The giddy events of June 1993 have been described by many a scholar as watershed in the annals of Nigeria. The presidential election held on June 12, and the suspension of poll result announcement, and eventual annulment on June 23 have been variously documented officially and unofficially. Since then, there have been controversies about what was done and how to undo the consequences of the annulment of an election generally regarded as the “freest and fairest” in the country’s political history. President Muhammadu Buhari’s Wednesday declaration of June 12 as a public holiday to mark the return to democracy in the country is a welcome development. He, in addition, announced that the man who took the nation by storm, shattering all previous negative connotations on politicking by securing clear victory against all odds, Chief Moshood Kashimawo Olawale Abiola, would be conferred with the highest national honour, the Grand Commander of the Federal Republic (GCFR).
His running mate, Alhaji Babagana Kingibe, is also to be awarded with the second highest national honour, the Grand Commander of the Order of the Niger (GCON), alongside a stormy petrel of the era, a scourge of military dictatorship, Chief Gani Fawehinmi, a senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN). Both Abiola and Fawehinmi are being honoured posthumously.
It is beyond dispute that Chief Abiola made the supreme sacrifice for Nigeria. He won the election in all parts of the country, including Kano State from where his only opponent, Alhaji Bashir Tofa of the National Republican Convention (NRC) hailed. Against predictions that Nigerians, especially Christians, would reject the Moshood Abiola / Babagana Kingibe ticket on the ground that both men were Muslims, they received overwhelming support from all classes and creeds. Had the government been inaugurated, the Abiola administration would have soared into office with the most popular mandate in the nation’s history, and the only President to have emerged with clearly spelt out manifesto widely published and debated.
It was, therefore, inexplicable that the Ibrahim Babangida military junta frustrated the people’s will. The reasons adduced by the government were tenuous and the action was thus stoutly resisted by Abiola and the people who voted for him. It marked a manifest change of what would have been a glorious dawn to pitch darkness. Babangida who was head of the military junta had to hurriedly put together an illegal contraption called Interim National Government (ING), headed by Chief Ernest Shonekan, a government that lacked the legitimacy that only an election confers, and the force of military coup. Between August 27, and November 17, 1993 when General Sani Abacha toppled Shonekan’s anaemic government, the regime merely tottered, unable to find a compass to move forward.
Abacha had no time for finesse and niceties. He clamped Abiola in detention after the winner of the June 12 election had courageously proclaimed himself president, threatening to constitute a parallel government. A National Democratic Coalition (NADECO), stoutly resisted the Abacha junta and insisted on the restoration of the Abiola mandate.
Buhari’s change of Democracy Day from May 29 to June 12 is a step in the right direction. June 12 was a day Nigerians shunned primordial sentiments to vote in a president of their choice. Unity is a necessary factor for nation-building, and, since the annulment, it has been a missing ingredient. May 29 signifies nothing as October 1, the date of independence had been previously adopted for inauguration of governments. The whimsical change of that event to May 29 is thus meaningless. June 12 is a date Nigerians can relate to. Independence Day remains a public holiday, but June 12 is a day Nigerians expressed their mind on the way forward.
Abiola’s campaign centred on Farewell to Poverty, restoring the dignity of all Nigerians and turning round the country’s fortunes. That was the hope of Nigerians at the election, and an indication that the citizenry wanted meaningful democracy. Since 1999, the country has been groping in the dark, more divided now than ever before.
The award to Abiola is therefore a soothing balm. Fawehinmi is no less deserving of the honour bestowed on him. He was a doughty fighter for the truth, human rights and justice. Denied the Senior Advocate of Nigeria title for so long, he was awarded the Senior Advocate of the Masses by an appreciative public. Despite being denied his freedom many times, he took it as one of the hazards that came with the path he had chosen to tread. He took up the fight for Abiola while in detention and never looked back.
We applaud the moves by President Buhari. The motives as being canvassed by some are immaterial. It is time to bring the June 12 conundrum to a closure, turning the adversity visited on the country by the military to prosperity. It is heartwarming that both the Abiola and Fawehinmi families have indicated their willingness to accept the honour. The Nigeria Labour Congress, too, considers it a worthy move. This should be sufficient for all.
While the battle for June 12 transcended any individual, Abiola stood as an unswerving symbol of Nigeria’s quest for an egalitarian society shorn of tribal jingoism, religious bigotry and sectarian hubris. In that quest, even while Abiola was behind bars, many others also languished behind bars, while many others too, now anonymous, lost their lives in explosions of protests across the land, especially in Lagos and southwest of the country. Waves of migration to safer places over fears of a civil war as well as exiles turned Nigeria into a state of murderous uncertainty.
The restoration of June 12, celebrated in the southwest often to sneers, apathy, withering contempt in other parts of the country, is a vindication of the latent impulse of our polity to revive itself from the divisive tensions of recent years. Buhari can take advantage of this salutary moment to start a healing process where wounds have festered whether with herdsmen, or suspicions of ethnic and religious occlusions.
We expect the Buhari administration to build on this by ensuring that the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) is supported to conduct an election that builds on the foundation laid on June 12, 1993. The challenge is to ensure that the Nigerian people experience genuine democracy. Arguments by former Chief Justice Alfa Balgore that the award should be for the living fly in the face of provisions of National Honours Act 5 of 1964. This progressive proclamation is primarily for June 12, the Nigeria people and state.
The announcement is an honour that comes with a sense of ignited harmony the nation has not known in a while.