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MKO Abiola: A case study in transformational leadership

By Afe Babalola

ON June 10, 2019, President Muhammed Buhari was reported to have signed into law a bill to amend the Public Holidays Act with the aim of declaring June 12 as Democracy day in Nigeria. This development, much like the government’s initial announcement of its intention, was met with much excitement. That this should be so is not in doubt given the significance of the date in the nation’s march towards democratic rule after decades of military dictatorship.

It was on June 12, 1992 that millions of Nigerians voted in what has been termed Nigeria’s freest elections since independence. It was on that day, going by the results declared before the stoppage of further announcements and eventual cancellation, that Nigerians elected as their President, Aare M.K.O Abiola.

Indeed since the return to civil rule in 1999, states in the southwest of the country had adopted June 12 as democracy day as opposed to the Federal Government’s choice of May 29.

Late MKO Abiola

While many last year queried the political motivation of the decision of the government, few can now doubt the sincerity behind it particularly coming after the commencement of President Buhari’s second term in office.

The man Abiola

M.KO. Abiola was a patriot, a successful business man, selfless, detribalised Nigerian, publisher, educationist, employer of labour, economist, nationalist, sportsman, Pillar of Sports in Africa. He was a man who by dint of hard work transformed his life from early poverty to immense wealth. At the age of nine he started his first business selling firewood gathered in the forest at dawn before school, to support his father and siblings.

Abiola founded a band at the age of fifteen and would perform at various ceremonies in exchange for food. Abiola was eventually able to require payment for his performances, and used the money to support his family and his secondary education at the Baptist Boys High School Abeokuta.

In 1960, he obtained a government scholarship to study at University of Glasgow where he later earned a first class degree in accountancy and qualified as a chartered accountant. He also scored a distinction from the Institute of Chartered Accountants in Scotland. He was also a Fellow of the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Nigeria, ICAN. He positively impacted lives throughout the four corners of the Country and was known internationally. He did not see himself asYoruba but as a Nigerian. He had root in all regions of the country. At a point he was reported to have received 997 titles from different parts of the country.

My interaction with Abiola

I represented Abiola when Alaafin of Oyo was to confer on him the title of Aare Ona Kakanfo. The then Asipa of Oyo filed a suit to forestall the conferment three days before the much publicised title was to be bestowed on him by Alaafin. I also represented him in one of the suits filed in connection with the decision of the then electoral body to stop further announcement of the results of the elections which from all indications, M.K.O Abiola was on course to win. The case was truncated by the government which produced a gazette through its lawyer that the June 12 election had been annulled.

On the morning of that fateful day, the court was filled to capacity. When the case was mentioned, Philip Umeadi, SAN objected to the jurisdiction of the court on the ground that there was no “LIS” before the Court as the military government had annulled the election and ousted court’s jurisdiction to entertain the case. In reply, I submitted that the court could not take cognizance of his oral assertion that the election was annulled. I argued that the application was premature. The Court agreed with me. Consequently Philip Umeadi, SAN asked for a short adjournment to enable the government to produce a Gazette. His application was granted and the case was stood down.

He later tendered a gazette. As there was no legal basis to oppose its admission in court, the court which was disarmed by the almighty military government had no alternative but to accept it. The large crowd hissed and murmured. However before I took my seat, I made the following prophetic statement which in large measure has come true today. “Your Lordships, this is a sad day for the judiciary in this country. We are at the beginning of a journey, the end of which nobody knows”.

True democracy

As the country celebrates Abiola’s legacy, it is important to reflect on democracy itself and what it entails. Wikipedia defines Democracy as “a system of government where the citizens exercise power by voting.” According to American Political Scientist Larry Diamond:“democracy consists of four key elements: a political system for choosing and replacing the government through free and fair elections; the active participation of the people, as citizens, in politics and civic life; protection of the human rights of all citizens; a rule of law, in which the laws and procedures apply equally to all citizens.

Whichever definition of democracy one choses to adopt, some tenets will always hold true primary amongst which is that a leader must always act   in the best interest of his people. A leader must put service of others over and above his own interest. A leader must realise that governments exists to serve the people and that it is from the will of the people that the government derives its legitimacy. Therefore, a true leader must at all times be conscious of the need to ensure that his actions do not go against the will of the people so that he and his government do not lose legitimacy.

Regrettably majority of Nigerian politicians have over the years failed to display an understanding of the basic tenets of true leadership. They have carried on like masters rather than servants of the people.

Public office is seen more as a means of wealth accumulation rather than an opportunity to touch lives. To attain public office many would do just about anything.

The Nigerian politician particularly lacks any defined ideology and would run with the hare and hunt with the hounds so long as it suits his political objective; to him service to the people or their will count for nothing.

How many of them can be described as transformational like the late M.K.O Abiola? How many are detribalised like him? How many of our leaders can garner massive votes from regions other than where they were born? How many had employed many Nigerians before going into politics. How many are ready to share their wealth among Nigerians?

Nullification of the election

Therefore, as Abiola’s sacrifice is honoured, we must remember that we are still on that journey which began with the nullification of the election of Abiola on June 12, 1993. Nobody knows how long that journey may take.

I dare say that the end of the journey is the enthronement of democracy properly so called which is a government of leaders elected through free and fair election. But there are steps that we must take to get there.

Government must fashion a way of instituting true federalism, the focus must be on bringing about a nation. We must also strive to bring about the actualisation of the ideals for which Abiola sacrificed his life.

The act of President Buhari declaring June 12 as Democracy Day is a good step in the right direction but does not amount to return of true democracy properly so called for which M.K.O Abiola and others made huge sacrifices.

The government is advised to follow up the declaration of June 12 as Democracy Day with restructuring the country.

The current constitution, which was bequeathed to us by the military must be replaced with a true people’s constitution that will promote the ideals of the country’s founding fathers and actualise the dream of M.K.O Abiola.

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