By Enyeribe Ejiogu, Sun News
Sixteen years ago the government of former military president, General Ibrahim Babangida annulled the June 12 Election of 1993, which was won by late Bashorun Moshood K. O. Abiola, in the country’s first free and fair polls. That decision set off crisis that forced Igbo people in Lagos to flee en masse to the South East as the Yoruba people embarked reprisal attacks against them in a manner that brought the country close to civil war.
They blamed the Igbo the annulment of the election because the National Electoral Commission was headed by Professor Humphrey Nwosu, an Igbo man.
In the mad rush to return to the South East, many Igbo people died on the way through accidents; hundreds were robbed of their money, goods and other property. Shops of Igbo people in Lagos were looted. In it all the most painful part was the loss of family in the crisis. June 12 always brings back painful memories of dear family members lost in that mindless crisis.
In this interview, Dr Uchendu Alaefule, a medical doctor born and bred in Lagos, goes back in time recalling the sad things that happened during those dark days of Nigeria’s political history and reveals how he lost two cousins to the crisis.
Interestingly, the date June 12 has come to symbolize something positive for him: his daughter was born on June 12, 2010 and will celebrate her first birthday this morning. Excerpts…
Whenever any situation happens in the country, it tends to affect Igbo people in one way or the other. One thing that affected Igbo people negatively was the aftermath of the annulment of the June 12 election. Can you recall what happened at the time?
Prior to the June 12 crisis, most Igbo people had come to see themselves as Lagosians having lived in the city for so many years. For me I was born and bred in Lagos. I went to school here and spoke Yoruba more than Igbo language.
At point when we had started to believe that we were Lagosians everything suddenly changed when the crisis occurred. It was as if the whole thing was against the Igbo man – probably because Professor Humphrey Nwosu who headed the then National Electoral Commission was an Igbo man. They felt that it was Nwosu that annulled the election. Nobody bothered to see that it was actually Ibrahim Babangida who annulled the election – they just failed to see that Nwosu was just acting out a script.
The Yoruba really made us know that Igbo in Lagos were not Lagosians. The magnitude of the crisis was such that they targeted Igbo people, and looted the shops of Igbo traders. So many things went wrong. At that time there was much campaign for Igbo people to return home. Some state governments in the South East provided vehicles, free of charge. I remember that my own state, Imo, sent vehicles to Lagos for indigenes of the state.
Some communities and town unions contributed money to charter buses people that were willing to go home. Even some South East bus operators gave their free-of-charge to Igbo people to enable them leave Lagos and return to the East. In short, Igbo people were encouraged to leave Lagos because the situation deteriorated so much that you could not sleep with two eyes closed.
I particularly recall that I was still in medical school at the University of Nigeria Teaching Hospital, UNTH, Enugu, but came home (to Lagos) where my family was residing because all schools were closed before the election. So I was in Lagos at the time of the June 12 crisis. When this crisis happened, a lot of people died on the way, going back to the South East. I remember some cousins of my who decided to go home.
One thing I can remember vividly was we heard stories of armed robberies on the road against people traveling back to the east. Vehicles were stopped, the people robbed and in several cases simply killed. There were several fatal accidents on the road. A lot of people never got to their destinations. In fact I remember two of my cousins who we never got see again – we don’t even know whether they died in accidents or were killed or fell into the hands of ritualists. Till today we have not seen them. It was like a case of running away from one trouble and ending up in another trouble. A lot of people were missing at that period. Many sustained serious injuries; many became maimed.
A lot of people lost their jobs. I remember my father saying that people were told that if they left their jobs, they may not come to have them again. He was working with the Nigeria Ports Authority at the time, but he is late. Now with the benefit of hindsight, my father took a wise decision that his family would stay back in Lagos and not join the Igbo exodus out of Lagos. So he advised us and were watching the situation to see what would happen.
As the days went by, the situation got worse. It was like there was going to be real civil war because the Yoruba clamored that Igbo people in Lagos must go. All the mayhem that happened in Lagos then affected Igbo people. Honestly, it is not something to be remembered. So many people still cry till today; many people lost their family members still shed tears when they remember June 12. A lot of people lost their business, money and other properties. For the Igbo man, June 12 was a disastrous experience. It was a loss-loss situation from every angle. Many became maimed due to accidents. Many are still depressed because of June 12. Life just turned upside down for many people when they came back to Lagos after the crisis.
Would you say that it was a replay of what happened in 1967, just before the civil war started?
In some sense I say that; also I experienced the 2000/2001 Sharia riots in Kano. As a medical doctor I saw the rioters killing people. I heard of cases where would put somebody in a well and close it. The only thing was that June 12 situation was more like a case of chasing Igbo people out of Lagos. And Igbo actually wanted to leave because they thought there would be another civil war.
This was also fueled by strident calls from relations and kinsmen in the East asking their family members to return home as if Nigeria was going to break up.
Do you share the view that the June 12 experience of the Igbo people helped to make MASSOB blossom?
As an organization, MASSOB had existed but nobody knew them. For people like us who were born shortly after the civil war, we never got experience of the war. Even at that we never knew anything about MASSOB until 1993. I think the June 12 experience helped to make MASSOB grow because they saw it as an opportunity to make the Igbo remember who he is and connect deeply with his roots. Many of us that were born in Lagos actually believed that we were Lagosians.
Then I could barely speak Igbo in those days. Because I was born in Lagos, and I speak more of Yoruba; it was the same thing with so many young Igbo men and women. So MASSOB brought back that Igbo consciousness in us. And that was when I began to know more about my Igbo roots. In words, I think the June 12 experience helped in making me connect with my Igbo origin.
How did June 12 impact on town unions?
The experience gained from the unfortunate events of that period has helped strengthen cohesion and affinity in South East town unions outside Igbo land. Anywhere in the world the Igbo man is a receptive human being. He is the only man that can easily receive you as brother in the Diaspora. I remember the day I was traveling to Abuja and the vehicle broke down in a village close to Lokoja. So we got down to stretch our legs and have a drink in nearby shop. Not far from the shop was patent medicine store.
The owner turned out to be an Igbo man. The moment he heard me speak Igbo, he exclaimed ‘Nwa nna, kedu ki emere’ (My brother, how are you?). Excitedly too, I asked him what he was doing in that village, and he responde that he was running a business. Seeing us was gave joy and momentary reconnection with the eastern homeland. That day we had to sleep overnight in that place.
He accommodated us and took care of us as if he had always known us. And the next day he escorted to our vehicle. And we were all so happy and for the short time, we were like his brothers, there in the ‘diaspora’ so to say. So the Igbo man is very receptive. And experience of June 12 really helped to show that – honestly many towns provided money to charter buses just to take Igbo people back to the East. It goes to tell a lot about the Igbo man.
In what other way did June 12 impact on the Igbo man?
I heard that just before the civil war started, Igbo men who lived for too long in the North and other parts of the country but didn’t have houses at home faced accommodation problems when they were forced to return home. Similarly, when June 12 crisis came up, and Igbo men returned home they had the same challenge of accommodation. The experience humbled the returnees and made all Igbo men see the need of remembering home and the necessity of acquiring land and developing properties at home.
Today, the average Igbo wants to build a house in his village even he may not spend more than two weeks in it annually. It does not matter if he has a chain of houses outside Igbo land, he values the house in the village more highly than his mansion in Lagos. The direct effect of this is that the pace of real estate development in the South East quickens every year. There is a silent competition going to build aesthetic mansions in villages across the South East.
This has brought socio-economic development and a high degree of modernization to Igbo communities. Such homes are equipped with all the amenities (DSTv, borehole, generators), which these people are used to in the urban centres. The elite also push state governments to provide rural electrification connected to the national grid. Most villages in the East are now developed. Really June 12 helped in this regard.