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June 12: A Revisit

By Dayo Benson, Vanguard, 10 June 2001

Chief MKO Abiola... symbol of June 12

In another two days, the lingering memory of that epic will flood the consciousness of faithfuls particularly those who fought the moral battle for political emancipation of the downtrodden. In the next fourty-eight hours, the fourteen million Nigerians will recollect the events of that day they trooped to polling booths to cast their votes for change. A change from military rule to democratic governance, from conservative to progressive ideology and from the old order to a new order. But it was a change that never was.

On June 12, Nigerians will remember the day that would have been a watershed in the political annals of the country. That historic date eight years that the teeming population of the country resolved in unison to enthrone democracy after a decade of military misrule.

Beyond this, the date will also invoke a mixed memories of the political travails and tribulations the country had been subjected to.

Almost a decade after, the date is gradually receding into a distance in the nation's political lane but its essence is constant. Aside from voting for change, June 12 bears a deeper symbolism. One of its political significance is situated in the fact that for the first time the voting pattern shifted the political paradigm.

Until that day, Nigerians had been used to voting along ethnic divide. The politics of the first and second republics witnessed the traditional voting pattern. But June 12 marked a radical departure from pandering to primedial ethnic sentiment. It was a day the voting populace forgot their individual identities for a common cause. The long sustained myth that only Northerners can rule Nigeria was shattered when the conservative North rejected one of their own in preference for a Southern. It was indeed the first time a Southern would win presidential election in the country, albeit he was never allowed to actualise the mandate.

Two previous attempts by Southerners in the first and second republics came to nought. The late Chief Obafemi Awolowo's bid to become the post-independence prime minister was not realised in the first republic when the nation practised parliamentary system. it was the same story during the presidential system in the second republic. Twice he tried, twice he did not succeed. But June 12 changed all that.

Another dimension of the date is that for the first time, Nigerians came out of their religious cocoons to elect leaders of their choice. That the banner that brought about the victory was muslim/muslim illustrated a new feeling among Nigerians. But that feeling was later fouled via a whimsical military fiat after a nocturnal court judgement that purported stopped the election from holding. The rest in new history. It was that singular unpopular act that sparked off the sour side of June 12. For those who believed and still believe in its sanctity, the struggle to actualise the mandate soon became the struggle for truth and justice. The restive civil populace took over where the political elite stopped. Bouyed by the sheer ruggedness of pro-democracy groups, Nigerian youths took to the streets to protest the unpopular annulment. In the process many lives were wasted by the armed soldiers set against harmless and defenceless populace. In the few years that followed 1993, many more prominent lives were lost on account of the June 12 struggle. Pa. Alfred Rewane, Rear Admiral Omotehinwa, Alhaja Suliat Adedeji, Dr. Sola Omosola, Alhaja Kudirat Abiola. Eventually, the custodian of the mandate itself, Chief MKO Abiola died in the gulag of his incarcerator over his insistence on actualising his mandate. It is indeed in the memory of those who laid down their lives for the struggle that the date will endure.

Over the past few years, there have been efforts to deflate the importance of the date. From the international appeal it enjoyed initially, the essence of June 12 was reduced to a zonal affair. In fact, at a point, it was only a handful of NADECO chieftains that kept the memory alive. It was the development that earned it a South-West affair. This is probably understandable. It was the contrivance of those who had attempted to obliterate the spirit from the consciousness of most Nigerians.

Indeed, June 12 has been reduced to a South-West affairs. Its memory had been kept alive with rallies and lectures by pro-democracy activist prior to the enthronement of democracy.

However, in the last two years, the spirit has been rekindled since the return of democracy. Governments of the six South-West states have been naming monuments, highways and streets after the late custodian of the voided mandate and his slain wife regarded as the heroine of democracy. The duo, and several other who were killed in the struggle are martys of democracy. They have written their names in the pantheon of Nigeria political history.

Revisionists have often claimed that the June 12 1993 presidential poll was inconclusive hence Abiola had no claim to any mandate. This may well be a technical argument as the outcome of the election was predictable even without official announcement of the result. But more importantly, there are several questions begging answers: is this the kind of democracy that hundreds of Nigerians laid down their lives for? Have they died in vain? Would things have been different if the mandate of June 12 was actualised?

According to Prof. Bolaji Akinyemi, if those who actively participated in the struggle for democracy were in the saddle, things wouldn't have been this bad because they would have appreciated what they struggled for. For Governor Bola Tinubu, his regret is that the dividends of democracy he and others fought tenaciously for have not been felt by the people. This he blames on the skewed structure of Nigeria nation that does not allow for the practise of true federalism. But will things change for the better?

Will Nigerians enjoy the fruits of democracy that the blood of their heroes and heroines watered? The months ahead will tell.