The mention of June 12 brings back memories of catchy campaign songs, long voting queues, street protests, teargas and dashed hopes. But the enduring image of that date is that of late Moshood Kashimawo Olawale Abiola, the undeclared winner of the election conducted on that day in 1993.
Till date, the June 12 1993 presidential election, which was annulled by the military government of that time, is still adjudged the freest and fairest in the history of Nigeria. In his book, The President Who Never Ruled, son of the legendary MKO, Jamiu Abiola, a polyglot and linguist, chronicles the early life and upbringing of his father.
Part One starts with the birth of MKO Abiola in 1937 into a polygamous family of modest means in Abeokuta, Ogun State, touching on a bit of his mother’s desire to see him live long unlike her previous births. The book is also quick to note Abiola’s determination from a young age; despite being exceptionally brilliant in school, to help augment his family’s finances by joining his father in trading cocoa produce. Combining school with work from a very early age helped to shape his future as the keen eye for business stayed with Abiola all his life. He was managing director of ITT Nigeria, a subsidiary of the then largest telecommunications company in the world.
Spurred by his philanthropy and desire to see poverty eradicated in Nigeria, Abiola decided to throw his hat in the ring and contest the 1993 elections under the transition programme set up by his ‘friend’ and military leader, General Ibrahim Babangida.
Despite the intrigues of the primaries and misgivings about the sincerity of the military rulers to handover power, MKO, as he became known during the campaign, emerged as his party’s candidate. In the coming elections too, Abiola was to prove victorious. Or so everyone thought.
The military annulled the elections with flimsy excuses, dissolved its own government, handed over to an interim leadership and retook power; all in the space of six months. And so began the struggle by the acclaimed winner to regain his mandate.
Even though numerous literature already exist on the annulment, self-declaration and consequent arrest and detention of MKO Abiola, it is refreshing to see the story being told from a new viewpoint. While the nation mourned and protested the loss of the elections and eventually the loss of the winner to a ‘heart attack’ in detention, the incident represented a deeper and more painful loss for his son and by extension, his family, to whom he was more than just a presidential candidate. He was a loving father, husband, benefactor and friend.
The fight to reclaim his mandate was not just one for personal glory or benefit for Abiola, but was rather borne out of a lifelong desire for justice and the right to never give up on your dreams, no matter how lofty.
The book acknowledges the tireless efforts of Kudirat, Abiola’s second wife, in helping her husband secure his mandate. After MKO was arrested, she became the spearhead of the campaign, granting press conferences and interviews, petitioning foreign governments and applying pressure on the government at home. Her assassination by the military government was a backhanded recognition of the impact her campaign was having on the resolve of the dictatorship.
The Abiola family might have lost their patriarch in the struggle for making Nigeria a better place, but as events have shown over the years, the nation is ultimately the bigger loser when the story of the president who never ruled is told.