by Abimbola Adelakun
It was another June 12 on Tuesday. Like previous anniversaries, the Federal Government left the date to be marked mainly in the South-West and this time, only the Action Congress of Nigeria-controlled states declared a public holiday on the day, making it to look like a Yoruba thing. And this is one of the reasons I think President Goodluck Jonathan’s token of renaming the University of Lagos after M.K.O. Abiola was not good enough.
Now, this is the tough part; the paradox, which the Yoruba expression captures succinctly in the saying, “The matter farts in your mouth and adds some salt to it.” You are torn between spitting out the fart and swallowing the salt. It is hard to put up the demerit of the President’s move without somebody attacking your sense of history: you are one of the ingrates who cannot recognise how far Abiola’s supreme sacrifice has brought us as a nation.
Nevertheless, I stand with those who reject this token for Abiola. From the students of UNILAG who are fighting for the aesthetics of their school name, to those who argue against the illegality of the process, to those who say it is mere political pandering and that the honour is misplaced, I submit, are all right. I also agree with those who say that UNILAG’s history should not be wiped out especially now that it approaches its 50th anniversary. And those who argue that even Harvard University was renamed after a person miss the point about the temporality of the renaming. With the way the world is presently structured, neither Harvard nor any other Ivy League school can afford to change even its colours or mascot that easily. Among other reasons, they know that when people apply to a university, the name, the established tradition, other intangibles, and what they evoke, are parts of the brand equity they want to be part of. No self-respecting institution will toss such considerations aside.
For me, the problem with the renaming pretence that poses as honouring Abiola, is that it sells him and June 12 short and, lets off Nigeria too easily. It is very distasteful that Jonathan described Abiola’s as “presumed victory” even though the electoral umpire, Prof. Humphrey Nwosu, years ago, acknowledged that Abiola won the election (and what manner of President admits he acts on a mere presumption?).
The issue of June 12 and the role Abiola played in it should not be easily paid off by renaming an institution after him. It should go beyond a mere one paragraph slotted at the end of a Democracy Day speech. No, it should be seriously thought through, and treated on its own merit too.
That is why, when Jonathan, belatedly sent the renaming bill to the National Assembly and included two other institutions to be renamed, I was disappointed. This has become more than a missed opportunity; it is simply another ill- thought-out idea. While I believe that the other personalities he is renaming the institutions after are worthy individuals in their own right, I think it is a poorly veiled disregard of Abiola and June 12 to lump him with two others of different histories and trajectories, all in the bid to suck up to Nigeria’s ethno-regional demons. If Nigeria wants to honour Abiola, as proposed by President Jonathan, it should start by announcing the result of that 1993 election. Nigeria should answer the question officially: Did or did not Abiola win that election?
Two, Nigeria should take time to acknowledge and redress the injustice of June 12.
A related example: In Washington, President Barack Obama recently opened the Martin Luther King Park where a 30ft bust of the civil rights preacher stands and which is designed in such a way that it carries a theme message to all Americans, born and unborn. Now, the story of King is well-known. He led the Civil Rights movement; the catalyst of several social changes on inequality issues –racial, gender, sexual orientation — in the US.
Already, there is a MLK Day during which marches are held and social inequalities are discussed. King thus is made a personification of equality. The country, on that day, reviews how far they have travelled and how much further they have to go. Some 50 years ago, black and white would not have sat together to discuss racial (dis)privileges. King’s efforts made this possible and he has become an icon for what he was killed fighting for.
My point is, for a nation to redress certain injustices of its past, it has to evolve a certain level of social consciousness at both the leadership and following levels. The political class must transcend a certain level of insensitivity to the lingering problems that caused the issue to be redressed in the first place. It must be ready to ensure the nation would not regress on that road as it takes the forward march.
Frankly, I do not see that in this dash that is being accorded Abiola. This dubious honour, for that is exactly what it is, is more like a consolation gift given to those who come up short in a competition so they don’t go home empty-handed. I see no remorsefulness and there’s little to suggest Abiola anthropomorphises a standard of democracy which Nigeria would be aspiring to. So, what’s the honour, really?
For those who think renaming UNILAG is good enough for Abiola, I say, either Nigeria does this right or not at all. If Nigeria will not look within its conscience and admit Abiola won that election, then on what basis is this payback? It means Abiola himself, by declaring himself president, acted on the presumption that he won the election and the late Gen. Sani Abacha was justified in holding him for treason. In future history, somebody will blame us for jumping at this half-chewed bone of renaming UNILAG when we could have been more circumspect, or even more thoughtful.
I hope the legislators show some self-respect and refuse to be used to rubber stamp the President’s whims. UNILAG alumni association too should lobby against this bill. I believe a time will come in the future when Abiola will be given a proper honour; that time, all those Nigerians who died in that crisis would also be acknowledged. And when that day comes, all Nigerians, no longer just the South-West, will sit and talk about Nigeria’s democracy, the true sense of it.
Editor’s note: Op-ed pieces and contributions are the opinions of the writers only and do not represent the opinions of Y!/YNaija.
This piece was first published in The Punch