June 12: Nigeria’s deferred destiny

The Iconoclast by Chris Adetayo

Email: iconoclast247@gamil.com Twitter: @chrisadet

Chris IconoclastIt came at the end of a long, arduous transition programme. Everything that preceded it was dramatic. There was the setting up of two “no founders, all joiners” political parties by the military government; there was the election and inauguration of civilian governors who had to serve apprenticeship under a federal military government; there was the election and inauguration of a National Assembly whose powers of legislation and over-sight were abbreviated. There was the stop-start-stop nature of the presidential primaries, with some of the contestants being herded together as unwilling guests of the government. Above all, there was the shifting goal-posts of the final handover – from 1990 to 1992 on to 1993.

Finally, after all the rehearsals, the stage was set. Political structures were in place. Contestants were in place. Election date was fixed. Campaigns were going on smoothly. Nothing could possibly go wrong this time. Despite last minute shenanigans by a nocturnal Association for Better Nigeria (ABN), Nigerians were unmoved and trooped out to vote as scheduled on the 12th day of June 1993. What followed is arguably the single most destiny-altering event in Nigeria’s history.

The facts are easy to marshal. MKO Abiola, representing the “left-of-centre” Social Democratic Party (SDP), seemed set to be declared winner over Bashir Tofa, representing the “right-of-centre” National Republican Party (NRC), having won in several of the states where result had been declared. Then a high court took it upon itself to issue a suspension order, the electoral body chose to obey the spurious order, and several counter orders from the judiciary followed. To “save the country from judicial anarchy”, the government decided to annul the election and re-start the whole process. Cue the beginning of a national crisis that did not effectively end until May 29, 1999 when Olusegun Obasanjo was sworn in as civilian president.

Would Nigeria have turned out a better place if the military government of Ibrahim Babangida had done the right thing and allowed the winner of the election to succeed it? Undoubtedly so. Given what we know of the state of the country now, there are several areas in which the election of June 12 1993 would have changed the tide of history.

To start with, the putative winner of the election and his running mate were Muslims. Yet they won across against the Muslim/Christian combo of the NRC. This was possible partly because Abiola had built a reputation as a Muslim who was at home with Christians. Through several years of donations to different religious and socio-cultural bodies, his education at a Christian school, and his ability to reference key religious texts with unerring accuracy, he had become the quintessential detribalised and religion-neutral Nigerian, able to build bridges of engagement across Nigeria’s complex political and socio-cultural firmament.

Two decades on, it is nigh on impossible to think of a national election in Nigeria that is not beclouded by the religious inclination of the contestants. Balancing of posts along religious lines has now come to stay. Recently, when word went round that the All Progressive Congress (APC) was planning to field a Muslim-Muslim ticket in the 2015 presidential elections, there was outrage from Christians across the country. Indeed, by design or mischief, the APC is increasingly being seen as a Muslim-dominated party. In essence, Nigeria has regressed into what the June 12 election should have solved: a religion-focused, religion-driven country.

Next, think of the political parties. There have been arguments about the undemocratic nature of forcing Nigerians into two government-created political parties. The system had no room for a “third way”. You either belonged to the SDP or the NRC. The impact of this, in the long run, is open to conjecture. But this writer avers that the system would have saved Nigeria from the unfortunate situation that has existed over the past 15 years, where one party (Peoples Democratic Party) has dominated governance at the national level with little or no strong opposition. The two party system would have afforded the country of a strong opposition at all level of governance.

Allied to the above is the focus of the political parties then and now. With a clear focus on “ideologies”, the NRC and SDP had manifestoes that clearly communicated their governance intentions. This enabled politicians to decide which party was best suited to help them drive forward their goals, and allowed the electorate to take sides on this basis. Today, we have political parties whose manifestoes are either non-existent or largely vacuous. Indeed, the discussion is rarely if ever about manifestoes and strategic plans. Rather, it is almost always about geography, religion and money.

Now consider the quality of the election on June 12 and the several elections that have been held since. The free and fair nature of the 1993 election has now passed into folklore. The people made political choices largely devoid of rancor, bitterness, and undue pressure. Today, what passes for elections is nothing short of political larceny.

It is now 21 years since the annulled election. Yet, typical of Nigerians’ aversion for learning from history, June 12 is now largely unheralded and un-mourned. Sadly, there is little to remind many of the election which had succeeded in putting a lie to the perception that Nigerians are inherently suspicious of each other, tribe-focused, unable to midwife free and fair elections, and lost in their religious cocoon.

For those who were old enough to have been around in those tumultuous days, and yet young enough to be detached from the politicking of that era, the thought of knowing what could have been, and seeing what is, must constantly grate. So, as the soul of Nigeria and its future hangs, once again, in the balance, what better time than now to reminisce on the essence of June 12 1993, and to wonder about the type of country that Nigeria would have turned out to be if the election of that day had been allowed to stand.

God bless Nigeria!