Thousands of Nigerians sacrificed their lives to fight for the restoration of democracy.
The June 12, 1993 presidential election won by the late Chief Moshood Kashimawo Olawale Abiola has become a watershed in Nigeria’s political history. It was an election that has been adjudged to be the freest and fairest ever conducted in the country. It was one that broke barriers, as Nigerians, without giving a hoot about ethnicity, religion or language voted overwhelmingly for Abiola to end the protracted, despotic and overbearing military rule. This was why there was so much anger when the election was annulled, the military continued to be in power and the presumed winner jailed for trying to claim his mandate
At last, through the selfless struggle of pro-democracy activists, who were up in arms against the dictatorial regime of the late General Sani Abacha, June 12 has become a national public holiday. Abacha had the ambition to perpetuate himself in power. The move to make June 12 as official ‘Democracy Day’ started on June 6, 2018, when the President Muhammadu Buhari-led Federal Government declared June 12 to be the new Democracy Day. Hitherto, May 29, the day the military handed over power to an elected civilian government in 1999, had been celebrated as ‘Democracy Day’. After this was given a legislative backing by the National Assembly, President Buhari on Monday, June 10, 2019, signed the new Public Holidays Act (Amendment) Bill 2019 into law.
This development is a symbolic victory for democracy. It is an acknowledgement the 1993 election won by the late Abiola on the platform of the defunct Social Democratic Party (SDP) was the day the country voted to end military rule. Aside from declaring June 12 as Democracy Day to replace May 29, Buhari who took his political opponents by surprise also honoured the late Abiola with the highest National Honour, the Grand Commander of the Federal Republic (G.C.F.R.), which is reserved only for Heads of State.
Over the years, the roles played by pro-democracy activists who fought for the revalidation of June 12 have been recognized. Such activists include the late Pa Anthony Enahoro, the late Pa Adekunle Ajasin, the late Senator Abraham Adesanya, Lieutenant Alani Akinrinade (rtd), Chief Olu Falae, irrepressible Lagos lawyer, the late Chief Gani Fawehinmi, the founder of the Oodua Peoples Congress (OPC), the late Dr Fredrick Fasehun and Frank Kokori, formerly of the National Union of Petroleum and Gas Workers of Nigeria (NUPEND) who was able to tighten the noose on the military through a paralyzing strike in the oil sector. The sacrifices made by the Kudirat Abiola, Chukwuemeka Ezeife, Olisa Agbakoba, Ayo Obe, Chidi Odinkalu, Abdul Oroh, Joe Okei Odumakin, the late Pa Alfred Rewane, the late Air Commodore Dan Suleiman, Wole Soyinka and many others have also been acknowledged.
But, a thousand others who sacrificed their lives to fight for the restoration of democracy still largely remain unsung. These are the unsung heroes of democracy; Nigerians know little or nothing about them. Many of them are only mentioned in passing and hardly celebrated as heroes of democracy. Among them are:
The Nigerian press faced its most turbulent years to date between 1993 and 1998, a span that has been described as the darkest period of its 160-year history. This was the period during which the military annulled the June 12 election and sought to perpetuate itself, a development that precipitated a political crisis that brought Nigeria close to another civil war. The battle of June 12 was also fought in the media by newspaper editors and reporters. Bagauda Kaltho was one of the journalists who fought for democracy through their pen; he sacrificed his life for democracy. Kaltho, who worked for The News and TEMPO magazines, was kidnapped and killed, because of his writings that were completely at odds with the military administration of Sani Abacha. Photos of the writer are hard to come by, as reporters of that era speak through their pen, rather than in photos or videos. Kaltho was cut short in his prime by those who were trying to protect their dirty secrets.
He was kidnapped and murdered. He made the ultimate sacrifice. He was killed by a bomb. The press centre at Alausa, seat of Lagos State Government was named after him by former Governor Bola Tinubu, one of those who never forgot June 12.
Born on March 22 1963, Chima Ubani was the son of a Seventh Day Adventist pastor. Ubani, executive director of the Civil Liberties Organization (CLO), was killed in a terrible car accident on his way from a protest rally organized by Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) in Yola, Adamawa State on September 21 2005. He was 42 and is survived by his wife, Ochuwa, and four children.
He studied Crop Science at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka in 1988, and took an MA in Mass Communication at Leicester University, in the United Kingdom (UK) in 2002. He joined CLO in Lagos as a researcher in 1990 after completing national service.
Ubani came into the limelight in 1993, when General Ibrahim Babangida’s military regime annulled June 12. He helped to bring various human right organisations together under one umbrella group, the Campaign for Democracy (CD). He also joined the campaign against oil companies in the Niger Delta, supporting such activists as the writer Ken Saro-Wiwa, who was executed in 1995.
Ubani’s activities made him a thorn in the flesh of the military. In February 1994, his house and office were raided by security agents, and a report on women and children in Nigerian prisons which he had co-authored was confiscated. He went on the run but was arrested and imprisoned in 1995, after which his case was taken up by Amnesty International.
The following year, he was released and came to Britain for medical treatment, before returning to Nigeria. After the death of Abacha in 1998, Ubani worked to ensure a return to civilian rule. But he refused to accept the election of Olusegun Obasanjo in 1999 as a genuine return to democracy, and lampooned what he saw as a corrupt government which disregarded human rights.
In July 2000, in a case he brought against the Nigerian police, he was instrumental in the abrogation of a decree that allowed state security agents to detain people indefinitely. He also campaigned against extra-judicial killings by the Nigerian police and the use of capital punishment. At the time of his death, he was campaigning against arbitrary increases in the price of fuel.
Ubani began his activism as a student at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, where he was student union president from 1987 to 1988 and was expelled for leading protests against the Babangida regime.
Alhaja Suliat Adedeji, an Ibadan based business tycoon and a political amazon was killed in her residence in Ibadan on November 14, 1996. She is one of the thousands of Nigerians that were silenced during the struggle for the revalidation of June 12. On Thursday, November 14, 1996, five men drove into her Kobomoje, Iyaganku, Ibadan residence and pumped hot lead into her.
Dr. Shola Omoshola, the then Chief Security Officer of the Murtala Mohammed International Airport was blown up by Abacha goons through a bomb package at the Murtala Muhammed Airport link road in Ikeja for refusing to target NADECO activists.
The late Chief Alao Aka-Basorun, a former President of the Nigeria Bar Association, was one of the pioneers of legal activism. Fondly referred to as ‘The Lion of the Bar,’ he was said to be one of the earliest proponents of national conference and restructuring of Nigeria’s federation.
Aka-Bashorun was one of those who challenged successive military regimes in the country. He was one of the leading lawyers who defended Abiola during his “treason” trial, the aftermath of his ‘Epetedo Declaration.’
There are reports that shortly after Kudirat Abiola’s assassination, Aka- Basorun suffered a memory failure and April 1997, his health degenerated to a point where he could not even remember the names of his junior partners who appeared with him in courts.
In an interview with Sunday Punch, the founding Secretary-General of NADECO, Mr. Ayo Opadokun had described how Kudirat was killed and how it allegedly led to Aka-Basorun’s death. He said, “What the Abacha murderers had done; the way they terminated the life of that distinguished, beautiful lady, Alhaja Kudirat Abiola, was unimaginable. I tell you, one of our most important and credible leaders, when he saw her remains, never lived long thereafter.
“This elderly, senior colleague – my confidant – was totally out of himself when I saw him on his return from a medical trip abroad. He never survived it. I am talking of Chief Alao Aka-Basorun. He didn’t recover from it. When I came out of prison, because I was there when Kudirat was killed, he was already abroad receiving medication.”
The story of June 12 will not be complete without the mention of Prof. Humphrey Nwosu. A professor of Political Science at the University of Nigeria, Nssuka, Nwosu led the team that conducted the freest and fairest election in Nigeria, as the chairman of the National Electoral Commission (NEC).
Nwosu introduced the novel Option A4 voting system and the Open ballot system.
He had released many of the election results when he was ordered to stop further announcement by the military regime. He withstood every threat and pressure to truncate the election and continued to maintain that Chief MKO Abiola won the election.
Many Nigerians believe Nwosu would have written his name in gold if he had dared the consequence of protecting the will of the masses against the interest of the maximum ruler. Several pro-democracy activists were killed, incarcerated or exiled in the aftermath of Nwosu’s inaction.
But, Abubakar Umar said rather than vilify Nwosu, he and the commission he headed deserved the commendation of all Nigerians for conducting the freest election in Nigeria. According to him, rather than blaming the Prof. Humphrey Nwosu-led National Electoral Commission for the annulment of the election, the military authorities at that time actually committed the heinous act.
Bamidele Aturu, a lawyer and human rights activist, was a thorn in the flesh of the military establishment that was on the verge of running the country aground in the years of military dictatorship.
He was born on October 16, 1964, in Ogbagi Ondo State. He studied Physics at Adeyemi College of Education in Ondo State, but proceeded to Obafemi Awolowo University in 1989, to study Law. He graduated with LL.B in 1994. He was called to the Bar in 1995, after attending the Nigerian Law School. He also has a master’s degree in law (LL.M) from the prestigious, the University of Lagos in 1996.
He was committed to representing oppressed individuals and groups. He was the author of several law books, including A Handbook of Nigerian Labour Laws, Nigerian Labour Laws, Elections and the Law. He turned down his nomination, as a representative of the civil society prior to the 2014 National Conference, on the grounds that the conference would not meet the expectations of Nigerians. He died in Lagos in July 2014, and was buried in his hometown, Ogbagi Akoko, Ondo State Nigeria.
Comrade Ola Oni died on December 22, 1999, over 20 years ago at the University College Hospital (UCH), Ibadan. He was an extremely busy human rights activist. He died after returning from a meeting of the defunct Alliance for Democracy (AD) in Lagos.
He suddenly fell ill the very day he came back from Lagos. Under strange circumstances, he passed away unexpectedly.
The anti-military and pro-democracy activist hails from Ekiti State. But he was based in Ibadan, the Oyo State capital.