June 12 as Nigeria's Democracy Day: Matters Arising! –Ishola Adebayo

June 12, 2018

The dramatic and heart-rending incidence that brought about the popularity of the date, ‘June 12’ in Nigeria can never be eroded in the nation’s chronicle if Nigeria still exists as a nation. Nigerians gathered at the polls on June 12, 1993 to wipe out dictatorship and usher in progressive leadership. The election was widely believed to be the freest, fairest and most credible presidential election till date. It was widely presumed that Chief Moshood Kashimawo Olawale (MKO) Abiola of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) was the winner ahead of Bashir Tofa of the National Republican Convention (NRC).

However, the election was annulled by Gen. Ibrahim Babangida led military regime. MKO Abiola was later imprisoned by the then Head of State and hard-hearted military dictator, Gen. Sanni Abacha till he died in a questionable manner on July 7, 1998. What made 1993 elections significant was the fact that every tribe massively voted Abiola. He even had more votes than Bashir Tofa, in Kano State where his opposition hailed from. Besides this, Abiola-Kingibe ticket was a Muslim-Muslim one, and Nigerians were unbothered, they voted massively for persons of the same religion to become President and Vice-President. This probably may never happen again in Nigeria because religious sentiments have beclouded prominence that any party hoping to win a presidential election must balance the Muslim-Christian religion semantics.

On the evening of Wednesday, 8th June 2018, the declaration of June 12 as the nation’s democracy day became the talk of town. President Muhammadu Buhari, declared the change of date of Nigeria's democracy day from May 29th to June 12th, just few days after the celebrations of the initial democracy day in Nigeria for the year 2018. He also posthumously confer Nigeria’s highest honor, Grand Commander of the Order of the Federal Republic, (GCFR), to late Chief Abiola. His running mate, Ambassador Babagana Kingibe and the well-regarded human rights activist, late Chief Gani Fawehinmi were both conferred GCON (Grand Commander of the Order of the Niger), the second highest honor in Nigeria. It is not really surprising that this shocking executive order has gathered kudos, knocks and questions from both the apolitical and the political class. Many believe that the President has taken the step to curry the favour of the south-western parts of Nigeria as we approach the 2019 general elections.

Indeed, it was a surprising turn of events, not because the date June 12, does not deserve to be Nigeria's democracy day, but because President Muhammadu Buhari was the man least expected to venerate the importance of June 12 and the happenings attached to it. Buhari, who once served as PTF Chairman under the Abacha regime that jailed Abiola had never clamored for the restoration of the June 12 mandate. Abiola wasn’t even acknowledged in the democracy day speech he delivered on May 29. Therefore, Buhari’s sudden move to honor June 12 makes many to question the sincerity of this declaration.

Nonetheless, Mr President’s decision to honor Abiola, Kingibe and Fawehinmi and other actors of the 1993 imbroglio is indeed a commendable show of extraordinary statesmanship. Preceding democratic governments neither honored Abiola nor esteem the significance of June 12 to Nigeria’s democracy. President Jonathan unsuccessfully attempted naming the revered University of Lagos (UNILAG) after MKO.

Abraham Lincoln defined democracy as the government of the people, by the people and for the people. And indeed that was what should have happened in the 1993 general elections. If not for the annulment, maybe our democratic government would have had a better foundation. May 29, 1999 marks the transition of power from military to the currently practiced democratic government. These two dates seemed significant such that choosing a day as democracy day could be quite confusing. Although it seems a lot of South-Western politicians were happy with the announcement of ‘June 12’ as Nigeria's new democracy day, but the question that should linger in our hearts is how positively such commemoration can affect the entirety of Nigeria as a country.

The declaration of June 12 as democracy day is a double edged sword. It is a subtle attempt to right the wrongs of the government and subjectively humiliates former President Olusegun Obasanjo and General Ibrahim Babangida (as perceived by several commentators), the vandals of June 12 and foremost critics of the Buhari administration. Obasanjo’s consistent open letters and criticism of the current administration also makes the reviving of June 12 a political masterstroke for President Buhari. It is an open secret that Obasanjo’s emergence as President in 1999 was to compensate the Southwest region on the annulment of Abiola’s mandate. Nigerians were thus dismayed that Obasanjo completely distanced himself from June 12, despite being the greatest beneficiary. Obasanjo disregard the pleas of Yoruba leaders that June 12 and the Abiola family be celebrated. He refused to honor Abiola throughout his eight years as President.

Suddenly, the Buhari presidency been discredited by Obasanjo scored a hat-trick by honoring Abiola has the man who championed Nigeria’s democracy. Babangida’s overthrow of Buhari’s military government in 1985 and the plot against his 2019 reelection bid would naturally make anything that would humiliate Babangida appealing to Buhari. Politics is a game of calculated gains. Honoring MKO Abiola to shame his two prime antagonists – Babangida and Obasanjo – was a strategic political decision Buhari gladly took.

Immortalizing the dead – no matter how adored – is insubstantial to revive a political goodwill that is drowning due to poor performance. Buhari’s immortalization of ‘June 12’ may not yield the expected electoral gain in 2019. Buhari can only garner votes if his government act right to address the yearnings of the people. Nigerians crave for a government that would (also) for political gains fix the bad roads; provide affordable healthcare; obey court orders; reduce petrol price; eradicate poverty; provide electricity; clean-up Ogoniland; stop kidnappings; provide employment; rejig the lopsided appointment of service chiefs; fulfill the restructuring campaign promise and; stop the killings by bandits, herdsmen and terrorists.

Nigerians are of critical minds and their electoral mandate in 2019 and beyond would be given to anyone with the moral and intellectual competence to lessen the sufferings of the citizens.