By Omololu Ogunmade
Abuja — President Muhammadu Buhari Tuesday in Abuja apologised to the family of the winner of June 12, 1993 presidential election, Bashorun MKO Abiola, over the injustice done to him by the annulment of the election and his eventual untimely death.
Buhari also apologised to the families of others who lost their lives in the struggle for the actualisation of June 12, 1993 presidential election.
“Accordingly, on behalf of the Federal Government, I tender the nation’s apology to the family of Late MKO Abiola, who got the highest votes and to those that lost their loved ones in the course of June 12 struggle,” the president said in a speech that drew loud applause from the distinguished audience.
The election, described as the freest and fairest in Nigeria’s electoral history was unjustly annulled by the former military president, General Ibrahim Babangida (rtd.), on June 23 same year.
Consequently, Abiola who in search of his mandate, declared himself as the country’s president on June 11, 1994 at Epetedo, Lagos, was arrested and imprisoned by the despotic ruler, Gen. Sani Abacha. Abiola passed on in mysterious circumstances on July 7, 1998 while still in detention.
However, Buhari had in a move to pacify the South-western region where Abiola hailed from, on June 6, 2018 acceded to the region’s long agitation for the declaration of June 12 as a public holiday.
He also announced the conferment of the highest honour of the Grand Commander of the Federal Republic (GCFR) on Abiola as well as the conferment of the Grand Commander of the Order of Niger (GCON) on Abiola’s running mate, Baba Gana Kingibe, and a posthumous conferment of GCON on the late foremost rights crusader, Chief Gani Fawehinmi.
At the investiture Tuesday, Abiola’s honour was received by his eldest son, Kola, while Fawehinmi’s medal was received by his wife, Ganiyat.
In his speech during the investiture in the Conference Hall of the Presidential Villa, Buhari who said the event was not meant to open old wounds but rather to right the wrongs of the past, tendered an unreserved apology to the family of Abiola on behalf of the entire country.
The president who also lamented that the election was nullified despite its clarity that Abiola had won, said the events of the conferment of the national honours and the recognition of June 12 as Democracy Day were clear expressions that the country acknowledged the error committed.
Buhari also threatened that henceforth, similar perversion of justice would no longer be tolerated, adding that the decision was also necessary to heal festering wounds in the spirit of national interest and national reconciliation.
According to him, on June 12, 1993, Nigeria conquered various obstacles militating against unity and nationhood and voted irrespective of ethnic and religious beliefs as he urged the family of Abiola to accept the situation in good faith.
Submitting that the victory of June 12 would ever be celebrated, Buhari said it would not only be celebrated by this generations but would continuously be celebrated across generations.
“The recognition is not an attempt to open old wounds but to put right a national wrong,” the president said, adding, “Nigerians of their own free will voted for Abiola and Ambassador Babagana Kingibe, the presidential flag bearer and running mate of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) in the 1993 elections.”
Saying the government of the day inexplicably cancelled the elections when it was clear who were going to be the winners, he added: “We cannot rewind the past but we can at least assuage our feelings; recognise that a wrong has been committed and resolve to stand firm now and in the future for the sanctity of free elections. Nigerians would no longer tolerate such perversion of justice.”
He said the retrospective and posthumous recognition was only a symbolic token of redress and recompense for the grievous injury done to the peace and unity of our country.
According to him, “Our decision to recognise and honour June 12 and its actors is in the national interest. It is aimed at setting national healing process and reconciliation of the 25-year festering wound caused by the annulment of the June 12 elections. I earnestly invite all Nigerians across all our national divide to accept it in good faith.
“Our action today is to bury the negative side of June 12, the side of ill-feelings, hate, frustrations and agony. What we are doing is celebrating and appreciating the positive side of June 12. The June 12, which restate democracy and freedom. The June 12 that overcome our various divide and the June 12 that produced unity and National cohesion. This is the June 12 we are celebrating today and we will nurture it to our next generation.”
At the conclusion of his speech, Buhari led the gathering to observe a minute silence in honour of Abiola and others who lost their lives in June 12 struggle.
In his own speech, the Secretary to the Government of the Federation (SGF) Boss Mustapha described Tuesday as a new dawn in the annals of the country’s political and democratic progress, observing that June 12, 1993 marked the first time that Nigerians put aside tribe or creed and voted on the basis of their convictions.
According to him, Abiola paid the supreme sacrifice while attempting to actualise his mandate, insisting that June 12 unlike any other day, was the symbol of various sacrifices made by various citizens of this country and opened a new chapter in its political history.
He listed groups which he said played pivotal roles in June 12 struggle to include civil society organisations, organised labour, the political class and the press.
He said the tragic consequence of the annulment of June 12 election threatened the corporate existence of Nigeria to its foundations, broke relationships and pitted citizens against one another.
In Abiola’s family acceptance speech, his daughter, Hafsat Abiola-Constello, said she was touched by Buhari’s apology to her family. Consequently, she also apologised to Buhari on behalf of her father over any harm he did to him in his lifetime, observing that both of them didn’t have a remarkable relationship.
According to her, it was incredible that Buhari would be the instrument in God’s hand for the recognition of Abiola and June 12, adding, however, that Buhari should pursue the struggle that Abiola died for to a logical conclusion.
She said the struggle would only come to an end when Nigerians can seize the full control of their country from few people whom she described as landlords who have been lording it over them.
Recalling that she also lost her mother in the struggle for the actualisation of June 12, Hafsat disclosed how her mother had told her about the rehearsal by his late father of his proposed acceptance speech as the results were coming in, being fully sure that he was coasting home to victory.
However, Hafsat said Abiola whom he described as a giant recognised all over the world and who loved Nigerians from all parts of the country, never lived to deliver the speech he conceived in his mind.
Also speaking, Mohammed, the eldest son of Fawehinmi, described Buhari as the first Nigerian head of government to be sensitive and reasonable by not only listening to the voice of the people but also acting accordingly.
He described June 12 as the foundation of democracy, pointing out that the recognition of Abiola as the winner of the election was worth celebrating.
In the same vein, Kingibe who was the only one physically present among the three who received national honours Tuesday, said June 12, 1993, election redefined Nigeria through the ballot box.
He said Buhari’s recognition of June 12 was an act of courage and conviction, adding that it had shown how it is possible to rediscover the values of Nigerian unity. He also said it showed the president’s commitment to justice, fairness and democracy.
In his goodwill message, Nobel Laureate, Professor Wole Soyinka, challenged Buhari to stop creating confusion in the minds of the people by recognising Abiola on one hand and on the other hand, praising Abacha in whose hands he said Abiola was also tormented.
According to Soyinka, who described Abacha as a corrupt ruler who ought to be standing international trial if he were alive, hall of shame ought to also be inaugurated for people of his kind, but for Buhari’s apology.
He said: “Mr. President, since we are honouring heroes of democracy today, l like to request that you manage to stop creating confusion in the minds of Nigerians. It is not possible to honour MKO Abiola in one breadth and admire his tormentor in another breadth. Loyalty is all very well but loyalty can become perverse if that loyalty is retained to an individual who if he were alive today, would be before the International Court for Crimes against humanity.
“The one who broke the laws of Nigeria, international laws, pauperised this nation, it is confusing if professional loyalty is carried so far as to be accorded such an individual.”
In the same vein, rights activist, Mr. Femi Falana, who recalled how he was left in detention by Babangida, thanked the president for recognising June 12 but was swift to also challenge the president to direct all security agents to respect the fundamental rights of Nigerians by putting paid to mindless killings of Nigerians.
In his own goodwill message, former Senate President Iyorchia Ayu, reminded Buhari that those being honoured Tuesday upheld democratic tenets.
Therefore, he challenged him to have a large heart, describing his worst enemies as people around him who portray every other person as his enemies.
“Those recognised stood for ideals. Respect democracy tenets, rule of law. Have a heart that the opposition is not an enemy in democracy. People have impression that you are unforgiving. I believe you have a large heart by this act. Your worst enenies are people around you who turn everybody your enemy,” Ayu said.
Others who spoke at the occasion were former leader of Civil Liberty Organisation (CLO), Ayo Obe, labour union activist, Frank Kokori, former Plateau State governor, Fidelis Tapgun and his counterpart, Olusegun Osoba.
Others were Managing Director of News Agency of Nigeria (NAN), Bayo Onanuga; Director-General of Abiola Campaign Organisation, Dr. Jonathan Zwingina; former Lagos State governor, Senator Bola Tinubu; two former Senate presidents, Iyorchia Ayu and Ameh Ebute; as well as former Speaker of the House of Representatives, Agunwa Anekwe.
But former President Olusegun Obasanjo sent his apology for his inability to make it to the meeting, saying he was attending a meeting in Norway.
In the same vein, Babangida sent his apology for his absence at the meeting over what he described as health issues, while former Chairman of National Electoral Commission, Prof. Humphrey Nwosu also sent his apology, saying he was out of the country.