By Oghene Omonisa
Tomorrow marks the 23rd anniversary of the historic presidential election held on Saturday, June 12, 1993. It was not only the first time a Southerner would win a presidential election, but it was an election widely adjudged to be the freest and fairest in Nigeria’s chequered political history. Its eventual annulment and the crises it sired all contributed to make the event historic.
General Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida (IBB), the then military President was a key actor in the event. The June 12 election had its roots in Babangida’s transition to civil rule programme. Beginning with a promise to hand over power to a democratically elected government, Gen. Babangida had in 1987 announced a transition programme which was scheduled to begin in the third quarter of 1987. The timetable included local government elections on a zero-party basis, the lifting of the ban on politics and the registration of political parties as well as the inauguration of elected state governments and the inauguration of a new president in 1990. However, Babangida later shifted the hand-over date to 1993. In December 1987, the regime successfully organized the local government elections on a zero-party basis and in 1989, Babangida legalised the formation of political parties.
In pursuit of Babangida’s promise of making a clean break with the political past, the regime prohibited certain categories of former political office holders from contesting for elective office during the transition programme. These included persons who had held political offices at the federal or state levels in the civilian governments between 1960 and 1966, and 1979 and 1983, as well as former or serving state military governors or administrators, service chiefs in the armed forces and the police, including former military heads of state and the serving president. In justifying these measures in 1988, Babangida would tell his countrymen that “we have not chosen and have not sought to choose those who will succeed us. We have only decided on those who will not. We also have no vested interest in who succeeds our successors.” This would serve as his watchword throughout the transition period.
However, Babangida would later ban all the six registered political parties and formed two political parties: the left-of-center Social Democratic Party (SDP) and the right-of-center National Republican Convention (NRC), which represented popular political views and ideological sentiments of majority of Nigerians. And he would later unban the earlier banned categories of politicians.
The state and federal legislative elections duly took place in December 1991 and the newly elected officials were inaugurated on 2 January 1992, setting the stage for the last phase of the transition programme: the presidential election. But the presidential primaries of both parties were cancelled due to widespread allegations of irregularities. Babangida then dissolved all party structures in the country, and appointed caretaker committees to run the parties instead. He also disqualified all aspirants who had participated in the previous primaries from contesting any further elections during the transition programme.
After keenly contested presidential primaries, celebrated businessman and publisher, Chief Moshood Kashimawo Olawale Abiola (MKO) and little-known Kano-based businessman, Alhaji Bashir Othman Tofa emerged presidential candidates of SDP and NRC respectively. Then the final battle, the presidential election, was set for June 12, 1993.
Highly loved and admired, Chief MKO Abiola had distinguished himself as a successful businessman who however had made much of his wealth through government patronage. Abiola had also indicated interest for the presidency in 1979 and 1983 under the defunct National Party of Nigeria (NPN). Very generous and flamboyant, Abiola donated to countless number of people and causes, and received numerous awards and chieftaincy titles within and outside Nigeria. Securing the presidential ticket of the SDP was a major step towards achieving his dream.
A political juggernaut, Gen. Shehu Musa Yar’Adua, who was the deputy to then Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo from 1976 to 1979, had gone into business after retirement, but emerged a political force during the Babangida transition period. Though among the categories of politicians banned, he was the brain behind the People’s Front of Nigeria (PFN), one of the six political parties Babangida registered and later banned. With the establishment of the two government-founded political parties, the PFN moved into the SDP, where the group won majority of the elective posts within SDP.
Following the unbanning of some categories of politicians, Yar’Adua indicated his interest in the presidential race, and he convincingly won the first round of the SDP primaries. However, his victory, like that of Alhaji Adamu Ciroma, was followed by protests by other aspirants, which led to the cancellation of the primaries in both parties, and the banning of all the aspirants from further participation in the presidential election.
Gen. Sani Abacha is noted for not holding any non-military position before his emergence as the Head of State in November 1993. A die-hard loyalist of Babangida, Abacha played a major role in the success of Babangida’s coup as well as the failure of the 1990 coup attempt against Babangida. He was made the Chief of Army Staff and later became Minister of Defence at the time Babangida “stepped aside” in 1993. Not many Nigerians understood his role in the June 12 saga until much later.
Maverick businessman and politician, Chief Arthur Francis Nzeribe was and has remained controversial. Very successful in business as in politics, he became a senator in the Second Republic and was one of the 23 presidential aspirants banned in 1992. Ironically, while he was vying to replace Babangida, he was also promoting the Association for Better Nigeria (ABN), whose primary objective was to keep Babangida in power for “four more years” because the political class was not ready for governance and that its members were corrupt. ABN’s activities largely enhanced the eventual annulment of the June 12 election.
Babangida’s sly and Machiavellian nature played a major role in the intrigues that came to characterise the June 12 saga. Obsessed with power, this Machiavellian nature therefore came to use in manipulating every opportunity to remain in power. The failure of many committed members of his government to understand this reluctance to relinquish power is attributable to his subterfuge, which made him successfully extend the termination date from 1990 to 1992 and later to 1993. For example, while Babangida openly dissociated his government from the activities of Nzeribe and his ABN, Nzeribe would later reveal that he met with Babangida regularly in Aso Rock.
However, to loyalists like Colonel Abubakar Umar, Babangida was anxious to leave office. Umar was often ready to prove his trust, recalling, among many, how happy he met Babangida in his office after the successful primaries of both parties in 1993. The media, dominated by the South-West also played into Babangida’s hands with the arguments that it was incongruous for the presidential candidates of both SDP and NRC to come from the North, considering the fractious nature of Nigerian politics, where ethnicity and regionalism play a vital role. A major national newspaper even wrote an editorial calling for the cancellation of both primaries based on these arguments, which gave Babangida the second and final extension.
Meanwhile, it was a known fact that if Yar’Adua had not been banned, Abiola would not have won the SDP ticket, especially with Yar’Adua’s well established structure in the party. Yar’Adua also realised early enough that after four years in power, Abiola would be too powerful to dethrone. Therefore denying Abiola the party ticket was a task that must be achieved. Alhaji Babagana Kingibe, first chairman of the party, and Alhaji Atiku Abubakar, both members of the PFN in SDP, were used to frustrate Abiola’s ambition. However, Abiola brought his business acumen to play, by not only deploying his enormous wealth to maximum use, but by allegedly sending his private jet to bring Yar’Adua’s ailing father from Kaduna to Jos, venue of the final stage of the primaries, to plead with his son.
Even with these manoeuvrings, the primary went to a second round as Abiola could not garner the required number of votes, only beating Kingibe with a slim margin. Atiku Abubakar needed to step down and declare his support for one of the two leading candidates, which would have made delegates who had voted for him to shift their loyalty to that candidate. But Atiku only announced that he was stepping down without openly declaring his support for either candidate. How Abiola still won has variously been described by political historians as the “Abiola magic”.
Carrying on with his activities, Nzeribe had gone to court with a petition that he claimed had the signatures of 25 million Nigerians who did not want the election to hold because they wanted General Babangida to continue as president for four more years.
Meanwhile, while the primaries were going on, Gen. Abacha was scheming, as was later revealed by many insiders, especially Col. Umar and Prof. Omo Omoruyi, former Director-General of the Centre for Democratic Studies, and a close confidant of Babangida. Abacha’s well-hidden ambition and loyalty made his moves unsuspicious. A successful transition would be the end of his ambition. He was therefore set to derail it. Nzeribe’s ABN activities were not only convenient for Babangida but for Abacha as well. Therefore, when the ABN secured a court order restraining the National Electoral Commission (NEC) from conducting the election, Abacha, with his loyalists within the government had insisted that the election should not to hold due to the court order. But Babangida reluctantly heeded the advice of Omoruyi and the election went ahead.
Abiola’s clear lead gave Abacha his weapon: the military did not want Abiola. Due to Babangida’s trust in Abacha, when the Abacha-orchestrated over-blown intelligence on Abiola, military revolts and coups reached him, he believed them, not knowing that the reticent and dark-goggled general had his scheme. Umar who had worked with Abacha to see an end to the June 12 impasse in the heat of the crisis, would later admit that one needed to possess the power of clairvoyance to have been able to judge Abacha otherwise because Abacha displayed so much patriotism that he did not arouse suspicion.
Election, annulment, aftermath
With intrigues unknown to majority of Nigerians going on within and outside the confines of Aso Rock, the June 12 presidential election was held, where Abiola defeated Tofa in what Ciroma, the leading aspirant in the botched NRC primaries would describe as “fairly and squarely”, as he not only defeated Tofa in Kano State but even in Tofa’s local government area. From the officially and unofficially announced results, it was analysed then that even if the elections were cancelled in any of the then four major regions, Abiola would still have won with votes from the remaining three regions.
However, while the results were being announced state by state, ABN, on June 15, returned to court with a petition to stop further announcements, which was granted by Justice Dahiru Saleh of an Abuja court. Justice Saleh would later declare the election null and void and of no effect whatsoever, on the ground that it had been conducted in violation of a restraining order. Finally, on June 23, the Federal Government announced the cancellation of the presidential election, suspended NEC, and repealed the law governing the final phase of the political transition programme. Banned politicians in the previous primaries were unbanned and legible to contest in a new presidential election.
Babangida clearly dribbled till he scored an “own goal”. He therefore had no more reason to stay back. He would, in a live broadcast, eventually provide reasons for the cancellation, that it was in the interest of law and order, political stability and peace as “the courts had become intimidated and subjected to the manipulation of the political process and vested interests.”
Babangida’s broadcast received world-wide condemnations, and led to riots, mostly in Abiola’s South-West Region. He would later “step aside” on August 26, a day earlier than his promised date, and named an Interim National Government (ING), headed by Chief Ernest Adekunle Shonekan, who was then Head of Transitional Council. However, Shonekan’s government lasted only 83 days when he was forced to resign by Abacha.
Ironically, Chief Abiola, the presumed winner of the election remains the major victim of the annulment. On the first anniversary of the election in 1994, Abiola declared himself winner and announced a government of national unity. However, he was arrested and was on trial for treasonable felony until he died in detention five years later. Even some Federal Government contracts he had maintained for decades were terminated by Abacha.
Although he was initially a beneficiary of the June 12 annulment, going by his scheming and eventual emergence as Head of State, he himself became a victim as he was consumed by the June 12 conflagration with his death.
Gen. Yar’Adua, who had quickly jumped at Babangida’s unbanning of banned politicians like himself, instantly jettisoned June 12 and embraced the ING, hoping to contest another presidential election. However, following the emergence of Abacha, who in 1994, organised his own National Constitutional Conference, Yar’Adua won a seat to represent Katsina State, where he was an outspoken delegate against military rule in continuation of his quest for the presidency by trying to constitutionally secure a brief stay for General Sani Abacha (rtd). He, alongside Gen. Obasanjo and others were however framed up for coup-plotting by Abacha, found guilty and sentenced by a military tribunal in 1995, to life imprisonment He later died in prison on December 8, 1997.
Gen. Obasanjo had earned the disrespect of Abacha since the Babangida regime, and Abacha was well known to have considered his criticisms of that government as a product of pseudo-statesmanship. Following an interview in the early 1990s, in which Obasanjo had referred to Babangida’s government as a fraud, Abacha was alleged to have advised Babangida to arrest Obasanjo, an advice Babangida allegedly turned down. But when Abacha came to power and Obasanjo failed to realise that there was a different man at the helm of affairs, Abacha had to jail him on a trumped-up charge of coup-plotting to silence him. Obasanjo was believed to have been destined the way of Yar’Adua but for mysterious death of Abacha in 1998.
However, from a victim, Obasanjo ironically became a beneficiary of June 12 following his release from prison by Gen. Abdulsalami Abubakar, who succeeded Abacha. Abdulsalami with Babangida and other retired generals allegedly recruited Obasanjo for the presidential job. Obasanjo emerged the major beneficiary of the June 12 election annulment, because if there had not been annulment, there would not have been May 29, the date Obasanjo was sworn in, and which is today, Nigeria’s Democracy Day.