By Muyiwa Adetiba
My recent trip down June 12 memory lane, started with an article Sam Omatseye wrote on Kunle Ajibade. It was on the latter’s 60th birthday. Kunle, a journalist, is one of those who symbolised the struggle to actualise June 12 and any tribute to him that ignores his travails in the hands of the Abacha boys will definitely be incomplete. This article did some justice to that aspect of the life of gentle looking Ajibade whom Omatseye aptly described as a most unlikely candidate for the gulag. His article was closely followed by another beautiful article titled: ‘Class of ‘98’ by Dare Babarinsa. Dare’s article talked about the incarceration of Kunle Ajibade but didn’t end there. It managed, in a few choice words, to capture the June 12 struggle including the role played by some principled and courageous Nigerians. Some of them ended up in jail. Some in exile. Some had their homes and means of livelihood destroyed. Some survived assassination. Some did not and paid the ultimate price. The streets of Benin, Ibadan and Lagos to name but a few, were littered with known and unknown heroes.
Reliving June 12 gives me goose pimples still. Of the days when you learnt a colleague had been picked up barely a week after you had had a conversation with him. Of the days of guerrilla printing when a colleague would ask if you could print overnight for him to avoid detection. Of the days our press and newspaper were shut down—only for a couple of days thank God. Of the weeks I was being trailed and I didn’t know—until they showed their hands. It was an unforgettable period. Darkness reigned literally and figuratively. Fuel and food scarcity reigned—NUPENG made sure of that. Money was in short supply. Repression reigned and unexplained deaths rose. Pockets of resistance surfaced from likely and unlikely places.
Many of those who talk glibly about June 12 these days have no idea of the toll it exacted on people. The nation lost a lot as a result of the annulment because the election represented a watershed. Watershed in terms of a relatively free and fair election; in terms of Muslim/Muslim ticket; in terms of a truly pan-Nigerian President. If as some people argued, that Abiola represented all that was bad in the Nigerian elite—government contracts/patronage, military adventures/misadventures etc. He also represented all that could be good in Nigeria. He was a truly detribalised man unlike people—including journalists and social commentators—who pay lip service to that word. His cultural and educational upbringing also made him more religiously accommodating than most. More importantly, Abiola gave back to the society that enriched him. He did so generously across board without any thought to tribe or religion.
The nation also gained. It gained the notion that Nigeria was worth dying for as people died for her. It gained a set of leaders who risked self and life in defence of principle and justice. It gained the knowledge that out of the ashes of dictatorship and oppression, the embers of courage and dissention could flare up. There have always been charlatans and self-seekers who support the atrocities of the ruling class. June 12 unmasked some of them. But we also learnt, thanks to June 12, that when pushed to the wall, the nation would rise up, ferociously even, to defend itself. June 12 cost us, yes. But we learnt some lessons from it.
Last week, President Buhari publicly recognised the injustice of June 12 and sought to redress it. And as usual with a divided nation, the knives came out. An historical event was being re-written to favour different tribal narratives. Logic was being twisted to suit political preferences. There were write ups from people who felt June 12 was a Yoruba affair and therefore irrelevant. There were those of opposition who saw it as a cheap, popular move and wanted to downplay it. Many of the vociferous ones who took to the social media to denounce Buhari’s gesture were probably too young to be part of the momentous historical and political event that June 12 represented. But what surprised me were those who participated actively in June 12; those who lost members of their groups to the struggle; those who for years had been canvassing for an official as opposed to a tacit acknowledgement of the injustice of June 12 who now turned round to disparage the import of the announcement on account of their personal dislike for Buhari. They have chosen to denounce the message because they can’t stand the messenger; to cut their noses to spite their faces.
In this group are those who see the announcement as a Greek gift. My understanding of a Greek gift (from elementary history) is from the Trojan War when a wooden horse containing soldiers was offered as a truce gift to the enemy. Since then, the term has been used to describe a gift or an offer meant to hurt the recipient. So, how does making June 12, a Democracy Day hurt the nation or if we want to be sectional, the Yoruba nation? How does giving Abiola a GCFR hurt Nigeria or the Abiola family? To those who claim restructuring or nothing as their mantra, how does this recognition stop their agitation? The funny thing is, were restructuring to be announced tomorrow, these same people would find reasons to denounce it and call it a Greek gift. That is how shallow their convictions are and how deep their hatred of Buhari is. It also shows how easily they confuse issues with personalities.
My answer to those who say it was political opportunism is from what a human right activist who appeared on Channels TV recently said. ‘How I wish someone would give me light and good roads and say it is because of 2019.’
I am glad the Abiola family saw the recognition for what it is—a belated but courageous attempt of a government at the centre to correct an injustice and thereby ensure that their parents did not die in vain.
Contrary to what some people might want to believe, it could not have been an easy decision for Buhari to make—his northern constituency is at best lukewarm. But it was the right decision and it was courageous of him to have made it. He deserves commendation. Many people gave their all including their lives, for the actualisation of June 12. This ensures that the labours of these heroes were not in vain. For me, this constitutes a closure of sorts to an unsavoury episode of our past.