20 Years After, Tonnie Iredia Opens Up On What Transpired Inside Aso Rock Just Before June 12 Election Annulment
In 1993, Bashorun MKO Abiola of the Social Democratic Party, SDP, defeated Bashir Tofa of the National Republican Convention, NRC, but the announcement of the results was ordered suspended by an Abuja High Court (which the law had barred from entertaining the suit). This is Nigeria where anything can and, thus, happen!
The June 12 presidential election remains the freest and fairest in the history of Nigeria. But it was annulled 20years ago this month. In the build-up to this two-part series, a few Nigerians spoken to insisted that the country has moved on. Indeed, that is true; but the country has merely moved on in the wrong direction on a faulty premise (Read main story).
In this first major interview with Tonnie Iredia, the Director of Public Affairs for the National Electoral Commission, NEC, since those dark days, he makes some startling revelations. And because it is vintage Iredia, you would observe the ease with which he tries to make sense in the simplest of ways, of issues that may appear at once complex and complicated. This was not the first meeting with Iredia.
Iredia, who is a trained lawyer and a PhD holder, explained what went down at the NEC headquarters between June 10, 1993 and the days following the election. This is just the first part. Excerpts:
Let us start on this note. June 12, 1993 presidential election was annulled. You were the Director of Public Affairs for the then National Electoral Commission, NEC. Some people have said there was a hidden agenda. This month marks 20 years after that event. What would be your first shot?
I believe that there was a hidden agenda behind June 12. I don’t know who had that agenda. But I will not exonerate government because of vicarious liability and you must take both the blame and credit for whatever happened in your administration. There were things that make me feel that there was really a hidden agenda and a lot of people had an interest in that military government continuing in office in perpetuity.
In this course of investigating this story and speaking to a lot of insiders, I gathered that NEC officials had gone to Aso Rock Presidential Villa on Thursday, June 10, 1993, to brief members of the Transitional Council on preparations for the election and that an altercation occurred that was later to make sense. When we went to brief the transitional administration at that time, one of the very senior members of government first made a side talk that almost turned into something else by asking what we were really in the Villa for. And we said we came to brief government on the preparations for the election of the day after tomorrow. And he said, ‘oh, is there going to be an election’? At the point this interrogation went on, we thought it was a joke.
Did this make any sense to you at that time?
No! It was as if some people in government just wanted to be sure, but with what happened later that night, it became clearer what had transpired earlier in the day.
This was in the morning of Thursday, June 10, 1993?
Yes! It became clear that some people in government had a fore knowledge about what would later happen that night; because I no longer took that to be a joke after the events that happened later in the day. (An Abuja High Court ordered that the election should not hold and the judgment was delivered by Justice Ikpeme, a lady, at 9:35pm, less than 36hours to the election; the commission, however, went ahead to organize the election based on backing from the government of the day).
The election was on Saturday, June 12, the next day (after the election), the government newspaper of the time, the New Nigerian, wrote an editorial and what the newspaper said was what the other side of the argument had been saying but, more importantly, the newspaper accused the electoral commission of going ahead with the election when it knew that members of the public had been confused about the election holding or not.
In any case, it further said the commission should have enlightened Nigerians very well that the election was still going to hold. But I find that very funny because one of the things that nobody would not take away from that commission was effective publicity. Some people were even accusing Nwosu of being too publicity conscious and, if anything, maybe there was something that the government wanted the commission to do but which it was not told.
Up until the month of June (1993), Nigerians remained long-suffering despite the shifting of the terminal date for the transition programme. Most people have their versions of what happened. You were in NEC. There was this body called the Association for Better Nigeria, ABN, led by Arthur Nzeribe and one Abimbola Davies, which was conducting its affairs in a manner meant to injure NEC. Did the commission make any move to government to say ‘please intervene in what these people are doing?’
Well, we didn’t think that the goal of ABN was to injure the electoral commission even though if they were to succeed, the injury on us would be indirect in terms of our image. The intention was to destabilize the transition programme which was dearer to the government than even NEC. So, if the government in power was going to allow a group, by whatever name called, to destabilize its programme, then it would be foolhardy for an electoral body to say ‘we are not going to allow you injure our image’.
Because this was going to be more than an election, it was about the entire programme that the group was angling to injure. The late Augustus Aikhomu, who was then Vice President, did issue a statement that the transition programme did not have a hidden agenda; that the government was going to keep its promise; they kept telling us not to lose faith, not to listen to rumours. Government made several pronouncements and that gave us the impression that government was honest and sincere and that, in the event of a legal battle, these people were going to lose.
In retrospect, would you agree that NEC should have placed it on record that it approached government and warned government of the implications of the activities of the ABN, especially since the transition decree spelt out punishment for saboteurs of the programme?
All that you’ve said was for government. For us in the commission at that time, we were sure of one thing, that the efforts of the ABN could not stop us. And you see, the laws setting us up made it very clear that ‘NOTHING’ could stop us. You can do whatever you like – you can sue us, take us to court, obtain injunctions and what have you – but we were not going to stop what we were doing because we did not see any challenge or any obstacle in that way. We would have preferred that there was peace and no distractions. We didn’t see the need to go and start fighting ABN since ABN had been put in a state that it could not stop us and, indeed, it could not stop us.
Now to that judgment on the night of Thursday, June 10, 1993! The judgment was delivered at 9:35pm and, judging by the schedule of work just two days to the election, you would have still been in the office. What was the first reaction when you heard the judgment?
The first reaction really was that we thought it was a joke. Nobody in the commission believed that there was any such judgment.
Especially at 9:35pm?
Yes, at 9:35pm.The day had ended and, if the court was going to do anything, it would have to be the following day.
So, where exactly were most officers of the commission at that time?
Some of us were still in the office, some were at home, some were in the hotels and we started calling one another and the general response was ‘please come off it’, ‘which type of joke is that?’, ‘which court’? We all thought it was a joke until the following morning when we saw the papers and the press was abuzz with the judgment. It didn’t make sense to us.
What did Professor Nwosu, your chairman, do?
He put a call across to Aso Rock and we were told that we should just continue with our work. So, the chairman called a press conference and announced that NEC was going ahead and that nothing was going to stop us.
Couldn’t the commission have gone to court that Friday to obtain an injunction?
Well, that position was canvassed by some people in the commission. But, at that point, there was a legal advice which was quite persuasive. It was a judgment delivered by Justice Oguntade, an outstanding Nigerian judge. Some people had sought to stop us from conducting an election earlier and Oguntade said the decision of the court stopping us was illegal; that the law setting us up had made that clear; and he also said that such a judgment was in vain and that the commission was free to ignore that judgment and that the commission even had no business going on appeal.
That judgment was read to us and we were convinced that we had no business appealing the judgment and that the commission could just go about its business. So, with that, we didn’t have any business finding out about what the rule of law said more so since the government itself had given assurances that we should just go ahead. Some times when people talk about rule of law under a military, some of us laugh. What is rule of law when military makes bad laws? In law, a bad law is a retrospective law. A bad law is a law that targets individuals which the military was very good at.
That election held and held well. But we’ve never had that type of peaceful elections again. What conditions made it possible to have that type of ambience?
We must give that credit to the military. But the other side of it is that military-organised elections are no elections because people are virtually cowed into doing what they do. The militarization is such that you begin to wonder whether you were actually holding an election. Professor Nwabueze, the learned legal luminary, drew attention to the fact that in 1993 alone, over 103 decrees were promulgated to regulate elections. You can imagine that with such number of decrees, nobody really knew whether we were doing elections or not.
That election was free and fair to the extent that the kind of things that people were able to stomach was just so that the military should go such that Nigerians conditioned themselves to tolerate the plethora of decrees regulating elections – like disqualifying people in the morning and bringing them back with another decree in the evening. People accepted the things that they would not accept today because they wanted the military to go.
But we must also be fair that the Nwosu team was quite knowledgeable, was quite articulate, and the plans were very, very detailed. And then there was this inter-governmental agency set up just for the election in which everybody put all hands on deck. I want to believe that it would take a long while to have that type of election again if ever we do.
The election held but the Chief Judge of Abuja ordered NEC to stop announcing the results. Now, why did NEC, which claimed that the laws setting it up forbade it from obeying the court, turn round to obey the fresh order? What happened?
Wonderful! This question had been asked before but let me tell you that people did not understand what transpired. The first judgment issued by Justice Ikpeme was disobeyed by the electoral commission with the active support of the government. The government itself came up with a statement that it was going ahead with the election and, therefore, the commission had the government of the day behind it.
But there was this argument put forward by our legal department that, as of that day, the statute, case law, had been put down by Oguntade and we did not have any business obeying a court that had been disallowed from stopping us; that we didn’t have any business going on appeal because the previous judgment had shown that we had no business obeying it; and the mood of the nation was such that the election had to hold.Therefore when the chairman came out to say the election would be held, there was jubilation and the mood of the nation was one of relief. Then the second judgment came.
Sorry, before that second judgment given by the Chief Judge of Abuja, Dahiru Saleh, did you not see any signs to show that something untoward could happen?
Good. I, as Director of Public Affairs of the commission, brought some innovations, one of which was that the results were to be mounted on a scoreboard outside the commission’s building but within its compound so that people who were just passing by on the street would be updated with the latest and we were supposed to be displaying these results as and when they were certified to be correct, counted; and collated and the agents agreeing and affirming the authenticity of the results, we would go ahead and put on the scoreboard. After about eight of the results from the states had been put on the scoreboard, I was called into the office of the chairman and was told to go and remove the scoreboard. I became shocked when I heard this.
This was before the second judgment ordering NEC to stop?
Yes! The second judgment had not come. I was told to go and remove it, that there was no need to display inchoate results because it was not good to start telling people who was leading when the whole results had not been received. I didn’t know if this was a new thinking by members of the commission or whether it was the political parties themselves who wanted this.
Today, many people blame the military but it was the political parties that instigated most of the things the military did. It was the politicians themselves who went to the military to complain that the primaries they conducted, to determine who their candidates would be, was fraught with irregularities and dangers and that the process should be canceled. By the time the then military president came out to disqualify the candidates, people said the military didn’t want to go. Meanwhile, it was these same candidates who went and complained that their own primaries were useless and that they should be canceled.
I suspect that it was these same politicians who came up with the idea that we should stop announcing the results on the scoreboard. For the first time, the directive instructing me not to display the results was not rational; it wasn’t like the directives I usually got. The persons telling me to stop didn’t even look persuaded and persuasive enough about the instruction. It was as if something negative was in the air because we had announced the governorship election results in the same way, so what was the big deal?
Was this instruction from Professor Nwosu, your chairman?
I think it was from the election committee, which had the chairman, the chief returning officer, the resident electoral commissioners, national commissioners and the representatives of the two political parties. They were all there. They said we should stop displaying the results. At that point, I lost hope in the process; so when just later, a court ruled that we should stop announcing results, it looked as if it was a script. I didn’t know how others felt but I became disillusioned because we had done our best and one of the innovations was this result announcement on the spot.
So, if it had been announced on the spot where the result, was counted and collated and I received it in the headquarters, why shouldn’t I display it for Nigerians? That put me off. Back to the question of the court judgment that we obeyed! There was no meeting at which the decision to obey was made and, if there was any such meeting, I wasn’t there. Most decisions at that time were unanimous. Though I wasn’t a member of the commission, I was a staff, a director, but I was always privy to decisions and events that influenced such decisions so that, in making public statements, I would be seen to be credible and on top of the matter; so when the decision was made, I wasn’t in the picture whether it was a one-man decision or the committee agreed.
And there was nothing to suggest that this was coming while the commission prepared for the election? And then the second judgment came stopping the announcement of the results and the commission obeyed?
I was able to understand why the commission obeyed because something that was present when the commission disobeyed in the first instance was no longer present by the time the second judgment came. It was the government of the day. In fact, the judgment by Dahiru Saleh was that he was going to issue a court warrant to arrest Nwosu and his principal officers for disobeying the Ikpeme judgment.
The first order was an order that was inanimate; the second one was personal on Nwosu and his principal officers, to show cause why they should not be jailed for contempt. Personal liberty was now involved; it was no longer just an order for the organization. Now it was clear that there was personal danger. We could not revert to government again.
You won’t believe that the warrant and judgment by Saleh was served on us by the then Attorney General, Clement Akpamgbo; so, there was actually nobody to run to because the Attorney General would have been the one we could have approached but here we were, he was the one who served it on us and I remember what he told the chairman. He told the chairman that if you disobey, then you are on your own; and so we knew that any disobedience was at our own peril.
Culled from Vanguard
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