Lagos — The military authorities nullified it before the final results were collated. Its presumed winner, Chief M.K.O. Abiola, died in jail three years ago, detained by the military for declaring himself president. But eight years on, memories of Nigeria's 1993 presidential election still burn bright.
Its advocates say the intense feelings about the event, now known simply as "June 12", will not be calmed until the Nigerian authorities acknowledge its place in Nigerian history. "June 12 is divine," says a worker at First Bank of Nigeria, the country's biggest bank. Without it, he says, Nigeria would not have returned to democratic rule two years ago.
The sudden cancellation of the results of the 1993 presidential election by the General Ibrahim Babangida's government left many Nigerians gasping for explanations.
The contest pitted Abiola, a multi-billionaire, a Muslim and Yoruba from the south-west and Babagana Kingibe, another Muslim from the north, as his Vice-Presidential candidate, against the rival slate of Bashir Tofa, from Kano in the north, and Sylvester Ugo, an economist from the south-east.
With votes from most parts of Nigeria already counted, news reports said Abiola's team was clearly in the lead.
But with the stroke of a pen, the military government aborted Nigeria's march towards democracy. With a handwritten announcement issued from the office of the then Chief of General Staff, and read over the national television network, the military authorities cancelled an election that was later described as the freest and fairest in Nigeria's history.
The cancellation galvanised disparate pressure groups, labour unions and ethnic organisations from all over Nigeria. From the south-west to the south-east; from the far north to the central region, protests spread across the entire nation, defying the usual ethnic divisions.
Abiola's appeal in the voided election had followed the same pattern. He had transcended ethnic and religious barriers. A Muslim from the south-west, he won elections in northern states such as Kano, Jigawa, Kaduna, Borno,Yobe, Plateau, Taraba and Benue; But he also won in such predominantly Christian states as Anambra, Edo, Delta, Cross River, and Ondo.
Nigerians saw the 1993 elections as a golden opportunity: "The participation and conduct of the Nigerian electorate on June 12, 1993, showed their firm resolve to do away with the military dictatorship," Abrahim Adasanya, leader of Afenifere, the pan-Yoruba organisation, said in an early morning broadcast to mark the day. That determination made voters willing to look beyond ethnic and religious sentiments.
But cancellation of the election confirmed the suspicion long held by many Nigerians that the military was not ready to give up political power. Before the elections, Babangida had taken Nigerians through what seemed like an endless transition programme, during which he banned and unbanned politicians, and formed and dissolved political associations.
Demonstrating that the protests were more than ethnic in nature, supporters of June 12 continued to fight, even after Babangida "stepped aside", having installed Ernest Shonekan - a Yoruba man - as head of an Interim National Government. The protests continued until November 17, 1993, when veteran coupmaker General Sanni Abacha ejected Shonekan to take power for himself.
The protests reached their climax during the five-year rule of Abacha. A coalition of pro-democracy forces sprang up to press for the June 12 result to be honoured. Abiola himself was forced into temporary exile for a period.
Members of the coalition were killed - some bombed, some shot. One of those shot by agents of the military was Kudirat Abiola, wife of M.K.O Abiola. Many others were thrown into jail, and left to rot.
Nigeria returned to democracy two years ago. Yet June 12 advocates say the government of President Olusegun Obasanjo has failed to acknowledge Abiola's importance. "Even Obasanjo did not acknowledge the sacrifice of that man," Dr Joe Okei, Secretary-General of Campaign for Democracy, one of the pro-democracy, human rights organisations that backed the June 12 result, said this week during a live programme on African Independent Television (AIT) to mark the anniversary.
To show full appreciation for Abiola's role in restoring democracy in Nigeria, "there should be a posthumous declaration of Abiola as the president of Nigeria," said Okei, who stressed that, "without June 12 there would be no democracy [in Nigeria]."
Obasanjo's government has declared May 29 as 'Democracy Day' in Nigeria, the date the last military government handed over power to Obasanjo in 1999. It is observed as a public holiday. But June 12 protagonists say the wrong date has been chosen.
"June 12 is more important than May 29," says Abdul Oroh, Executive Director of the Civil Liberties Organisation; "the military could have handed over power any day."
A viewer calling in to the AIT programme drew a parallel with the birth of a child. Among the Yoruba people, there are two key dates when a child is born - the date of birth and the later date when it receives its name. He said that for Nigeria's democracy, May 29 was the date of naming ceremony, but June 12 was the birthday; and, he said, the birthday will always be more important than the naming ceremony.