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12 June 2018

25 YEARS ON, MORE LESSONS OF JUNE 12

By Lanre Arogundade

The declaration of June 12 as 'Democracy Day' as against the previous May 29, and the conferment of national awards of Grand Commander of Federal Republic of Nigeria (GCFR) and Grand Commander of the Order of Niger (GCON) respectively on Basorun MKO Abiola, winner of the June 12, 1993 elections, and Chief Gani Fawehinmi, radical lawyer and foremost human rights activist, have given significant flavour to celebrations of the 25th anniversary this year.

To many working class elements, youths, human rights activists, trade unionists, etc, this development is seen as bringing some justice to Basorun Abiola, who despite being a capitalist politician and indeed friend of the military, stood by the mandate given him by 14 million Nigerians who participated in the 1993 presidential election. This act of defiance to the ruling generals invariably got him killed while he was still in detention.

Gani Fawehinmi too was a very prominent figure in the June 12 struggle. He led the Joint Action Committee of Nigeria (JACON) to fight for the restoration of the mandate while demanding the convocation of a sovereign national conference to democratically determine the way forward for a Nigeria thrown into social and political turmoil. He later formed the National Conscience Party of Nigeria in 1994 in defiance of the military that had then banned political parties and activities; a development that led to his prolonged incarceration and brutalization with consequent negative effects on his health. Upon the return of civil rule in 1999, Gani fought street and court battles, in which members of the Democratic Socialist Movement (DSM) actively participated, that led to the registration of the NCP and other political parties, thereby allowing them to stand in elections. With a programme anchored on the abolition of poverty, free education and free health care, the NCP, with genuine socialists and unionists playing active leadership roles, recorded important landmarks in the 2003 elections where, in Lagos State, for example, the party came third in all elections held that year.

The recognition of Abiola and Gani could therefore not but be warmly received although Nigerians have condemned the dubious award of GCON on Abiola's running mate, Baba Gana Kingibe, who actually abandoned the mandate and then worked with the military to truncate June 12.

The fact that Abiola has not been declared winner of the election outright is also not lost on Nigerian people who now want him recognised as a former president.

Indeed, there are many more heroes of that historic battle that can only be properly recognised by a working people's government. Indeed if Buhari, who led the military to truncate democratic rule in 1983 and also later served under the brutal Abacha dictator who jailed Abiola and assassinated several pro-democracy activists, has chosen to recognise Abiola and June 12 now, it is partly due to political calculation that the decision could win him votes for his second term bid, particularly in the south west.

This is against the background of his waning popularity following the inability of his government to fundamentally address the myriad of problems facing the Nigerian people through the continuation of anti-people and exploitative economic policies of the past governments like privatization and commercialization. Joblessness remains high while education and health care continue to prove unaffordable for the majority poor. Nigerians now pay more for petroleum products than they have ever done. Although the government has said it has recovered billions of looted funds, Nigerians want to see the money spent to improve their welfare.

The non-official recognition of the true heroes of the struggle for June 12 especially the poor working masses and youths that were mauled to death during the protests is however in line with what has become a tradition of the capitalist ruling class. It also reflects the contradiction both in the June 12 movement itself and the position of the Buhari regime which dearly needs to appropriate the image of Abiola and June 12 but cannot risk giving credit to the mass movement behind Abiola for this would mean a condemned man venerating the hangman.

For example, bourgeois historians of June 12 hardly mention the prolonged strike embarked upon by the petroleum workers with their major demand being the recognition of the June 12 election and the swearing in of Chief MKO Abiola as president. The then leaders of the petroleum workers, including Frank Kokori and Wariebe Agamene, were detained for several months while their families were terrorised. The rank and file was not spared the military regime's brutalisation. And several workers, students, youths and the unemployed were killed on the streets of Lagos and other places on the orders of the rampaging military regimes of first General Babangida and later General Sani Abacha. Press freedom was also seriously and serially violated with media houses shut down and many journalists brutalized and jailed.

Yet, it was a fear of a renewed movement of the post-1993 militant strikes, street protests, rallies, stay-at-homes, etc, in which socialists organised around the DSM actively participated, that invariably compelled the military to organise the transition programme that led to the return of civil rule in 1999. A major lesson here is that without the working class majority playing a central and leading role in the struggles of the urban and rural poor as well as the youths and the unemployed, only very limited concessions could be won from the capitalists class. And, as the experience from 1999 to now have shown, the capitalist elite would continue to replicate themselves in power while continuing with the imposition of anti-poor policies like privatisation/commercialisation of public utilities, education, increase in the price of fuel, retrenchment of workers, etc.

Free and fair?

Though it is often said that June 12 remains the freest and fairest elections in Nigeria's history, this fact must be put within proper perspective and historical context. First, the idea of an election being free and fair is not just a question of whether or not votes were manipulated. It is also a function of whether the process and rules are open and democratic enough to allow all segments of society especially the working class to participate through independent political organisations of their own. In that context, the Babangida transition was manipulated in such a way that the working masses had imposed on them two capitalist parties, SDP and NRC, that were in reality two sides of the same coin. The names, manifestoes, offices, funds and what have you of the parties all came from the military regime.

The major fear that gripped the ruling class in not allowing Bashorun MKO Abiola to become President was because of the popular movement that later developed around the implementation of the June 12 mandate and their fear that this movement could compel him to take populist measures like halting, delaying or reversing some of the neo-liberal policies like privatisation, commercialisation etc. which he also shared and contained in his manifesto. Although it was very unlikely that an Abiola capitalist government could have fundamentally threatened capitalism or allowed the democratic control and management of the economy by the working class, its very coming into office could have popularly been seen as a signal that now was the time to demand and struggle for change.

But given the mass movement that built around the June 12 struggle, it was difficult for Abiola to surrender the mandate. He held on to it and was killed while still being detained by the military government of General Abdulsalami Abubakar as part of its plan to have a "controlled" transition to civilian rule. Abiola's courage and heroism stood him out and for long he would be revered as a symbol of democratic struggle in Nigeria.

What next?

For socialists, elections will always be a means to an end and not an end in itself. Even where a working class political organisation like the Socialist Party of Nigeria (SPN), comes into power, it must of necessity quickly take measures against the capitalists. This would primarily be through nationalisation of the commanding heights of the economy under workers' democratic management and control in order to free the resources necessary to carry out fundamental reforms in the areas of job creation, payment of living wages to match the rate of inflation, education, healthcare, provision of infrastructure etc. This will go along with a class appeal to the working class allies, locally peasants and farmers, youths and the unemployed and the international working class, to defend the government against attacks and sabotage by local capitalists and their foreign imperialist backers who, though, are in the minority, appropriate or pocket the largest share of the wealth produced by the working class majority. Without such socialist policies such a government would be trapped by capitalism, ending up disappointing, or even betraying, the movement that initially backed it.

The process of such a political organisation coming into power would require the mobilisation and support of the organisations of the working masses and youths such as labour, the trade unions, the students unions etc. That is why socialists and working class and youth activists must link the struggle for reforms with the struggle to transform such groups as the labour centres, the industrial unions, the students unions, the non-unionized workers, market men and women etc., into fighting organisations that could form and build a mass working people party which is armed with socialist programmes and perspectives.

This should be the real lessons of June 12 for genuine change seeking elements.

This article was originally written to mark the 10th anniversary of June 12 but has been updated



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