June 12, 2009

JUNE 12: A nation that never learns

By Ochereome Nnanna
When Nigerians trooped out in their millions sixteen years ago to vote for a president of their choice, little did they know that their patriotic action was going to spark off a crisis that would make the nation lose decades in terms of political development. On that day, under the exciting Option A4 method of voting devised by the Professor Humphrey Nwosu-led National Electoral Commission (NEC), voters lined behind the two candidates, Chief Moshood Abiola of the Social Democratic Party (SDP and Alhaji Othman Tofa of the National Republican Convention (NRC).

At the end of the day, the results started coming in. In fact, results from fourteen states had been published on the giant scoreboard in front on the NEC headquarters in Abuja and Abiola was in the lead. All indicators pointed to his eventual victory. An interesting part of the result was that Abiola beat Tofa not only in his native Kano State but also in his ward where this reporter covered the presidential election that fateful day.

Late Bashorun M.K.O. Abiola, acclaimed winner of June 12, 1993 presidential election.

Late Bashorun M.K.O. Abiola, acclaimed winner of June 12, 1993 presidential election.

The profile of the result portrayed the fact that Nigerians, for the first time in the history of elections in Nigeria, decided to vote the best candidates for the top post in Nigeria.

Despite the fact that Tofa, a Muslim from the North had as his running mate Dr. Silvester Ugoh, a Christian from the East and thus constituted what seemed a balanced ticket, the majority of voters across the country settled for the Muslim/Muslim ticket of Abiola from Western Nigeria and his running mate, Baba Gana Kingibe from the North.

The June 12th, 1993 presidential election thus defied existing conventional wisdom, especially the one that posited that a northerner with a southern running mate would always win against a southerner with a northern running mate. The fact of that election was that religion, ethnicity or region played a little role in the choice that the Nigerian electorate made.

Had that election been allowed to stand, Nigeria would have stood out as a proud political achiever worthy of emulation; a country which devised an ingenious indigenous model of democracy that solved the imperfections that bedevilled past elections which often precipitated violent changes of government.

However, the ruling class was not ready to give up power to the electorate. They conspired and annulled the election. Rather than swearing in its winners, an interim government was put in place and the military president, General Ibrahim Babangida, had to leave power on June 27th 1993 in rather chaotic circumstances.

Abiola and his supporters decided not to allow the annulment to stand. They decided to start a struggle for the revalidation of the presidential mandate. A military coup led by one of the principal opponents of the election, General Sani Abacha, took place on November 17th 1993.

Abacha’s politics centred on crushing the opposition and paving the way for his own assumption of office as a civilian president at the end of his transition programme. He was in office for nearly five years and was on the verge of succeeding himself in office when he suddenly died on June 7th 1998. General Abdulsalami Abubakar, who succeeded Abacha ran a one-year transition programme, which produced General Olusegun Obasanjo as the democratically elected president on May 29th 1999.

The question on the lips of many observers of Nigerian events is: what lesson did Nigeria learn from the sad events of June 12?

June 12 had two faces. The obverse face is the triumph of the Nigerian electorate over primordialities such as ethnicity, religion and region in choosing their leader in an election declared by both local and international observers as free, fair, credible and exemplary; and in which a clear winner, Moshood Abiola, emerged. The reverse side was the desperate decision by the ruling class and its supporters to quash the will of the people and return Nigeria to status quo ante, which nearly triggered off another civil war.

At the end of the day, the ruling class and its international collaborators had to make compromises without loosening its grip on power. Abacha died mysteriously in the state house. Abiola died, equally mysteriously in detention. Till date, no one has given a credible cause of the death of the two major post-June 12 gladiators.

But their removal from the scene created the room for a new venture towards democratisation. It was clear that without appeasing the West, which felt directly assaulted by the annulment and killing of Abiola, crisis would continue to shadow every attempt at restoring democracy.

The ruling class thus came up with the choice of Obasanjo, a Yoruba man from Abiola’s hometown, for president. While Abiola was a member of the ruling class who was hijacked by the electorate, Obasanjo was also a member of the ruling class who had little or no electoral appeal.

But since he appealed to the ruling class, he was made the presidential candidate of the largest and most widespread political party, the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), a move that ensured that he could never lose the presidential election of February, 1999. The ruling class went back to being the one to decide who occupied what office, and the electorate returned to being poll fodder whose votes meant nothing to the outcome of elections.

Since 1999, elections in Nigeria have become progressively worse. The electoral umpire, now known as the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) with Professor Maurice Iwu, now enjoys a worldwide notoriety as an agency that is incapable of conducting credible elections.

In a recent visit to Nigeria, former US Secretary of State, General Collin Powel, declared that Nigerian democracy is perceived as one that is not linked to the people or acceptable to them. Everything that was bad about Nigerian democracy, which the June election corrected, has become worse. Stealing of ballots, violence at the polls, prolonged electoral disputes and the issue of money politics are getting worse rather than better.

Many Nigerians had pinned their hopes on the proposed electoral reform, which the government of President Umar Musa Yar’ Adua promised and is in the process of obtaining its legislative instrument. But mouths went sour when the report of the Justice Muhammadu Uwais panel was doctored by the presidency to restore the president’s power to appoint the members and helmsman of the electoral commission.

This measure, which is sure to keep intact the ruling class’ power to produce leaders rather than the electorate, has been widely condemned, but the presidency is sticking to its guns as the bill for a reformed INEC that the president will still constitute, has gone to the National Assembly.

Nigeria is a nation where lessons are not learnt. It is also a place where good things, when they happen, even by mistake, are quickly reversed. The ruling class does not benefit from progress or positive change, and does not permit it.