June 12 & the complexities of status symbols in Nigeria

A lineage of ironies whitewashed for the sake of wholesome greatness

If you’re adequately—or even slightly—versed on the history of Nigeria, the irony of last year’s nationwide protests on June 12 is evident. 29 years ago, on the same date, age-appropriate citizens participated in the election meant to usher in a civilian administration to end over a decade of military rule. The June 12, 1993 elections have been described as the most peaceful polls in the country’s fraught history with elections, however, the results were retracted and annulled by the then-dictator, General Ibrahim Babangida. It would take nearly six years for another presidential poll to be conducted and a formal transition to democracy.

Nearly eight months after soldiers of the Nigerian army shot at peaceful protesters at the Lekki tollgate, Nigerians defiantly congregated in several major cities across the country on June 12, 2021, in protest of the perpetual systemic rot we’ve all been living through for far too long. This year, there were no protests, mainly because there’s an impending general elections, and 23 years since exiting military dictatorship, the debilitating issues are evident.

Nigeria is going through its worst bout of internal insecurity problems since gaining independence. Regressive economic policies and rampant corruption continue to worsen multi-dimensional poverty, police brutality remains prevalent even though we loudly requested not to be killed, and the grave inadequacies of social and physical infrastructure consistently makes the standard of living bothersome for most Nigerians. On paper, lasting change from the autocratic leadership of our past should’ve been the ideal prescription for forward evolution, but in reality, it has emboldened existing problems and created a thriving ground for a cesspool of new societal ills. Sadly, this isn’t where the irony starts or ends.

In 2019, President Muhammadu Buhari officially recognised June 12 as Democracy Day, in commemoration of the peaceful 1993 election, which is widely believed to have been comfortably won by the late Chief Moshood Abiola. A successful businessman, beloved philanthropist and lifelong politician, MKO Abiola, as he is affectionately referred to, emerged as a symbol in the fight for Nigerian democracy. He was arrested, imprisoned and allegedly assassinated for his insistence on taking his rightful place and fulfilling his obligation as an elected president. He is a martyr. The thing is, though, martyrs are not always saints.

For all his inherent flaws, one of the overwhelmingly positive attributes of Fela Anikulapo-Kuti was his unbending dedication to socio-political truth-telling. In 1980, the Afrobeat pioneer recorded and released “International Thief Thief (I.T.T.),” a vitriol-laced barrage of arrows fired at the rich who’d acquired their wealth through corrupt practices. Already in his militant, post-Zombie’ era, Fela directly called out the principal target of his ire, MKO Abiola. The song’s title was a play on the name of the multi-national telecommunications company MKO locally headed at the time.

At the time, Fela was in a bitter battle with Decca Records over unpaid royalties from the albums he cut for the record company; MKO Abiola was the chairman of Decca Records’ operations in Nigeria at the time. While this personal connection definitely played a huge role in the making of “I.T.T.”, Fela’s indictment went beyond personal vendetta. Well before he embodied the hopes and dreams of a democratic Nigeria, corruption allegations trailed MKO Abiola’s career. In a Washington Post report from 1980, it is alleged that he was central to “questionable payments of millions of dollars” to gain Nigerian contracts on behalf of International Telephone and Telegraph Corporation.

While that’s the most popular example of MKO’s allegedly unscrupulous side, there are loose narratives of his un-ideal ventures as a politician, which supposedly included the sponsoring of one or more coups. Also, for a man who wanted to serve as the president of a multi-religious country, he was a vocal advocate for the adoption of Sharia law in the south-west. These parts of his life have been greatly downplayed in the MKO mythos, focusing instead on his philanthropy and democratic stance. Of course, there’s a legitimacy in hinging the bulk of his legacy on the latter point, he did win a pivotal election and remained defiant in the face of brutal despotism. On the face of it, he seemingly had a few crooked bones in him, a potential messiah who committed the sins you’d expect of the archetypal Nigerian politician.

Due to its ever-evolving variety of social, political and economic issues, Nigeria has a constant fixation with messiahs, ideal figures that represent the sort of leadership required to turn around the country’s fortunes. Except you’ve done some research, it is impossible to not think of MKO Abiola as this sort of apex hero but he exemplifies the complicatedness of many of the country’s symbols. It is interesting, and perhaps sobering, that the inspirational figure behind the most symbolic date in Nigeria’s was allegedly flawed in ways that mocked the very democracy he became a champion of.

Across global history, there are symbolic figures who represent this sort of irony, popular individuals with storied legacies and abysmal attributes. Sometimes, these legacies are revised to appropriately capture the complex nature of their person. For examples: Winston Churchill has been described as one of the greatest English statesmen ever but his racist and imperialist reputations have adjusted perception of him; Mahatma Gandhi’s activist work and philosophical ideals earned him global adulation, but stories of his horrible deeds as a serial sexual abuser of minors has undone some of that adulation.

This sort of in-depth revisionism is not yet commonplace amongst Nigerians, saddling us with heroic figures whose realities fail to live up to expectations. Here’s an example that turns my stomach every time I think about it: the airport in Lagos is named after a former military dictator who was the commanding officer in charge of the army battalion responsible for one of the most gruesome acts of genocide in Nigerian history.

In the aftermath of President Buhari’s incensing tweet which ostensibly threatened war by invoking the civil war of the late ‘60s, I came to find out that many Igbo people and well-versed individuals in Nigerian history are cynical of Nnamdi Azikiwe, Nigeria’s first president who is widely considered a hero of independence. According to accounts, Azikiwe colluded with politicians from the northern region for ideological but ultimately personal reasons, with a popular news journalist deeming him as “a pan-Africanist hotep.” As the leader of the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC)—the political party founded by Herbert Macaulay—circa independence, he joined forces with the Northern People’s Congress (NPC), stalling plans for independence until the north was ready, vehemently opposing federalism and a proposed bill by the Obafemi Awolowo-led Action Group (AG) for regions to seek secession down the line.

This arrangement helped make Tafawa Balewa, Nigeria’s first prime minister, enshrining a model of civic nationalism without taking stock of the country’s ethno-religious complexities that would, and still continues to, prove a thorn in our side. There is an archival interview clip of Ahmadu Bello, then leader of NPC, Northern Premier and Sarduana of Sokoto, being openly bigoted toward Igbo people, an irony considering his party’s affiliation with the Azikiwe’s, and a least discussed part of his legacy even though he is nationally deified.

Even Obafemi Awolowo, who led the opposition at the time, played a key role in the civil war as finance minister in the Yakubu Gowon-led regime despite being a loud advocate for regional federalism and an initial sympathiser for the agitations of Nigeria’s South-East region. Speaking of Gowon, the former dictator granted an interview on the 50th anniversary of the end of the civil war, stating that he didn’t do anything wrong by fighting a war for Nigeria’s “non-negotiable” unity. Now regarded as an elder statesman, he continued to peddle the “no victor, no vanquished” rhetoric, choosing not to account for his regime’s failings in a war that cost millions of lives.

The complicatedness of the symbolic figures mentioned in this article—and the dozens more unmentioned—play a significant role in the way Nigeria is currently shaped and the social, economic, and political issues it continues to face. The problem with the relative obscurity of these wholesome portraits from Nigerian history is that information is not made readily available for the many Nigerians who did not live to witness these personalities and the foundational events.

I spent all of my formal education days within the Nigerian education, and I can comfortably say that the overwhelming bulk of my knowledge of contemporary Nigerian history has come from a handful of books and a lot of Google searches. The same applies to many Nigerian Millennials and Gen Zers, because both basic and in-depth acquaintance with our history are by-products of our curiosity. Nigeria is structured to keep the darker parts of its history hidden, making it almost impossible to actually know and wholly revise the exploits of those it considers its heroes. The effect of this is that we repeat the same cycles even if the context shifts.

By the next general elections in 2023, Nigeria would be twenty-four years into its fourth republic, running a democratic system of government. In sixteen of those years, we would’ve been led by two former dictators who were elected into office twice, Olusegun Obasanjo and Muhammadu Buhari. Not only are they similar with these feats, but they are also interestingly linked: After resuming as head of state, following the assassination of Murtala Mohammed, Obasanjo relinquished power to civilian rule in 1979; four years later, Buhari returned the country back to military control. During their time as military rulers, both of these men were scathingly criticised by Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, a pre-emptive indicator that both were far from the public-serving saviours they billed themselves as when seeking election through democratic means.

In an interview aired on the government-owned Nigerian Television Authority (NTA), the evening before last year’s June 12 celebrations, Buhari claimed that Nigerians are forgetful of his administration’s achievements, stating that over ten million people have been moved from poverty. A simple fact check proves this to be very untrue. The claim, however, is not entirely surprising. If anything, it is emblematic of the exaggerated premise on which he campaigned, where his previous run as a dictator was described as the apex of patriotism to a younger generation desperately looking for a potential hero.

Since Buhari (re-)entered the highest public office in the land six years ago, Nigeria has plunged deeper into poverty and unemployment, while insurgency and general insecurity have become a far worse problem. The economy is running on the fumes of bad policies, and all around us, the press and general freedom of speech are being attacked, and the president has shown his preference for un-democratic ideals a handful of times. It is a befitting sequel to his time as a military rule. When asked, during another rare interview on Arise TV in 2021, what his legacy would be, Buhari said he’d leave that to the Nigerian populace with hopes that they’d be fair to him. To me, it sounded like a suggestive answer from a man who would like to be someday considered a hero. Considering Nigeria’s penchant for historic irony, it doesn’t seem like a far-fetched wish.

@dennisadepeter is a staff writer at the NATIVE.