Me, My Dad and Democracy: Election Triumph and Tragedy in Nigeria

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In 2011 there will be 17 elections across the African continent, and it will take every citizen, in every country to promote and defend their democratic rights.

by Adunola Abiola

Adunola Abiola is a daughter of the late Chief Moshood Abiola of
Nigeria. Chief Abiola won the 1993 Nigerian Presidential Election but
was detained shortly afterwards by military general Sani Abacha.
Detained for five years, Chief Abiola fell sick during a meeting with a
US delegation headed by then Assistant Secretary of State, Thomas
Pickering, and died shortly after.

Elections are supposed to be a time of change at the very worst, and celebration at best.

When the issue of democracy in Africa arises, the usual sentiment is
fear for the transparency of the electoral process. I obtained
experience about democracy at a young age, in both my personal and
educational lives.

I was far from a model student growing up – I hardly showed up to
class on time and rarely ever submitted my homework. Few subjects
engaged me more than my ancient Greek and classical studies classes.

I was particularly intrigued by the ancient Athenians. I studied
their art, sculpture, architecture, literature, military tactics, their
great statesmen, and most importantly their unique form of democracy.
Although women, slaves, and a category of people called metics – about
¾ of Athenian society - could not participate in public life, everyone
else did.

Citizens participated in debates on national issues, sat on juries, and formed the national army.

While I immersed myself in ancient Athenian democracy, in Nigeria, my
father was languishing in detention in defense of democracy. I spent
many years trying to figure out his crime. The basic story is that in
1993, he won the first – and only – free and fair election in Nigeria’s
history. I was about ten years old at the time. 

Nelson Mandela and Chief Abiola
Chief Abiola (r) greets Nelson Mandela, shortly after Mandela's
release from Robben Island in 1998. 

On my many visits to Nigeria growing up, I realized that my father
was a well-known and generally popular figure. He came from extremely
humble roots and as a result, understood better than I, the plight of
ordinary Africans. His understanding translated into sympathy and his
sympathy into legendary generosity. My father would effortlessly go from
dining with kings and heads of states, to eating at a bukka (local
eatery) with all and sundry.My dad was a transparent man – everybody
knew that his story symbolized the aspirations of many Africans. He had
no family connections and his parents were desperately poor – all he had
was his brain and unstoppable determination.

On June 12, 1993, the Nigerian people from the North, East, South and
West, elected him their next President. I certainly was very proud of
my dad. He won what I would describe as a unifying election in Nigeria.
Given Nigeria’s turbulent and divisive history, I was proud but
unsurprised that people across tribes and religions had elected him as
their leader.

Chief Adiola casts his votes
Chief Adiola votes in the 1993 elections. (BBC Photo)

The excitement was short-lived. Before the full results were
publicly announced, the election was annulled by Ibrahim Badamasi
Babangida – a former friend of my father’s.

Much like Allasane Ouattara today, my father fought back and made
representations to the international community – but to no avail. My
father weighed his options, and eventually decided to declare himself
President. To the extent possible he wanted a peaceful solution to the
political crisis. Others sought to organize ethnic-based militias, but
my father would have none of it. Instead, he gave himself up as a wanted
man.

On June 23, 1994 my dad was arrested and charged with treason. As an
11-year-old trying to understand why and how my life was being turned
upside down, I became deeply troubled. What kind of world allows
something like this to happen? My studies of Athenian democracy helped
me understand why my father’s election mattered, and why it could not be
ignored and swept under a gargantuan carpet.

Today – as in Athens – elections and democracy are a means to a great
end. My father understood this – his vision for the country was much
like the vision he had for his own life.

Through the electoral process he was able to unify the country he
loved so dearly. He planned to use this unity to build a constituency in
support of his socially oriented policies. The successful
implementation of his policies, he believed, would help Nigeria to
realize its potential. My father never got to realize his vision for
Nigeria. He remained in detention for four years, for a crime that
doesn’t exist – winning an election. On the day he was due to be
released, he died mysteriously. My dad’s death was as dramatic as his
life.

On hearing the news, after screaming and crying, I prepared myself to
bury him. I hoped that when I got to Nigeria, I would find him alive
and well. Instead, I found a nation in mourning.

As I had come home to bury him, so had the Nigerian masses. I found
myself consoling Nigerians who had never met my dad before. I could see
from the desperation on some people’s faces that their loss was greater
than mine.

As soon as I was old enough, I traveled to every corner of Nigeria. I
wanted to see for myself what it was that my father lived and died for.
I met a vibrant people, with unending faith in their own destiny.
However, the national unity created in the aftermath of the 1993
election was gone; projections of doom and gloom for Nigeria abounded,
while flawed elections perpetuated discussions on Nigeria’s status as a
failed state.

It is difficult to prove, but there must be some correlation between
the political and developmental trajectory of Nigeria and the inability
of its political class to hold or respect free and fair elections.

The Romans used to say that vox dei vox populi - the voice of the
people was the voice of the gods. The sovereign will of a nation as
expressed through the ballot box is not an event that should be brushed
aside – it is in fact sacred.

Throughout history, great nations have always lost their way when a
few people in power claim to know better than the entire society.

Despite the shortcomings of Athenian democracy, I developed profound
admiration for the fact that – for better or worse – people took their
destiny into their own hands. For this reason I believe that debates
about democracy in Africa unnecessarily focus on the continent’s
leaders. This is not where the center of gravity lies.

In Tunisia the people took to the streets and asked their president
to step down. President Ben Ali had no choice but to acknowledge their
will over his own. 

The success of democracy is less about what the leaders of Africa do,
than about the steps that the African people take to defend their
God-given right to lead themselves.

My father was one man, and the fact that he was able to mobilize an
entire country was admirable. However, my dad always used to say that
you can’t clap with one hand.

My father’s democratic dream would not have been possible without the
people who attended his campaign rallies, voted for him, and who fought
and died defending his democratic vision.

In 2011 there will be 17 elections across the African continent, and
it will take every citizen, in every country to promote and defend their
democratic rights - like the Athenians did.

Nigeria's next presidential election is scheduled for April 2011.
The current crop of Nigerian leaders stand on the shoulders of Chief
Abiola, who demonstrated that a democratic struggle can be waged and won
even under terrifying circumstances. Nigeria has answered that clarion
call.

This article first appeared on Vote4Africa.org, and is reprinted here with permission. Vote4Africa is a not-for-profit organization that mobilizes international grassroots support to ensure the effective implementation of free and fair elections throughout Africa. For more
information, visit Vote4Africa.org, follow
@Vote4Africa or join the discussion on Facebook.

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