Like a bolt from the blue, President Muhammadu Buhari on Wednesday directed that effective from next year, Nigerian Democracy Day marked every May 29 for the past 18 years be now shifted to June 12. The main reason for this decision is to honour an illustrious son of Nigeria, Chief Moshood Kashimawo Abiola, who won the presidential election conducted on the said date in 1993.
The result of that presidential poll adjudged, both locally and internationally, as the freest and fairest in Nigeria’s democratic history was annulled and the late Abiola was prevented from assuming office as democratically elected president by the military junta that conducted the 1993 general elections. Eventually, MKO, as he was fondly called by admirers, died while struggling to actualise the mandate given him by Nigerians. Since then, the ghost of June12 has refused to vanish from the country’s political landscape.
In an apparent bid to address the political injustice called June 12, President Buhari also announced on Wednesday that the late MKO Abiola would be conferred with the Grand Commander of the Federal Republic (GCFR), the nation’s highest honour exclusively reserved for the holders of the highest office in the country.
In the same vein, Chief Abiola’s running mate in that election, Ambassador Babagana Kingibe, is to be conferred with the second highest honour of the Grand Commander of the Niger (GCON). Also to receive the GCON honour is late Nigeria’s foremost lawyer and pro-democracy activist, Gani Fawehinmi.
President Buhari’s pronouncement has continued to generate mixed reactions among Nigerians, depending on the side of the political divide they belong to. Some analysts have described the move as a masterstroke, saying with this singular act, President Buhari has given a left upper cut to former military president, Ibrahim Badamosi Babangida, who annulled the election and a right jab to former President Olusegun Obasanjo who never believed in Abiola and the June 12 debacle.
The thinking is that IBB and Obasanjo were among those who asked Buhari not to seek re-election in 2019 and since then the battle line had been drawn between the president and the two generals. This set of Nigerians view the declaration as a political gimmick. Put directly, they argue that the president is merely playing the politics of 2019 by wooing the Southwest.
On the other hand, some political pundits contend that in Nigeria, you cannot rule out politics from anything. They aver that politics or no politics, wrong timing or not, Trojan horse or bribe, it was a good move from the president, which may have finally put the ghost of June 12 to rest.
It would be proper to look at the issues surrounding the posthumous award for Abiola within the context of common sense and politics. According to a popular maxim, ‘in love and war all is fair’. Politics is seen as war in Nigeria and anything Buhari does to boost his image in the eyes of the electorate in an election year is welcome provided the concept is his. Whether one likes it or not, the president’s electoral chances have increased in the South-West. Even some die-hard critics of the president from that geopolitical zone have commended him for recognising Abiola as the winner of the June 12 presidential election.
There are others who also argue that the president cannot confer the GCFR on a dead person. Justice Alfa Belgore, a former Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), described as illegal, the conferment of Nigeria’s highest national honour on MKO Abiola. He said the national honours cannot be awarded posthumously, “much less the GCFR”, which is the highest honour in the land.
But constitutional lawyer, Chief Femi Falana (SAN) punctured that argument, saying the ex-CJN did not refer to any section of the National Honours Act or any other law that has been violated by the president.
Falana said, “With profound respect to the Honourable Justice Alfa Belgore, the National Honours Act has not prohibited or restricted the powers of the president to confer national honours on deserving Nigerian citizens, dead or alive.
“No doubt, paragraph 2 of the Honours Warrant made pursuant to the National Honours Act provides that ‘a person shall be appointed to a particular rank of an order when he receives from the president in person, at an investiture held for the purpose…’ But paragraph 3 thereof has given the president the unqualified discretion ‘to dispense with the requirement of paragraph 2 in such manner as may be specified in the direction.’
“Therefore, since the national awards conferred on Chief Abiola and Chief Fawehinmi cannot be received by them in person, the president may permit their family members to receive same on their behalf.”
Falana also addressed the legality of June 12 holiday to mark Democracy Day as declared by the president, which has been argued to be illegal on the ground that the approval of the National Assembly was not sought and obtained.
He said, “Furthermore, section 2 (1) of the Public Holidays Act stipulates that in addition to the holidays mentioned in the schedule to the act, the president may appoint a special day to be kept as a public holiday either throughout Nigeria or in any part thereof. It is crystal clear that the president is not required by law to seek and obtain the approval of the National Assembly before declaring a public holiday in the country.”
He concluded that “in view of the combined effect of the National Honours Act and the Public Holidays Act, the legal validity of the well deserved awards and the historic holiday has not been impugned in any manner whatsoever”.