On May 16, 2019, the National Assembly of Nigeria passed an amendment of the Public Holidays Act to change Democracy Day from May 29 to June 12. This was sequel to the declaration made by the President in June 2018. The President was reacting to the demand of Nigerians for the official recognition of the votes cast for democracy, unity and freedom, on June 12, 1993, when religion and tribalism failed to rear their very ugly heads in Nigeria’s national politics. On that hallowed day, Nigerians accepted the presidential ticket of a southern muslim, Chief M.K.O. Abiola, jointly with a northern muslim, Alhaji Babagana Kingibe, and voted for them overwhelmingly.
Beyond the normal campaigns for democratic alternative to end military rule, many activists were not actively involved in the electoral contest between Abiola’s Social Democratic Party (SDP) and Tofa’s National Republic Party (NRC).
But the human rights community, labour and civil society organisations, were all interested in the sanctity of the votes, to usher in a democratic transition from the inglorious years of military dictatorship. As the election results were trickling in, it was clear that Nigerians had voted for true change and departed from the dominant predictions and traditional alignments, demolishing as it were, all the reactionary altars of backwardness. So, we were all eagerly awaiting the new dawn when suddenly it was announced over national radio and television that the election had been annulled, by the military regime of General Ibrahim Babangida. It was a great shock for the nation and indeed the world at large. Then the activists took over, rallying Nigerians to reject and resist the annulment and to demand for the actualization of the June 12 mandate. From one event to another, June 12 became a national struggle and a rallying point for national rebirth. That’s how I got involved in June 12.
I was at the time the President of the Students’ Union of Obafemi Awolowo University (Great Ife), considered to be Aluta headquarters of students radicalism. The Senate of the National Association of Nigerian Students (NANS) had met in Enugu and taken a position to resist the annulment of the June 12 election. This was ratified by Great Ife congress and the Students’ Union Exco was mandated to work with all lovers of democracy to actualize the June 12 mandate. Labour and civil society decided to align forces under the umbrella organization of Campaign for Democracy (CD), led at the time by Dr. Beko Ransome-Kuti as President and Comrade Chima Ubani as Secretary. We declared a total boycott of lectures, leading to the closure of the university for months, which action enabled us to proceed to Lagos for the real action. At our base in Ebute-Metta, radical lawyer and revolutionary fighter, Dr. Osagie Obayuwana, formed the Mainland Progressive Youth Movement (MPYM), as a grassroots movement to mobilise people in the neighbourhood to support June 12 and we adopted Evans Square as our Aluta theatre. Together with CD, labour and progressive politicians, we declared a total paralysis of the nation. Transport unions withdrew their buses, flights were disrupted, markets were shut down, schools were shut as well as banks and other public institutions were under lock and key. The battle line was drawn.
Combining part time work at the CD secretariat with the MPYM gave a deeper appreciation of the perspective of the issues at stake. It was decided by CD, that we should mobilise Nigerians to resist the annulment of the election and so, a date was chosen to kick start the protest. Because of my location and involvement in MPYM, it became easier for me to join the team to take off at Evans Square, enroute Alagomeji, Sabo, to Ikorodu Road, to Alausa, to deliver a letter of protest, to the governor. Others were to take off from other locations and join us at Alausa. Chima Ubani and Dr Obayuwana, led the Evans Square team. It was well attended, and indeed very colorful, marching through the streets of Lagos, for the cause of June 12. People trooped out to hail us, as all the streets were empty, due to the sit at home protest, called by labour and civil society coalition.
At a point, we noticed that a police truck was following us and I quickly alerted Chima Ubani about it, but he said we should ignore them, since they were not stopping us from our mission. Unknown to us, the police had a well laid out plan. We marched through Ikorodu Road, moving towards Alausa, enroute Ojota. It was a sunny day, so we were already getting tired. As soon as we climbed the Ojota bridge, across the Odo Iyalaro stream, the police behind us started throwing tear gas at us. We were shell shocked, but we decided to run across the bridge, since the police truck was right behind us. We were then suddenly confronted with several lorry loads of armed mobile policemen, at the end of the bridge. Now we were hemmed in right in the middle of the bridge, not able to escape at all, except to jump into the stream, the depth of which we didn’t know, and also for fear of wild creatures like snakes or crocodiles. So, we decided to run into the police barricade ahead of us. And of course we were picked liked snails and herded into the waiting truck. The shock of it was that the policemen were beating us, myself, Chima and so many others, that were packed into the truck.
The police later drove us to Area ‘F’, a notorious police command in Ikeja. At first, nobody was attending to us, but we noticed that they were bringing other protesters from other locations, to join us. Towards the evening, the policemen then separated us for interrogation, where the real beating began. They were using the gun to hit us on the head and in the mouth, and some policemen were actually using the metal part of their very thick belt to whip us, on our bare backs, having ordered us to pull off our tops. After the usual interrogation, we were later transferred to the cell, to join other detainees. I heaved a sigh of relief, thinking that the flogging and beating were now over. Not long thereafter, a very tall man, of some middle age, introduced himself to us a Presido, inside the main cell. He asked us to separate ourselves from the other detainees, and then to sit down on the bare floor, with our knees raised and our heads rested on our knees and our eyes closed. We were then ordered to squeeze ourselves together so close, like sardines, so there would be no space, in between the person next to you. It was later that we got to know the meaning of this ordeal. We were to be flogged at random, and the rule was that the belt should not fall on empty space, but must certainly touch a flesh, on each occasion. So we were to be squeezed together so that the belt would properly land on any of us, at random, for each flogging.
At about 9pm, we were now separated into different groups. I was taken to a small chamber, called German Cell. The guy I met there explained to me that it was a torture chambers, where people were beaten and at times taken out at night and shot. There was a little iron rod hung on the wall up, to which I was to be tied leg up and head down, to face the second set of interrogations. As the guy brought out the rope and was reaching for the iron, I burst out into a loud wailing session, crying and begging him, to show me some mercy, swearing and vowing, never to join any protest or be involved in any struggle for Chief Abiola again. My tears soaked my naked body, part of which had become swollen and bloodied, from the previous beatings. I knelt down and begged the man, promising him heaven and earth if I could regain my freedom. We were both alone, so he paused and sat down. He looked at me. Truly at that time I was a very smallish young man. I was now terribly shaking, sobbing and weeping profusely. He said the option was that I would be beaten thoroughly so that when I go back to the main cell, it would be clear to all that I’ve had my due session in the German Cell. I quickly chose the option of beating, instead of being tied to the rod up and I thanked him, as he commenced kicking and boxing upon me, all at once. Apparently, the policemen had given them instructions to torture us mercilessly.
He then stopped and told me that I could rescue myself with a bargain. He said he’s sure that our relatives and sponsors would soon trace us, and most likely they would bring money and foodstuffs for us. So, if I could pledge to transfer all my provisions and money to him, he would end the session and also take care of me henceforth. I agreed immediately and thanked him. By the time I got back to the main cell, I was almost fainting. We remained in the main cell, the whole night, without sleep or food, as we were not allowed to lie down but sit with our knees raised and our heads bowed. What a night! By the following day, Nigerians were already expressing outrage, and Area F was flooded with many lawyers and activists, who were demanding for our release. The third day, we were arraigned at the Magistrate’s Court, Ebute-Metta, for conduct likely to cause breach of peace and unlawful assembly, and remanded in prison custody in Ikoyi, until our bail conditions were perfected. I would later join Otunba Olabiyi Durojaiye, at the dreaded Directorate of Military Intelligence, Apapa, to serve another round of eight months in detention.
Since 1998, we have demanded for official acknowledgement and recognition of June 12, through protests, strike actions and other campaigns. The Buhari administration and the All Progressive Congress government, have done that now and they deserve our collective commendation. At last, the heroes and heroines of June 12 have not labored or died in vain. It is one action taken by this government that touched many of us, who had thought that it was only some election gimmick meant to hoodwink voters. The elections have come and gone and June 12 is here with us for real and to stay.
Happy Democracy Day.