June 12 as Democracy Day – The Nation

The notorious annulment of the June 12, 1993 election was symbolically reversed last week when President Muhammadu Buhari announced that June 12 would now replace May 29 as Democracy Day in the country. It will be observed as a public holiday from next year. Chief Moshood Abiola, the presumed winner of that election whose result was never officially declared, was conferred with the country’s highest national honour of Grand Commander of the Order of the Federal Republic, GCFR. His   running mate in that election, Ambassador Babagana Kingibe bagged the Grand Commander of the Order of the Niger, GCON, Nigeria’s second highest honour.

The Presidential election of 1993, which was judged to be the fairest polls in the country up till then, was presumably won by the late MKO Abiola but the military administration of General Ibrahim Babangida annulled the election before a winner could be declared. That action plunged this country into a prolonged political crisis that claimed scores of lives including that of Chief Abiola and his wife Kudirat. It also created the deepest inter-regional tension in the country since the civil war.

Mixed reactions from across the country trailed Buhari’s announcement, with commendations and condemnations in almost equal measure. For instance, notable Buhari supporters have hailed the move as a welcome development that promises to resolve the deep-seated misgivings still nursed by some sections of the country over the sordid circumstances surrounding the annulment of the June 12, 1993 polls. Critics of the President’s action however question its propriety on various grounds.  The timing of the change so close to the 2019 polls is seen by many as Buhari’s belated bait for votes in the South West zone, where the pains over the June 12 saga is mostly felt. Although the president claimed that there was due consultation, there was no public debate or even a public hint at all before it was announced.

The June 12 1993 polls was a watershed in the political history of Nigerian because it demolished many primordial sentiments, largely because of Chief Abiola’s standing as a larger than life pan-Nigerian figure. Abiola won the election despite his heading a Muslim-Muslim ticket, once thought to be impossible in Nigeria.  Though a Southerner, Abiola also won many Northern states including Kano.  The annulment of that election therefore sparked outrage not only in Nigeria but abroad too.

The aftermath of June 12 was however much less glorious than the election itself. Observers correctly attributed the annulment to a military cabal’s thinly veiled desire to perpetuate itself in power through a rigmarole transition program. Other less discerning citizens however blamed the North and all its citizens for the annulment, leading to heightened inter-regional tension across the country and the migration of thousands of citizens back to their states of origin. Many lives were also lost due to the activities of odious groups such as the Odu’a Peoples Congress, OPC which capitalized on the political crises to foment primordial hatred.

Ordinarily President Buhari should deserve commendation for trying to right that historical wrong. However, having never previously shown sympathy for June 12, he left it until very late in his administration’s tenure. This has led many to conclude that it is essentially a gambit to win votes in the Southwest in next year’s elections. Honouring Ambassador Babagana Kingibe as a June 12 hero is also problematic because he fell out with Abiola soon after the annulment. He is also known to be very close to Buhari’s regime.

The government’s action, rather than lay to rest the ghost of June 12, could actually re-spark it in other ways. Some groups are already saying that only a restructuring of the country and resource control by host states will right the historical wrongs. For the Buhari regime to bend over backwards and embrace June 12 could also encourage other groups such as MASSOB, IPOB and Niger Delta militants to renew their agitation and demand similar concessions. It might have opened a can of worms.

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