Association of Nigerian Scholars for Dialogue


[Being the Text of a Speech in Honor of Moshood Abiola (1937-1998)
Organized by the Board of African Studies Association,
at the Hyatt Hotel, Chicago, October 31, 1998]
Ebere Onwudiwe(1)
Central State University, Wilberforce, Ohio

I have been asked to comment on Moshood Abiola's contributions to the future of Nigerian politics by way of his response to the annulment of his mandate on June 23, 1993. I will primarily address one question: Was Abiola's courageous insistence on the mandate given to him by Nigerian voters a benefit or a setback to political stability and to political development of Nigeria as one corporate nation? I will argue that Abiola's position ultimately benefited Nigeria's political development, although perhaps, not as he intended.

What then are some of the unintended benefits of Moshood Abiola's presence in Nigerian politics? First, let me state the obvious. Abiola was a courageous man. I think this quality is important because changes do not occur in countries where courage is in short supply. The unrelenting and unprecedented domestic and international hostility against the Sani Abacha regime that finally led to its expiration can be traced directly to Abiola's decision never to surrender his June 12 mandate, at any price. He saw himself as a custodian of a sacred mandate that was freely given to him by Nigerians and one which "I cannot surrender unless the people so demand, and it is by virtue of this mandate that I say that the decision of the Federal Military Government to cancel the results [of the elections June 12, 1993] is unpatriotic and capable of causing undue and unnecessary confusion in the country."(2) That he never betrayed this promise is a tribute to more than his courage. It also points to many other admirable qualities that are in short supply among our ruling elites today: consistency, perseverance, honesty, sincerity of purpose and bravery. Consider that many Nigerian politicians who supported General Sani Abacha's dictatorship are now paying glowing tributes to Abiola, and admitting without shame that their support was based on fear of Abacha.

Abiola was one of too small a class of the fearless. As a result, he has helped to put the army on notice that the country's patience with military dictatorship is growing thinner and thinner. The denial of Abiola's right to assume office encouraged the proliferation of pro-democracy groups and other organizations of civil society who, despite repression, bravely harassed the Abacha dictatorship. I say that the pressure against Abacha's dictatorship was unprecedented because there has never been such a reaction to any military coups in the past. Indeed, the cowardly turning of the other cheek to coup makers by the Nigerian public is the most dangerous threat to the grounding of democracy in Nigeria. For a country simultaneously given to too much braggadocio and all manners of shakara, this cowardly disposition is tragically comical and is a paradox. But not everyone is laughing. A former Nigerian head of state, General Buhari berated this shameful national character at the eve of General Abacha's demise. In his own words,

"Nigeria is full of paradoxes. While individual Nigerians may provide the best specimen of the most strongly willed persons around, we nonetheless display unbelievable passiveness in the face of injustice. Society displays little opposition against wrong policies. Why is this? What is the reason for this apparent docility? What has happened to the social and political conscience of the people of this country? What has happened to our people's sense of justice and desire for choice?"

Buhari finds the answer in the abject poverty that saps the attention of a majority of Nigerians, allowing them no time for the luxury of social change. I believe, however, that there is a character issue in addition. The inclination to reap where one does not sow can produce in a people the inability to die for principles. This accounts for the preeminence of pragmatism and the diminution of strongly held beliefs in the political behavior of many Nigerians. This is not to knock pragmatism which, in proper measure, is a highly valuable ideology. It is in an attempt to explain the country's circumstances that Buhari justifiably decries Nigerians' docility and their thick skin for injustice. Strongly held beliefs for which a good number of citizens are prepared to die are critical to political stability and for the protection of the ideology of democracy, in more ways than one. Indeed, the case can be made that they are also critical to the continued existence of Nigeria. On this all important score, Bashuron Moshood Abiola's exemplary courage to die for something, is a lasting contribution to the future of one Nigeria. What he died for is more than the chance to become the president of Nigeria. He died for the voice of the ordinary Nigerian voter. In this sense, his struggle and death, symbolically shot the first bullet for Nigeria's second struggle for independence and self determination from internal colonialism. Nigeria can only truly be one great country when this war for the right of individuals is permanently won.

Second, with respect to the Nigerian military, two consequences are clear. At no other time have Nigerians held their military in more contempt, and according to Dr. Omo Omoruyi, at no time have the impotence of southerners in the Nigerian military been so exposed. These are two sad observations. A military which has shed blood to preserve the nation deserves better than the bad name it has received due to Abacha's autocracy. But I am not at all sure that the southerners in the military should be described as impotent simply because they chose to be loyal to their superiors and to obey orders as their profession demands. Moreover, there is no proof that all northern members of the military were in full support of the assault on June 12. Why did their inaction against the Abacha regime not equate to impotence, as well? But none of these is the point. The point is that June 12 has brought into serious national debate the politicization and Northernization of Nigerian military and security forces. As we speak, about 80% of the officers commanding in the Nigerian military are northerners. It is on this singular issue that the future of one Nigeria will be permanently settled. Perhaps, the end of political instability in Nigeria will finally depend on honest implementation of a quota system of recruitment and promotion in the Nigerian defense forces. I believe that this is much better for one Nigeria than the zoning of military command which many southerners are calling in the post-Abacha era. I further believe, personally, that restructuring Nigerian military to reflect federal character is more important for Nigerian unity than giving the civilian presidency to a southerner. The view shared by many ordinary Nigerians that any civilian president not backed by the military will stand in constant danger of being toppled makes very good political sense. Should the present situation in Nigeria lead to the nationalization (I do not say federation) of Nigerian military and security forces, there will be one inbuilt automatic check of ethnic and regionally motivated coups against civilian governments. This will help restore to the military its nonpartisan and professional reputation. Is there a better legacy for Bashuron Abiola?

Third, June 12 exposed the hypocrisy of African-American reactions toward African dictatorships. The suppression of the human rights of Nigerians under Abacha's dictatorship, unlike in the case of South Africa under a white apartheid regime, for example, was relatively treated with cosmetic protests and even some measure of understanding by people like Rev. Jesse Jackson, Minister Louis Farrakhan, Senator Mosely Braun, and institutions like the black press and TransAfrica. June 12 is a veritable lesson on the moral and practical bankruptcy of pan-Africanism, a concept on which Abiola; in my view, wasted a lot of political capital unwisely and unnecessarily, through his highly visible support for reparations.

Fourth, Abiola's insistence on June 12 hardened General Sani Abacha's instruments of repression and persecution. I submit that the anti-thesis of this is the increased determination of the press and civil society in Nigeria to fight back amidst the threat of torture and murder. The fruits of the heroism of those men and women may be second only to Abiola's refusal to accommodate the annulment of his mandate even at the threat of his life and wealth. More than this, their collective and exemplary heroism reveals shining qualities of leadership by which the survival of forthcoming civilian democracy (God and Allah willing) can be grounded: qualities like guts and patriotism, respect for accountability, transparency and justice. Should the agents of these values, the press and civil society that fought Abacha's dictatorial regime so gallantly, continue with the same intensity during the expected civilian rule, then, the hope for grounding civilian democracy in Nigeria will have become more realistic. This then is another unintended contribution of Abiola's courage to the future of Nigeria.


The events of June 12 also produced threats to the future of the country. And Abiola's intransigence has a lot to do with it. In fact, it has been pointed out in a recent book on political history of independent Nigeria by Professor Eghosa Osaghae that part of the dynamics of the June 12 crisis can be blamed on Abiola's political history and poor responses. He points out in the Crippled Giant, that Abiola's penchant for not dealing with his opponents, preferring instead to deal only with the faction of the party that agreed with him, mainly those from the Western and Borno axis of the party, did not improve his democratic credentials and may, in fact, have caused him the consolidated support of his Social Democratic Party during the events surrounding June 12.(3)

There is also a way in which his political past came to haunt him in the period of his political crisis. The allegation that he influenced the annulment of the 1992 presidential primaries for selfish reasons is not a recipe for support and sympathy when it came his turn to face the same music. Abiola is not here to defend himself from these allegations; nevertheless, these and other allegations and actions of his business enemies may have combined to cost him united support of the political class against the Abacha junta. Whether these prolonged the crisis and the pain suffered by innocent Nigerians is not an idle question.

But by far, the worst possible negative consequence is the current knee-jerk reaction on the part of many southerners to call for the decentralization of the Nigerian military. Others call for more than that. They see the answer in a confederation, or even in a commonwealth of 36 independent states. I think this is a bad mistake on the part of anyone who even vaguely believes in the imperative of one Nigeria. I believe as follows: First, what Nigeria needs to stay as one strong and respected regional power is a strong unadulterated federalism. Second, the prerequisite for achieving this must be the extension of a sense of belonging to Nigerians of all ethnic groups. Third, the best place to start is with the nationalization of the military. If we did this, we would have left Nigeria as one strong and internationally respected nation, the way in which Moshood Abiola, that most courageous of all Nigerian integrationists, longed and worked to see it.

1. Ebere Onwudiwe is Vice President of the Association of Nigerian Scholars for Dialogue. A Professor of Political Science at Central State University, Wilberforce, Ohio, where is he is also the Director of the Center for African Studies, Dr. Onwudiwe is the editor of The International Journal of African Studies, previously Journal of Human Relations.

2. Quoted in West Africa. 5-11 July, 1993:1138

3. See Eghosa E. Osaghae. 1998. Crippled Giant: Nigeria Since Independence. London: Hurst and Company, pp 259-261.


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