As Nigeria's pro-democracy community organises series of activities to mark the 20th anniversary of the annulled June 12, 1993 presidential election, Ademola Adeyemo and Shola Oyeyipo recognise some of the personalities- both dead and living- that were in the forefront of the June 12 struggle
“Heroes may not be braver than anyone else,” said former United States President, Ronald Reagan, “They are just braver five minutes longer.” Today, they may not be together again, but those who struggled for the actualisation of the June 12 1993 presidential election and the enthronement of democracy in Nigeria would always be together both in ideology and belief. They were brought together by a common purpose which was to do away with military government and they succeeded.
Indeed, they have diminished in number as some of them died in the struggle while others passed on years after. Yet, many of them are still sustaining the struggle for a better Nigeria. Therefore, in commemoration of the 20 years of the annulment that culminated in a historic struggle, some of the martyrs and heroes of that era are recognised below:
The Nigerian Masses
Nigerians collectively clamoured for a change from military to democratic governance. The quest for the change was reflective in the pattern of vote at the election where Nigerians, irrespective of their religious or ethnic background, voted massively for Abiola. Small wonder, the election still ranks as the freest and fairest election ever conducted in the country and indeed, Africa.
More still, when the election was annulled, Nigerians collectively stood their grounds and fought tirelessly for the restoration of the mandate. Many were killed, several were injured, intimidated and incarcerated but the quest continued until democracy was restored.
One of the martyrs of the June 12 struggle was the wife of Abiola, Alhaja Kudirat Atinuke Abiola. Born in 1951, in northern Nigerian city of Zaria where she also had her early education, Kudirat, married Abiola at age 21 in a union that produced seven children. An otherwise private person, the annulment of the June 12, 1993 presidential election, which her husband had presumably won, brought her out, not just into the public space but the pro-democracy movement.
In 1994 when Abiola was incarcerated and kept in solitary confinement for declaring himself president, Kudirat, despite the clear danger, provided leadership and support for the struggle. She stepped forward, convinced that the military actions amounted to a violation of the fundamental rights of Nigerians and a subversion of justice. But on June 4, 1996, a few days to the anniversary of June 12, Kudirat was murdered in what was generally considered a state killing.
The late Pa Alfred Rewane, an Itsekiri born businessman and pro-democracy activist deployed his resources to fight the military to a standstill as well as provided support for NADECO and related groups involved in the struggle to actualise the June 12 mandate. At a personal level, he campaigned against official graft in high places, lack of accountability and gross violation of human rights which further pitted him against the military.
In June 1995, he was arrested by the military alongside others for holding a meeting, but released 24 hours later. However, in August 1995, he took ill and on his return from his foreign medical trip, renewed his quest for the revalidation of the June 12 mandate. But in October 6, 1995, he was brutally killed in curious circumstances by unknown assassins in Lagos.
Gani Fawehinmi (SAN)
A foremost lawyer and human rights crusader, the late Chief Gani Fawehinimi, was also in the forefront of the struggle for the de-annulment of the June 12 election. For daring the military, he was detained for a long time but that did not deter him as he held on to the struggle on the grounds of conviction and social justice. He provided free legal, moral and financial support for pro-democracy activists. He died several years after the enthronement of the nation’s fledgling democracy.
Prof Wole Soyinka
The Nobel Laureate, Professor Soyinka, was one of the intelligentsias of the struggle and the brains behind Radio Kudirat, a freedom fighter medium used for international campaign against the annulment of the June 12 election. There were other frontline activists behind the initiative like Chief Anthony Enahoro and the current Ekiti State governor, Dr. Kayode Fayemi, who through their broadcasts, leaked plans by the military to decimate the freedom fighters. It was the radio station that revealed plans to assassinate Pa Adekunle
Ajasin and Abraham Adesanya.
As an active player, Soyinka was said to have attempted to lure Abacha to validate June 12 by exploring his contacts and inciting the international community against the maximum ruler.
But Soyinka got his dose of the military bitter pills when in 1994, he had to go on exile to the US and France, following charges of bomb attacks on the army along with some others leveled against him. He was however tried in absentia and sentenced to death, also in absentia. He returned after the death of Abacha and has remained a consistent voice in the call for good governance in Nigeria.
Former Secretary-General of the National Union of Petroleum and Natural Gas Workers (NUPENG), Chief Frank Kokori, made personal sacrifices by standing against the military government and sided with the people. He declared and sustained the oil workers’ strike which succeeded in crippling the nation’s economy and weakened the military government of Babangida and Abacha.
He was arrested by the military and made to suffer bodily torture, imprisonment, verbal assaults and all forms of indignity and intimidation. But he did to give up the struggle for the enthronement of democracy in the country.
Former United States Ambassador to Nigeria, Walter Carrington, though a foreigner, was however involved in the struggle to de-annul the June 12 election because by marriage to a Nigerian, he had a stake in the country and struggle. Carrington, therefore, supported the pro-democracy groups, especially NADECO during the agitation. He drew the attention of the international community to the abuse of human rights by the military. His activities influenced the United States of America to mount pressure on the military to return to the barracks.
One time governor of Ondo State, the late Chief Adekunle Ajasin, who was the leader of both Afenifere and NADECO fought relentlessly for June 12. He was a backbone to pro-democracy forces. Even at the risk to his life and age, he was openly opposed to the military.
His home was invaded by former governor Ibe Onyearugbulem, on the order of Abacha. There were calculated efforts at making Ondo State uncomfortable for the NADECO members. He was arrested by the military in June 1995, along with some others for allegedly holding a meeting. He was released 24 hours later. Although, he did not relinquish his quest for the enthronement of democracy before he eventually died in October 1997, he however witnessed the demise of Abacha.
Professor Humphrey Nwosu
Professor Humphrey Nwosu was the Chairman, National Electoral Commission (NEC), the body that organised the June 12 election. The commission under him introduced the 'Option A4' and Open Ballot System.
It was easy to presume that MKO Abiola won the election because Nwosu had released some of the election results before an order stopping further announcement by the military regime. Nwosu did everything humanly possible to resist the annulment, having also gone ahead to conduct the election against the wish of the establishment.
In 2008, he published a book in which he subtly exonerated Babangida of the blame of the annulment. He however identified the late former military head of state, General Sani Abacha, as well as ex-President Olusegun Obasanjo, as having contributed to the annulment.
Prof. Bolaji Akinyemi
Like, Soyinka, former Minister of Foreign Affairs under Babangida, Prof. Bolaji Akinyemi, though a friend of the former military ruler, supported the NADECO cause. Along with some other academics, he authored articles against the annulment and incited the intellectual community against the government. He was also forced to flee the country when faced with threat to his life.