Monday Column by Emmanuel Yawe
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The world has not yet heard the last of the controversies surrounding the presidential elections held on June 12 1993. Not even the bold decision recently taken by President Muhammadu Buhari to honor MKO Abiola and some of his fellow travelers can finally bury the ghost of June 12.
The popular conventional wisdom in Nigeria is to heap the whole blame of the June 12 fiasco on the head of one man, the one who was the leader of the country at the time – President Ibrahim Badamosi Babangida. The man himself has accepted this tragic judgment by saying that as the President of Nigeria at the time, the buck stopped on his table. I will therefore not be wrong or cruel to say it serves him right.
But that is not the end of the story. More fundamental questions should be asked. There is no doubt about the fact that Ibrahim Babangida was the President of Nigeria at the time. There is also no doubt that even though he was called a president, he was not running a democratic government. It was a military dictatorship.
When he took over the government in 1985 from another military government, there was no transition program in place for the country to return to civil democratic rule. In fact, the military government he sacked that year had in one of its frightening edicts decreed a ban on all public discussions of the form of government that was best for Nigeria’s future. We were rudely told to our face that we were stuck with a military dictatorship.
The Babangida government therefore put a smile on the face of democrats when he rolled out a transition program for a return to democratic rule. It was an elaborate program with twists and turns, banning’s and unbanning’s – adding a generous dose of hiccups to the political drama. Is it possible as has been canvassed in many quarters that President Babangida deliberately put the country through this wrench and then finally decided to single handedly void all that had been achieved by the process?
I have followed pronouncements by those who were closely engaged in the June 12 event since President Buhari brought back the controversy to public space. What led a government which had invested so heavily in a transition program turn around to sabotage it at the end? Why did Babangida void an election that was globally accepted as free and fair?
These are difficult questions for an outsider like me to answer. I was however reading an interview granted The Point newspaper the other day by Senator Jonathan Silas Zwingina and he had an argument which to my mind sounds the most reasonable under the circumstances we found ourselves in 1993. Senator Zwingina was in the vortex of the June 12 event where he played an immodest role as the Director General of Hope 93, Abiola’s campaign outfit. He was certainly in a position to know what happened. This is what he told The Point newspaper:
“A number of factors were responsible for the annulment of the election. I think there was a split in the ruling military council between a faction that had the control of the arms and did not want to hand over, and the faction that was in control of government but did not have the control of the arms but wanted to hand over. So those who didn’t want to hand over would have overthrown the government by force if it had been done. Sometimes I say it is quite possible that Babangida must have annulled the election under duress and many of the discussions people had with him indicated that. It was a split within the military command that led to that. There were also other elements in the military that had issues with my principal and used this as advantage to get even. And then there were some who had been promised a taste of power and when it was now their turn, an election was being conducted, they were not happy about it.”
The dangerous thing about military takeover of government is that once the men in arms and khaki get into power, they become a problem to society and even themselves. It is easy for them to take over especially from bloody civilians but it is not so easy for them to get out. In the case of Nigeria, they first ate the forbidden fruit in 1966. The beneficiaries of that original cardinal sin had to be forcibly pushed out of power the same year. Then those who pushed them out overstayed until they too had to be pushed out in 1975.
We had a brief relief in 1979 when the military said they had restored democracy that year. But it did not last long before they came back to reclaim their ‘rights.’ According to General Buhari who took over in 1984, the military came back to prevent the country from “imminent total collapse”. If he saved the country from “imminent total collapse”, he could not save his government from such fate. The following year he was shown the way out.
That is the tricky thing about military rule. You can get in. But how do you get out?
President Babangida found his way in. But how was he going to find his way out? If we are to believe the words of Zwingina, he wanted to get out. Zwingina should know because he played a role in helping him get out by organizing a powerful campaign that saw the country ignoring the ethnic and religious crack lines. Nigeria stood by Hope 93 with its odd combination of Muslim/Muslim ticket to help Babangida get out.
We did not know that the man was held hostage by those in the military who felt it was their turn to get in. They were the ones who played on the gullibility of the June 12 men. Babangida who perhaps knew better tried to rationalize what was going on by calling on Sonekan, Abiola’s kinsman to come and steer the ship briefly. But the June 12 people would have nothing but June 12.
That was how they fell into the trap of those who annulled June 12. They were enlisted to fight against and plot a coup against the government of Shonekan; then they were lured into a government they were made to believe would speedily make June 12 a reality.
That was the grand deception. Coup planning is high treason punishable with death under Nigerian martial laws. How will somebody risk his life to act treasonously so that another person will get to power?
That explains why the Abacha government turned violently against June 12 advocates when they started agitating for power. By the time they got to know the true identity of those who voided the mandate of June 12, it was too late.
It is like the story of the travelers who found out they had a mad man in their boat in the middle of a deep river. Pushing him out was risky because he was going to capsize the boat; going ahead with him was equally risky because nobody could even guess what his next move was going to be.