Human rights activist and lawyer, Ms Ayo Obe, as the then president of Nigeria’s foremost civil society group, the Civil Liberties Organisation, CLO, was in the thick of the struggle for the actualization of the June 12, 1993 presidential election won by the late Chief MKO Abiola. In this chat, she shares her reflections on the election 25 years after it was annulled and how the lessons from that episode can count in future polls.
What are your reflections on the June 12, 1993 presidential election 25 years after?
Twenty-five years after June 12, Nigeria is far behind where it would have been had that election not been annulled by the General Ibrahim Babangida dictatorship. Had the June 12 election not been annulled we would have had much more to show for our 20 years of civil rule than we have right now. In other words, we lost far more than the six years of ‘contraption’ (as the High Court of Lagos State dubbed Shonekan’s Interim National Government) and military dictatorship. That is because by the time we returned to civil rule in May 1999, we had missed that “tide in the affairs of men which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune”, so it is not surprising that much of our journey under civil rule has been “bound in shallows and miseries.” Ayo Obe Though there was much to deplore – and even ridicule – in Babangida’s rigid two- party system of National Republican Convention (a little to the right) and Social Democratic Party (a little to the left), it provided a short cut to what had been undergoing a more natural evolution when the military seized power on December 31, 1983. While those on the right knew they had to hang together or they might hang separately, those on the left were always splintered into many different political parties, with the result that the forces of reaction tended to win elections. But when there was only the SDP to go to, the natural majority that they commanded among voters resulted in a national victory for the progressives. Unfortunately, not only were progressives prevented from realising that victory, in my view the annulment polluted Nigerian politics in a way that we still suffer from today. The message conveyed by the attempt to replace the winner of the June 12 election, MKO Abiola, with Ernest Shonekan and later, Olusegun Obasanjo, was –not that this was a mandate given by the Nigerian people – but that this was a mandate given to the Yoruba, and even more specifically, to the Egba. Thus what had been a nationwide rejection of identity politics was downgraded to the ethno-religious identity prism through which all our politics continues to be refracted and splintered.
Did we learn and apply lessons of June 12 in subsequent polls?
As to our politics, we did not learn or apply the lessons of June 12. Progressives are now scattered while reactionaries have made it their business to infiltrate any and every party that looks as though it can win, irrespective of ideology! Political parties are unabashed about their “all comers welcome” stance: and disagreements or political battles are rarely based on anything other than personal interest and advantage. The result has been that the “they are all the same” chorus grows louder, while the disenchantment of the electorate has increased. As to electoral process, we applied some of the lessons of the actual June 12 election to the 1999, 2011 and 2015 polls, but not in the 2003 or 2007 polls, which the latter was so evidently fraudulent that the ‘winner’, late Umaru Yar’Adua, had to undertake electoral reform to douse the tension. In 2011 and 2015, the Independent National Electoral Commission recognised that as long as the voters register remains plagued with irregularities and fraud, the procedure where the whole country uses just one specific hour for voting was the best way of restricting multiple voting, so the elections were more credible.
How can we make June 12 count in our elections and electoral system as we hold the 2019 polls?
The prior accreditation and single hour voting system is by no means foolproof: its limitations have been exposed in regard to underage voting, and unfortunately the response of INEC has been to take refuge in denial, rather than devise concrete measures to deal with the issue. Nor is it a complete guard against outright usurpation where the result sheets are completed with little or no regard to the actual votes cast. We need much more transparency and openness from INEC. It must publish a complete map of polling stations which allows everyone and anyone to see where polling stations are, and check results from any individual polling station, thereby testing the integrity of the system. As we approach 2019, complacency from INEC will not be good enough. Remaining in denial when legitimate concerns are raised undermines confidence in the system, and that once that happens, the prospects of a disputed result and election-related violence increases. What is the way forward for the country? We have to stay the course. Nigerians have now had the experience of voting out an incumbent from the centre, and that was a valuable lesson about the power of voters. Democracy offers us a chance to change those who are not doing well enough and replace them with people whom we think can do better. But we should stop dismissing democracy because it has not delivered everything everybody wants in one go: even in rich countries where everybody is taken care of, voters get dissatisfied with the government they elected and vote them out and vote another party in.
What is your advice to Nigerians ahead the 2019 elections?
To think for themselves, and make their own decisions based on what they perceive to be their own interests, and take responsibility for their choices. If they really think that ethnicity or religion is what will improve their lives, let them vote on that basis, but others are entitled to look for something more tangible than ultimately meaningless identity factors. People should feel free to support and campaign for the candidate they like, and they don’t owe those who won’t think for themselves any apology. On President Muhammadu Buhari’s declaration of June 12 as Democracy Day in place of May 29 I think this is a good – and indeed, long overdue – decision. Yes, May 29 was the day Nigeria returned to civilian rule after years of military dictatorship, but despite former President Obasanjo’s recognition that “democracy is a process, not an event”, his designating May 29 as Democracy Day had something of a “We have now arrived at democracy because I have been sworn in as elected President” feel to it. Changing Democracy Day to June 12 reminds us that achieving democracy is a struggle, and that – as we say – aluta continua!