As a child, one of the most important political events in my life was the June 1993 elections for several reasons. Three of the most important men in my childhood would have their lives irrevocably changed by the outcome of those elections and with each of them, the lives of all Nigerians would change too. General Sani Abacha took over the governance of Nigeria in a coup, a position he had long coveted and had schemed his way into, leaving sorrow, tears and blood in his wake. Fela Anikulapo-Kuti saw his freedom taken away and his trajectory towards eventual martyrdom fast-tracked and Chief M.K.O Abiola saw his rightful victory at the 1993 polls stripped away from him, his freedom and eventually his life taken.
It is a little disheartening that Abiola’s expansive life before his decision to contest for the Nigerian presidency in 1992 has been largely written in our of history and his life condensed into the year before the elections and the years after. It is forgotten that Abiola was a child of promise, the first of 23 children his father sired to survive infancy. His bon-vivant nature has been largely erased, his love for music, his preternatural intelligence that saw him best his peers in every endeavour to which he set himself. Abiola was charisma personified, philanthropy embodied, a man who lived his truth and drew followers to himself with the ease of a messiah. He was a flawed man, very much of the generation that sired him (he perpetuated the patriarchal misogyny that plagued his father and sired so many children, some are still fighting to be legitimately recognised even to this day), but he was a man who wanted and demanded better of a country that had largely resigned itself to be plundered.
Abiola was very much a victim of the system he sought to overthrow.
He was too trustful of a dictatorship under pressure from the West to clean up its act or risk invasion. There was proof that oil was a precious enough resource that countries were willing to invade for it, a Gulf War had already been fought for it. A democratic leadership was their only assurance against western sanctions or worse, western influence. Afraid that the carnage they caused would come back to haunt them in a democratic government. There was not nearly enough time for the kind of reinvention that General Olusegun Obasanjo would successfully foist on Nigerians in 1999, one that his peers would all emulate as they reinvented themselves as elder statesmen instead of the selfish megalomaniacs who had fleeced the nation. At that time, there was only fear and hastily made decisions and an election that transmuted into a national event of unprecedented proportions right before their very eyes. With the kind of support Abiola had, there would be no space for the old guard if he assumed office, so General Ibrahim Badamosi Babangida reneged on his decision to peacefully transition to a democratic government. He had already given himself the ‘president’ appellation, perhaps to soften the brutality of his regime, but this universal approval of this candidate, this widespread embrace of his ascendancy could not be allowed to happen.
In 1993 General Babangida gave an address explaining why he had annulled the 1993 elections. In his letter, he suggests that the elections were plagued by corruption and inconsistencies, red flags that in his words, he chose to ignore until the elections had been held and a winning candidate announced. He also accuses Abiola of encouraging voting across ethnic and religious biases, essentially dividing the country as a means to conquer it. He promised he acted in the best interest of the people and promised to install a new government in August 1993, after a reconstituted National Electoral Council conducts fresh elections. His assertions were hard to believe, and even harder to accept considering Abiola was the most decorated man in the country, conferred with 197 chieftain titles from all across the country. It was also an election that international observers, the same ones Babangida invited to monitor the elections had declared free and fair. The people didn’t believe it, neither did Abiola. So it was of no surprise to anyone when Fela, the only man with as much goodwill as Abiola and able to stir the country to action was accused of murder by the Babangida government and arrested and not long after, Chief Ernest Shonekan was declared interim president instead of the promised elections.
Few could have foreseen General Sani Abacha ousting Babangida’s proxy in a coup two months later. But Abiola, still possessed of the trust that would endear him to millions and eventually lead to his death, compelled his followers to support Abacha, believing that the general sought to right wrongs. Like he was with Babangida, he was betrayed a second time by Abacha. His speech in 1994 led to his arrest on charges of treason and his death four years later, the first step into a spiral of oppression around the same time South Africa for whom Nigeria had fought so valiantly was finding its own freedom.
Abiola died on the day he was supposed to be freed from prison, a month after his tormentor had died (or was murdered) under spurious circumstances. He had survived everything, even the vicious assassination of his beloved wife Kudirat Abiola for her attempts to stand up to the government and aid his return from forced imprisonment. His death, like Fela’s took on a life of its own, their lives given to mythos and legend.
In 2016, an SDP commercial from 1993 resurfaced on the internet, drowning thousands of Nigerians in nostalgia for the promises that Abiola had represented contrasted by the reality of having a former dictator as president, one who seemed to mirror all the problems democracy was supposed to have allowed us leave behind. Nigerians mourned Abiola, as we are wont to do, bemoaning his lost potential, the things he could have done if things had played out differently. We love to wallow in nostalgia, don’t we?
Today, as President Buhari honours his legacy and his memory with the official changing of Nigeria’s Democracy Day to June 12, in reverence for the 1993 elections, as well as posthumous honours for himself and his running mate Baba Gana Kingibe, I ask that we turn our focus instead to the life Abiola lived before his arrest on June 24, 1994. Let us remember with fondness the lives that he touched, the thousands of children for whom his philanthropy was a lifeline to an education and a chance at a better life, let us remember his achievements in business, his dual wins of ‘Best Business Man in World’, his vast fortune. Let us remember, his 197 chieftain titles from across the country and his many global accolades, his award from the King Memorial Center given not as propaganda, but as a legitimate sign of gratitude for Abiola’s endless drive to put others before himself.
But most importantly before Abiola became beholden to all of us, let us remember he was once a boy who formed a band, a child of promise who survived when the odds seemed stacked against him. Let us remember him first as a patriot rather than a martyr for ethnic, political and religious causes.
Let us remember him as human.
Edwin Okolo is an author and journalist who has worked with YNaija, TheNativemag and the Naked Convos.