Today, Nigeria departs from the usual tradition of marking her democracy day on May 29. Across the country, democracy day is being observed today. President Muhammadu Buhari moved the country’s democracy day from the May 29 date that was being observed since 1999 to June 12, as a mark of honour for the sacrifices made by the late Chief Moshood Kashimawo Olawale (MKO) Abiola and others who stood for democracy.
The change informed why this year’s May 29 handover date was marked in a low key at the federal level. The late Abiola had won the June 12, 1993 presidential election.
The election, which was annulled about two weeks later by the military regime of Gen. Ibrahim Babangida, marked a watershed in the history of democracy in Nigeria. On that day, Nigerians from every corner of the country trouped out to vote Abiola, a Yoruba Muslim businessman as their president.
That was irrespective of the fact that he ran on the same ticket with Ambassador Babagana Kingibe, a Kanuri Muslim, as vice president. It was a day Nigerians shunned ethnicism, religion and other primordial cleavages to make a bold choice for a democratic government, having seen the country suffer a succession of military regimes, a civil war and instability in governance since independence.
The election was declared as the freest and fairest election in the history of the country. But Abiola’s victory at the election did not stand, owing to a blurry of reasons that are yet to be explained to Nigerians, 26 years after. Since then, Nigeria survived a near disintegration occasioned by the annulment, a military regime and 20 unbroken years of democratic governance.
We have no doubt that the 20 years of democratic rule was one of the fallouts of the June 12 episode. After the civil war, the annulled June 12 election was, perhaps, one incident that brought Nigeria to the brinks of breakup.
Thousands of lives of Nigerians were lost in the subsequent events. Abiola was later arrested for declaring himself president at the Epetedo area of Lagos on June 11, 1994 and kept incarcerated till his death on July 7, 1998. Before Abiola, his wife, Kudirat and many pro-democracy activists and other Nigerians died in the struggle to revalidate the annulled election. The then Head of State, Gen. Sani Abacha himself, died mysteriously on June 8, 1998.
The annulment of that election brought Nigeria to a pariah status among the committee of nations, with the country isolated and suspended from many international groups and activities. Since then, Nigeria has soldiered on with the democratic process. But calls from pro-democracy groups and other leaders for Abiola, on whose blood Nigeria’s democracy stands today to be immortalised, were not heeded by successive governments.
An attempt by the administration of former President Goodluck Jonathan to rename the University of Lagos after Abiola was shut down prematurely.
All that have been consigned to the dustbin of history now as President Buhari, in 2018, did what others failed to do by honouring Abiola and recognizing him as the winner of the election. He went further by bestowing the highest honour in the land, reserved for presidents, the Grand Commander of the Federal Republic (GCFR), on him. Buhari also declared June 12 as the nation’s democracy day.
The president honoured Kingibe and the late human rights activist, Chief Gani Fawehinmi (SAN), with the second highest national honour, Grand Commander of the Niger (GCON), which is reserved for vice president. “…But in the view of Nigerians, as shared by this administration, June 12, 1993, was far more symbolic of democracy in the Nigerian context than May 29 or even the October 1.
“June 12, 1993 was the day when Nigerians in millions expressed their democratic will in what was undisputedly the freest, fairest and most peaceful election since our independence,” Buhari had said. Today, the country is celebrating democracy day on June 12 for the first time in 26 years.
While we align with this remarkable shift and the recognition of Abiola, we can’t fail to point out that Nigeria failed to learn positive lessons that would have aided her unity, development and progress from the June 12 episode. One is that Nigeria seems more divided today than on June 12, 1993.
The country has allowed ethnic, religious and primitive sentiments, which were abolished by June 12 to creep back. Again, the free and fair election, which June 12 signified, has vanished from our national radar.
The unity and oneness shown on June 12, 1993 is now missing. We can continue on and on as the list of the lost gains of June 12 appear endless. But we dare to say that time has come for politicians of all climes in the country to imbibe the virtues, which June 12, 1993 elections brought to the country.
It is also time for Nigerians to unite and work together as they did on June 12, 1993, shunning all negative tendencies that have drawn the country backwards. It is only by so doing that the honour on Abiola, June 12 and those that died in the struggle for democratic governance would be meaningful. We commend President Buhari for this laudable initiative. We only hope that government and stakeholders will imbibe the lessons of June 12