General Ibrahim Babangida erred tragically and did a great disservice to Nigeria by annulling the presidential election of June 12, 1993.
But nothing has deepened the wounds more than the deception and betrayal of the so-called “June 12 activists”, led by Bola Tinubu, who turned the annulment into a self-serving political lodestar and built their political careers around it, yet bastardised the spirit of the June 12 election by acquiring power through a deeply flawed presidential poll that violated universally rules of credible elections.
Last week, General Babangida said the “gains” of the June 12, 1993 presidential election were squandered in succeeding elections. He told journalists: “It was adjudged the freest and fairest election in Nigeria, yet politicians have blatantly ignored that beauty: the beauty of credible elections.” How ironic that the man who flagrantly annulled an election now talks, 30 years later, about the “gains” and “beauty” of the same election!
But Babangida is right. The gains and beauty of ‘June 12’ are credible elections. Therefore, it’s even more ironic that Tinubu and others who viscerally rejected the June 12 annulment, who “went into the trenches” fighting against it, are the same people who, 30 years later, executed a civilian ‘coup’ that produced a sham presidential election. For, let’s face it, if the 1993 presidential election was the freest, fairest, most transparent and most credible in Nigeria, the 2023 presidential poll was the least transparent and least credible.
Since 1999, the “June 12 activists” have done well for themselves, exploiting the annulment. Of course, the biggest beneficiary is Tinubu
Of course, we wait with bated breath for the Supreme Court’s verdict on February’s presidential election. But, even so, one can aver from process evidence that the election failed basic transparency and credibility tests. The fact that the BVAS technology worked well in other elections but mysteriously malfunctioned in the presidential election suggests, invariably, some political chicanery.
But that’s not my starting point here. Rather, as we’re talking about deception and betrayal, the starting point must be the June 12 annulment itself. Sadly, Babangida, who loved the sobriquets “Maradona” – dribbler – and “Evil Genius”, has said nothing of substance about the annulment beyond his comment in 2021, on his 80th birthday, in an interview with Arise TV.
Asked about the annulment, Babangida replied: “You want me to be honest with you? If it materialised (that is, if MKO Abiola, the presumed winner, became president), there would have been a coup d’état, which would have been violent.” But such barebones comments do not enrich Nigeria’s collective history.
Happily, Babangida is said to be writing his memoirs. We must hope that, for posterity’s sake, he tells the whole story about the annulment. The absence of such inside story has allowed some politicians to pontificate about democracy even though they were complicit in the annulment. But even as we await Babangida’s magnum opus, it’s worth recalling some anti-democratic behaviours of the politicians at the time.
First, what was democratic about a strange diarchy in which Babangida, a military dictator, and a military council ruled the country, while civilians purportedly ran the government? Tinubu was part of that diarchy as a “senator”. Second, what was democratic about the process that led to the June 12 election?
In the preceding chain of events, Babangida cancelled the presidential primaries of 23 political parties and banned all the presidential aspirants. He disbanded the 23 parties and replaced them with two created by his regime.
Furthermore, Babangida drafted the constitutions of the two parties and appointed administrators to run them. He decreed that anyone interested in politics must join either of the parties.
One perceptive politician saw all these as utterly undemocratic and refused to be part the charade. That was the great Bola Ige. Most of the rest rushed into either of the parties like a flock of sheep herded by a stick-wielding shepherd. Even Abiola joined the race after Babangida had stripped the process of any veneer of democracy.
J.F. Kennedy, former US president, famously said: “Those who foolishly sought power by riding the back of the tiger ended up inside.” The June 12 annulment was the equivalent of politicians ending up inside the tiger on whose back they foolishly sought to ride to power.
During General Olusegun Obasanjo’s transition in 1979 and General Abdulsalami Abubakar’s in 1999, politicians voluntarily formed their parties, drafted their constitutions, held their primaries, among other democratic practices. But they sheepishly followed Babangida’s anti-democratic ‘roadmap’, ignoring the obvious warning: caveat emptor; buyer beware!
To be clear, I am not an apologist for the June 12 annulment. I started this piece by saying that General Babangida erred tragically and did Nigeria a great disservice by annulling the June 12, 1993 presidential election. I do not resile from that.
But it’s worth saying also that the politicians were utterly duplicitous, unprincipled, opportunistic and self-serving throughout the Babangida political transition charade. Yet, after the annulment, many of the same politicians became “June 12 activists”, turning the annulment into a cause célèbre, while opportunistically exploiting it to advance their political careers.
I was a magazine publisher in London covering the ‘June 12’ debacle when some of the activists, including Tinubu, arrived in Britain around 1994, seeking political asylum. I reminisced about this in my piece titled “Commemorating ‘June 12’ without telling its true story is empty symbolism” (BusinessDay, June 22, 2020).
The exiles had virtually no influence with the British government, as I learnt from interviewing Baroness Lynda Chalker, then UK Overseas Development Minister. Yet, the “June 12 activists” give themselves too much credit!
In his maiden ‘Democracy Day’ speech as president, Bola Tinubu said the “prolonged struggle” over the annulment “gave birth” to “the democracy we currently enjoy.” No, it didn’t. Rather, it was the death of General Sani Abacha that birthed today’s “democracy”.
Before his death, Abacha planned to transmute into a civilian president, with the help of self-serving politicians, including some of the “June 12 activists”. Had he not died, today’s story would have been different. But Abacha died, Abdulsalami entered, the “Fourth Republic” was born!
Since 1999, the “June 12 activists” have done well for themselves, exploiting the annulment. Of course, the biggest beneficiary is Tinubu. His fellow “activists” ignored his huge character and integrity deficits because of his financial contribution to the “struggle”.
He became Lagos State governor, captured the entire South-West, the political base of the “June 12 activists”, and rallied the zone to help make Muhammadu Buhari president in 2015, in a quid pro quo deal. Buhari reciprocated. He declared June 12 as “Democracy Day” and “allowed” Tinubu to become president, as Buhari’s media aide, Garba Shehu, put it conspiratorially, suggesting that Buhari exploited incumbency power and federal might to tip the balance unfairly in Tinubu’s favour!
Tinubu believes he’s the custodian of the “June 12” legacy. He tagged his manifesto “Renewed Hope 2023”, mimicking Abiola’s “Hope 1993”. Last year, while accepting his party’s nomination, he said “the spirit of 1993 is upon us again in 2023.” But he meant the spirit of Muslim-Muslim presidency, not the spirit of free, fair and transparent election.
In his “Democracy Day” speech, Tinubu criticised “those who cannot endure and accept the pain of defeat in elections.” But that’s self-serving. Truth is, conceding defeat in an election is predicated upon the election being free, fair, transparent and credible. It is undemocratic to bully or blackmail opponents into accepting the results of a rigged election.
The true spirit of ‘June 12’ is credible elections. That spirit was flagrantly violated and betrayed in this year’s presidential election. Therefore, celebrating June 12 as “Democracy Day” is a misnomer. Thus, henceforth, June 12 should be a National Protest Day against enemies of democracy!
Dr Fasan, lawyer and political economist, is a visiting fellow at the London School of Economics and a scholar at the University of Oxford. Email: [email protected]. Twitter account: @olu_fasan.