They did not know about the yam festival
We did not prepare for the June 12 struggle. It simply happened on us. Some of us were not happy that the military dictator, General Ibrahim Babangida, had banned many old politicians to pave way for two of his friends, Chief Moshood Abiola of the Social Democratic Party, SDP, and Ibrahim Tofa of the National Republican Convention, NRC, to contest for the Presidency in 1993. The two parties were created and initially funded by the government. We were then asked to queue behind either of the two candidates in the Option A4 voting formula. Our choice was limited, but we were eager. Abiola was better known than Tofa, but Tofa, a Kano businessman, was also very entrenched in the political structure that had earlier given his party majority seats in the National Assembly. Then came June 12, 1993 and our lives changed.
The election was peaceful for almost everyone was happy that the military was leaving after almost 10 years of uninterrupted military rule. Though it was in the middle of the raining season, yet the elements cooperated with Nigerians and the sky was blue and clear across the Federation. Babangida, who had turned Nigeria into a major laboratory for his political alchemy, was being hailed as a hero for his novel two-party system. When the military seized power on December 31, 1983, it was welcomed by the Nigerian people who regarded the regime of elected President Shehu Shagari as lacking the capacity to govern especially after the controversial 1983 general elections. That election was to be the last political outing of two titans, Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, the great journalist who was the first titular President of Nigeria, and Chief Obafemi Awolowo, journalist and lawyer, who was the first elected Premier of the defunct Western Region. Abiola, who had tried to contest for the presidential ticket of Shagari’s National Party of Nigeria, NPN, in 1983, was already a national figure by 1993.
How Abiola arrived at participating in the presidential race was not clear. I was a member of the team of journalists who travelled with him to Goree Island, Senegal, in 1992. It was at the height of Abiola’s international campaign to ask for reparation from the Western World, especially the United States, Europe and Brazil, for the more than 300 years of enslavement of the Black race. He argued that if the Jews could receive reparation for the Jewish Holocaust that lasted less than two decades under Adolf Hitler of Germany, why not the Blacks? Goree was the island of no-return, the last point on the African continent that the slaves would see as they began the one way voyage to the West. On the island was the old battlement, the slave pens, the chains and other memorabilia of the age of horror for our ancestors. It was an emotional outing for Abiola and the rest of us. Our Senegalese guides were excellent.
On our return trip, I occupied the seat next to Abiola on the chartered jet for he had agreed to give TELL an exclusive interview. It was a troublous time for his newspaper empire, the Concord Group of Newspapers, where I was once a reporter and later Chief Correspondent for Ondo State. The military regime had clammed down on the African Concord, the pan-African magazine on the stable, accusing its editorial team of hostility. Abiola obtained a reprieve for the magazine on the condition that the editor, Bayo Onanuga, would apologies to Babangida. Onanuga refused. Instead, he resigned with many members of the editorial team, including Femi Ojudu, Kunle Ajibade, Dapo Olorunyomi and Seye Kehinde and they soon floated, TheNews, a weekly newsmagazine that was to play a leading role in support of Abiola during the struggle for June 12.
Our interview dwelt more however on politics. Babangida had been banning and unbanning “old politicians,” asserting with confusing rhetoric that “we don’t know who will succeed us, but we know those who will not.” Would Abiola be running for the Presidency? He was evasive. Later, we learnt that he was one of the few politicians invited by Babangida and given a tour of the new Aso Rock Presidential Villa. The tour ended in the office of the President where Babangida gave him the nod. “My brother, this is your office,” Babangida was said to have told him. Abiola jumped at the bait.
When Abiola choose to run on the platform of the SDP, some of us interpreted it to mean he was acting on the dictate of his friend, Babangida. The military dictator had decreed that there shall be only two recognized political parties in Nigeria, one “a little to the left,” and the other “a little to the right.” It was Babangida’s way of curing the polity of “undue radicalism.” But radical historian and teacher at Ahmadu Bello University, Bala Usman, warned Nigerians about “A Hidden Agenda,” saying that Babangida had no intention to quit power. Indeed, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, appearing before the Justice Bolarinwa Babalakin Commission of Enquiry into the 1983 elections, had said in 1986 of the proposed transition Programme: “Something within me tells me loud and clear, that we have embarked on a fruitless search!”
But Abiola believed that there was a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Abiola was not the only politician who believed that Babangida would honour his pledge to Nigerians. Indeed many top Nigerians including Alhaji Lateef Jakande, first elected governor of Lagos State and his Kano State counterpart, Alhaji Abubakar Rimi, Alhaji Adamu Ciroma, Major-General Shehu Musa Yar’Adua and Chief Olu Falae, were among top politicians who ran for the presidency but were later banned. Indeed, many politicians, in order to meet Babangida’s condition for the registration of new political parties, attempted to swim across the ocean. Such was their optimism.
But there were enough reasons for caution. The original transition Programme indicated that the dictator would leave by October 1990. This was shifted to 1991 and then 1992 and later 1993. When Chief Alex Akinyele, the Minister of Information, was asked about this shifting hand-over dates, he simply explained that “the transition Programme is elastic!” Babangida had also faced serious challenge from the military. There was the alleged General Maman Vatsa coup of 1985 and the 1990 bloody uprising led by Major Gideon Orkar. The Orkar team accused Babangida of trying to perpetuate himself in power.
After the annulment, I held two meetings with Abiola. He believed he made errors. He believed it was an error on his part to have allowed the emergence of Chief Anthony Anenih as the chairman of the SDP. He said he knew very little about Chief Anenih and only supported him in the spirit of compromise. He regretted not working hard enough for the emergence of his friend, Chief Sergeant Awuse, to emerge as the chairman of the party.
His greatest regret however was the choice of Babagana Kingibe as his vice-presidential candidate. After Abiola emergence as the presidential candidate of the party at the Jos Convention, he picked Kingibe, a suave retired diplomat who was the chairman of the party, as his vice-presidential candidate. Kingibe was not his first choice for he wanted Dan Suleiman, a retired air force commodore, whom he regarded as a complete gentleman. But many of his friends and political supporters preferred Kingibe a former ally of Major-General Shehu Musa Yar’Adua, Abiola’s business associate who was deputy Head of State in the military regime of General Olusegun Obasanjo. Unknown to Abiola, Kingibe was close to many members of the Enemy Camp, including the security agencies and the military.
The coup of November 17, 1993 was a turning point in our national history. That was the coup that brought General Sani Abacha to power and heralded in the second and most vicious stage of the battle for June 12 actualisation. It brought to an end the terrifying reign of the airwaves by Comrade Uche Chukwumerije and his ilks. Chukwumerije, an accomplished journalist and propagandist, was Minister of Information. He issued out threats and messages that sent shivers down the spines of many Nigerians. Many of our citizens from the South-East, fearing that another Civil War was imminent because of the threatening messages from the minister, fled home from the West and the North. The panicky exodus led to the deaths of hundreds of people through avoidable accidents, robberies and other violence. Creative minds of that period simply conjured up the reason for the exodus: the Igbos were returning home for “yam festivals!”
Since then, Nigerians have learnt to deal with the occasional inclement temper of their great country. No more exodus no matter the situation. Not even the Boko Haram terrorist groups, the militants of the Niger Delta and the epidemic of kidnapping would make our people to panic and embark on another massive exodus of the 1993 scale. Apparently, the deluded man who refers to his country as “that zoo called Nigeria,” is certainly too young to understand the full meaning of yam festivals.