Inside #June12: Abiola A Sort Of Villain Who Became A Hero – FINAL PART (LONG READ)

👤 By Demola Olarewaju @DemolaRewaju

In February, Obasanjo delivered one of his now famous State of the Nation addresses in which he lambasted Abacha publicly – these things are on record, but the SW political establishment monopolised the June 12 struggle consequently – NADECO wasn’t even formed until May of 1994.

Obasanjo compared Abacha to one member of a group that had decided to help a blind man cook soup only to return to the blind man’s house after all others had left and steal the pot of soup.

Again, this is an address that was delivered publicly like he did to GEJ and Buhari.

The tussle continued – Yoruba leaders called on Awoists Ebenezer Babatope and Lateef Jakande as well as Abiola’s Lawyer whom he had nominated into the Abacha regime – Olu Onagoruwa, to resign but the men refused and stayed on as Ministers.

Abiola at this time was moving freely.

About a year after June 12, 1993, Abiola suddenly surfaced in Epetedo, surrounded by core Yoruba leaders and declared himself President and Commander in Chief of the Federal Republic of Nigeria in what is now known as the Epetedo Declaration, based on his June 12 mandate.

This was a heroic act, full of courage but badly planned: his nationwide and political support base had been badly undercut and he had unwittingly restricted himself to the SW.

Soon after this declaration, he flew out of Nigeria but again heroically, he returned.

Upon return, Abiola was promptly arrested by the Abacha regime for treason.

Abiola’s arrest on June 23, 1993 was followed with further outrage as NUPENG and PENGASSAN went on strike, followed swiftly by the NLC.

Street protests and the usual crackdown from the military also followed but it was mostly restricted to the SW and few other places down South.

Various court cases came up – one had Soyinka asking the courts to declare Abacha’s Regime illegal, another one applied for Abiola’s release and it may have come from some members of his family but Abiola was not represented and his lawyer, GOK Ajayi was not aware of it.

Abiola was granted bail in that case by Justice Abdullahi Mustapha who was brought in from Benin to Abuja to sit on the case on Thursday, August 5, 1993; but some the case was on the 7th, a Saturday.

The bail conditions forbade Abiola from holding any political discussion.

The case and the consequent bail was seen by some as Abacha’s gambit to get Abiola to abandon his mandate – Abiola was made aware of the bail conditions through his lawyer who hadn’t even been present for the case but he rejected the conditions and chose to stay in detention.

A minority think that he should have taken it but there again, you have Abiola’s unwavering courage on display – he chose to stay in detention rather than come out unable to discuss his political mandate with anyone.

Abacha meanwhile began to make plans for a new political order

To discuss Abacha’s regime would make this So Long A Thread even longer – so I’ll just chip in the bits that are incidental to the June 12 story and necessary to understand the context of the time and why players may have made the decisions they made.

Various human rights and pro-Democracy groups by this time had fully hijacked the June 12 struggle – an election which they had opposed at the time – and the hijack wasn’t ill-intentioned but it sidelined the politicians and many of them were consequently ‘blacklisted’.

The truth about Afenifere is that most of them were very much incapable of seeing political events in Nigeria apart from an ethnic perspective. To them, everything done against June 12 was done because Abiola, a Yoruba, won.

This wasn’t wicked on their part, just how they saw it

So the June 12 struggle became easily isolated to the SW, with a few radicals from all over the country also joining it as they had all along being calling for the military to exit power.

From the SE, you had Ralph Obioha, Zik’s cousin Bobo Nwosisi, Rtd. Admiral Ndubuisi Kanu.

Ebitu Ukiwe was also there, (not sure he was SE or not though but crosscheck) and you had Arthur Nwankwo who was very frontal with the matter and formed the Eastern Mandate Union – very great man with a calm but fiercely resolute disposition, an absolute rock of a man – solid.

From the North you had the likes of Balarabe Musa who was arrested a few times, Abubakar Umar, Shehu Sani, Gambo Sawaba – a woman whose opposition to the military was from a point of opposition to any Govt that was high-handed in how it treated citizens.

From the SS, you had:

Anthony Enahoro and particularly Alfred Rewane – a dogged Awolowo acolyte and financier who hosted many meetings of the National Democratic Coalition.

A small digression to handle the various acronyms that came up at the time from civil society and various groups:

The history of activism in Nigeria started with the various professional unions such as the NUT, ASUU, NUPENG, NLC, PENGASSAN and co.

It wasn’t until the IBB regime that independent or non-professional union groups started to come up, especially with Beko Ransome-Kuti’s arrest.

Beko has become ‘radicalised’ with a professional union himself – as head of the NMA branch in Lagos. CLO was formed first in 1985 with Olisa Agbakoba heading it before CDHR came on board in 1988 with Femi Aborishade.

On these ones, those who were insiders will know more.

The Constitutional Rights Project broke away from the CLO over claims that some people were receiving Int’l funding but failing to declare it to the group – anyway, factions kept on coming up and mutating really quickly, almost all activists headed their own groups.

This was in the late 80s through the early 90s.

So by the time Abacha took over power, many civil rights groups were active and virulent and Abacha tried to put them down with very brutal methods of arrest, random shootings and outright assassinations.

To aid understanding, let’s divide the opposition to Abacha persons into three really broad groups:

First you had the core activist groups which were pro-Democracy, anti-military, pro-human/civil rights but not necessarily pro-Abiola except that June 12 was now their major issue

Second group would have the pro-Yoruba groups who were pro-Abiola only because he was Yoruba, anti-military because they wanted the military to leave and Abiola to be installed as President.

Third, you had politicians who had hoped to get into office but were now confused.

A fourth group just came to mind: the likes of Arthur Nwankwo, Ebitu Ukiwe, Ndubuisi Kanu, Abubakar Umar, David Mark, Lawan Gwadabe – all except Nwankwo had been military men and wanted the military to leave and return to its traditional professional role in the barracks.

They of course granted interviews against Abacha which were seen as pro-democracy but they’d been part of the military system before.

To be fair though, their position made things difficult for Abacha and much of the looting info from the regime was got through them.

The human rights groups during the period included the Campaign for Democracy (CD), the Committee for the Defence of Human Rights (CDHR), the Civil Liberties Organisation (CLO), National Liberation Council of Nigeria (NALICON), the Democratic Alternative (DA)…

You also had: Constitutional Rights Project (CRP), the National Association of Lawyers for the Defense of Human Rights (NALDHR) etc.

At various points in the struggle, efforts were made to bring them all together under a single umbrella group but those too also had factions.

The two main umbrella groups I remember were the United Action for Democracy (UAD) and Joint Action Committee of Nigeria (JACON) led by Gani which emerged quite late in 96 or even 97.

Abroad, the umbrella group was the United Democratic Front of Nigeria (UDFN), I think.

Curiously, Gani declared the NCP as a political party in 1994 – whether he hoped to contest elections under Abacha, I doubt, but it’s still curious. Maybe @AbdulMahmud01 can clarify that later.

Anyway, Gani was dogged in the fight against the military and for Abiola’s release.

NADECO was a curious mix of the second group – politicians, as well as the first group of activists and it emerged as the most widely known platform of anti-Abacha and pro-Abiola elements. Ige was an arrowhead of this group and also was part of various physical struggles.

Abroad, it was also jumbled up: many ethnic associations joined the fight against Abacha and as long as you were Yoruba, you were automatically pro-Abiola.

Actually, many of those who went into exile all claimed to be NADECO-abroad but truth is: some were just lounging abroad.

It is said that some of those who had fled into exile, like your MCM with the bulging eyes were actually feeding info back to Abacha about the NADECO movement while making money from drug trades.

It is said, I wasn’t there, but those who were there swear by it and I’m inclined.

Abiola was in detention meanwhile and was only allowed two books to read: the Holy Quran and the Holy Bible.

He managed to write letters and I remember a particular one he wrote to Gani in which he started by addressing Gani as “my dearest Gani”.

Gani wept on TV reading it.

In that letter, Abiola immortalised himself by explaining lucidly why he had not acceded to the military demands that he should forgo the June 12 mandate – he chose to suffer detention rather than come out and it was in that isolation that Abiola died and resurrected a Democrat.

His thoughts were lucid and logical – evidence of a man who had spent a time within himself.

He quoted deeply from the Holy books and advanced democratic principles, chipping in his usual proverbs – that June 12 was a baby that had been born and could no longer be aborted.

To understand why the Yorubas deified Abiola, you’ll have to understand the Christian concept of trials and deaths.

To understand why the Yorubas cannot place Abiola on the same pedestal as Awolowo, you’ve got to understand the Christian concept of resurrection.

Awolowo went through trial and ‘death’ by detention but his vindication came eventually as Yorubas see it and his enemies were vanquished – this is why the Yoruba leaders celebrated the 1966 coup in which Akintola, Awo’s enemy died.

Abiola went through trial and death.

That Abiola did not come out of detention (death) but physically died in detention is seen as a human fault – his own mortal enemy Abacha, had suddenly died: so why wasn’t he glorified?

Some Yoruba ideologues say that it shows Abiola up as a sort of villain who became a hero.

The Christian links is not my invention meanwhile – it is a deeply researched issue in many Yoruba works.

But back to the story: the political class, bereft of direction with an Abiola/June 12 struggle that was now ethnic/ideological started to waver on what to do.

They had stopped hearing from Abiola even before he was detained, they had stopped knowing what he was planning and now in detention, it was total silence.

Abacha meanwhile was dangling the carrot of another transition programme before them and it looked really edible.

By 1997, some had started to make the argument that they were now free to move on because Abiola’s 1993 mandate was for four years and would have expired – a commonsensically nonsensical argument: the man had not even been President for one day!

Trust politicians though.

The June 12 struggle was a test of wills, principles, values and ideology. It was absolutely difficult to stand firm and I can sympathise with everyone who did not go as far as endorsing Abacha later on, even with those who served under Abacha but resigned.

For ideologues like Gani, it was an easy one: oppose the military, “boycott the boycottables” as Mazi Ojike would have said.

For one like Olu Onagoruwa though, it was a dilemma: Abiola had nominated him to serve Abacha, now he was being called a traitor, Abiola was in detention.

When the man eventually tried to leave Govt by resigning, his son was shot to death by assassins and the man was forced broken.

Gani though was unsympathetic but History should be kind to Onagoruwa without lowering the standard and importance of ideology and clearheadedness.

Pa Alfred Rewane, Suliat Adedeji, Admiral Elegbede, Kudirat Abiola and far too many others were killed by a top assassin squad of the regime as confessed to by Sgt. Barnabas Jabila aka Rogers who is now born again.

Alex Ibru was shot and consequently half-paralysed.

Pa Abraham Adesanya was also attacked but he survived the over 40 bullets shot at his vehicle at close range from various angles.

The Ijebu man got down and walked on his feet with his driver to his office afterwards.

The next day, the driver resigned and Papa wondered why

Papa is said to have told people that didn’t his driver know that as long as the egg remained in the belly of the chicken, nothing could ever crack the egg without first killing the chicken? Ijebu sha…


Anyway, the killings were very serious and dastardly at the time.

The crackdown was also brutal – Yoruba men were considered to be NADECO members and all Yoruba leaders were routinely harassed by military Governors.

Onyearugbulam is said to have gone into Pa Ajasin’s house in Owo and threatened Baba until the old man cried.

He got his though.

One death I would be loathe to miss in this recollection would be that of Shehu Musa Yar’Adua in detention. One quick detour to talk about him before we come to round this up and link it to modern day events.

SMY was a very great man of blue blood and much wisdom.

Shehu was a part of the Northern oligarchy and by the time he started to ascend in power, the reality of One-Nigeria dictated that the North should adjust to power-sharing and friendliness to other ethnicities and he was quite accommodating but surprisingly, no less pro-North.

His office as 2ic to Obasanjo in the late 70s was where Mamman Daura and Ibrahim Tahir started to learn, along with a few others. SMY himself was remarkably more brilliant than they in working as Fulani in a diverse nation, judging by what Daura has become today.

SMY did not hold back against Abacha like other Fulani leaders sometimes did – he had given his word to Abiola and he never wavered. In fact, when IBB annulled the June 12 election and lifted the ban for old politicians like SMY to come into the race, he didn’t take the bait.

Another person who was like that was Ibrahim Dasuki, Sultan of Sokoto – he opposed Abacha (some say for personal differences though) and supported Abiola’s mandate. His son, Sambo Dasuki had to flee from the country and the man himself was deposed as Sultan over this issue.

In the face of this, one then wonders why Abiola allowed the June 12 struggle to become an ethnic one – but let’s finish first before we analyse.

SMY was killed in detention – many accounts say he was injected with a deadly substance meant for him and OBJ but Ebora Owu resisted.

In the magic movie The Prestige, the script mentions “The Turn” as the moment of actual magic where The Promise begins fulfilment and finds expression as The Prestige of Magic.

In my mind, The Turn was in 1997 when 9 men decided to meet and align.

At this point, the Abacha transition was ongoing and five new parties (which Ige called “five fingers of a leprous hand”) were in play.

Old time politicians majorly abstained because they knew Abacha wasn’t ready to go but new politicians joined and started political activities

Suddenly, all the parties started adopting Abacha as presidential candidate – again, one of the very very few men, I think they were only two in fact, who resisted him in the political parties was M.D. Yusuf – then of the UNCP I think but it can be googled by interested readers.

As an aside: I always encourage readers to google so that you can study these things even more extensively than I can tweet and if you follow it, you can even research deeper as you click for further clarifications on some of these personalities.

Anyway, the moment it became clear that Abacha was planning to transmute into a civilian dictatorship that I imagine would have run the way Buhari is running his own now, more politicians started reaching out to form alliances across borders and resist Abacha totally.

So those 9 men met in Lagos under the chairmanship of Alex Ekwueme and the meeting had leaders like Bola Ige, Francis Ellah, Jerry Gana, Adamu Ciroma, Abubakar Rimi, Solomon Lar and Sule Lamido (I’ve forgotten the last person – google).

See why I love Ige? He was the only Yoruba

Ige more than any other Yoruba leaders of his time understood the essence of working cross-culturally and it’s a lesson I can never fail to imbibe.

Many of his associates in Afenifere could never understand this and felt he was a traitor for that reason but Ige was dogged.

According to Lamido himself, Ige at that meeting frontally accused the Northern leaders present of clandestinely working for Abacha – “why else had they kept quiet all along?”

Rimi of course was as caustic of tongue as Ige and he also countered back quite strongly.

Ekwueme and Lamido intervened and said since that was the opinion, the Northern leaders should go back to their homes and issue a statement condemning Abacha in totality.

This was done and a meeting of Northern Leaders G19, one from each state of the North was convened.

A statement was issued by the Group, condemning Abacha and this group thereafter resolved to integrate with the South, which states were also mandated to pick one representative from each meeting – 36 in total.

By a twist of fate, what should have been G36 however became G34.

On the day of the meeting, Rimi and Lamido, who were travelling together and representing Kano and Jigawa respectively, were arrested by Abacha goons. Rimi was sent to detention in Ilorin, Sule Lamido was sent to Maiduguri.

So G36 became G34 but had 36 members, 2 in detention.

As though the God of Nigeria’s Creation, referenced in the second stanza of the national anthem, was waiting for this show of unity and cross-cultural condemnation of Abacha, He seemingly intervened and Abacha died mysteriously – wild jubilation broke out in the SW mainly.

Abacha died on June 7, 1998 – I was sleeping in my room in my dad’s house when my homeboy @dboydayo_ rushed in and started smacking my back furiously.

I woke up angrily, ready to insult him but he shouted urgently “Abacha don die”.

I pulled on my cloths and we rushed outside.

The jubilation was mad: strangers hugging each other, explosive fireworks being thrown (in June o!, those ones they call ‘banger’ or ‘knockout’); car horns blaring – an air of freedom come – and in that moment, I understood Democracy.

We will do it again in 2019, insha Allah.

Curiously, rather than release Abiola, the new military regime headed by Abdulsalami Abubakar held on to him but allowed him better detention facilities and access to more visitors other than Ore Falomo, his personal doctor.

Calls for his release were ignored.

In a normal procedural country, Abiola should have been released to claim his mandate – but the military was still trying to get people to tell him to abandon the mandate and let a fresh political process start.

Abiola asked to first be released to consult with his associates.

Emeka Anyaoku of the Commonwealth and Kofi Annan of the UN who had been married to a Nigerian were brought in to negotiate with Abiola.

So isolated had the man been that he didn’t know the new UN SecGen and asked “what of the Egyptian?” Referring to Boutrous Boutrous-Ghali.

At another meeting on July 7, 1998, this time with American diplomats, Abiola suddenly slumped and died.

Some say he had tea with them and died, some say he suddenly felt hot and asked for a tea break then collapsed and died.

An autopsy revealed Cardiac Arrest as probable cause

Cardiac arrest is usually the ultimate cause of death anyway – your heart stops beating.

Anyway, some still believe Abiola was killed to resolve a political situation – I believe this too but I am too sure that anyone who was involved with his death will never speak up.

Uncle Bola’s column that Sunday was one whole page on which he wrote in big and bold letters, not many words:

MKO Abiola Dead???!!!!!


Oro p’esi je (which means a matter upon which it is too difficult to comment but one that demands a reaction nonetheless.)

Abiola died on a Tuesday and I think he was buried same day or the day after – his burial was a demystification ceremony for many whom the people felt had betrayed him.

Senator Anthony Adefuye (I remember vividly) was stripped of his clothes with only his underwear left.

Area boys and various NANS comrades declared “maximum shishi” on anybody even suspected to have been close to the military or not seen to have been active during the struggle.

Gani was in tears and I’m not sure he attended, Falana was the only one who could save anybody.

If Falana said “we don’t know this one” – slaps of all variations including ifoti (ears), ifomu (nose), ifoju (eyes), apama (to the belly) and oloyi (the headspinner) as well as kicks and headbutts followed.

If Falana said “ara wa ni!” – you could escape with a few slaps.

Interestingly, most of your MCMs who had returned from the abroad after Abacha died, stayed away from Abiola’s burial and visited only by night.

Many of them were accused of being traitors to the cause all along and even leaking secrets of NADECO-abroad to the regime.

With Abiola dead, the June 12 mandate died a natural death and the struggle also died but the struggle for democracy continued.

The conundrum however remained: to participate in Abubakar’s transition or not?

Gani and JACON which he led, insisted on total abstention from it.

Gani demanded that a Govt of National Unity should First be put in place to convene a Sovereign National Conference that would write a new constitution, on the basis of which a new political order would begin. (I know @ayosogunro would have agreed).

Ige and others were pragmatic

The thought of the Iges at the time was that the military should just be allowed to exit power by all means and so they decided to participate but they wanted the exclusion of those who had participated in either the Abacha Govt or even in his transition programme.

G34 was first to seek provisional registration with the glorious name Peoples Democratic Party.

Abacha politicians – rejected in many places soon swamped into the All Peoples Party aka Abacha Peoples Party.

Ige and co joined both initially but soon formed Alliance for Democracy

Unfortunately for Afenifere, it was impossible to ward off those who had participated in the Abacha transition programme but hadn’t served under Abacha so the likes of Omisore, Funsho Williams, Obanikoro and co had to be allowed to join the AD because they had active structures.

AD was restricted to the SW, APP had some following in the core North and the SE but PDP was the only truly national political formation at the time, as it is now.

Some powermongers were so stained by association with Abacha though that they were avoided – e.g. Your MCM Abuja.

The June 12 spirit and the travails and death of Abiola however saw the Fourth Republic start on a note of solidarity with the SW – all parties presented an SW candidate but Obasanjo’s emergence ruined the democratic vigour of the PDP within 8 years

What happened to Gani though?

By the time the military left and Obasanjo was in power, Gani then started to try to register a political party afresh – NCP, which he had declared as mentioned, since 1994.

I believe his ultra-radical posture as at 1998 was a huge and terrible mistake of the left.

But here’s the thing: heroes are human and humans make mistakes, terrible catastrophic ones that sometimes change the course of history but in their moment of finality, the acts that define them are truly heroic.

I’m not particularly enamoured with Abiola, but he is a Hero.

Abiola made mistakes – so many, and he had too many flaws which I have not shirked from but in the moments when it mattered, he reached deep within himself and stood firm against the tyranny of Abacha and the military. He stood by the mandate of June 12 and paid the supreme price

In our time, we draw inspiration from his story as well as the stories of other heroes who died in the struggle – inspiration to stand firmly by convictions and against tyranny, but we also learn from him – not to respond to political issues with ethnicity or isolate ourselves.

As a Yoruba who watched my father buy news magazines clandestinely and heard of Yorubas arrested only because they were found with activist journals like TELL, TheNews and Tempo – how can I in good conscience not sympathise with the SE when you label them as enemies?

One man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist – Soyinka wasconce accused of terrorism under Abacha.

Is it not possible, that Nnamdi Kanu was another Abiola in detention and would my reaction to him be the same as if one were (or not) of the same ethnicity as he?

The big irony of the whole June 12 saga is the conspiracy of the modern pseudo-Yoruba leadership of Tinubu and the core Northern oligarchy to win power.

The true leaders of Afenifere could never do that and they didn’t – they stand firm till date.

The past, for me, is never a conclusive matter – it never dies, it is living and active – constantly reaching out to shape our present and future and screaming to us with a loud voice called History.

History is important – it is our guide, but many fail to listen and they fall.

If you know how a storyline goes, you’ll know the ending once you start watching the movie again, even if the actors are different.

We know how these things end – we know how tyranny ended and we know how the man who trusted the tyrant ended – quite sadly.

But we dey watch…

Didn’t Abiola feel he would outwit Abacha?

Isn’t Tinubu feeling he will outwit Buhari?

I say we’re watching – but we’re also actors in this movie and will play our parts.

However it turns out, we’ll be prepared to learn the lessons again and take the test again in future.

Thanks for reading everyone and for the crucial corrections and additions – I’m grateful, some corrections are wrong though but they’ll be explained better and clarified when I write a proper book before the end of this year by God’s Grace.

It’s been so long a Thread – my longest ever yet and some of you stuck with it – one day, they’ll tell our stories too and others will read: that’s why we try.

Strangely, I’m still fired up – feeding off the mental energies of many who read – so thank you for reading.


Demola Olarewaju is a Lagos-based Political Analyst and Strategist with the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP and can be found on twitter @DemolaRewaju


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