June 12 is a historic day in Nigeria’s democracy. It was on this day in 1993 that the presidential election was held for the first time since 1983. Many still regard the election as the fairest and freest in the history of Nigeria. An estimated 14 million Nigerians were reported to have come out en mass to vote for their preferred candidate in the poll, irrespective of their ethnic, religious, class, and regional affiliations.
Although the results were never released, unofficial results gathered through the various polling stations by civil society groups across the country indicated that the presidential candidate of the Social Democratic Party (SDP), Chief Moshood Kashimawo Olawale Abiola had won.
A businessman, publisher, politician, and aristocrat of the Yoruba Egba clan, Abiola contested against National Republican Convention (NRC) candidate Bashir Tofa in the now-familiar North vs South elections. Despite the peaceful turnout of the election, it was stalled and then military head of state, General Ibrahim Babangida, annulled the results.
IBB would later tell Arise TV that he took the unpopular decision in the interest of the nation as he alleged that top officials in the military would have staged a violent coup if he hadn’t annulled the election.
Since then, it has been a decade-long struggle to restore free and fair elections in Nigeria’s democracy. In 2018, President Mohammadu Buhari declared June 12 a public holiday to mark Nigeria’s new Democracy Day. It is also now remembered as Abiola’s Day.
As we look forward to the celebrations, let’s take a look at 4 prominent Nigerians who were alleged to have betrayed MKO Abiola:
1. General Ibrahim Babangida
General Ibrahim Babangida was the head of the military government from 1985 to 1993 and the alleged “evil genius” in the June 12 debacle. He created the two political parties – SDP and NRC platforms through which MKO Abiola and Basiru Tofa respectively contested.
IBB, as he was popularly called, annulled the June 12 election on June 21, 1993, when it was clear that Abiola won the election and ordered a fresh election. Abiola fiercely refused to contest again with the support of the majority of Nigerians. Seeing the political unrest his action had taken, Babangida announced he would “step aside” to usher in the Interim National Government (ING) headed by Chief Ernest Shonekan.
Abiola later revealed that it was IBB who first suggested the idea for him (Abiola) to run for president during the burial of his first wife, Simbiat, in Lagos in 1992. According to Shahara Reporters, Abiola regretted trusting Babangida, and while in detention, he said, “ “I believed in a friend. I trusted a friend and he betrayed me. IBB betrayed me.”
2. Chief Ernest Shonekan
Chief Ernest Adegunle Oladeinde Shonekanwas a British-trained Nigerian lawyer and statesman who served as the interim Head of State of Nigeria from 26 August 1993 to 17 November 1993. IBB reportedly imposed Shonekan as head of the unpopular interim government to placate the aggrieved south-western. According to the late political adviser to IBB, Professor Omo Omoruyi who wrote a book titled, “The tale of June 12,” Shonekan had assured IBB that under no circumstance would he reopen the June 12 matter. Secondly, he (Shonekan) would do everything to divide the Yoruba on the matter of June 12. He was accused of betraying MKO Abiola because he was viewed as an ally of IBB.
Shonekan would eventually be overthrown in a bloodless coup by General Sani Abacha in November 1993, three months after his administration.
3. Oladipo Diya
Like Abiola and Obasanjo, Lieutenant General Oladipo Diya is from Ogun State. He was second in command to Sani Abacha who was the military Head of State. Diya had promised the military rule would be brief but turned into a villian when he tasted power. He prosecuted the coalition of democrats, known as the National Democratic Coalition (NADECO) but later regretted his action when Abacha jailed him for allegedly attempting another coup to overthrow his government.
Sani Abacha GCFR seized power on November 17, 1993, after a successful bloodless coup to overthrow Shonekan’s interim government. Dubbed a kleptocrat and a dictator, Abacha’s rule was initially a welcome development for Abiola who agreed to collaborate with him to form the new government.
However, when Abacha announced his cabinet which included Abiola’s running mate, Kingibe, it dawned on MKO that the ship was fast sailing away from him. Then he began to fight the military rule and declared himself president. As a result, he was accused of treason and jailed for four years. His second wife, Kudirat was assassinated. Abiola unexpectedly died on the day of his release, shortly after Abacha’s death.
There are conflicting reports of how he died. Some speculate that he drank poisoned tea. Medical experts who conducted his autopsy said he died of longstanding heart disease while Abacha’s CSO Al-Mustapha testified during the trial that he had video and audiotapes showing how Abiola was beaten to death. He is yet to come forward with the tapes.
It’s been over two decades after M. K. O. Abiola’s death, but he is still the symbol of democracy in Nigeria. Regardless of the circumstances that led to his unfortunate demise, it is clear that he gambled, dined, and wined with the people who later betrayed him.