When the military regime led by the General Ibrahim Babangida(rtd.) once again postponed civil rule elections to June 12, 1993, it was unaware it was setting an historical date that will eventually consume it and disgrace the military out of power. He was equally unaware that the date will become of symbolic significance in the very fabric of the Nigerian nationhood. It was all a part of the generals’ hidden agenda of organising party primaries and elections, turning round to annul them and shifting the transition programme goal post.
But today, Democracy Day in Nigeria is being celebrated on the 12th of June. This change from May 29 carries heavy symbolism for a country that is known more years of being ruled by military men than by democratically elected leaders. May 29 is also symbolic as it was the date rtd General Olusegun Obasanjo, as the president elect in late February 1999, was duly sworn in same year.
What makes the date truly significant? It was on this date in 1993 that presidential elections were held for the first time since the 1983 military coup. It was an event many observers have described as the most outstanding in Nigeria’s post-independence political history. It was still viewed as the freest, fairest and most peaceful election ever held in Nigeria.
On the day, an estimated 14 million Nigerians – irrespective of ethnic, religious, class, and regional affiliations, (in a period when religious acrimony and tension had reached its zenith) – defied bad weather to elect their president with the hope of ending eight years of military dictatorships.
Unfortunately, results of that election were never released. But unofficial results gathered through the various polling stations by civil society groups across the country indicated broad national support for the presidential candidate of the Social Democratic Party, Chief Moshood Kashimawo Olawale Abiola.
The then military head of state, General Babangida, in an unprecedented move, annulled the results of the election, justifying his actions on the grounds that it was necessary to save the nation. He alleged that political activities preceding the election were inimical to peace and stability in Nigeria. The June 12 election and subsequent annulment marked the beginning of a decades long struggle to see the election result restored and democracy rehabilitated.
Decades later, perhaps in righting Babangida’s wrong, President Muhammadu Buhari announced the change in date and honour of Chief Abiola.
“…After due consultations, the federal government has decided that henceforth June 12 will be celebrated as Democracy Day.
“Therefore, government has decided to award, posthumously, the highest honour of the land, GCFR, to the late Chief M.K.O Abiola, the presumed winner of the June 12, 1993 cancelled elections. His running mate as vice president, Ambassador Baba Gana Kingibe, is also to be invested with a GCON. Furthermore, the tireless fighter for human rights and the actualisation of June 12 elections and indeed for democracy in general, the late Chief Gani Fawehinmi is to be awarded the GCON.
“The investiture will take place on Tuesday June 12, 2019, a date which in future years will replace May 29 as a national public holiday in celebration of Nigeria’s Democracy Day.”
However, Nigerians from all works of life have been asking whether the country has gained anything from the June 12, 1993 presidential election or if the endorsement of the day would be of any significance since its adoption last year.
They are worried that none of the critical issues it raised about the system of governance during its press conference in 2019 when Buhari recognised Abiola had been addressed even though they remain critical and fundamental towards resolving the incessant political instability, economic misery, national mutual mistrust, lack of cohesion and unacceptable level of national insecurity.
One of the closest associates of late Abiola, Chief Jide Sawyer, had described the present democracy as being even worse and deficient more than military rule. He said the country appears to have learnt nothing, neither could it boast to have gained much from June 12, 1993 presidential election, apart from the fact that former military rulers dropped their military uniforms and assembled some politicians to form a civilian administration.
According to him, “There is nothing different despite the fact that the present administration recognised June 12 as Democracy Day last year. Those in government today who pushed for the agenda only paid lip service to whole idea for their selfish political interests. I describe them as people who didn’t participate in what they are currently benefiting from. This democracy is even worse than military rule.
“For instance, we have a selective mode of election where individuals, who claim to be godfathers, decide and or select who represent the people and not through free, fair democratic process, and in effect such public officers are directly responsible to their masters and not to the electorates.”
Sawyer added: “As much as it was good that the incumbent government recognised June 12 as Democracy Day over a year ago, tell me what has been different in the system of governance and democracy that we have had since 1999? Democracy is about honesty, determination and focus to deliver good governance to the people. The reason I said we are worse than when we were under the military regime is that critics of government are viciously attacked these days by government-sponsored agents, which has almost stopped very reasonable people from talking or faulting government’s policies.”
On the agitation to restructure the country, Sawyer said, “One unique thing about Abiola’s aborted presidency and the 1993 democratic process was the ‘hope and confidence’ it gave to Nigerians irrespective of their ethnic differences. ‘Hope 93’ made SDP very popular and acceptable before the military struck by annulling the result. Today, can we even discuss restructuring without giving the people hope first? There is the need to allay the fears of Nigerians. To get this done, good governance is key. This is when we can start talking about restructuring.”
Also, the seeming total disregard of this administration to fulfill the major electoral promises and manifesto to restore the country to federal constitutional governance constitutes a betrayal of public trust upon which it secured its mandate in 2015. It is painfully clear now that the president and the APC made false promises that they did not intend to keep.
President Buhari’s so-called three pillars – to secure Nigeria, to revamp the economy and to fight corruption – have clearly recorded very low achievements because the current centralist and unitarist governance structure remains unsuitable, unsustainable and counterproductive in a heterogeneous geographical and political space where the different ethnic nationalities or groups must be free to govern themselves as they deem fit, given the divergent languages, religions, traditions, cultures, artifacts and folklores of the people.
Reacting on what the country had gained and lost on the June 12 struggle in the last 28 years, a former governor of Ogun State, Segun Osoba, said the greatest gain of Abiola’s sacrifice for democracy is the stability it brought into the transition programme. He said before the late business mogul paid the supreme price, which brought about the present democracy, “Nigeria had always found it difficult, if not impossible, to transit from a civilian administration to another without the military intervening. For instance, during the First Republic, the military seized government giving excuse of the uncertain and chaotic atmosphere that enveloped the political terrain then. This led to the January 1966 coup.
“When Nigeria eventually returned to democratic rule in 1979, another military coup took place four years after the 1983 elections. But since MKO Abiola paid the supreme price in 1998 and Nigeria wriggled to return to civil rule in 1999, the military had remained in the barracks while we have had about five uninterrupted civilian-to-civilian transitions from 1999 to 2020. Indeed, Abiola was a political and historical factor.”
On the losses, Osoba said many people have been doing a symbolic celebration of Abiola and June 12 yearly without necessarily showing enough love and commitment to the late philanthropist and his family.”
Steve Adesemoye, a senior lecturer at the Lagos State Polytechnic, LASPOTECH, concurred with Osoba when he said, “Celebrating a symbolic day is not bad. Especially if it is in remembrance of somebody or a phenomenon. But we need to work on why we set this day aside. It goes beyond setting aside a date, there must be a political will to enthrone the reason for the day.”
Lamenting that the political elites in this country are just in their own world, he explained that these elites are practically disconnected from the people and without respect for the rule of law, democracy and/or free and fair electoral system.
“June 12 will remain a mere date until the political elites actualise what the day stands for – fairness, equity, good governance, economic prosperity, selflessness, etc.,” he intoned.
Latching onto the recent ban of microblogging site, Twitter and Buhari’s recent interview on Arise TV, Otunba Olumide Abegunde, a social commentator was of the opinion that Nigeria is in need of prayers as the country’s democracy is in a nascent state.
“Nigerian government has just shown us ‘crazy!’ How can people who claim to be ruling and not leading or governing get so emotional at the prick of an ‘inconsequential’ entity? I always thought rulers had zero emotions.”
He queried, “What is democracy? How do we describe democracy? I hope it still has a meaning in this terrain of ours. For a country whose largest demography is youthful, suspending a more or less e-commerce platform where young people who the state could not provide jobs for, have come together on and found a means to survive, is so much.”
Disgusted that it took Nigeria 21 years from the re-inception of democracy to establish the fact that June 12 is the marker for the struggle to free Nigeria from the wicked stranglehold of military dictatorship, executive secretary, Nigeria National Summit Group (NNSG), Tony Uranta, however, said Buhari deserves to be commended for recognising that the Fourth Republic is built on the sacrifices of MKO Abiola, his wife, Kudirat and other political martyrs who lost their lives in the nationwide struggle to right the wrongs that the military foisted on Nigeria from 1984 especially.
Uranta added, “Having said that, one must state that the end of military rule only ushered in civilian governance, and not democratic rule. Nigeria is still governed by non-democratic systems and personalities, who have entrenched a corrupt electoral process that has only produced a political elite still owing their existence to military and not at all dependent on the electorate.”
He said until there is internal democracy in the political parties, “we cannot say Nigeria is a republic, whose leadership respects democracy. Until we have elections not premised on fake population census and the threats of a violent few, Nigeria cannot claim to have embraced democracy. Until only the eligible vote for candidates who emerge through transparent elections at all levels of the democratic system counts, we cannot truthfully be said to be a democracy.
“Until the country is so reconfigured to clearly aspire to the highest standards economically and politically; that is, until Nigeria is restructured along the lines that our founding fathers agreed to, Nigeria cannot be seen as the united, stable democracy we like to fool ourselves that it is already.”
In his own line of thought, Prince Adeyemi Aseperi – Shonibare said June 12 is the godfather of the democracy everyone is enjoying now.
“June 12 also gave birth to many political Stars today. June 12 also removed the military permanently. June 12 gave birth to the longest democracy in the history of Nigeria.”
According Niran Adedokun, a senior journalist and social commentator, “I take June 12 to be the turning point in the Nigerian politics. For the fact that you had two Muslims on the ticket and Nigerians massively voted for them was an indication to me that Nigerians can actually be united. June 12 was a sacrifice for democracy and late MKO Abiola was the sacrificial lamb. Now, are the people, who are beneficiaries of the struggle living the reality of it? Can we truly say that many years after the struggle, Nigeria is progressing? I don’t think so because even those who claimed to have those progressive democratic credentials during the June 12 struggle are not living the truth of that declaration at the moment. We now have states where the judiciary and legislative are just appendages of the executive.
“All said and done, there is nothing as good as having a democracy. I’m hopeful that it can only get better and the people should also be alert to their responsibilities in demanding accountability from their leaders.
“It is not the responsibility of the Nigerian citizens to be supporting blindly even when they’re not doing what they’re supposed to do. If we continue to do that, democracy will not develop the way it should.”
With all these said, it is obvious that the goodwill of June 12 has not really reflected on the fate of the nation and with 28years down the line, what does the future hold for the average Nigerians, who fear that the struggles of the June 12 heroes are appearing to be in vain?
As we move forward as a nation, despite our many challenges, insecurity being major one, let us continue to take account of the need to truly make the dream of a truly democratic Nigeria by the late Chief MKO Abiola and several other actors, dead and alive, a reality.
Happy Democracy Day, Nigerians!
-Ojelabi writes from Lagos