It was not totally in vain that Nigerians chorused, “M.K.O, is our man oo” in 1993. Even in death, he remains the country’s symbol of hope for good governance.
By making June 12 anniversary a public holiday, President Muhammadu Buhari unwittingly provided Nigerians with a good opportunity to reflect on, not only how they love democracy, but also how successive leaders have continued to run short of the promises of good governance encapsulated in Abiola’s political manifesto.
With his 8, 341, 309 votes to Alhaji Bashir Othman Tofa’s 5, 952, 087, Abiola’s outing in the 1993 Presidential election was not only a reflection of his popularity but also a measure of public acknowledgement of his message of hope.
Although very rich and influential, Chief Abiola’s story resonated with those of the average struggling Nigerians. As the only surviving child of his parents, Abiola had to work his way out of poverty, trained as an accountant and resolved to be a blessing to others through philanthropy.
It was that resolve that propelled him to grant scholarships to indigent students, including the setting up of Abiola bookshops, which made locally-produced textbooks affordable to such students.
Part of his philanthropic activities included the building of churches and mosques. His generosity knew no ethnic or religious boundaries, just as he supported the poorest of the poor with essential daily needs, including milk, rice, pasta and soap at affordable prices in the market.
It was therefore gratifying that after a series of banning and unbanning of corrupt politicians when Abiola disclosed his intention to contest the 1993 presidential poll, Nigerians from all walks of life jumped at the aspiration. Incidentally, the party platform he chose to ventilate his ambition had a bias towards progressive socialism.
The Social Democratic Party (SDP), which had a white horse as its symbol did not take time before becoming a household name among Nigerians due to Abiola’s involvement. The fact that he was not tainted by the intrigues that involved the Patriotic Front (PF) and Peoples Solidarity Party (PSP), the two political interests that made up SDP threw Abiola up as a compromise candidate and unifier.
It was partly on account of his position as the rallying point for the two major tendencies in the party that Abiola had to beat Ambassador Babagana Kingibe and Alhaji Atiku Abubakar in the SDP primaries held in Jos, Plateau State. With that victory, Abiola clinched the party’s presidential ticket for the 1993 poll.
To prove that his defeat of Kingibe and other established politicians within SDP was not a fluke, Abiola’s entry into the contest raised the enthusiasm and consciousness of Nigerians that were of voting age to participate in the long-awaited transition to civil governance.
The man and his message represented and conjured hope. Both his antecedents and promises combined to build national pride and expectations of a better Nigeria. Who was best suited to declare “Farewell to poverty,” if not the philanthropist, who was also known as the pillar of sports in Africa.
The Abiola Babes football club, which he founded, as well as the Abiola Airlines and other firms he established to provide jobs to Nigeria’s teeming population of young graduates, helped to sensitize the youths. They adopted Abiola’s presidential aspiration as their project.
With the national crusade to enthrone Abiola, and thereby banish poverty, the reality of the new development was lost on the military administration of President Ibrahim Babangida. What was more, the military establishment did not give Abiola any chance of winning the election, especially against a Muslim northerner from the populous state of Kano.
The candidate of the National Republican Convention (NRC), Tofa, campaigned with the quiet confidence that at the end of the day, northern votes would deflate the boisterous campaign of Hope ’93, which Abiola instigated.
However, with each passing day, Nigerians did not hide their resolve to unite against ethnic and religious sentiments, even as the crafty military President studied the situation with unflappable concern. Yet, signs that the military under Babangida was not sincere about transiting the nation to democracy emerged when suddenly some groups in Babangida’s Niger State started destroying campaign materials bearing “Vote for M. K. O.”
In the place of Hope ’93 posters, others announcing ‘Babangida must stay’ sprang up. But, determined to see the movement for democracy to its logical conclusion, Nigerians continued to sing and dance to songs waxed in celebration of the hope Abiola’s coming to Presidency inspired and extinguished of deprivation and poverty that the status quo represented.
Within the ambit of his Hope ’93, Abiola’s promise to banish poverty captured his assurance to provide sustainable electricity, and potable water and construct modern access roads and affordable but decent mass housing.
At each campaign stop, Abiola’s message summarised the hope that he would give Nigerians the sort of country they would proudly call their nation. Being a successful businessman, Abiola’s promises had the force of magic, because even the elites that tried to question the practicability of the economic solutions he suggested could not receive an attentive audience.
As Nigerians continued to throng his campaign rallies, Abiola’s voice conveyed the same message of hope: ″We will provide more electricity, more water, we will provide roads and housing. Under my government, no student from primary school to university will pay any fees.”
The focus on the messenger and his message did not allow promoters of ethnic and religious divides to harvest from the attempt to whip up the negative implications of a Muslim/Muslim ticket that Abiola and Kingibe Presidential ticket represented.
During the election, the fact that Tofa of NRC chose a Christian from the South could not save him and his party from the massive votes cast for Abiola and the SDP’s Muslim/Muslim ticket.
However, what was considered a soaring victory for Nigerian voters and their resolve to birth a new Nigeria was truncated, when the military establishment, led by Babangida, annulled the popular poll. It was an election that would return Nigeria to democratic rule.
But, the combined wasters of national hope demolished the hope and pushed the country back into wanton waste and needless civil disobedience. The fault lines of the nation were recalibrated as the military junta held onto power and unleashed draconian measures to defray any thought about the return of power to the civilians.
In the wake of the civil disturbances that trailed the annulment, the Babangida regime threatened a state of emergency. Despondency set in. Nigerians started questioning the rationale for the country’s unity.
Despite the fact that international poll observers commended the election as very credible, the military decided otherwise. Babangida rationalised the annulment on a procured court ruling stopping the further release of the result of the election.
Nonetheless, a human rights group went ahead to issue what it said were the final results, which warranted the public call for the restoration of Abiola’s mandate. Protests broke out in various Nigerian towns and cities.
In a national broadcast, after a decree was promulgated, Babangida maintained the stance of annulment, saying: “These steps were taken to save our judiciary from being ridiculed and politicised locally and internationally.”
The social upheaval stoked by the denial of Abiola’s mandate continued to haunt the nation even after Babangida stepped aside and set up an interim Government of National Unity, under the cosmetic leadership of Chief Ernest Shonekan. It was a quasi-military diarchy because although Shonekan was a civilian head of government, the presence of General Sani Abacha as Secretary of Defense denied the head of state full commanding powers.
In a face-saving attempt to indemnify the Southwest of the denial of Abiola’s Presidency, the Nigeria military ensured at the return of democracy in 1999 that a former military head of state from Southwest, Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, was foisted on the nation as President.
Eight years on the saddle, Obasanjo refused to look into the issues surrounding the annulment of the June 12, 1993 Presidential election, even when he set up a Peace and Reconciliation Commission to heal national wounds.
However, it took the coming of President Muhammadu Buhari’s administration to recognise the merit of Abiola’s social mobilisation and triumph in a credible election by setting aside June 12 as Nigeria’s Democracy Day.
Yet, despite that token acknowledgement, the wishes and will of Nigerians continue to be trampled upon by the establishment. Not even promises made to the Abiola family have been fulfiled, the same way politicians make campaign promises that do not receive attention after they mount the saddle.
Being the last Democracy Day before another civilian administration comes on board, the build-up to the 2023 general election is already witnessing the Abiola-kind of momentum. Social forces are set to clash with the dictates of the bourgeoisie.
It is obvious that the spirit of mass mobilisation and election of credible leaders is what would put Nigeria back on the path of renewed hope, which the Abiola political martyrdom presages. Every June 12 would show how far the country is moving closer or farther away from Abiola’s promise of hope for a better and organised nation, where no child should suffer deprivation, whether of access to education, shelter or food.
Abiola set the template for good governance. And June 12 renews the critical questions about how far the country can go to appease the abortion of hope, which rigged elections and unfulfilled campaign promises represent.