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June 12, "democracy day" and the myth of MKO

June 11, 2009

Myths are stories that acquire larger than life dimension and which many persons in a society could tend to believe as having something to do with reality. Indeed more often than not, myths could have that smoke if not the fire of historical facts in them. Indeed, like the axiom of there being a fire wherever you find smoke; some myths tend to amount to falsities, moving with every motion forward even further from the half-truths they started as.

A particular myth in Nigeria’s recent history is that of June 12. Quite a few Nigerians stood, sat and even ate (as in ‘chopped’ money) on June 12 while both its struggle and its gravy train subsisted. Just as the Daniel Kanus of this world swore that they would neither eat nor drink without Abacha succeeding himself, so did a number of NGO careerists push Abiola, as some would say, to an early grave, insisting on the validation of June 12. I am actually less disturbed by this or the fact that business is now going on as usual with proposals-driven activism being the order of the day with for human rights crusaders of today that had been the leftist champions of yesteryears. At least, it is no secret to anybody that man must wack! I also have no problem with an assertion that June 12, 1993 was definitely a very important date in Nigeria’s constant ‘on the march again’. It would be anything but fair and correct not to appreciate what it means for over 14 million Nigerians from all walks of life to come out and cast their votes in what till date remains the freest and fairest elections in the history of Nigeria.

It thus is not surprising, somewhat, for one to hear so many human rights activists of different shades, colours and forms coming out to sing into our ears every year, over the last decade, that June 12 and not May 29, should be Nigeria’s (and for them, this is equal to Nigerians’ democracy day). Maybe if they had left matters at one of; “well, since on that day we had the freest and fairest elections in the our national history…”, I would have just held my peace and continue with keeping myself amused at how otherwise they try to deify MKO Abiola. But then, heroes, gods and the surreal are all part of the ingredients of myths’ meals!

As another ‘June 12’ comes calling today, you can expect so many seminars, symposia, workshops and (actually, more of) talk shops to take place, especially in Lagos. In all of these, you would expect the usual: IBB is a self-acclaimed ‘evil genius’; MKO was a Saul with ITT (they conveniently forget this really, except for those that still remember Fela’s International Thief Thief, amongst our NGO friends), who became the people’s Paul and then very much born-again died on the cross of Aso rock, at the Golgotha of the people’s cause. With that we have both the beatification and mystification of MKO in one fell swoop, creating the myth of MKO the June 12 custodian. I actually wonder at why they never get bored with repeating this falsity year in, year out for a decade now. In a few decades from now, the story would have been so perfected that our children, particularly in the south-west of the country might even be taught in school that MKO descended from heaven with a chain to die for the profane salvation of the rest of us. But how true is all this hogwash? What deeper significance of June 12 could we grasp? Should June 12 and not May 29 be Nigeria’s ‘democracy day’? Is there even democracy in Nigeria, not to talk of which day should be democracy day? How could we look at Abiola’s role in history objectively? We will try to provide our own view of what answers to these questions could be.

On June 12, in my view, Nigerians came out first and foremost to vote the military out and not primarily to vote in Abiola. Of course Abiola had built bridges just as much as he had acquired much more enemies than wives. But if it had been any gorilla that had come out to contest against a goat, Nigerians would have most likely trooped out still to vote for one of them…presumably the gorilla, who is a primate like we humans. Nigerians were simply fed up with military rule, period. But let us look at the promise of hope that Abiola gave. Did he present anything fundamentally different from the package of the IBB administration? Not really. He never hid his commitment to the same neoliberal policies of the Washington consensus which SAP was and which has now been discredited even in western countries. Politically, and quite importantly, never before or during the June 12 saga did MKO commit himself to the Sovereign National Conference mantra of his loudest supporters. In his view, the malnourished National Assembly was good enough. All talk of fundamentally re-structuring Nigeria, economically or geo-politically just amounted to hot air as far as he was concerned.
The disdain in which MKO held the mass which as an upsurge stood on June 12, could be best understood by his position on July 5, 1993 and his role in Abacha’s ascent to power.

The popular struggle for the June 12 mandate was started outside Abiola’s desire on July 5, 1993. The ‘vanguard’ organization on this day and for the first half of the June 12 match and march, again and again was Campaign for Democracy, which today still exists as a lonely, forlorn, dishevelled and dis-embodied ghost of a paradise lost. On that day over one million Nigerians marched in a procession to Abiola’s house to demonstrate popular support for a fight back to reclaim the June 12 mandate. Abiola was very much in the know of this demonstration. But quite surprisingly, his guards informed this mammoth-sized mass that ‘Bashorun’ was sleeping and would not like to be disturbed. And actually he was! He had spent the night at Abuja discussing with IBB on what, in their collective interest, was to be done. Although he eventually had to come out to address us, it later struck me after we got to know why he was sleeping that after all the hue and cry, MKO did realize that he had much more in common with IBB as part of those that had taken Nigeria down the road of disgrace than he had with the masses who sought a people’s national redemption.

June 12 was a revolution. Like most revolutions it did not end as a success for the revolutionary forces that sought change. Like most revolutions, in the six years it lasted, structures, movements and persons for progress and retrogressive elements for the status quo, raged in battle. While Abiola by the circumstances of his interest had to have one leg each in these two sides, his heart remained firmly with the later, even in the dungeon. The anti-climax of post-Abacha/Abiola resolution of the crisis in the favour of the forces both represented is what May 29, 1999 amounts to. Abiola was the fore-runner and Obj the christ of Nigeria’s befuddled elites wobble and fumble of a rule.

May 29 is no better than June 12 as democracy day. The later was the beginning and the former, the end, of a charade. This charade is at the heart of the myth of June 12. At its crux is the belief that the snail could be the animal with horns that could kill a man or woman. The present set of elites in Nigeria can hardly save itself. It is of course less concerned with saving the country despite all its re-branded saying of the same thing, which is equal to sophisticated nonsense. Abiola’s significance lay in showing both the possibilities and the insurmountable limitations of an illusion that Nigeria can be changed without those who seek to change it being by the people, of the people and for the people. Very much like the myth of his being an Are ona Kakanfo (without the 201 incisions, this was less real than his being disgraced by “mad dogs”), we see how a real personage’s place in history becomes surrealistically mythological.

Could things have been different if Abiola had chosen to stay and fight instead of those months he ran away to the west? This is most likely the case. His support for Abacha’s coup however shows again, just how much he held the people in contempt believing that he could still be unctioned and donned with state power through a putsch. When most people condemn the Onagoruwas, Jakandes, Babatopes and co, who by the way deserve every single bit of such condemnation, they conveniently tend to forget that these persons plus Kingibe who went into Abacha’s government with the full blessings of Abiola. NADECO was formed some months later when it became clearer to the civilian wing of the country’s knock-kneed elites that Abacha the dark goggled one was smarter than them all. It was to claim the ‘national democratic revolution’ as its own and subsequently its epigones particularly Bola Ige were to mid-wife the three witches of PDP, A(N)PP & AD.

Abiola and Nigeria’s elite might have been of as much use for the revolutionary-democratic struggle which covered itself with a borrowed MKO toga, as water is for a raging fire, but that did not stop us from winning back a democratic republic. This is why one can not but be dazed when many human rights activists of today say there is no democracy in Nigeria (and wistfully, the bolder ones would add; “if only June 12 had not been annulled”). I beg to assert that we have democracy. We had a democracy in 1960, our first democracy as a (multi)nation state. This was truncated in 1966. We had that same type of democracy for four years from 1979, even if by then, it had degenerated in its appearance. That was the same kind of democracy which Obasanjo who had packaged the earlier lost one came to find twenty years later. What those who say we have no democracy with May 29 fail to realize is that there are different types of democracies and even these different types have ‘levels’. Jefferson and Lincoln’s Americas were democracies for rich white men. While they held the rights to be inalienable and self-evident, they kept black men, women and children as slaves. Similarly apartheid South Africa was democratic for the white South Africans at that time. The present democracy in Nigeria is real. It is however, just a form of elite’ democracy, by a degenerate set of national elites for their visionless self. It has always been and except there is a thorough-going revolutionary transformation through struggle that will enthrone participatory-democracy, which will permeate up from the communities through the local governments and states to the federal organs of rule; it will always be so.

The greatest significance of June 12 for any Nigerian who seeks much more change than that between akara or moi moi and beans is that it demonstrated how powerful the masses awakened for action can be. It however also shows just how dangerous faith in the likes of Abiola could be.

We can not change the past but some people doctor history in so many ways. The primary way is by creating myths of personages and events at critical junctures in a society’s history. When doctoring gives us pictures so transformed by plastic surgery that distorts where we are coming from, it becomes more difficult for us to appreciate and learn from that past as we march into a beckoning future.

MKO Abiola was a Saul that never became a Paul. Not even in the dungeons or at the hour of death. June 12 was the beginning and just like October 1, to the earlier deeper beginnings than June 12, May 29 was its climax. June 12 does have the import of those votes of over 14 million Nigerians and should be thus respected. Neither day represents our sought for democracy day. We might have a democracy, but it is not the sort of democracy we seek. It is also not a sort of democracy that the neoliberal policies which Abiola was not given the chance to practice and which Obasanjo put into motion, that we seek. A new democracy day different from October 1, still awaits our finding it and fanning its flames in the future.

We must look beyond the myth of a June 12 held so closely to the chest with nostalgia by project-pursuing NGO chieftains who try to bamboozle us each year with the mythology of June 12, Abiola and sundry tales by moonlight.

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