Ahead of the first celebration of June 12 as Democracy Day on Wednesday to mark the 1993 presidential election which was annulled by the military but generally believed to have been won by the late Chief MKO Abiola, one of Abiola’s former associates, Chief Adesunbo Onitiri, speaks on the Epetedo declaration which saw Abiola proclaiming himself as President, leading to his arrest by the Abacha junta and subsequent prosecution for treasonable felony. He died in detention.
Could you tell us how your relationship with Chief MKO Abiola started and your role during and after the annulment of the June 12, 1993 election?
I was a strong member of the National Democratic Coalition, NADECO, and an associate of the late Chief Moshood Kashimawo O. Abiola. He approached me before the 1993 general elections. At the said time, he was nursing the ambition of becoming the nation’s President and had to join politics. So he approached me and I was among those who mobilised prominent Yoruba people for him before he indicated interest to contest for the President of the country.
Subsequently, he was involved in the primary election of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) held in Jos where he emerged as presidential candidate. I was an active member of Primrose Group supporting Dapo Sarumi to be governor of Lagos State. Although some of the group members supported the late General Musa Yar Adua to emerge as President, I mobilised majority of the members to support Abiola.
After the presidential primary, there was the issue of choosing who becomes the vice presidential candidate among Atiku Abubakar, Baba Gana Kingibe and Pascal Bafyau but Kingibe was later chosen. We had to mobilize support for Abiola for the election. But there was a problem when I saw General Ibrahim Babangida’s body language, that he might not relinquish power. I told Abiola about my observation but he said Babangida was his friend and that he had sought his view to contest and he will go ahead with the election. But Arthur Nzeribe went to court on the eve of the poll to stop the June 12 election from holding. He obtained a judgment to that effect and that judgment rattled Abiola and he didn’t know what to do. I swiftly went to court with the late Richard Babatunde Adejumo to secure an order that the election must hold and nobody could stop it. Justice Moshood Olugbami of Lagos High Court granted our request. Abiola was very pleased with the judgment. I then went to Abuja to meet the INEC Chairman, Prof. Humphrey Nwosu, to serve the Election Management Body (EMB) the court judgment. Eventually the election held and that judgment was what gave Nigerians the confidence to vote in the June 12 election. After June 12, 1993, Nzeribe did not stop his efforts to scuttle the election. He went back to court in the night of June 13 to procure another judgment that votes should not be counted and that the election should be annulled. Then events unfolded rapidly. Government annulled the election on June 23 and some of us who were close political associates of Abiola urged Nigerians who had voted that we should not accept the annulment. But Abiola said no, that he will meet Babangida. That is how we started the June 12 struggle.
We argued that 12 million voters had made their choice and that, that choice must be respected. The struggle forced Babangida to step aside and put in place an interim government headed by Chief Ernest Shonekan. NADECO then came on the scene. We had to call on Abiola to leave the country so that the matter will not endanger his life and he flew to London. Some of us went to court and got a judgment that declared Shonekan as an imposter and that he should step aside. The Defence Minister in the Shonekan government who had been left behind by Babangida, General Sani Abacha, took over government, met with some us in the June 12 struggle and said he will hand over government after six months.
He went ahead to persuade Abiola to come back home from London, promising to hand over power to him after six months. Abiola came back but Abacha reneged on his promise. When Abacha refused to hand over, we now organised the Epetedo declaration a year after the historic election, that is, June 12, 1994 when Chief Abiola addressed the nation. We had a meeting of the Primrose Group at Jabita Hotel in Ikeja, Lagos where all the prominent members including Alebiosu, Senator Shitta-Bey, Dr Wahab Dosumu and Prince Ademola Adeniji Adele converged and deliberated on a venue for the declaration. The venue became an issue as many of the group members were afraid and could not accept their location for the declaration. Dr. Wahab Dosumu later agreed to have it done at Epetedo which was his area on Lagos Island. But the irony was that most members of the group did not appear at the venue citing the possibility of being charged with treasonable felony by the Abacha government. When we informed Abiola about our plan ahead of the D-Day, he said a judge should be there to swear him in. But on the D-Day, we noticed that no judge was present at the declaration stand. Only Abiola, Dosumu, Adeniji Adele, I and some people we had mobilised were present. After the declaration, Adeniji-Adele was picked up immediately by security forces; Abiola was also picked up. At that point, I had to take off to save my head. Wahab Dosumu also fled to the US. But from our hiding places, we contributed to the struggle and made sure that Abacha did not rule successfully. And the struggle continued until Abacha died. But a serious blow to the struggle came when Abiola was also killed in prison.
Some analysts argue that, instead of Abiola declaring himself as President in the country and he got arrested, it should have been done outside the country to save his head?
He couldn’t have done that. Because when he travelled to London, I went to see him and we discussed at length. The British government was so emphatic that he must not declare himself as President there and must not form a government in exile or else he will be deported. The irony was that we, as a pressure group, gave Abacha the go-ahead to take over power from Shonekan. This was after we had approached Shonekan to hand over the power to Abiola and he refused because he had begun to enjoy power. But Abacha promised to hand over after six months to Abiola but he reneged. At that point, the Yoruba were seriously agitating that Abiola should be made President.
25 years after the June 12, 1993 saga, the Buhari administration last year recognised it as Democracy Day as opposed to May 29. Now it is a holiday and we are having the first celebration this year. But some people say it is a Greek gift. How do you feel about it?
It is a Greek gift like you rightly mentioned. It was not done on the basis of sincerity. It was a gimmick to get the Yoruba support. But the Yoruba cannot be deceived because they have been deceived enough. What we need in this country is proper restructuring. Let’s go back to the old system, the regional system so that everybody will be free to develop at his own pace; all the regions. The structure we are running now is too expensive and cannot work. Some regions are being slowed down by the northern hegemony. All the roads in this country are so bad especially in the South. We don’t see the presence of the Federal Government in this country because all the revenue goes to the centre and they now dole it out to states. And when states collect the money, they sit down on it. The money does not go down to local governments whereas local governments are supposed to provide most of the infrastructures like road, electricity, water, health facilities and education. It is not the duty of the Federal Government to provide those things. Look at the developed nations. In the US today, California is richer than the Federal Government and it is just a state. Many of our local governments can, in fact, be richer than the Federal Government if we allow them to develop.
So June 12 is superior to May 29?
When they said May 29 was Democracy Day, I was baffled. But they have two dates now; May 29 as Inauguration Day and June 12 as Democracy Day. It is confusing. I think they need to cancel May 29 and adopt June 12 for anything that has to do with democracy celebrations. June 12 is Democracy Day for all democrats who had struggled for true democracy in this country and not for military men in Agbada who fought against June 12 but now declaring June 12 as Democracy Day. Although we have gotten recognition for Abiola, the hero of democracy, that is not enough. His family should be paid his entitlements as a former President. If coup plotters can be recognised as Heads of State, then Abiola who won a free and fair election should be recognised as an ex-President. The family should be paid for his untimely death because the state killed him. Even the family members have not benefited after that recognition. At least, one of his children should be made a Minister or given a prominent political appointment to show that Abiola is well recognised. June 12 may have been recognised but we have not actually achieved democracy in this country. We still have the militrio-cracy and not democracy: Government of the military by the military for the military. That means the Constitution we are using now should be discarded. The 1999 Constitution was foisted on us by the military.
So we should at least be happy that President Muhammadu Buhari recognised June 12?
How can we be happy when those who actually fought for June 12 are not in charge of democracy? Those who are running our democracy are people who are enemies of democracy. What do you expect from such people who are not democrats? When a wrong driver drives your vehicle, he can’t take you to your destination. Until we have the heroes of democracy running our government, we cannot get it right. Nobody can get into power in this country if he doesn’t have money. Politics has been heavily monetized. The situation is so bad that it is either you must be a miscreant, a thug carrying gun or a money bag before you can get into power. Good people are sidelined. Proper democracy can be achieved only when people who don’t have money can contest and win elective positions. In those days, Alhaji Leteef Jakande did not have money when he contested for governorship in Lagos and he defeated the late Adeniran Ogunsanya who was rich. Market women contributed money for Jakande’s election and he got party endorsement. What we have now is a process that encourages a god-father to sponsor you knowing that you are going to steal and pay back his investment. And the emoluments of political office holders should be reduced drastically to make the offices unattractive. They should see parliament as a part-time duty that lasts for only four years. It should not be for life. Each of our lawmakers receives more emoluments than Presidents of many countries. Governance is very expensive in this country.
Can this country be truly restructured?
We should go back to the old system when powers resided with regions. What you have belongs to you. Discard the 1999 Constitution and let the states develop at their pace; after all, this country is so blessed. All the states are blessed with one mineral or the other. Each has what it takes to develop. One region cannot be a slave to another. We need to sit down and renegotiate the way forward. If the South can come together and talk with one voice, we can get the power we want. Unfortunately when we had the opportunity through former President Jonathan, he did not understand what is called power and the enormity of the power in his hand. He surrendered it effortlessly.
What is your message to true democrats in this country?
My message is that we must strive to attain democracy. We still have a long way to go. Our destiny is in our hands. Nigerians should rise up and be sensitive to the politics around them and be involved in politics. They should endorse candidates that will serve their interest and not the candidates of god-fathers and money bags.