The hollow rituals of June 12

Dan Agbese

Dan Agbese

It has been 23 years since June 12, well, happened. Its flame still flickers. It does not burn that bright any more. Time has the uncanny habit of infecting bright light with the blight of darkness. But June 12, the longest running political mantra in our country so far, has shown an uncommon resilience. This rather peculiar date in our national calendar has managed to etch itself on our conscience. We may pretend to ignore it but we cannot forget it.

The keepers of the flame of June 12 make sure of that. On the anniversary of June 12 every year, they organise and treat us to public lectures and seminars at which the lecturers and the resource persons talk about the state of the nation, as in true federalism, restructuring and resource control. June 12 was not about these things. No matter. It is as good as any platforms for venting personal and group frustrations and grievances over a country that has managed, quite remarkably, to make a virtue of destroying the hopes of its citizens.

In 23 years, three things have happened to June 12. Firstly, it has degenerated into an emotional trough for slaking the thirst of those who have something negative to say about our country and its leaders. Secondly, it has shrunk into a tribal – if that. Activities of its anniversary are now sadly confined to the Southwest geopolitical zone. Thirdly, the keepers of the June 12 flame have failed to articulate its relevance to our national politics.

I wish I could put this delicately but June 12, for all its vaunted national importance, actually offers us nothing tangible. Its annual rituals are hollow rituals that celebrate tear jerk emotions, not critical reasoning and the articulation of its place in our national politics.

The reason is simple. June 12 means nothing and stands for nothing really. June 12 was not a cause; merely a controversy. We have tried for 23 years to turn it into a political cause, using Chief Moshood Abiola as the rallying point. It has not worked. Abiola was not the architect of June 12. He was merely an injured party. The election almost everyone believed he won, was annulled, thus denying him the one trophy he believed he would be the first Yoruba man to win and, equally importantly, become the poster child for power shift.

The architects of June 12 were actually our military rulers. They asked us to go to the polls on June 12, 1993, to choose one of the two presidential candidates on offer, namely, Chief Moshood Abiola of the Social Democratic Party, SDP, or Alhaji Bashir Tofa, of the National Redemption Council, NRC, as our next president. We obeyed as civic-minded citizens in the fervent hope that the Babangida transition to civil rule programme with its frustrating twists and turns would logically end with the choice we made.

In effect, June 12 was just another election day, hence the problem with trying to fashion out a philosophy to sustain it. Its relevance lies only in the controversy arising from the annulment of the election conducted on that day. If the generals had allowed the electoral commission to conclude the presidential election by announcing the winner, nobody would regard June 12 as the defining moment in our political development.

Were the dates of elections that important, I am sure President Obasanjo would have been the first to know. He would have declared February 27, 1999, the day he was elected president, as democracy day and a national public holiday to booth. But he chose a more relevant date, the date he assumed office – May 29, 1999.

Abiola was a brave and determined fighter. His almost solo efforts to actualise his mandate were, in my view, inspirational. Those who fight for the cause they believe in do not count the cost.

After the annulment Abiola toured world capitals to sensitise the world to his plight and the plight of democracy in our country. About a year after the election, he took the bold, some would say reckless step, to turn the annulled presidential election into a cause for democracy. He declared himself president-elect at Epetedo, a suburb of Lagos Island, on June 11, 1994. It was a frontal confrontation with the generals. He did it without military divisions at his command. Go figure. I do not think he did it out of desperation or foolishness. He did it because it was the pointed path to the end of his sweat, tears and struggle. June 11, 1994, was Abiola’s day. Had he actualised his mandate he probably would have declared it democracy day.

In his declaration, he gave the struggle a name and a cause. He expected the country to see things his own way and rally round him and insist that the sanctity of the ballot box could not be profaned without serious consequences for the country and that we must not allow our right to choose our rulers at all levels to be denied us or abbreviated by reason of some hoary military wisdom. When he went into hiding, Abiola expected us to take on the struggle he had started and confront the military regime and force the generals to respect our choice. It was not naïve of him to expect to emerge from his hiding as the triumphant winner of the election.

None of that happened. Abiola, like all great men, made his mistake. He failed to reckon with four major developments that had proved fatal to his cause even before his Epetedo Declaration. One, the politicians, including the leadership of his party, had chickened out and deserted him by sneaking out of the path of trouble. They did not have the stomach to confront the military. They believed that turning tail in the circumstances was the better part of valour. They turned tail. Thus they turned the 15 million votes cast for Abiola on June 12 into worthless pieces of paper and his sweat a wasted effort.

Two, the centre no longer held. June 12 had polarised its supporters into those who stood on it, those who stood by it and a vast number of men who simply took to bewailing their impotence. Nor must we forget that the appropriation of June 12 struggle by the Yoruba as a tribal cause had alienated most of its supporters from other geo-political zones and damaged the spirit of the struggle.

Three, General Sani Abacha, the then defence secretary in the Interim National Government, had overthrown that government and assumed maximum dictatorial powers. He was shrewd enough to fool Abiola into believing his intention was to help him actualise his mandate. The penny dropped when Abacha brought some front line members of both the SDP and the NRC into his cabinet. He did not intend to be a regent.

Four, Abiola acted too late. By the time he reached Epetedo, the military men had dug in. It was not difficult to see that digging them out would take more than invoking Holy Ghost fire.

I wish to argue that after 23 years of trying to promote June 12 with its sterile offering, the more positive option is to turn our attention to Abiola’s place and relevance in our national affairs. We have had too much noise and weepy emotion over June 12. We have also had outlandish demands to declare June 12 as democracy day and Abiola be treated as a former president entitled to all the perks of the office.

My take is that The Epetedo Declaration offers us a good chance to reconstruct the essence of the politics of Moshood Abiola in the context of our national politics. The Epetedo Declaration was his bravest moment. It should have been ours too. We missed the chance to stand shoulder to shoulder with him. I often wonder about the wisdom of South-West states making June 12 a public holiday for school children. What do they teach the children about June 12 or Abiola? A triumph of emotion over critical reasoning.

If the annulment of the election had the sinister motive, as some people claim, to prevent power shift from the North to the South, The Epetedo Declaration, and not June 12, proved the catalyst in power shift. Abiola might not have been the messiah but he is today the reason power shifted. He is the reason we see wisdom in protecting the sanctity of the ballot box. Our right to vote for the candidates of our choice and defend the sanctity of that choice are becoming the norm. We owe it to The Epetedo Declaration. The redoubtable keepers of the June 12 flame might like to look beyond the wasted emotion of June 12 and look into the essence of the man and his politics.

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