Like MKO Abiola, like Leah Sharibu – Punch Newspapers

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Henry Boyo

The late Chief Moshood Kashimawo Abiola was the acclaimed, legitimate winner of the 1993 presidential election, which was purportedly conducted to usher in a democratic administration after Gen Ibrahim Babangida’s eight years as Nigeria’s sole “military President”.

Inexplicably, however, Babangida annulled the nationally celebrated result, even though he readily admitted, in his broadcast to the nation, that its conduct widely accepted as “free, fair and peaceful,” despite the fact that the victorious presidential ticket comprised two Muslim faithful!

In retrospect, it is arguable that after almost six decades of Nigeria’s post-colonial history, the 1993 presidential election results probably remain the least controversial. The quixotic annulment, invariably, provoked angry public protests and a protracted labour strike, particularly in Lagos and other South-West states; precious life was regrettably snuffed out of hundreds of Nigerians in the process, by the murderous, tyrannical response of an unrepentant military dictator.

In the ensuing intrigues, Babangida, in his own words, agreed to “step aside” for Ernest Shonekan, whom he, himself, had selected as Interim Head of State, from office. Shonekan, four months later, was quickly removed by Sani Abacha, Babangida’s chief co-conspirator.  Abiola’s insistence on the legitimate mandate of his popular, nationwide, landslide victory, however, posed a threat to Abacha’s hold on power.

Ultimately, the die was cast, when Abiola returned from an extended overseas drive for support and declared himself as the legitimate President, in a non-descript location in Epetedo, on the Lagos Island. Thereafter, Abacha unleashed battle-ready soldiers, who forcefully took Abiola away in the dead of night, after the unsolicited human shield that swarmed MKO’s residence and adjoining streets in Ikeja, daily, to prevent his arrest, had returned home after their usual ‘daylight’ vigil. Thereafter, the goggled General ruled with an iron fist, while Abiola was detained for four years, with no human contact, except for strictly regulated access for medical interventions.

Sadly, Kudirat, MKO’s wife, who had remained very vocal in the quest for justice for her husband, was brutally shot and killed by Abacha’s Strike Force, close to Oregun bye-pass, on her way to a meeting on the Island. Although oppressive dictators can wield the power of life and death over their subjects, by divine contrivance, these seemingly invincible despots do not have immunity to death itself.

Ultimately, Abacha died suddenly, totally unexpectedly, as he appeared to be in good health when he saw off the late Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, at the Abuja airport, just hours before his reported death. Invariably, with Abacha’s death, speculations became rife that Abiola’s release was imminent. Regrettably, however, days after Abacha passed on, the acclaimed winner of the June 12, 1993 election, ‘mysteriously’ choked and died, while sharing tea with a team of the United States’ government peace brokers, led by one Susan Rice.

In retrospect, Nigeria’s later return to civil rule in 1999 was undeniably facilitated by Abiola’s martyrdom. Consequently, Olusegun Obasanjo, who was elected civilian President in 1999, and indeed, all other presidents after him, are undeniably beneficiaries of Abiola’s supreme sacrifice! Arguably, Nigeria’s freedom from arbitrary military dictatorship and the subsequent reality of a renascent and fledgling democracy were also triggered by Abiola’s refusal to give up the mandate freely given, without rancour, by the Nigerian people.

Abiola, clearly, recognised the oppressive impact of the naira exchange rate on mass poverty and our shackled economy, and therefore, vowed to set up an economic process that would strengthen the currency so that more Nigerians would exit poverty. Abiola was certainly, not your puny local champion, as he deployed his immense wealth to lift many Nigerians from poverty and he was also, certainly, the most vocal advocate that erstwhile colonial masters should make reparations, for the deliberate oppression and unfettered exploitation of Africa and Africans, in the process of resource evacuation, as well as the social dislocation and economic retrogression that the very lucrative Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade has caused in Africa for over 300 years.

Understandably, Abiola was not popular with his military oppressors, and was also not a favourite of our erstwhile colonial overlords. Sadly, remarkably, since his death, no African has summoned the courage, nor possessed the burning desire to redress the economic inequity and injustice that the inhabitants of the African continent continue to endure, under the guise of trade terms with clearly unfavourable colonial antecedents.

Consequently, President Muhammadu Buhari’s decision in June 2018 to validate the 1993 presidential election results, 24 years thereafter, is probably, his most popular political decision till date. Indeed, even if Buhari’s validation is belated and perceived as mischievously self-serving, it is still welcome, as it may help to heal a  wound that has festered and challenged our hope of a unified nation, with full respect for the ‘rule of law’ and personal liberty.

Thankfully, the uneasy feeling of celebrating Democracy Day on May 29, especially, when June 12 always looms so close on the horizon, is now dead for good! Nonetheless, Buhari should forestall any ambivalence, in future, between the two  dates, with another Executive Order or bill, which shifts and aligns Democracy Day with the more symbolic and popular June 12!

Notably, however, the late ‘President’ Abiola could probably be alive today, if he had considered the enjoyment of his immense social equity and wealth, in the comfort, love and safety of his well-known very large family. Indeed, we are stronger today as a nation because Abiola stood up for justice and the Nigerian project rather than self-preservation and aggrandisement.

The foregoing narrative would probably refresh the memories of our older citizens; however, Nigerians born after 1990, particularly after the relegation of Civics and History in the school curriculum, will probably be enriched by the above summary. Millennials are, however, certainly, familiar with the more recent tribulations of a 16-year-old girl, called Leah Sharibu, who was amongst 110 girls captured from Dapchi, in Yobe State, by the seemingly invincible Boko Haram sect. Happily, 104 girls were quickly released after government intervention. Leah has however, remained in captivity for well over one year because she bluntly refused to denounce her Christian faith, as demanded by her captors.

Now, Leah may not be in the same ball pack, as the obviously more matured, wealthy and celebrated politician and juggernaut that Abiola was. Nonetheless, by Leah’s unflinching adherence to her faith, despite her continued incarceration and the possible threat of death, the young lady can certainly rub shoulders with the evidently more illustrious MKO, and should certainly be also celebrated for standing on the principle that she has a right, as a human being, to choose her own faith without causing harm to anyone! Consequently, in this regard, Leah stands for every Nigerian or indeed everyone, anywhere in the world, whether Christian, Muslim or atheist, who cherishes the right to choose their religious path. Thus, Leah is us and we are all Leah! We must all fear for our safety if we cannot freely choose our faith without coercion from any quarter.

Thus, like Abiola and other celebrated prisoners of conscience worldwide, Leah’s spirit extols and preserves our humanity. Nonetheless, she must not also die in detention, like Abiola, for holding tight to her inalienable human rights to choose her faith and freedom. Indeed, for as long as any Nigerian, like Leah and the rest of the Chibok and Dapchi children, still remains in captivity, we cannot really celebrate our own freedom.

Postscript: As we formally celebrate June 12 as Democracy Day, this week, we must also express our common human values of compassion by recognising and commending Leah’s parents Mr. and Mrs. Sharibu, who nurtured such a noble spirit as Leah, despite their clearly challenged material status. Religious groups (Christian and Muslims etc) and other charitable Nigerians should also express their humanity and solidarity, with the provision of material support to the Sharibus, to assuage their deep pains in these trying times.

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