Originally titled “June 12: The Mandate”, this speech was prepared by Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka for the June 12th, 2018 conferment of national honours on Chief MKO Abiola and others. It is such that those who do not admire it for the literary quality would admire it for its standpoint on the subject matter or for both the literary quality and the standpoint. There are, therefore, enough reasons for publishing it here as a standalone discourse of contemporary Nigeria – Editor.
“These martyrs deserve a collective memorial, as a sign that the struggle for human freedom admits no statute of limitations”
The annulment of the presidential elections of June 12, 1993 was a negative watershed in Nigerian history. It opened the floodgates of distrust, the consequences of which, sometimes in directions that are still in denial, have remained to plague the nation. There is much to remember, and some of this with a measure of satisfaction, even a sense of fulfilment. For many however, much of the memory is unbearable. A number still resort to desperate measures to cauterize the trauma of the consequent season of unprecedented inhumanity, occasioned by sheer lust for unchallenged power and total domination of the national environment. These are individuals who walk among us, with scars of horrendous torture, others whose lives remain permanently disrupted, and yet several more who have been pauperised beyond recovery. Some can never eradicate the ordeal of being compelled to witness the torture and dehumanisation of their relations, forced to watch, in order to force them to incriminate themselves or others, confess to deeds, and/or sympathies to which they were complete strangers. Yet, even these victims, direct victims, or sufferers from collateral wounds, may have succeeded in overcoming their ordeal, if only a concerted gesture of recognition, of restitution and vindication of their roles had been offered, a symbolic act towards potential closure, such as brings us together this day, June 12, 2018, a quarter of a century later. It should never have waited this long. It required only a simple capacity for empathy, an act of moral courage, and a sense of belonging to that gamut of humanity from whom sacrifice is often extracted with or without their consent.
That simple gesture, repeatedly advocated by millions, was denied. The burden of arrogance and vaunting self-centredness sat heavily on the shoulders of the beneficiaries of a collective struggle. They harvested, but could not bear to share, or render dues. Or simply lacked the imagination, and were devoid of a sense of honour. They lacked an understanding of history, and trivialised the emotions of fellow humanity. Some could not even bear to name the symbol of that struggle for the restoration of civil dignity that is at the very basis of ordered social existence. That social actuality, the massed will of the people, is the ultimate voice of authority. Civil society must therefore hold itself also culpable, numerous times, for laxity in its exertion.
Here follows a simple instance that is not beyond recall of most of us here. The demand for national recognition of Moshood Abiola was at its most intense during the tenure of the primary beneficiary of Abiola’s sacrifice, one to whom the very name of that political martyr was anathema. I refer to the hosting of the All-Africa Games, COJA, for which I was then Cultural Consultant for the opening ceremonies. In his lifetime, Moshood Abiola, a man of many parts, many interests, and multiple personifications, was recognised across the continent and outside for his passion, his moral and material generosity to the sporting arena. Such was the magnitude of his contribution that he was conferred with the title of African Pillar of Sports by the Africa Union (AU).
A stadium was under construction in preparation for the games and it was confidently expected, indeed loudly demanded that that stadium should bear his name. Indeed, many assumed that this so obvious, so painless, so inexpensive tribute would be paid him by his own nation. The COJA Games came, and went. I urged the media – you may check the archives – urged the media to ignore that president and simply continue to refer to the stadium as the Moshood Abiola Stadium. Keep at it, I exhorted, and it will not matter in the least whether or not the occupant of Aso Rock concedes the posthumous honour so overwhelmingly deserved. The people’s voice remains the ultimate decider, irrespective of the voice of power, petulance and pettiness. Today, I repeat that demand and urge it on this government. History is archived not only by the written word or oral narratives, but by a landscape that is strewn with the precipitates of human attainment.
The media failed to take the bait. Society wearied and moved on. Instead, one of the major avenues of this very capital of the nation still bears the name of that ruler who is near uniformly execrated across the nation and vilified across the world. And I assert this despite recent affirmations of loyalty to that dictator from his erstwhile colleagues. Mr. President, let me state this directly: loyalty is a virtue, but it also can prove perverse. No matter, today, the plunge is being taken. Belated, yes! With an eye on electoral fortunes, undoubtedly! And somewhat diminished by a number of unsatisfactory details, some trivial, some significant, some debatable, others simply untenable – what matters is that a long evaded step towards the summit of closure has been taken.
One sour note, even today, deserves special attention, since it goes to the heart of this depressing career of denial. How did that word “presumed” as in the expression “presumed winner” of an election, creep into the official communique? That seeming trivia goes beyond semantics. I was on my way to Brazil when pressure for my presence here today commenced and became overpowering by its very logicality. I did not do an about turn, aborting a prior engagement, in order to participate in a ritual of presumptions. That insertion is what we must deem “presumptuous”, even contemptuous of reality. Moshood Kashimawo Abiola was, and remains the acclaimed, not presumed winner of the Nigerian June 12 1993 democratic elections, an event that manifested the collective and disciplined will of the Nigerian people in a most unambiguous manner.
Let me testify that I was actually in Europe, at a conference, at the same time as the then Secretary-General of the Commonwealth, Chief Emeka Anyaoku. We shared the same hotel. As the results were being formally collated, posted and released, he continued to share them with me. There was no ambiguity about who was headed for outright victory – and so it proved! Despite the last-minute efforts to terminate the process, the voting proceeded and was concluded. A clear winner emerged, without presumption or contestation. Even his opponent openly conceded defeat – that is, until he was pressured to backtrack and challenge those results by those whose interests lay outside any known democratic impulsion. I call on the media to ensure that that word “presumed” is blotted out permanently, in any existing and future dispatches. I therefore echo the call of legislators to have those results fully published, so as to lay the ghost of that presumptive qualifier. Dictators are free to annul the succession of day and night, the succession of drought and rains, but no mortal power, either in this world or in any other human habitation, can annul the truth of that election.
It was that truth that nerved Moshood Abiola to emerge and re-present himself to the people in the famous declaration of Epetedo, saying: My name is Moshood Kashimawo Abiola, and I am here to reclaim my mandate. Today, that mandate conferred upon Abiola is being reclaimed on his behalf. Whatever the motivation, the credit is undeniably yours.
What matters for this nation is that after the inertia and avoidance of nearly two decades and a half, justice begins to find place in the agenda of governance. A principled step has been taken towards closure. In finding the courage to assume the mantle of redress, let it not matter to you in the least whether or not such a gesture translates into votes. In any case, you will never find out with any degree of certainty – only in the presumptions of pundits. What will go down in memory and history is that you finally confronted a political entitlement, long evaded, treasonably annulled and imprudently postponed, confronted the spectre of negative memory, and offered the nation a glimpse of the potential of healing. The rest lies in the unpredictable future.
It only remains to me to pay tribute to hundreds of other protagonists of human liberty and the right of political volition. Only a few weeks ago, we celebrated the memory of one of the most consistent of such warriors – Gani Fawehinmi, Senior Advocate of the Masses – also befittingly honoured today. And two weeks ago, we gathered at the graveside of Kudirat Abiola on the anniversary of her brutal murder. And there was Musa Yar’Adua, who mobilised resistance from within a legislature that appeared cowed, submissive and compromised. They read Sanni Abacha the riot act, sent him an ultimatum. Yar’Adua was unquestionably murdered in prison for his dare. And there were assassinations with a dictator’s blooded palm prints all over the corpses – Alfred Rewane, Felix Ibru, Olu Onaguruwa (a case of mistaken identity) and so on and on. Nor must we ever forget the hundreds of others, many of them unsung, even nameless.
For special mention however, I cannot avoid recalling, with pride and nostalgia, our late Comrade Ola Oni, who is very rarely evoked these days. Yet, it was he who mobilised others and led the massed resistance in Ibadan – the epicentre, some may recall – being the propitiously named Liberty Stadium, where he and a sparse but dedicated gathering, after an all-night convergence, moved out at dawn to stall the roller-coaster of a manic ruler in its tracks, thus stemming the spreading tide of civic surrender. Let those highlights remain in our memories, such as that routing of a would-be life dictator on a campaign to entrench himself in power through co-option of slavish surrogates. Let each and any one of our known resisters – Bagauda Kaltho, Chris Ubani, Beko Ransome-Kuti and all others – always serve as recollection prods in our minds for massed resistance in face of any massive state terror machine, however ruthless.
These martyrs deserve a collective memorial, as a sign that the struggle for human freedom admits no statute of limitations. Reverses yes, often unavoidably – that is the nature of struggle – but abject surrender? The answer is pre-eminent in the words of one man, who stood tall as he toured the streets of Lagos in an open vehicle, declaring: “My name is Moshood Abiola. It is time to reclaim my mandate.”