A watershed – The Nation

  • Today demonstrates the power of freedom for which fellow citizens fought and died

If there is any matter on which President Muhammadu Buhari got full marks since he made his way to the seat of power and obtained the Seal of Authority in 2015, it was the masterstroke of declaring June 12 as Democracy Day. By spearheading the move, getting the 8th National Assembly to buy in, and just on Monday assenting to the Bill, President  Buhari took a prominent page in the country’s history book.

Finally, we are here. Is this a resolution of all issues holding down the nation-building process? Certainly not. It is however the truth that we cannot continue to live in denial- denial that June 12, 1993 was the day when something uncommon, indeed unprecedented, took place. Yes, it was a presidential election, one election that was a hurricane that sought to sweep away all impediments to unity in the land. The election confounded all cynics and gave out hope that a credible election could be held; that an election could be based on plans for the nation and that Nigerians could locate the substance and sweep aside primordial headaches.

It is also an indication that, when an idea’s time has come, it cannot be suppressed; not even by the military jackboot. General Ibrahim Babangida, despite realising that the electorates, North and South, Christians and Muslims, had spoken with one voice, halted announcement of the result on June 17 and pronounced the annulment on June 23.

But, the people would have none of it. They had voted and would do all needed to protect the mandate freely and fully given Chief Moshood Kashimawo Olawale Abiola. At once, Chief Abiola transmuted from the presidential candidate of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) to Symbol of a democratic struggle. He became leader of a movement- for enthronement of principle and values; grace in national public affairs and a surge towards building a New Nigeria.

The lessons were clear. And they still are, standing as monument to that moment in history. Abiola campaigned on the basis of leading a government that would put an end to the abject poverty ravaging the land. He elicited the people’s confidence as he reminded them that despite being one of the richest Nigerians, he was one of them. He told the story of when he had to engage in odds and pieces to see him through secondary education in Baptist Boys High School, Abeokuta. He had been a friend of the high and mighty for so long that no one could have predicted the transformation at the electioneering campaign, and the radicalization that followed the annulment.

Abiola could not be cowed by military orders, threat to life meant nothing and incarceration could not force him to worship at General Babangida’s shrine.

Not even General Abacha could compel him to surrender. He fought fiercely not just as generalissimo of the Yoruba that he was, but as a Field Marshal of the People’s Army. In jail, he lived in the hearts of Nigerians and remained a scourge to the government and military. Alive and in custody, he was a hero, but in death Chief Abiola became a martyr. The declaration has settled his place in Nigerian history, but is a reminder that so much has gone wrong with the country. Whereas 26 years ago a Muslim-Muslim ticket could sell in a presidential election, religion has become a stronger factor in even local elections. June 12 was an election that Abiola won in Kano, the homestead of his opponent, Alhaji Bashir Tofa of the National Republican Convention (NRC).

The national fault lines are more pronounced than ever before. Preparations for elections are made today as military officers prepare for war. There is hardly conviction during polling as voters take the pittance thrown at them by candidates to sell their votes – their conscience. It is no surprise, therefore, that 20 years after the military rolled away the tanks from the public square, democracy is in a worse shape. The 1999 Constitution is a study in contradictions and incongruities. Corruption has become a national creed and no one spares thoughts for the national interest.

However, the public holiday today signifies that all is not lost. The Abiola family and members of the political family are satisfied that the man has been recognised. He was also posthumously awarded the Grand Commander of the Federal Republic (GCFR), the highest national honour, last year. That is some closure. The Buhari administration should be reminded through, that June 12 is not all about Abiola. It’s about the Nigerian nation and people. Abiola was clearly the Symbol and Leader, but he worked with people- commanders, many of whom died in the process while some are still alive. Men like Air Commodore Dan Suleiman, Ralph Obioha, Rear Admiral Ndubuisi KANU, General Alani Akinrinade, Chief Frank Kokori, Asiwaju Bola Tinubu, among others are living heroes of that struggle. They should be properly accorded due recognition in that regard.

We cannot forget those who lost their lives like the journalist Bagauda Kaltho, whose remains were never sighted. We cannot forget those who died unsung, faceless heroes of the democratic furnace of those years. Some of them died in street protests, gunned down by official banditry. Others died because hospitals were shut, and yet others passed away from the economic strangulation of those heady days. We cannot forget some of the gaoled like Kunle Ajibade, Kokori, Tinubu, Abu Ibrahim. The list is illustrious and long.

Newspapers shut, journalists hounded, civil society fighters muzzled, businesses pounded.

It was an era of betrayal, when those who stood for it could not bear the moral burden of principle. They swung to the other side and embraced the military oppressors as collaborators. They, paradoxically, were on the frontline to benefit from the new blossoms of democracy when the anti-June forces expired in 1999.

The challenge of the moment is to free the people from the pangs of hunger, lift them from slums and squalor and restore the country’s dignity in the comity of nations. The parlous state of the economy deserves critical attention as President Buhari has just started the engine of the vehicle to take him through the second term. Daily the youths are crying for due attention as so many of them remain unemployed. These are hands that mischief makers could hire to sink the ship of state. The journey is still long and democracy’s roots are still shallow. Few statesmen like Chief Abiola grace the scene today, yet they are needed now more than ever.

Discussions around true federalism, fiscal federalism, economic and political restructuring, as well as the security architecture should continue until we arrive at a national consensus. Nigeria needs heroes, nationalists and patriots like Chief MKO Abiola to hoist a banner without stain and galvanise action towards making it the truly greatest black country in the world.

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