act in one accord by declaring the date a public holiday. A flurry of activities – public lectures, speeches, workshops, symposia, visit to Abiola’s final resting place, and other political activities – usually mark the day. Political figures also take advantage to hug the limelight, granting interviews and making statements which, oftentimes, are brazen attempts at re-writing history and laundering battered images and dry-cleaning sodden consciences. Who defecated on June 12; who fed fat on it; who compromised it as well as those who faithfully – and painfully – fought for its realization take the centre-stage and it is often a pain in the arse separating the grain from the chaff.
Imagine retired Major Hamza al-Mustapha, alter ego of vile dictator, Gen. Sani Abacha, trying to reduce his own crimes as Chief Security Officer (CSO) to Abacha to his being in possession of the tape of how Abiola was murdered through the obvious collusion of the Gen. Abdulsalami Abubakar regime with the United States government. While that tape may be historical, it is doubtful if it contains new information as Nigerians already “know” what happened to Abiola in his last moments and those culpable. Yet, it is not a totally fruitless effort if we continue to interrogate the circumstances in which Abiola died. When the then Commonwealth Secretary-General, Chief Emeka Anyaoku, visited Abiola in detention and failed to convince him to renounce his mandate, I knew a “solution” had to be found – just as everyone believed was found to Abacha. I remember seeing the picture of a vastly emaciated Abiola sandwiched between Anyaoku and Mike Akhigbe, the then Number Two to Abubakar.
I wrote in my column in a national daily that I worked for then: “MKO: Coming home empty-handed” After reviewing the June 12 issue; the struggle to actualise the mandate given by the Nigerian electorate in the freest and fairest election in the country’s history; and Abacha’s death in cloudy circumstances, I told Abiola it was time for him to return home, even if empty-handed. When there is life, there is hope and he who fights and runs away lives to fight another day. Or, to quote the words of Mr. Osuolale Mustapha (where are you, Sir?) “Balogun ojo ni n se iroyin iku t’o pa Balogun akikanju”; meaning “it is the cowardly General that usually returns from the war front to narrate the story of how the valiant General fell on the battle field”. A media mogul as at that time detached that page of the newspaper and wrote on top of my piece: “This is curious; his conclusion contradicts his premises”. Often quick to suspect people of taking “egunje’ or brown envelopes, he was alleging that I might have been compromised to ask Abiola to forgo his mandate. Days after when Abiola died, he called to ask for my source. Medicine after death!
I have read Abiola’s children accusing the National Democratic Coalition (NADECO) leaders of killing their father; that their father was not only goaded into the struggle but was also convinced to maintain his hard-line posture, even when a controversial bail was arranged for him courtesy of the late “strongman/GOC of Ibadan politics”, Alhaji Lamidi Adedibu. In an interview granted penultimate Saturday, ex-Senator Anthony Adefuye added that then Number Two to Abacha, Gen. Oladipo Diya, played a vital role in arranging that bail. While it is easy to understand and appreciate the loss and frustration of the Abiolas, it may be uncharitable to put all the blames on NADECO. What if the gamble to reclaim the June 12 mandate had succeeded, would the Abiolas not have been on the first-line charge of beneficiaries? Nevertheless, it is not out of place to continually perform an autopsy on June 12 so we can continue to unravel the salient truths that must be learnt from it. It has been posited that if there is any lesson learnt from history, it is that men do not learn from history; and those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeating its mistakes. Scriptures say we shall know the truth and the truth shall make us free.
In doing this, we must, however, remind ourselves that some of what we consider as “mistakes” today is because we now have the benefit of hindsight and some of what we call treacheries and betrayals may be genuine mistakes and the result of the finiteness of man. It is likely that if Abiola himself were to live and have the opportunity to pass the June 12 road again, he may do some things differently. It didn’t appear he was sufficiently apprised of the enormity and gravity of what he was grappling with – and the same can be said of many of his advisers. The late Gen. JJ Oluleye told me of how, in the thick of the June 12 impasse, Abiola still found time to play Romeo and Juliet in the middle of the night a few blocks away from the Oluleye’s off Adeniyi Jones, Ikeja home until he (Oluleye) surprised him one night and scolded him for the dangerous risk he was taking. Why was Abiola confident in the pro-democracy activists’ promise to mass a human shield around him and prevent his arrest as well as activate a mass upheaval that would drive the military out of office? At his arrest, Abiola was reported to have said the Americans would come to free him from detention. Well, from what we saw later, the Americans actually came to take him out of detention but not in the direction he had perceived.
Should Abiola have returned home to fight for the June 12 struggle or should he have remained abroad, form a government in exile and struggle from there while those at home kept up the momentum? Who advised him to make the Epetedo Declaration in which he declared himself president and threatened to form a government? When I was detained for three days in my office as editor of a national daily by the military junta, it was on account of the invitation to the Epetedo event which I published. The question the SSS, as they were then called, asked me repeatedly was how I got the IV. They believed a top Oga at the newspaper brought it and that this top Oga was a member of the Abiola think-tank. Sincerely speaking, I merely found the IV on my table among a pile of correspondence delivered daily to the editor’s office and considered it good news for publication – and I told them so. They asked for the envelope but, unfortunately, the practice then was to squeeze the envelope and throw it into the dust bin. That incident taught me the importance of an envelope – that it must be stapled to the content.
After Epetedo, should Abiola have headed home or straight to the then famous “NADECO route” out of the country? Why did the plan to shield him fail? NADECO and Yoruba leaders have repeatedly rubbished al-Mustapha’s allegation that they took money from Abacha to compromise June 12. Either may be right. When the newspaper I worked for at that time was shut down and I led a two-man team to Abuja to meet with Diya to plead with him to do something, the stories that I heard from Commodore Olabode George, then Principal Staff Officer (PSO) to Diya, of the conduct of some Yoruba leaders, even Obas, in their visits to the Presidential Villa, beat the imagination. When we met Diya, he declined to help but asked us to make personal requests. I declined and we were taken back to Bode George’s office. My partner soon afterwards asked to be taken back to Diya’s office. On our way back to the hotel, he asked me what a plot of land could cost in the FCT. I told him I had no idea but it gave an inkling as to what he might have returned to Diya to do. Adefuye said in his interview that Akhigbe told him the Abdulsalami regime was shocked that the NADECO/Yoruba leaders who met the new regime did not make the release of Abiola a pre-condition for talks; not to talk of the actualization of the June 12 mandate; that the new junta asked for three to four months to clean the June 12 mess but the leaders offered it six more months to conduct an election! Adefuye and Akhigbe may be right but the question needs be posed whether late Akhigbe as Number Two had no inkling of the planned murder of Abiola like Adefuye would have us believe.
Few members of the ruling class, military or civilian, wanted Abiola as president. It was the masses that really wanted him. The Yoruba ruling class were hard put to forgive and forget Abiola’s political past, which ran counter to their grains, but the political movement that propelled Abiola was such that standing against it was tantamount to standing in front of a moving train, to quote Abiola himself. So they grudgingly accepted Abiola but surreptitiously worked against him. Abiola had started the Concord group of newspapers with the clear mandate to thwart the late Chief Obafemi Awolowo’s political ambition. Well, he did but a man who frustrated another’s ambition soon had the mother of all frustration waiting as sentinel at the doorpost of his own success. Karma? What goes round comes around and whatsoever a man soweth… As much as the mainstream Yoruba political ruling class loathed the annulment, they also sincerely didn’t find a stomach for Abiola. It is my view that they then tried to kill two birds with one stone immediately the opportunity presented itself. In that they got the entire country to concede the presidency to the Yoruba in 1999 and Abiola’s head was not the one to wear the crown, they succeeded but, unfortunately, the alternative forced down their throat – Olusegun Obasanjo – was a pill more bitter than Abiola.