One of the prominent human rights activists who led the struggle for the actualisation of the June 12 presidential mandate, Mr. Olisa Agbakoba, who is also a former President of the Nigerian Bar Association, speaks on the events that characterised the election and its annulment, in this interview with GBENRO ADEOYE and TUNDE AJAJA
What are the things you still remember about that election said to have been won by late Chief MKO Abiola?
It was a very peaceful day. Don’t forget that at that time, nobody had any inclination of what was to come. All of us thought that the process would be free, fair and concluded. Prof. Humphrey Nwosu (Chairman of the then National Electoral Commission) really organised the election in a way that had never been done and we were expectant of the results. We were waiting for the results to be collated by each of the returning officers and the declaration to be made by Prof. Nwosu, but suddenly there was commotion and there was no collation. Then, there was a period when people were wondering what was happening until Gen. Ibrahim Babangida (the then Head of State) made a broadcast saying, ‘Yes, the election was free and fair but there were very compelling reasons why the military will not be able to support the result and I hereby annul the election’. That led to the reactions by the international community and civil society movements, such as ours. We started to protest. There were lots of movements that went on the streets, protesting and saying ‘On June 12 we stand.’ And then, the crackdown started. Then M.K.O. Abiola made the famous declaration and then they looked for him. In the meantime, various movements had been having lots of discussion with Abiola at his residence. We were planning strategies and looking for the best way to validate June 12. There were very big protests which Beko and I led at Eko Bridge and we could have lost our lives but for the late Admiral Mike Akhigbe, who was on the bridge because our boys had blocked Gen. Sani Abacha at the airport. We said he could not come in into Lagos. At that time, although Abuja was the official capital, Lagos was still where they resided to do their work and business. Abacha killed about 120 of our members that day, driving through the human barricade we had formed. He broke the barricade and went into Dodan Barracks.
Did you say 120 persons were killed?
Yes, 120. I saw them. We were shocked; they were brutally brought down by his security men. Our boys had built a big human barricade. Initially, when they came in, all of them were at the airport wondering what to do. When Abacha came, he stayed for a while (there) and suddenly made the decision to move. I’m not sure whether Abacha gave that directive directly but I’m clear that that was the number of people that went down that day. Meanwhile, we were on the other side of the demonstration. The tail end of the demonstration was at the airport but we were already on Eko Bridge, and down Apongbon, that descent, tanks came out. I remember one of us jumping off the bridge straight down and as soon as he hit the ground, there was blood everywhere. He was dead. So, there was a stalemate. We couldn’t move forward because of the tanks and we refused to go back. So, Akhigbe came. He was a member of the Armed Forces Ruling Council. He told his commanding officer to go back and that he would handle it. He then told us not to worry. He said we should trust him and that he would have the whole thing sorted out. We said alright and dispersed. But unfortunately, Akhigbe didn’t do anything. We also had meetings with Oladipo Diya at 4, MacDonald Road, Ikoyi, Lagos. He deceived us and assured that he would handle it. To quote him, he said, ‘Trust me, I’m in charge’. He made us to calm down. We trusted his so-called ‘trust me I’m in charge’ statement, whereas he was not in charge. From then on, Abacha began to squeeze Diya’s power. We now realised that Diya was not in a position to do anything so we resumed our demonstrations and the response was detentions, mass killings and threats. It was at this point that Anthony Enahoro, Alani Akinrinade, Bola Tinubu and Prof. Wole Soyinka had to leave. When those people left, some of us and people in the media industry like Bayo Onanuga of The NEWS, kept it going. But the more we did, the more they put Abiola in various detention camps. Then he was offered freedom to say we will let you go, but you will agree to surrender your mandate. Abiola said it was either he was released unconditionally and allowed to take his place as President or nothing, so the rest is history. Eventually, Abacha died and there was a turnaround and Gen. Abdulsalami Abubakar came. He commenced the process of transition to democracy and Olusegun Obasanjo came and became the President.
Was it Abacha’s convoy that ran into those 120 persons or Babangida’s?
It was Abacha’s. Babangida stepped aside in August 1993 and Ernest Shonekan came in. The transition removed everybody in the Babangida’s government except Abacha – a very clever guy. He was the only person that continued to be Secretary of Defence. He was Chief of Army Staff under Shonekan.
Do you think Shonekan should have dismissed him?
Shonekan had no power; he was just a figure head. He had no power of any kind and there was nothing he could have done.
The election held on June 12 but the annulment was announced on June 24. What was happening within that period? Did you sense that something was fishy?
It was clear. When the results were not released in Abuja, we began to suspect that something was wrong. When you conduct an election, the next thing is to announce the result, but Prof. Nwosu was prevented from announcing the results. Even the collation by state returning officers was disallowed. Then, Arthur Nzeribe came; he set up the Association for Better Nigeria and he went to court in Abuja as a claimant and he got this overnight injunction which then officially annulled the election. The Attorney General of the Federation at the time was Clement Akpamgbo, who stage-managed the process. It was because we had politically challenged the annulment, Babangida realised that he needed a judicial annulment, so they contrived the annulment by using Nzeribe to do it before the late Justice Bassey Ikpeme. The counter was that we lodged a case in the Lagos High Court, asking it to validate June 12 election, declare that its result must be released and declare Abiola as the President. We won the case, so there were two decisions. Of course, the Federal Government ignored the decision of the Lagos High Court and relied on the decision of Justice Ikpeme, which nullified the election. So, these were all the factors, including our struggle to validate June 12 election. That led Babangida to say ‘look, I must say something on this’, and then he made his broadcast, annulling and nullifying the election. We intensified the struggle and just kept going in different ways but Abacha was determined to crush our movement. Not only was Abacha determined to crush the movement, he now also noted that it was no longer fashionable to be a military president.
How do you mean?
He generated a transition to civil rule legislation, created five political parties and contrived to set a world record by being the first president to be the presidential candidate of all the five political parties. So, we continued to scream and shout. He saw that it wasn’t enough to be presidential candidate, he wanted Nigerians to appeal on his behalf. That was how the infamous Daniel Kanu’s YEAA – Youths Earnestly Ask for Abacha – came. They mounted microphones and were shouting in Abuja that ‘oga, you are the only one that can rescue Nigeria’. We then organised a five million-man march. The march was the height of the crisis. I led the march and I almost lost my left eye. And then all of us – the so-called ring leaders were arrested and sent to various prisons. Beko Ransome-Kuti detained and imprisoned. I was sent to Enugu Prison, Gani Fawehinmi was sent somewhere else. In fact, the leaders of the movement, including Femi Falana and students’ union leaders like Segun Maiyegun (a former President of the University of Lagos Students’ Union), Omoyele Sowore and Wale Okunniyi; they were all my boys. They were the key players I used for the struggle. Sowore was the President of the Unilag’s Students’ Union at the time and Okunniyi was the President of the Lagos State University Students’ Union. So they just picked all of the leader; they knew them. You know, without a leadership structure, everything would be in disarray and that was exactly what happened. The good thing was that Abacha died on June 8, 1998.
Some people believe that Abiola’s declaration that he was the President was what led to his death. Did protesters at the time agree with Abiola to declare himself as president?
Yes, we worked very closely with Abiola. We agreed that he would go abroad and garner support, which he did. He had a world tour, garnered the support of the international community and returned to Nigeria to make the declaration. He knew that he already had the support of the civil society organisations, he then made his declaration. But clearly in making that declaration, he knew that it could pose a risk to his life. Why wouldn’t he know? Unless of course in doing this one would agree to a compromise. So we agreed that he should not compromise and that June 12 must be validated. When Abubakar came in, his government approached us and we said that if you would not have Abiola take his place as the President, then we wanted a Government of National Unity to be headed by Abiola. So all the relevant political actors would then decide a framework for Nigeria’s political future. That was the first demand. The second demand we made was that there had to be sovereign national conference so we could agree on the constitution of Nigeria; this is an issue that is still plaguing us. The international community then told us that what they would do was to create a framework for the participation of human rights community in government. We declined because our two conditions had not been met. Even when President Thabo Mbeki (of South Africa) came to appeal to us, we said no, which today, I think was an error on our part. So the government ignored us and that was why the Action for Democracy was created. The political group of pro-democracy movement agreed to participate in the political transition programme put forward by the government. The human rights component of the pro-democracy movement did not accept it. That was how Obasanjo came to office.
Does it mean that the agreement was for Abiola to declare outside the country?
I was in the meeting. There was that thinking but we felt that it didn’t make sense. Doyin Abiola was in favour of it being done outside, but it didn’t make sense. We in the human rights community felt that it would look cowardly if having been elected president in Nigeria; you went and declared it in New York, United States of America. So, we supported the move that he should make the declaration in Nigeria. Yes, there was that challenge of where the declaration should be made. I’m not privy to how Abiola finally decided to do it but I know that there was that heavy controversy. I think he took the right decision by making the declaration in Nigeria.
You think it was a right decision?
Of course! How can you be declaring to be the President of Nigeria in a foreign land? That would have been seen as cowardly.
Some people feel that making the declaration outside Nigeria would have guaranteed his safety and won him the support of the international community.