by Abdul Mahmud
In a press statement issued in the immediate aftermath of the annulment of the June 12, 1993 presidential election, Onyeka Onwenu came down hard on our erstwhile military rulers and their collaborators. Drawing heavily from Oscar Wilde’s famous poem, ‘’The Ballad of Reading Gaol’’, she called on our people to pull down the walls of the huge open prison the military rulers had erected.
Truly, Wilde enchanted me when I came across him at the library of the Maximum Security Prisons, Kirikiri. His poem which depicts the penal system as inherently dehumanising and constraining of liberties held real meaning for me. ‘’Dear Christ! the very prison walls suddenly seemed real… warders with their shoes of felt crept by each padlocked door… this too I know – and wise it were if each could know the same – that every prison that men build is built with bricks of shame and bound with bars lest Christ should see how men their brothers maim’’ Those lines had a profound effect on me.
As a twenty-two years old plus President of the National Association of Nigerian Students held under one of the most draconian pieces of military legislations, the State Security and Detention of Persons Decree Number 2 of 1984, I spent time on books. I read Ngugi Wa’ Thiongo’s ‘’Barrel of a Pen: Resistance to Neo-Colonial Repression in Kenya’’ and works by other political writers that defined for me the body-politic of violence and what Foucault once described as the ‘’micro-physics of punitive power’’.
Kirikiri threw up new challenges, sufferings engraved on memories; but it wasn’t all gloom and doom. Being confined, I had all the time in the world to explore the corpus knowledge and the history of the mind. And those times produced their own results: new vigour, resistance to arbitrary power, commitment to the struggle, creation of coalitions, solidarity and new frontiers of engagement that would later have roots in the June 12 struggles.
The May 1991 Students Protests and the Birth of the Campaign for Democracy:
The road to Kirikiri began three months earlier in Ilorin. In late March, 1991, the National Association of Nigerian Students (NANS) rose from its Senate meeting in Ilorin and issued a thirteen-point demand to the military junta. Notable demands of the students were the abrogation of the decree which restricted student unionism, increased funding and the democratisation of education, payment of bursary, scrapping of the political transition programme, inauguration of Government of National Unity and the convocation of the Sovereign National Conference.
At the expiration of the thirty days ultimatum issued by the organisation, protests broke out in major campuses across Nigeria. The junta bared its fangs: two students were killed at Yaba College of Technology, many student leaders were arrested, detained and arraigned before a Military Tribunal and seven national student leaders – Bamidele Aturu, Chima Okereke, Nasiru Kura, Chris Akani, Kayode Olatunji, Bunmi Olusona and Abdul Mahmud – were thrown into Ikoyi and Kirikiri prisons.
NANS’ demand for the scrapping of the transition programme drew the ire of the junta. Political as the demand was, and considering the fact that it spoke the truth of the self-succession bid of General Babaginda, the National Association of Nigerian Students was isolated in its demand. Recall that the Nigeria Labour Congress under Bafyau abrogated the working agreement the two organisations had signed in 1986. The burgeoning pro-democracy movement assumed a disparate character so early at its birth. And without a central organisation to harness the broader prospects the movement held out for Nigerians who yearned for the termination of military rule, popular struggles were left to the National Association of Nigerian Students.
So when Aturu and I engaged comrades through letters smuggled out by warders, we were insistent on the birth of a national coalition to lead the campaigns for the termination of military rule. The fighting organs of the National Association of Nigerian Students, particularly during the May 1991 protests, had shown worrying signs of lethargy. Rebuilding internal structures had become extremely difficult.
Three conditions were arguably responsible for the birth of the Campaign for Democracy. Firstly, the pressures exerted by the National Association of Nigerian Students on the disparate civil society organisations on the need for a broad-based coalition. Secondly, the junta had become vicious. Recall that in September, 1990, it forcefully sealed up the National Arts Theatre, the venue of the National Conference proposed that year. Thirdly, the end of the cold war engendered new global movements that demanded change and multi-party democracy. On the continent, the wind of change and democratisation wrought considerable political reforms and in nearby Republic of Benin the maximum ruler, Kerekou lost power to Soglo.
The Campaign for Democracy was born in 1991 in Lagos; and an Interim Committee led by the late former President of the Nigeria Bar Association, Alao Aka-Bashorun and which also included the President of the National Association of Nigerian Students, Abdul Mahmud, as its National Vice Chairman was immediately set up to oversee its affairs.
In 1992 in Jos, Beko Kuti and Chima Ubani were elected Chairman and General Secretary respectively. Tributes must be paid to late Chris Abashi, late Dominic Ogankpa, Edward Daudu, Titus Mann and Omano Edigheji for the strategic roles they played in ensuring that the junta, keen to scuttle the convention, was beaten to its game. Late Alao Aka-Bashorun, late Beko Kuti and late Chima Ubani deserve mention here. They gave leadership to Nigeria’s first truly post-colonial, mass-based pro-democracy coalition.
There is a point or two to be stressed here. Claims have been made by Colonel Nyiam that the June 12 struggles were prosecuted by the National Democratic Coalition. Nothing could be further from the truth. Whilst it is important to stress that the National Democratic Coalition responded to the annulment of the June 12, 1993 presidential election in a propagandist way, typical of politicians, the Campaign for Democracy actively took the battles to the junta on our streets. Propaganda was useful only to the extent that it riled the junta. But, when the junta later descended on a section of the press that was sympathetic to June 12, propaganda became less of a tool for effective oppositional mobilisation. I won’t dwell on the other claim that the Campaign for Democracy was part of the National Democratic Coalition. Lie.
The June 12 Struggles: A Personal Account
At the outset, I make two positions. First, personal accounts of history are never value-free. History is often shaped by events that occur out of the natural order of things, or by individuals. Events that occur out of the natural order of things are often catastrophic on man and natural environment. When events occur, man is thus thrust either as a witness or victim. And there are also events the occurrence of which man is the ultimate creator. Events, no matter how they shape human destiny, are rooted within the epochs out of which other contemporary events grow. The point, here, is that today’s events can only find true expression when they are located within the continuities, discontinuities, spatial coordinates and the historical ‘’soil’’, of yesterday. The account here is personal; and as an active member of the pro-democracy movement of the 1990’s, I render account of events as a witness and as a participant.
Secondly, a cardinal position of the Campaign for Democracy was the rejection of the political transition programme of the military junta. Capturing political power was never truly the goal of the coalition; though many argue that the refusal of the coalition to actively seek political power relegated it to the fringe after Abacha’s death in 1998. Though capturing political power wasn’t implicit in the objectives of the coalition; but having thrust itself into the political arena, it let the opportunity of transforming itself from a fighting pro-democracy coalition into a formidable party political structure slip.
When activists broke from the 3rd July 1993 meeting of the Campaign for Democracy, it was clear they were about taking steps to negotiate the bends of the struggles for the revalidation of the result of the June 12 1993 presidential election won by Chief MKO Abiola. And as activists left for various parts of Nigeria preparatory for July 5 and 6 protests they knew history had at last beckoned to them. Sylvester Odion-Akhaine, Uche Onyeagucha, Fabian Okoye, Yakub Aromashodun and I left for Lagos Island.
Mobilisation was difficult the next day. The skies opened up and didn’t let one moment of respite. We walked the flooded streets, mapping strategic entries and exits for next day’s protests, mastering sign calls in the events we were hedged into difficult circumstances by agents of the junta. We worked into the night. Wet and bedraggled, we retired to Fabian Okoye’s Today newspaper’s office off Broad Street where we spent the night without light. Dawn broke. We returned to the streets of Isale Eko where youths camped out and waited for their voices to be heard. At the low gradient where the Carter Bridge descended into Apongbon, early skirmishes broke out. Armed squaddies fired tear gas canisters to push protesters back into the inner streets of Isale Eko to clear the main artery leading to Bonny camp and the foreign missions on the island. We weren’t going to lose that road. The gods were kind. The wind changed course and sent peppery emissions in the direction of the squaddies. They fled toward Carter Bridge. We gave chase.
At noon, we marched to Oyingbo and connected with the group led by Innocent Chukwuma. Oyingbo had turned violent. Chukwuma sustained injuries. We turned into the adjourning streets and marched toward Surulere where we held a massive rally in front of the National Stadium. We had pulled it. Lagos was effectively under the control of the Campaign for Democracy. Day two of the protests was bloodier. Armed squaddies turned their guns and opened live rounds on peaceful protesters. Over sixty Nigerians were murdered in Lagos.
Then, the crackdown and manhunts followed. Fawehinmi, Falana, Beko and many activists were arrested. Uche Onyeagucha narrowly escaped arrest in his bedsit at the Nigeria Law School. I was ambushed by a team of SSS operatives at the office of the Director-General of the Nigeria Law School. After a brief interrogation, I tricked them by lying that the documents they accused me of possessing were in the lecture room. They fell for it. I returned to the lecture room and announced the botched arrest. Protests broke out. And for the first time, the Nigerian Law School was shut down. And as the protests spread across Nigeria, the junta became more desperate and vicious. The Campaign for Democracy moved to the next stage of the struggle: sit-at-home!
June 12 struggles occupy a place in the history of our people; history that recognises the place of protests in our collective annals, of those who yesterday gave their lives for the enjoyment today. They shall never be forgotten.
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