As an undergraduate at the University of Lagos, I was one of almost 20,000 students that had the good fortune to have Omoyele Sowore the President of our Students Union Government in 1993.
The June 12, 1993 elections would be the first time my generation would be old enough to vote. Nigeria’s previous democratic experiment, the 3rd Republic, had been overthrown by a coup d’état that brought General Muhammadu Buhari to power in 1983.
Now, almost ten years after Buhari’s coup, the young primary and secondary school students of 1983, were University Undergraduates, getting ready to cast their first ever votes in a democratic presidential election.
The truth of the matter was that neither of the presidential candidates for that election, Moshood Abiola of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) or Bashir Tofa of the National Republican Convention (NRC) excited those of us in the students’ movement. Our objections were many. The SDP and NRC were creations of General Babangida’s transition process. We objected to the forceful creation of only two political parties and the restrictions this imposed on Nigerians’ ability to find and join parties that appealed to their ideologies and world views. Furthermore, we saw both Abiola and Tofa as establishment candidates. They were, in our view, part of the status quo. What we all believed in, however, was the absolute need for the military to exit Nigerian politics.
Despite some high wire theatrics that preceded the elections, voting held all over Nigeria on June 12, 1993. The elections were adjudged to be the least violent and one of the freest and fairest elections ever held in Nigeria. As the election results started rolling in, it became clear that Abiola was headed for a resounding victory.
And then the annulment happened. The announcement of the results was suspended. The immediate excuse that was provided by the Babangida junta was that a court ruling had been obtained against the staging of the elections by Arthur Nzeribe’s Association for a Better Nigeria (ABN). The real reason for the annulment was that the Babangida junta was not ready to hand over. To them, the elections were a joke that had gone too far.
Opposition to the annulment was swift. Condemnation poured in from civil rights and labor activists, youth and students movement leaders and political leaders from across the nation. The military was quick to respond with high handed arrests and repressive police action.
It was in this environment of uncertainty and fear that Omoyele Sowore emerged on the national stage to offer courageous and principled leadership to the June 12 movement. Sowore forcefully argued in parliamentary sessions on the UNILAG campus and in rallies across the country that the June 12 struggle was our generational responsibility. He convinced us that the fight was not about Abiola or the status quo political process, but about protecting the fundamental principles of participatory democracy, affirming the sanctity of the democratic process and defending the inviolable role that free and fair elections play in democracies. Sowore urged and showed us by example, that there was a need to protect freedom at all costs.
Over time, the Babangida and later the Abacha junta successfully divided the political class. The military systematically decimated the ranks of civil rights and democratic activists opposed to the annulment of the June 12 elections. The ranks of the labor movement were devastated, and principled leaders like Frank Kokori of National Union of Petroleum and Natural Gas Workers (NUPENG) whose union declared a protest strike action that ground the petroleum sector to a halt, were hounded and eventually arrested and jailed. Seasoned activists like Professor Wole Soyinka and many others were forced into exile. Leaders like Pa Alfred Rewane and Alhaja Kudirat Abiola paid the ultimate price for their support for June 12.
It was Frantz Fanon that said, “Each generation must, out of relative obscurity, discover its mission, fulfil it, or betray it.”
June 12, 1993 was a watershed moment for my generation. It was not only the first elections we were old enough to participate in as voters, it was also the first opportunity we were offered to defend freedom. June 12 was our generational mission. Sowore helped us to fulfil that mission.
Fate placed Sowore in the leadership of what was arguably Nigeria’s most visible students’ union government at the University of Lagos. Sowore personifies our response to this generational calling. Because of him, we can say we stood up to fight tyranny. I am proud that the Nigerian students’ movement never wavered in its support for June 12. How could we falter? The tone of resistance had been set for us in 1993, by our fearless and courageous leader, Omoyele Sowore.
From the time of the annulment until he handed over to me as the next President of the University of Lagos Students’ Union in 1994, Sowore was the face and the voice of the student and youth opposition to the annulment of the June 12, 1993 elections.
From 1993 until 1999 when the military eventually capitulated, the Nigerian students and youth movement led the fight, on their campuses and in the streets, for the restoration of the democratic process. Because of leaders like Sowore, we can say we found our mission and fulfilled it.
Dr Malcolm Fabiyi
Former Students’ Union President
University of Lagos Students Union Government