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.
But at the end of the day, in order to be called the Nigerian president, you must confront the obstacle, which was the military. You want to go somewhere and say you are the Nigerian president but the military is controlling the presidency. At a point in time, there must be that confrontation. So, the confrontation took place but unfortunately, we were unable to overcome the force of the military. We were imprisoned, beaten up and our passports were seized and so it was easy to break our bond. It is much like when Nelson Mandela was arrested. He knew that he would be arrested and made to face trial and that the likely consequences of the trial would be a long jail term. Of course, he knew all these. So, we knew too. I remember when I was on hunger strike at the State Security Service office. One of the officers said ‘old boy, just eat your food o, don’t come and die here. You can prove that you are on hunger strike, but just eat your food because it is early for you to die’. I said okay, I asked him, ‘For how long do you think that we are likely to be here?’ He said, ‘Are you not the ones that went to fight Abacha? You are the ones now. So therefore, the answer would be indefinitely.’ Somebody called me recently to say you know you were very lucky because if Abacha had not died and had continued his design to be president for life, like some African presidents, you would have died in Enugu prison. But did I know the risks I was facing? Of course I knew the risks. I knew the challenge that I was facing but I decided on my own free will. Nobody forced me to do what I did. Or did you force me? (laughs).
For how long were you on hunger strike?
You didn’t eat at all?
I ate now, but initially I didn’t. I ate pepper soup, and I ate very well. He said you can eat and say you are on hunger strike. Who would know? And that was exactly what I did.
Was there any time you had a close shave with death?
I have high blood pressure and having that condition in prison is difficult to control, so I was very ill. I confronted death. Luckily, for me, after a while, it calmed down but initially it was very serious and clearly I was headed to my death.
Did you think you would die?
No, I don’t brace myself. Whatever comes has come. For instance, concerning the five million-man march at Yaba, Abacha had asked Mohammed Buba Marwa, who was Governor of Lagos, what was happening in Lagos. He had asked, ‘What is all this noise they are making?’ He told Marwa to go and take charge. So Marwa came to Lagos on March 27, 1998. He came out of the plane and told journalists that he had drawn a line in the sand and he dared the civil rights people to cross it the following day. We had distributed hand bills to announce that there would be massive national protests. So I replied him and said we would cross the line, we would be there at 2pm in Yaba and would cross the line. We crossed the line at exactly 2pm. Tsav Abubakar was the commissioner of police, Lagos State and there were about 50 armoured tanks with soldiers and police firing tear gas. Of course, with that type of condition, we were easily overwhelmed. Do you remember Peugeot 504 station wagon? Ten of us were put in the boot of a 504 station wagon. But one kind police officer came and said no, this is wickedness, so he opened the boot. Had we stayed there for another five to 10 minutes, some of us would have choked and died. There were many of such experiences but those were the two I remember.
We have heard various versions of the story but in your view, why was that election annulled? What was the military afraid of?
Do you know what power does? It intoxicates. The simple reason is that the military didn’t want to leave power because they were enjoying the pecks of the office and the money involved; it was too sweet. That is all. You can see what is happening in North Korea. But of course, if Nigerians had been silent, Babangida would have remained in power perpetually. If you look at some African countries, some of their leaders have been there for 40 to 50 years. It is only when people rise against it that you can stop tyranny. Babangida was interested in looking for a way to stay in power but he was also forced to deal with the human rights and pro-democracy communities. If you look at the transition train, he would create like 16 parties and in another few months, he would ban all of them. The power was too sweet. That was why they kept finding ways to keep shifting the transition to civil democratic rule until they started to confuse themselves. The place became completely riotous and the civil and human rights community had also created a lot of tension and by August 26, 1993, Babangida was forced to step aside. He banned the late Olusola Saraki; it got to a point where he got confused quite frankly. But eventually, there was enough pressure from inside and outside to push him out and if you watch his broadcast, you would realise that he was not ready to leave. That was why he used the words- stepping aside. It is like stepping aside for the time being, to give it to Abacha and allow things to cool down before coming back. So his plan with Abacha was to pretend to give to Shonekan and then Abacha would seize power again and pretend to return it to Abiola. Here is where we differed from Abiola; we told him it was a trap because there was no way Abacha would give him power. He didn’t listen to us; rather, he listened to greedy politicians – people like Ebenezer Babatope and co. They packed the cabinet for Abacha because Abacha had told Abiola to bring him some cabinet ministers, so, many of the ministers were nominated by Abiola. I don’t understand why he didn’t see this as a trap.
How was it a trap?
Because Abacha didn’t intend to relinquish power. Abacha had been eying power since the 1980s but he allowed himself to be the fool, so people thought he was a dull man. But he was a very intelligent man. What he did was to hang in as a mole from one government to the other; he kept moving and Babangida thought he was loyal and he allowed him to become the head of state. And that was it; once he became the head of state, he crushed everything. But the plan was to return power to Babangida. That was why Babangida stepped aside; he had planned to reclaim it from Abacha. They had planned it, but Abacha played him because when he became the head of state, he retired all of Babangida’s boys. He reshuffled the military too and strengthened his own hands.
What will you say about Abiola’s running mate, Alhaji Babagana Kingibe, who was said to have abandoned the mandate even when Abiola was still alive?
He is a traitor; he is a big time traitor. I warned Abiola. Abiola didn’t listen to us, that was the problem. If he had listened to us, he would have been the president. We said this guy, we were not sure about him o. But Abiola is also at fault because he was so driven to become president that he lost sight of some very fundamental points. Then, he made a mistake of not following the advice of the pro-democracy community, Rather, he was listening to the politicians who wanted to be ministers. That was all they wanted. So having failed to follow advice, he very quickly fell into many errors, the first being that he now kowtowed to Abacha. There was a very nasty picture of him stretching across the chair to Abacha when Abacha was talking to him. It was very-very degrading to the point where he was not able to see that the northern emirs would not support him. He kept saying oh, they are my friends, I know them very well. And in my presence, he phoned Babangida, they put him on hold. He was shocked. He didn’t get to speak to Babangida. It was Kudirat who had a great sense of decency; Abiola was a bit a too ambitious in wanting to become president. He went to Aso Rock to meet with Babangida in the course of which Babangida’s wife and Kudirat started fighting. It led to a fight. Babangida and other people had to rush out to separate them. My point is that Abiola really failed to see some of the pitfalls. I had meetings with Kingibe to say ‘don’t you think that being appointed foreign minister under Abacha’s government when the mandate was still alive and being pushed for, betrayed the mandate?’ He tried to justify it by saying it was Abiola who caused it. He said Abiola was not communicating with him, strategy, what to do, blah blah blah. So (he) said okay, ‘if Abiola himself has virtually rubbished the mandate, then why would he be fighting for it?’ Those are the circumstances under which he took the appointment. I said ‘I don’t think anything justifies it, I think you should have stood by the mandate notwithstanding what Abiola did. But you see, the irony today is that he is benefitting from something he did not fight for even for one day. That is the irony of life. He didn’t fight for it for one day, but well, he is entitled since he was Abiola’s running mate.
If you had your way, would you say he shouldn’t have been given any national honour?
Yes, I would say he should not have been given because he didn’t believe in June 12 and why would I give somebody who didn’t believe in June 12 an honour? For me, it is an irony. He is hypocritical.
Some people believe that Abacha was part of the plan to annul the election all along because there was a time when Babangida said he was not the only one to blame and that there were others involved. Who were those other persons?
Yes, the David Mark and company now – the cabal. When you plan a coup, you must have supporters. So all these supporters, as I told you, didn’t want civilians to come. And in all honesty, there were those who absolutely disliked Abiola in the military because they saw him as an opportunist. Don’t forget that Abiola was friends with a lot of people in the military hierarchy. That is why Fela Anikulapo Kuti sang International Thief Thief, referring to Abiola, of course, that he was sharing money with the military. And that was why the human rights community did not accept Abiola at all until the elections were annulled. That was when we swung on his side but before that, we didn’t. So this cabal persuaded Babangida to announce the annulment, even though I personally feel, though I’m not sure, that Babangida had a different view of Abiola because Abiola was his friend. At the end of the day, you stand by principles. So, I don’t care if Babangida is saying oh, they forced me, Abacha pushed me to this, no, it is not acceptable, he made the declaration. When he made the broadcast, it was clear that he was trying to exonerate himself but as I said, the buck stopped at his table. He was the leader and was accountable for any decision taken, so he cannot tell us sorry, the decision was taken by others and I merely announced it. No, that is not acceptable. He was primarily responsible for that decision.
There were also insinuations that the United States government knew about the death of Abiola and Abacha, even though it remains a rumour till date. Did you hear anything of such at that time too?
I heard the rumour too but it has not been substantiated till this moment, so it remains a rumour. A delegation came when the international community tried to make intervention in Nigeria. We had many delegations – from the United Nations, the United Kingdom and so on. But the one that was instructive was the US delegation led by Ambassador Thomas Pickering. He had been a US ambassador to Nigeria and had gone back to the Foreign Affairs Ministry in the US and there was a rising Foreign Affairs Adviser at that time called Susan Rice. She later became US ambassador to the UN under President Barack Obama. They led the delegation that came and met with Abiola. And what we know is that Abiola requested to have a cup of tea but the rest is rumour-filled, that they gave him the tea and that they brought poison and put in the tea but I cannot say whether it is true. They say the same about Abacha; that he was given poisoned apple by some Indian girls, but I cannot also say whether this is true but the story was very strong at that time.
Some people see Abdusalami Abubakar as a hero for making the transition possible in a short time but some also do not yet understand why Abdusalam Abubakar, the then head of state, failed to release Abiola and then under his watch MKO died under unclear circumstances. What do you think?
We don’t see him as a hero because under him many things went wrong, but also, he had the capacity to stay for six to seven years easily. My point is that whether we like it or not, he had the chance to stay in power for long, but he decided to have a short one, so we can say that even though he could have done a number of things which he did not do, we have to recognise what he did. It is just like we recognise that President Muhammadu Buhari, who did not support June 12, declared it as Democracy Day. So, we have to give him credit for doing it.
Since Abubakar was really determined to hand over power to civilian regime, would you know why he didn’t just hand over to Abiola who was elected already?
Because he was held back by a cabal and there was no way he (Abubakar) could have become head of state if he had not signed on to the collective agreement. And the agreement is often not of the head of state alone. It runs deep into the military psyche. They knew what they wanted and didn’t want Abiola. Some, like David Mark, didn’t want him for reasons that we don’t know but many of them were just interested in ensuring that they didn’t have somebody who could come and scatter everything and expose all the things that they had been doing. They would like somebody that would not go out of control and Abiola did not fit that profile because he had money.
Could Abiola’s humongous wealth have been one of the things that scared them?
Yes, absolutely, that is it. You got it. He was independent and they knew that he was a man they couldn’t control. Therefore they didn’t want him.
One other thing about the June 12 episode was the death of Kudirat Abiola. How did you receive news of her death?
I was in court when I heard that Kudirat had been killed. I was in disbelief and shock. There were no telephones and no social media, so there was no way to verify the information. I found my way to get to her house to find out and then I found that it was true. She was just a wife unsettled by what the husband was going through and saying things that a wife would normally say. So, I don’t understand why she was killed. It was not that she had guns or the capacity to overthrow the regime. So, I didn’t understand. I can understand putting Abiola in prison because he wanted to be the president but for Kudirat, I don’t know what the motive was.
After Buhari’s declaration of June 12 as Democracy Day, do you align with the thought that the result of that election should be released?
Having recognised June 12 and given Abiola an award, I don’t think anything stops them from releasing the results, if the President believes the atmosphere is good enough for it. If he has already apologised on the behalf of the government of Nigeria for the way Abiola was treated, then it should be easy to say to INEC if he thinks the results should be released. He cannot direct INEC to do that, because it’s an independent body, but he can encourage it. I also think that beyond the June 12 declaration, the President should go ahead to unravel all the mysteries surrounding that episode. Nigerians need to know, because people lost their loved ones. There is nothing stopping the Buhari-led government from investigating and exposing all that transpired, beyond the declaration.
Do you think they would want to do that?
That’s a very good question, but they may not want to do that and I see no reason why. Buhari may not necessarily have wanted to honour Abiola, but it is good for our national healing process. Government should release the recommendations of the Justice Chukwudifu Oputa-led panel – the reconciliation report – so that we can deal with our national grievances. There was the Movement for the Actualisation of the Sovereign State of Biafra issue, killing of Ken Saro-Wiwa, and so on. All these grievances in Nigeria, they need to be carefully resolved so that we can carefully bury our national grievances and then move on.