Then came the case of the century. Chief Abiola had contested for the office of the President and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Nigeria on June 12, 1993. He was widely believed to have won what everybody agreed was the freest and fairest election to be held in the country.
Before all the results were released, the government of General Babangida annulled the election on the excuse, among others, that Hon. Justice Bassey Ikpeme had delivered a nocturnal ruling in the Federal High Court, Abuja, around 9.15pm two days to the election in which she restrained the conduct of that election.
The ruling was patently wrong on all fronts. The enabling law had provided that only the National Electoral Commission, NEC, Chairman, then Prof Humphrey Nwosu, could stop it. Yet the case was not on his application, nor was it his design.
Besides, it is an elementary principle of law that the court would not grant an injunction ex-parte at the instance of a party if the order would affect a large number of people, as in this case, a whole country.
Chief MKO Abiola waited for a whole year for the re-validation of his electoral victory. It was clear that the group of soldiers, led by General Abacha, who had come to power had tasted it and were not too keen to relinquish it. When nothing was done about his victory, Chief Abiola on the first anniversary of the elections declared himself President in the popular Epetedo Declaration. He was arrested soon after and hounded into detention in Kano.
A stunned nation gave tumultuous reactions.
A series of cases followed his detention and he was represented by several lawyers. Chief GOK Ajayi, handled some of the cases. Chief Jibola Olanipekun secured bail for him in the Federal High Court, Abuja. Chief Abiola was however advised to reject the bail. The advisers said he should not return home without his mandate and that the bail had some conditions.
I was of the opinion that the advice was wrong, and I know that proponents of that choice would have now realized what mistake they made. For one, the matter for which Chief Abiola was facing trial was criminal and not a civil suit. He was not a plaintiff or a defendant/counter-claimant in a civil case. So the question of returning home with a prize did not arise at all. In a criminal action, you either win or lose your case. A party does not return with a reward. For another, there is no bail without its own conditions. The essence of bail is to ensure the attendance of the accused person at his trial. So there is no absolute bail.
Curiously, Chief Abiola was advised to reject it and he did. We are all today living witnesses to the unfortunate consequences of that refusal and the folly in fighting for a right behind bars.
I represented Chief Abiola at a much earlier stage before matters went beyond the understanding of ordinary mortals. It was in the few days preceding the annulment. The suit was to decide whether he was properly elected or not, and was instituted by Bashir Tofa [Abiola’s challenger in the June 12 1993 elections]. I came into it with Chief Rotimi Williams.
I personally went to the Court of Appeal, Kaduna, when the issue of the legality of the election was going to be decided. My brief was clear and I was certain that I would win the case for my client. Chief Philip Umeadi, SAN, was representing the Federal Government and President Babangida. Hon. Justice [Mustapha M.] Akanbi was then the President of the Court of Appeal.
Justice Akanbi was a bright, forthright and incorruptible Judge. He knew the case was important to the judiciary and the country; in fact, the judiciary was also on trial. Justice must therefore be seen to have been done. To ensure this, Hon. Justice Akanbi empanelled ten Justices of the Court of Appeal. They were all assembled in Abuja. He did not disclose which five of them was going to be on the panel in order to avoid a situation whereby any of them would be reached and possibly corrupted. I was later to learn that he successfully resisted all efforts himself to be reached and compromised.
Having failed to reach him before the sitting of the court, the government felt uncomfortable. It was afraid that the court might decide in favour of Chief Abiola. And the big players in government would not like to be seen to disobey the order of the court. So the best thing was to ensure that the court never sat all.
I got to court very early with many lawyers who were to appear with me. I had my authorities set. Chief Umeadi was unusually late to court, and luckily the court too did not sit on time. When he came in, Chief Umeadi sat beside me.
“Why are you here with all these books, Chief?” Chief Umeadi, SAN asked me.
“Of course, the President of the country would be known today, and these books are the authorities to help the Justices to so decide.” I responded.
Chief Umeadi asked whether I had not listened to the radio. He added: “The election held on 12 June, 1993 had been annulled!”
When the court sat, we announced our appearances. Chief Umeadi, SAN stood up and informed the court so tacitly: “My Lords, there is no lis again before Your Lordships; the election has been annulled.”
I stood up and argued that the election could only have been annulled by a law, which must be gazette. Until that was done, Chief Umeadi’s information could not take the place of a gazette. The Court was inclined to adjourning so that we could all ascertain the truth.
Before we left the court, I stood up and told everybody present: “We are at the beginning of a journey the end of which nobody knows.”
Source: Afe Babalola, Impossibility Made Possible – An Autobiography