Nigerians came out en masse, queued up and gave their mandate to Moshood Kashimawo Olawale Abiola, in a historically acclaimed free and fair election, on June 12, 1993. The effort of over 14 million Nigerians who came out to exercise their civic responsibility was thwarted when the leader of the junta, "evil genius" General Ibrahim Babangida, annulled the election on June 23, 1993.
Thousands of Nigerians who had resolved to vote in a democratic government revolted against the annulment. They organized in different groups across the nation to demand that their collective mandate be given to MKO Abiola, who was loved and respected. Peaceful protests and demonstrations sprang up in different corners of the country —signposting a national revolt against the dictatorship of a minority.
Five years later, when the arrowhead of the struggle, as many of the pro-democracy advocates would say, died in the most controversial way, they never stopped fighting for their mandate. In fact, as history recorded it, the quest to reclaim the mandate intensified. Students and labour unions across Nigeria troop out in hundreds to fight the oppressors.
Many of these harmless civilians were killed, jailed, shot at and permanently maimed by the military government and its instrument of oppression. Despite the hostility of the then military government, these dogged Nigerians refused to back down. For 25 years, voices of Nigerians who had voted for MKO Abiola have continued to ask for their mandate to be restored.
In 2018, the Nigerian government bestowed a posthumous honour of the Grand Commander of the Federal Republic (GCFR) and acceded to the demand to make June 12, Nigeria’s democracy day. While some quarters regarded the gesture as a political gimmick to curry favour ahead of the 2019 presidential election, those who had spent most of their adult life asking for such honour were more than delighted.
However, beyond the decoration of MKO Abiola and his running mate Babagana Kingibe, there are thousands of ordinary Nigerian without whom the struggle would have died and the insidious acts of IBB long forgotten. These unsung heroes have benefited the least from the struggle, yet they are the real champions of today’s democracy.
Comrade Orisagbemi took 16 bullets for loyalty
Comrade Akinola Orisagbemi was a Personal Assistant to late Kudirat Abiola, the wife of the acclaimed winner of the June 12 election and could-have-been first lady of Nigeria. On June 11, 1994, MKO declared himself the winner and was subsequently arrested and charged to court. MKO’s arrest intensified his loyalists’ agitations.
Comrade Orisagbemi led a massive protest on July 14, 1993, when MKO was slated to appear in court, in Abuja. On July 28, 1993, the next hearing of the treason suit filed against MKO, Comrade Orisagbemi once again led a massive crowd in Abuja. This time, soldiers rounded up the protesters and rained bullets on them.
“They shot me 16 bullets,” Orisagbemi explained. “Immediately the man (MKO) was arrested, I started my protest in Lagos before the case was taken to Abuja. We are loyal to him and everywhere he was taken to, we went with him.”
The now 43-year old man said he was resolved that the collective mandates of every single person who cast their vote for MKO must be reclaimed, even in the face of guns and teargas.
When the bullets hit Comrade Orisagbemi, he said, he struggled to find some cover but had already been badly injured. It took the grace of God and medical experts in the struggle to save his life, he explained.
“I was taken to one unknown hospital in Abuja for 3 weeks before I was taken to Eko Hospital. I spent 4 months there,” he said.
Comrade Okanlawon had 12 surgeries for democracy
The protesters never relented despite brutality and oppression they suffered as they fought tooth and nail for a better system of government.
In 1998, when MKO Abiola died, his death infuriated not just the organized societies who had been at the forefront of the struggle since 1993 but students from tertiary institutions also came out in their thousands to seek justice for MKO Abiola, who died under suspicious circumstance same day he was due to be released from prison.
MKO was arrested in 1994 when he declared himself president of Nigeria in Epetedo, a suburb of Lagos State. The Nigerian military government at the time charged him for treason. MKO remained in prison up until his death, four years later.
When the news of his death hit the news wave, his supporters who had at this time grew more in numbers, came out to mourn and demand justice. This was once again retaliated by heavy military clampdown.
Comrade Toyin Okanlawon, who at the time was a student of the University of Ife, now known as Obafemi Awolowo University, was one of the thousands of students who flooded the streets to protest MKO Abiola's unexpected death.
“The Nigerian students held a rally, particularly students of Obafemi Awolowo University students’ union. We moved, we printed banner; it was tagged a peaceful rally to protest the death of Chief MKO Abiola.
“During the rally, the police were involved, they were the ones leading. We had lots of processions; over 15 thousand students were moving along that Ife-Ilesha road. Getting to a point, I don’t know what happened, the police turned back at us and opened fire. I was one of those that was shot.” Comrade Okalawon narrated.
Comrade Okanlawon was not taken to the hospital immediately, he was arrested and detained at the police station despite his almost torn out leg. When he was finally taken to the hospital, it took 12 medical surgeries and generosity of other students to revive his almost dead leg.
“I was later wheeled into the theater. At the theatre, I had the first surgery called debridement vesicostomy, where they removed the dead tissues in the leg, removed the bullets. The surgery lasted about one and a half hours. Not all the pellets were removed. I a still carrying fragment of multiple pellets. I got discharged after 365 days. Before my discharge, I had up to four surgeries but to date, I have had up to 12 surgeries.” Comrade Okanlawon said.
He narrated his journey through his recovery process; how he was on crushes for many years until he gradually got back his balance.
Comrade Mustapha lost a limb to the struggle
After the annulment of the June 12 election, Comrade Abiodun Mustapha, and his other colleagues in the Campaign for Democracy (CD) took to the street in a peaceful demonstration but they were welcomed with bullets. Comrade Mustapha took a bullet to his right leg which led to the eventual amputation of the leg.
“When Gen. Babangida annulled the June 12 election,” Comrade Abiodun began. “Our organization decided we needed to get our mandates from the Federal Government. We moved out with a lot of people to carry out a peaceful rally. The soldiers came to fire us on the road where we were protesting. We were shot at and I got shot on the right leg.
“The soldiers were not shooting guns; they were using armoured tanks with helicopters hovering over our heads. There was nowhere to hide except into the water. I jumped under the bridge. It was from there I was taken to the hospital and from there, my leg was amputated.”
Comrade Mustapha said he has no regret to have participated in the struggle that brought about Nigeria’s democracy. “I did not regret my action because I was a member of CD [Campaign for Democracy] and I knew that anything can happen,” he said.
Comrade Mustapha is hardly ever absent in any demonstration to call the attention of the government to the plight of the people. Despite the huge sacrifice he has paid, Mustapha said he would continue to hold the government accountable for the right things to be done.
He lamented that Nigeria, as it is today, is not the Nigeria he and his fellow comrade stick out their lives for. Making June 12 democracy day was one of the fulfillment of the struggle, Comrade Mustapha said but he believes that the masses and those who really fought for democracy have benefited very little.
“We have not got the democracy we fought for,” he said. “I remember our late father, Dr. Beko Ransome-Kuti when he was organizing the people, he told us that when we get the democracy, our children will no longer suffer. The pregnant would no longer suffer… That we would get all what democracy stands for but now we are suffering, especially with food.
“The new N30,000 minimum wage has the same value as N30 in the past. It is nothing. The Federal Government needs to control the prices of goods in the market.
A need for compensation
There are hundreds of ordinary Nigerians like Orisagbemi, Okanlawon, and Mustapha who carry the scars of June 12 struggle, and even many more who lost their lives. These people are barely recognized neither is the impact of their sacrifices seldom mentioned but these unsung heroes deserve all the accolades.
While Comrade Okanlawon stated that the children of MKO Abiola should be involved in the governance of the country and all victims of the struggle be compensated, Comrade Orisagbemi said he preferred to be given a political appointment.
Abdulmumin Abiola commended the sacrifices made by ordinary Nigerians during the struggle for democracy. The son of the late democratic icon reasoned that focus and accolade should not be directed to his father and mother, Kudirat Abiola who was assassinated on June 6, 1996, but on millions of Nigerians who voted in mass during the election, made major sacrifices during the struggle or who suffered loses as a result of their familiarity with his family.
“Anyone who participated in the June 12, 1993 election is a hero,” the younger Abiola said. “I consider them heroes of our democracy. I have always said that people always try to make the June 12 sacrifice around only Abiola and his wife, but I have stated it that there are millions of people who came out to vote and they came out not thinking about their life but about the future of a nation. If any of these people were hurt during that period, they should be compensated. In the case of those who lost their limbs, you wonder how they have been coping for so long.”