The ‘June 12’ battle was not for men of frail will. On the field were great fighters who dared the military. These democratic forces were scattered at home and abroad. Many died; some lost properties. When the fight became hotter, they did not develop cold feet. They did not betray the cause and they did not desert the battle. Instead, they endured the heat and fought to the end. Their weapons were their power of ideas, intellect, strong will and determination. Group Political Editor EMMANUEL OLADESU writes on the heroes and martyrs of the titanic struggle, whose persistent agitations heralded the restoration of civil rule in 1999.
The symbol of the struggle was the late Chief Moshood Abiola, the billionaire businessman, who wanted to use power to abolish poverty in Nigeria. Before he joined the race, he had established himself as a friend of top military brass and philanthropist. Apparently, the ruling military class underrated him as a presidential material, until it was too late. His credential was highly intimidating. Largely perceived as the liberator of the people from the military cage, Abiola received massive support, beating his rival, National Republican Convention (NRC)’s Bashir Tofa in his native Kano State. He polled 8,341,309 votes, representing 58.36 percent of the total votes. When former Military President Ibrahim Babangida annulled the election, there was sporadic protest. The ghost of the cruel annulment still hunts the General. Abiola declared himself President-elect at Epetedo, Lagos Island. He was arrested and detained by the Abacha regime. He fought on until he died in detention under Gen. Abdulsalami Abubakar, who succeeded Abacha.
The late Alhaja Kudirat Abiola was one of the numerous wives of the SDP presidential flag bearer. The annulment forced Kudirat into the pro-democracy movement. She developed a steely determination that dared military bullets. When her husband was in solitary confinement for claiming his presidential mandate, Kudirat confronted the military dictators. Her leadership motivated other pro-democracy groups to spring up and seek the actualisation of the election. In 1994, Kudirat was actively involved in sustaining the oil workers’ strike, which crippled the economy and weakened the military government Despite this harassment, she continued her campaign. She and the late Chief Alfred Rewane funded the pro-democracy activities, which unsettled the military. When protesters were detained, she would promptly visit police stations to secure their release. Kudirat knew that she was operating in an atmosphere of danger. She was planning to process her visa to leave Nigeria, but on June 4, 1996, a few days to the third anniversary of the June 12 election, Kudirat was shot dead by assassins in Oregun, Lagos State.
The late Chief Adekunle Ajasin, former governor of Ondo State, doubled as Afenifere and NADECO leader. He was a principled fighter and moral voice who offered inspiration to the democratic forces. Despite threats to his life, he never wavered. The Owo-born politician objected to the progressives’ participation in the Abacha administration, but Abiola prevailed on him to give his consent. His bedroom was invaded by former military Governor Ibe Onyearugbulem, who had Abacha’s mandate to make Ondo State uncomfortable for NADECO forces. In June 1995, he was arrested by the military alongside others for holding a meeting, but was released 24 hours later. He died when the battle was raging.
NADECO members based in Ondo were pro-active. Prominent among them were Chief Segun Adegoke, a lawyer and Awoist, the late Chief Adebayo Adefarati, who later became governor, Mrs. Bolaji Osomo before she joined Abacha cabinet, Senator Remi Okunrinboye and Bishop Bolanle Gbonigi. The activist-cleric was nicknamed the ‘NADECO Bishop’ because of his principled position on June 12. He decried the injustice from the pulpit and offered moral and spiritual support to the pro-democracy agitators. When the late military governor, Onyearugbulem, and some soldiers invaded Ajasin’s Owo country home, an encounter ensued between the governor and Adefarati. The governor asked Adefarati whether he was a NADECO member. Adefarati, beating his chest three times, answered in the affirmative. The soldiers could not arrest him in Ajasin’s room.
During the dark days, Pa Alfred Rewane used his pen and money to fight the military. He was a pillar of financial support for NADECO and many human rights activities. His motive was the de-annulment of the June 12 election. He also personally campaigned against official graft in high places, lack of accountability and gross violation of human rights by the military. But, on October 6, 1995, he was murdered in curious circumstances, which elicited wide outcry. The killers are still at large.
The elder statesman, lawyer and former senator, Chief Abraham Adesanya, became the leader of Afenifere after Ajasin’s death. His personal assistant was Rev. Tunji Adebiyi. Adesanya’s compatriots in Afenifere, the pan-Yoruba socio-political group, who also fought the military were the late Chief Ganiyu Dawodu, the late Bola Ige, the late Alhaji Lam Adesina, Chief Olu Falae, Chief Ayo Adebanjo, the late Sir Olaniwun Ajayi, the late Pa Solanke Onasanya, Kofoworola Akerele-Bucknor, Dr. Femi Okunrounmu, Chief Olabiyi Durojaye, and Chief Cornelius Adebayo. Some of them suffered bruises. Rev. Adebiyi was bearing a letter from NADECO leaders in Lagos to Ajasin at Owo when he was arrested at 10 pm at Maryland by the police. Persistent pleas by Kudirat secured his release. Adesina and the late Comrade Ola Oni were captured by soldiers during a protest at Ibadan as “prisoner of war”. Durojaye, Adebanjo and Dawodu were detained. Assassins were also trailing Aremo Segun Osoba. He escaped been hit by bullets by whiskers.
Death came calling in January 1997, but Adesanya had years earlier miraculously escaped assassins’ bullets, thereby earning the appellation, Apamaku. He remained undaunted to the end. Under his leadership, Afenifere intensified the battle for promoting the virtues of minority rights, equality, restructuring and true federalism.
The late Chief Anthony Enahoro, nationalist and elder statesman, was the chairman of NADECO’s Steering Committee. In 1995, he was detained for almost three months without any charge by Abacha. Before he escaped abroad, he was a thorn in the flesh of the military. He also chaired the Movement for National Reformation (MNR) and the Pro-National Conference Organisation (PRONACO). Enahoro was the leader of NADECO abroad.
The late Chief Gani Fawehinmi (SAN) was an outstanding lawyer and world-acclaimed human rights crusader. He was an advocate of de-annulment. For daring the military, he was detained for long. He provided legal, moral and financial support for freedom fighters. Fawehinmi claimed that soldiers in barracks voted for Abiola, daring the military to declare the result of army voting. He was a target of liquidation by the military. Many Nigerians have applauded President Muhammadu Buhari for giving him the highest national award of the Grand Commander of the Federal Republic (GCFR).
Dr. Fredrick Fasehun, a former SDP presidential aspirant, founded the Oodua Peoples Congress to press for the de-annulment of the election. He was one of the founding fathers of NADECO. He was detained for long by the military for fighting the cause. At that time, a prominent member of the group, Gani Adams, who is now the coordinator and Aare Ona Kankanfo of Yorubaland, was always visible during protests. He was a great campaigner of the revalidation of the election results.
Former governor of Kaduna State, Alhaji Balarabe Musa, did not perceive the struggle as a regional fight. To him, Abiola got a pan-Nigerian mandate. He has always contributed ideas to the sustenance of the struggle, which he believes, was foisted on the pro-democracy forces by a military cabal that was reluctant to accept the outcome of the transition programme it set up.
Musa refused to join the bandwagon of tribal egoists. He believed that June 12 offered a redemptive option to the country in its quest for legitimate leadership. In his view, the annulment was a national calamity and the struggle was not a sectional affair as wrongly projected by military spin doctors.
Dr. Ibrahim Tahir, spoke forcefully against the Babangida regime for foisting an avoidable crisis on the country. To the old teacher and astute politician, the military had no option than to restore Abiola’s mandate. When the struggle intensified under the Abacha regime, he challenged the military Head of State to a duel, saying that he has conveyed the impression that power cannot be surrendered voluntarily unless there is an epic struggle and war of liberation against the government. In his view, the annulment was not a northern agenda, but the agenda of the military class in defiance to the popular yearning for democracy.
Prof. Wole Soyinka, playwright, poet, novelist, and implacable critic, is the first black African to bag the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1986. The former university don was one of the brains behind Radio Kudirat. Other frontline activists behind the opposition radio were Enahoro and Dr.Kayode Fayemi, who made broadcasts leaking plans by the soldiers to wipe out freedom fighters from Nigeria. It was the radio that alerted people to the plot to assassinate Ajasin and Adesanya. The Nobel laureate was not new to prison walls through his activism. In 1994, Soyinka lived in exile in the United States and France after leaving Nigeria. When the June 12 election was annulled, Soyinka played a key role in mounting pressure on Abacha to reverse the decision. Deploying his influence, he mounted a strong international campaign against Abacha’s dictatorial regime. In 1997 he was tried in absentia with other opposition members for a phoney charge of bomb attacks against army. The Abacha regime sentenced Soyinka to death in absentia.
Among those who offered intellectual support for NADECO activities were Prof. Akinyemi, former Foreign Affairs Minister, Prof. Segun Gbadegesin, Prof. Ropo Sekoni, Prof. Ade Banjo and Prof. Adebayo Williams. They wrote numerous incisive articles denouncing the annulment, elongation of military rule and rights violation. They were targets of attacks by the military. They fled the country to continue the onslaught abroad. Banjo purchased 3,000 rifles to launch a guerrilla war against Abacha. He was caught and detained before he escaped to Ghana. If the asylum proposed by Prof. Akinyemi had been accepted, Abiola may not have been killed. But, the symbol of the epic struggle rejected the asylum, saying the President-elect of the most populous nation in Africa could not be seeking asylum in the American Embassy.
The oil workers strike rattled Abacha. The credit goes to Chief Frank Kokori, a fearless labour leader and former Secretary-General of the National Union of Petroleum and Natural Gas Workers (NUPENG). In 1994, the pro-democracy activist led the oil workers on a sustained strike over the annulment, leading to the paralysis of social and economic activities, to the embarrassment of the Abacha junta. He was arrested on August 20, 1994 by security operatives and was moved round different prisons, mostly in the northern part of the country. The incarceration did not stop his activism.
An American diplomat, who served as United States Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary to Nigeria between 1993 and 1997, Walter Carrington supported the fight for democracy in Nigeria. He stood resolutely with pro-democracy activists during the pro-June 12 agitation. He condemned Babangida for annulling the election widely adjudged free and fair. He expressed great concern over the abuse of human rights and the steady descent of Nigeria into a police state under the military. His remarks were weighty and they influenced America to mount pressure on the military to vacate power.
Adebanjo is a fearless politician who does not hide his principled views, no matter whose ox is gorged. He was a staunch member of NADECO; he has played opposition politics for many decades. Despite threats to his life and property, he was resolute in the fight for the restoration of Abiola’s mandate. It was ironic, because Abiola and his political leader, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, were politically opposed to each other. Adebanjo has often called for the immortalisation of Abiola.
Dosunmu and ‘Epetedo forces’
Former Minister of Housing and Environment, the late Dr. Wahab Dosunmu, was a close associate of Abiola from the NPN days. He was involved in the activities of NADECO from the scratch. He and Olufemi Lanlehin were instructed by their group, Primose, which later became Lagos Justice Forum, to attend the inaugural meeting of the group in Gen. Adeyinka Adebayo’s Ikeja residence. He was a signatory to the memorandum submitted by Afenifere at the formative stage of the association. Dosunmu, Prince Ademola Adeniji-Adele, Tokunbo Afikuyomi, Omotilewa Aro-Lambo, Senator Ajayi from Ekiti, Hon. Adesina from Abeokuta, and Sikiru Shitta-Bey were also involved in the presidential declaration arrangement at Epetedo, Lagos Island
Ayo Opadokun was the General Secretary of the Afenifere and NADECO. He fought the military for democracy to flourish in Nigeria. For five years, he was in detention. By the time he was released, the struggle had taken its toll on him. He expressed regrets that after the restoration of the civil rule in 1999, charlatans, military apologists and collaborators became the beneficiaries of the struggle.
Olawale Osun is a former Chief Whip of the House of Representatives. When the IBB regime cancelled the election, he was among the legislators who denounced the criminal act. He was one of the few that planned the Abiola ‘Epetedo Declaration’. When Opadokun was seized by the military, he became NADECO secretary. He was later released, after which he fled abroad to continue the fight. He wrote his book, ‘Clapping with one hand’, in detention.
Ukiwe, a retired Navy Commodore and Chief of General Staff from 1985 to 1986, was one of the notable actors in the pro-democracy struggle in the beginning. Most Nigerians believe that Ukiwe lost his post due to his principled nature. Knowing that Ukiwe could not be pushed around, Babangida replaced him with Augustus Aikhomu. However, Ukiwe reduced his participation when his life was under threat.
The former governor of Imo and Lagos states joined the democracy group in retirement. He was in the forefront of the agitation for the actualisation of Abiola’s mandate. Abacha was particularly worried at his involvement in the agitation to halt his inglorious rule. He once told him to deck his khaki and face him with his gun, instead of joining forces with civilians to rubbish him. When he persisted in his NADECO activities, his businesses were crippled by the military. His private residence was searched by security agents. He was accused of planning to import arms and ammunition.
Among the organisations that formed NADECO was the Eastern Mandate Union (EMU), led by the irrepressible advocate of human rights and good governance, Arthur Nwankwo. He shared that virtue of consistency and bravery with Dr. Chukwuemeka Ezeife and Chief John Odigie-Oyegun, who were prominent NADECO chieftains. A fierce speaker and prolific writer, Nwankwo was never afraid of detention camps
A gallant soldier, Commodore Dan Sulaiman, a former Minister of Communications, joined the democratic forces in decrying the annulment and incarceration of the symbol of the struggle. When the military was after his life, he fled abroad to continue the onslaught against the military.
The Cicero of Esa-Oke shunned the IBB transition programme based on Awo’s admonition to his followers to learn to dine with the devil with a long spoon. However, the entry of the late Chief Bola Ige, after the expiration of his ‘siddon look’ period, inspired the pro-democracy agitators to fight on. He was a leading fighter under NADECO and Afenifere, where he was deputy leader. Ige, a fiery speaker, hit hard at the Abacha regime. He described the five political parties of that period as five fingers of a leprous hand. He was detained at Epe.
As military governor of Kaduna State, he had shown the tendency of a radical. The political scientist was of the view that the military had overstayed in power to the detriment of democracy. Col. Abubakar Umar Dangiwa spoke forcefully in defense of Abiola. To him, the symbol was not the main issue, but the seizure of the nation’s collective passport for a genuine flight to the horizon of democratic progress. He sacrificed his career in the Army.
In the Third Republic, Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu was a senator. In the Upper Chamber, he was the rallying point for senators seeking an end to military rule. He challenged IBB to a duel. When the military leader annulled the poll, he demanded for explanations. Tinubu dared the military, urging the masses to resist the illegal act. After escaping abroad, he became one of the leaders and financial pillars of NADECO abroad. Tinubu became governor of Lagos State in 1999. He was the first governor to declare June 12 as ‘Democracy Day’ and a public holiday.
The former Secretary to the Federal Military Government and Finance Minister was active in Afenifere and NADECO. He was one of the ardent supporters of Abiola during the battle for the revalidation of the annulled results. Other Afenifere leaders who were active during the struggle included Senator Ayo Fasanmi, who resigned from the Constitutional Conference Commission set up by Abacha, Niyi Owolola, Chief Supo Sonibare, Prince Dayo Adeyeye, the late Baba Omojola, the late Chief Rafiu Jafojo, and Chief S.K. Babalola. Before they joined the Abacha regime, the duo of Alhaji Lateef Jakande and Chief Ebenezer Babatope were also in the forefront of the clamour for the de-annulment of the election. However, when Afenifere recalled them from the federal cabinet, it was difficult for them to resign.
Gen. Alani Akinrinade was one of the leaders of NADECO abroad, who committed enormous time, energy and resources to the struggle for justice. His private residence at Ikeja was torched by suspected government agents. The same tribulation befell his compatriot, Dr, Amos Akingba, a former university don. He was harassed by the military. His residence was also attacked in Lagos.
Justice Dolapo Akinsanya of the Lagos High Court, in her historic judgment, declared that the Interim National Government (ING) of Chief Ernest Shonekan was a contraption, unconstitutional, null and void. The verdict was a tonic for the pro-democracy forces to insist on the declaration of Abiola as president-elect.
Alhaji Bashir Tofa of the defunct National Republican Convention (NRC) lost the election to Abiola. To his credit, he did not contest the outcome.
The National Electoral Commission (NEC) chairman, Prof. Humphrey Nwosu, conducted the most credible election in history. The agency later lost its independence. In fact, the hand of the military was heavy on the umpire, who was directed to stop further announcement of the results.
June 12 casualties
The casualties of the struggle are too numerous to mention. Oshun, who is now the leader of the Afenifere Renewal Group (ARG), recalled that many protesters were shot on Ikorodu road by soldiers. Many activists were detained. Many lost their property. Businesses were ruined. Families were dislocated. Media houses were closed down. The family of Bagaudu Khalto is still in agony.
Labour, rights groups
Human rights leaders – the late Dr. Beko Ransome-Kuti, his brother, the late Prof. Olikoye Ransome-Kuti, Femi Falana (SAN), Femi Aborisade, the late Chima Ubani, Joe Igbokwe, Olisa Agbakoba (SAN), Ayo Obe, Bishop Matthew Kukah, Ebun Adegboruwa, Clement Nwankwo, Shehu Sani, Mike Ozekhome, Osagie Obayuwana, Felix Tuodolo, Debo Adeniran, Ima Niboro, Akinola Orisagbemi, who was Personal Assistant to Mrs. Kudirat Abiola, Innocent Chukwuma, Bunmi Aborisade, and numerous activists under the banner of the Nigeria Bar Association (NBA), the Nigeria Medical Association (NMA), the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC), the Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ), PENGASSAN, NUPENG, Radio Kudirat, Lagos Justice Forum, June 12 Collective, the media, and National Association of Nigerian Students (NANS) made invaluable contributions to the struggle. (The Nation)