Last month was the 20th anniversary of the annulment of the June 12, 1993 election. The annulment of that election created a question that Nigerians rarely ask, and will never know the answer to.
The facts of the annulment are well known. After the painstaking eight year conduct of a “transition programme” to return Nigeria to civilian democratic rule after 9 years of military rule, the then military government led by General Ibrahim Babangida voided the results of the June 12, 1993 election that was supposed to herald the return of democracy.
That act added the word “annulment” to the standard Nigerian vocabulary. Although the full election results were never disclosed, everyone knows that Moshood Abiola won. However, given his antecedents, background and temperament, would Abiola have been a beneficial President for Nigeria?
ABIOLA: FROM RAGS TO RICHES
The story of Abiola’s life is a classic rags to riches story that could be a Hollywood film. He was born into poverty in a large family. He eventually attended the famous Baptist Boys High School in his home town of Abeokuta, in Ogun State. Former President Olusegun Obasanjo is another alumnus of that school. After training as an accountant, Abiola made his name and riches when he joined the telecommunications company ITT. Abiola eventually became the chairman of ITT and via series of cordial relations with key army officers, Abiola amassed so much wealth, influence and fame that he once boasted of being the richest African on Earth.
FRIENDS IN HIGH PLACES
Two of Abiola’s closest military friends were then Minister of Communications Brigadier Murtala Muhammed and Lt-Col Ibrahim Babangida (Inspector of Recce). With Babangida and Muhammed eventually becoming Heads of State, Abiola exploited his relationship with them to secure extensive patronage via contracts with the government and became spectacularly rich in the process. His business empire grew massively as did his bank account balance, number of wives, concubines and children.
President Shagari was overthrown in a military coup on December 31, 1983 and replaced by a military government in which Abiola’s friend Babangida was Chief of Army Staff (number 3 in the regime). Less than two years later his friend Babangida became Head of State.
THE IDEAL PRESIDENT?
Abiola ran for President in an election stage managed by his close friend Babangida. As a southern Muslim (the religion of the north) and who was a close friend of the Head of State, an Abiola presidency seemed a virtual certainty.
As results began trickling in, it became obvious that Abiola was headed for a landslide victory. He even defeated his opponent Bashir Tofa in Tofa’s home state of Kano. For the first time Nigerians voted across ethnic and religious lines as Christians voted for a Muslim, and northerners voted for a southerner. However something went very wrong. On June 23, 1993 the election was annulled and Abiola was denied the presidency. Five years later Abiola was dead, having been incarcerated for treason for declaring himself the rightful president.
HOW WOULD NIGERIA HAVE BEEN UNDER “PRESIDENT ABIOLA”?
So what would have happened had the election not been annulled and had Abiola ruled? A powerful hard line faction in the military bitterly opposed his candidacy. Babangida later said that had Abiola become President, he would have been overthrown in a violent military coup within six months. With massive opposition to Abiola in the army, an Abiola presidency would almost certainly have led to new round of bloody coups and counter-coups that would have given the military a pretext to retain power. Nigeria might even have still been under military rule today.
However what if the military had supported Abiola? Would an Abiola presidency have been good for Nigeria? Abiola did not win the June 12, 1993 election because he was a massively popular candidate. He won and was adopted as an unlikely symbol of democracy by a public that was desperate to rid Nigeria of increasingly corrupt and authoritarian military rule. To the public, any candidate was better than the military. Olusegun Obasanjo warned that “Abiola is “not the Messiah that Nigerians are looking for”. How (in)accurate was Obasanjo’s assessment of Abiola?
WAS ABIOLA THE “MESSIAH”?
Having come from a poor background Abiola was extremely generous to the poor and made grandiose charitable donations. These took the form of bulk buys of rice and tinned milk, to constructing new wings in universities. He also awarded several hundred scholarships from his own personal fortune. Abiola made such gestures country-wide and did not limit them to his own ethnic or geographic group. He had contacts and friends across all ethnicities and regions of the country.
It was also hoped that Abiola’s stupendous wealth meant that he was rich enough not to be tempted to loot the state treasury. As a rich multi-billionaire southern businessman, who adopted the religion of the north and had extensive local and international contacts, the perception was that if Abiola could not govern, no one could.
ABIOLA – A LADIES MAN?
However Abiola had many weaknesses which might have proved his undoing had he become President. His first and foremost weakness was for female flesh. His appetite for women was such that over a decade after his death, not even his own family is aware of how many wives and children he had. Educated estimates put the number of his wives somewhere between 25 and 40, and children anywhere between 85 and 120. He also had a number of concubines. Such a complicated personal life could have proved embarrassing and destabilising for a President in the public eye and would probably have occupied several column inches for gleeful tabloids.
Although from humble origins, in adulthood Abiola was no firebrand political reformer and he was unlikely to rock the boat or risk physical challenge. In many ways he was part of Nigeria’s corrupt elite and a government led by him would have continued with business and corrupt dealings as usual. His emergence as a presidential candidate was predicated on his membership of that corrupt elite. In the end the same military Leviathan which Abiola sponsored and supported ended up devouring him.