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Democracy Day: No Easy WalkTo June 12

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As Nigerians whip themselves into a frenzy of activities to mark June 12, a day set aside to celebrate  Nigeria’s Democracy, TOPE FAYEHUN recounts the struggle for the recognition of the day as Democracy day 

Barely a year after  June 12 was declared as Democracy Day in honour of the late Chief Moshood Kasimawo Olawale  Abiola, the presumed winner of the 1993 presidential election, President Muhammadu Buhari has finally signed into law, the bill to make June 12 Democracy day for the country.

For the first time since his assumption of office, pro-democracy activists, human rights defenders, and other critical stakeholders are unanimous in praising President Muhammadu Buhari for this milestone decision

The new date is against May 29 which had been set aside since 1999 for the celebration of democracy in the country by successive administrations.

When President Buhari made the declaration last year while receiving a delegation of Buhari Support Organisation (BSO) at the Presidential Villa, some people were of the view that the president was just making a political statement that might not come to reality.

Before the president’s declaration, most of the South-West states including Lagos, Ekiti, Ogun, Osun, Oyo and Ondo had declared June 12 as a work-free day to enable residents mark the event.

Some Nigerians, particularly, political leaders of the Yoruba extraction in the South Western part of the country believed that the socio-economic and political fortunes of the country would have been better if the late MKO Abiola, the presumed winner of the annulled June 12, 1993, presidential election, had been allowed to assume power.

However, this statement of declaring June 12 as real democracy day and honouring the deceased  appears to have assuaged the feelings of the people, particularly those who believed that the election symbolizes true democracy and justice for the country.

Although, some say that the recognition of the date was a good idea, they equally expressed suspicion that it was meant to garner votes from a section of the country and that it negates the spirit behind it.

Meanwhile, the struggle for the return of the country to democracy  after successive military regimes, started in March 1993, exactly 21 years ago, when the late Abiola, from Ogun state, was chosen by the then Social Democratic Party (SDP) as its presidential candidate after beating his eventual running mate, Ambassador Babagana Kingibe, and Alhaji Atiku Abubakar at the primaries of the party held in Jos, the state capital of Plateau State.

The then rival National Republican Convention (NRC) chose Alhaji Bashir Tofa from Kano State as its candidate for the election that was held on June 12, 1993. That election has been declared Nigeria’s freest and fairest presidential election both by local and international observers, with Abiola even winning in his Northern opponent’s home state.

Abiola, according to unconfirmed result, had won majority votes in 20 of the then 30 states in the country, thereby securing the constitutionally required tally to be declared winner.

However, the result of the election was later annulled by the then military Head of State, Gen. Ibrahim Babangida, hinging his decision on alleged electoral malpractices in the election.

Babangida, in a nationwide broadcast on June 23, 1993, declared that: “There was, in fact, a huge array of electoral malpractices virtually in all the states of the federation before the actual voting began.” 

He thereby annulled the presidential election of both parties and also banned both candidates from contesting in the rescheduled election.

After hues and cries, Babangida  ‘stepped aside’ on August 27, 1993, paving the way for an interim national government headed by Ernest Shonekan, who like Abiola is an indigene of Ogun State. The interim government was later overthrown in November of that year by the late General Sani Abacha.

Waiting for Abacha without any concrete move, Abiola, on June 11, 1994, declared himself as the president of Nigeria at Epetedo, Lagos.

At the declaration, Abiola said, “As of now, from this moment, a new Government of National Unity is in power throughout the length and breadth of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, led by me, Bashorun M.K.O. Abiola, as President and Commander-in-Chief.”

The then military government in power later declared him wanted,  accused him of treason and arrested him on the orders of the military head of state General Sani Abacha.

He was detained for four years, largely in solitary confinement, before he died on July 7, 1998, the day that was said to have been set aside for him to regain his freedom after the then military government ended abruptly due to the dictator’s controversial and sudden death.

Prior to that time, some of Abiola’s supporters who formed a coalition popularly called the National Democratic Coalition (NADECO), to secure his freedom and restore his mandate were seriously dealt with by the then military government. While some were either assassinated or forced into exile, some of them were incarcerated in different prisons across the country for several months.

However, some politicians who were not seeing anything special about the date had tried to wish away it, but the June 12 has survived all political suppression over the years by successive administrations both the military and the civilian.

Precisely, 25 years later, President Muhammadu Buhari declared that the day must be brought back to the national reckoning as the nation’s true Democracy Day as against the May 29 date that had been celebrated since 1999.

Although by the time president made that declaration last year, the country was preparing for 2019 general elections, and  nothing was done on it until a year

May 16, 2019, when the Senate passed the Public Holiday Act Amendment Bill to recognize June 12 as the new Democracy Day.

The latest development did not come without any frantic efforts from some political bigwigs in the country, coupled with the courage of the president who decided to do the right thing and equally write his name in the good book of history by making the date symbolic.

Since the return of the country to the civilian rule, some leading politicians, elder statesmen and pro-democracy activists have been calling the attention of successive administrations to the need to the  recognition of June 12 as the true Democracy Day in the country, given reasons on why the historic date will remain a fixture in the political landscape.

Even, the former Vice President, Alhaji Atiku Abubakar, sometimes said June 12 and the events that brought it were part of our country’s history and could not be forgotten, especially because of the unity and comradeship displayed by Nigerians on that Election Day in 1993.

Atiku noted that the events of June 12, 1993, were watersheds in the history of the nation and that all Nigerians must work hard to ensure that the nation never again repeats that painful experience.

Atiku recalled that June 12 traumatized Nigerians and made some people to question the unity and oneness of the country and whether true democracy can take root in the country.

Political watchers, however, posited that it was the June 12 struggle which led to the death of acclaimed winner, MKO Abiola, that actually propelled military to hand over power on May 29, 1999, and the roles played by the then democracy activists, not that the military willingly relinquishes power.

Sadly, the administrations, including that of Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, which was seen as the major beneficiary of the June 12 struggle, turned deaf ear to the date. They all stuck on to May 29 as the Democracy Day in the country.

Tragically, so many people including politicians across party lines have lamented that these beneficiaries of the struggle for democracy were the ones most determined to deny and erase Abiola’s role in Nigerian history.

Analysts noted that if MKO had not insisted on reclaiming his mandate, if he had not been arrested and detained, if he had not died in government custody, Obasanjo would not have been president.

They opined that , some power brokers in the country then decided to allow the presidential seat to come from the Southwest, because the zone had just lost an industrious son to a struggle of becoming the democratically elected president of the country then, hence the need to pacify the region by supporting Obasanjo to be the next president.

Although, former President Goodluck Jonathan, recognized Abiola, but his choice of the monument did not cut it, according to pundits,  his moves were accepted by people of the Southwest as “Sugarcandy Mountain” in a bid to woo them for his reelection in office.

However, pundits said, President Muhammadu Buhari, with the fulfillment of his pronouncement,  has done what they could not do for several years. Even. The president, during the conferment of Grand Commander of Federal Republic (GCFR) on MKO in Abuja, also offered an unreserved apology on behalf of the Federal Government to the family of MKO Abiola, over the annulment of June 12, 1993, poll, presumably won by late Abiola.

President Buhari said the decision of his government to honor Abiola was not to open old wounds but to bury negative sides of June 12 and its ill-feelings, hates frustration and agony.

Buhari said: “Our action today is to bury the negative sides of June 12, the side of ill feelings, hates, frustration and agony.

“What we are doing is celebrating and appreciating the positive sides of June 12. The June 12 which reinstates democracy and freedom, the June 12 that overcome our various divides and the June that produces unity and national cohesion.

“This is June 12 we are celebrating today and we will nurture it to our next generation.

“Accordingly, on behalf of the Federal Government, I tender the nation apology to the family of late MKO Abiola who got the highest votes and to those that lost their loved ones in the course of June 12 struggle.’’

Commending the president, however, children of Abiola expressed their gratitude to federal government  for catching them unawares.

The eldest child, Mrs. Lola Abiola-Edewor lamented the frustration of the family over the failure of past administrations to, in her words, do what is right.

“The Lord bless President Buhari for this singular honour that he’s done this family and that’s really why we have come to see Asiwaju, to thank him for the role he played in the whole saga, which turned out to be a watershed made right. To thank him for standing in, standing firm and standing strong,” she remarked.

Earlier, the eldest son of Abiola, Alhaji Abdul-Lateef Kola Abiola had written a letter to President in appreciation of his gesture. In the said letter, “Your Excellency, your decision to also designate June 12 as Democracy Day rights the wrong done to all the nation-builders and heroes that produced the democratic credentials on which the Nigerian polity now thrives.  We are profoundly grateful to the people from all corners of Nigeria that worked tirelessly to ensure the freest and fair elections in our nation’s history in 1993, fought valiantly for the Hope ’93 mandate given to Bashorun Abiola by the Nigerian people and died trying to protect the mandate.”

She wondered why the past government decided to euthanize her father’s struggle and feigned its significance to the positions they occupied.

She said: “What the past leaders have been telling us since 1999 was that the June 12 issue is a South- West issue and I wondered why an election in which vast majority of Nigerians voted for one person could be so described. “I have been wondering over the years if Nigerian leaders are so petty and without moral compunction as to limit and confine such activity and date to the regional affair.

“President Buhari has, however, done the right thing and acceded to the yearnings of Nigerians and made it a national issue. I believe more Nigerians will now be ready to re-dedicate their lives to Nigeria and be ready to commit themselves selflessly and sacrificially to the nation as late Moshood Abiola did.

She also revealed that sign of what was ahead for the memory of her father emerged at the inauguration of the former President Olusegun Obasanjo at the Eagles Square on May 29, 1999 when she had thought that Obasanjo would ask the country to observe a minute of silence in memory of MKO, Kudirat, Alfred Rewane, Umaru Yar’Adua, Bal Kaltho, the thousands of students, the tens of journalists, traders and politicians who lost their lives fighting to actualize an unjustly annulled election.

“May we live to witness many more days when justice triumphs over injustice, when sacrifice and service win over arrogance and fraud, and when the blood of our heroes reach from across time to boldly claim the reward that their actions wrought.

“I stopped expecting my country to do the right thing by my father and instead began to understand why Nigeria struggles to find patriots among its leaders.”

Also,  Asiwaju Bola Tinubu, who commended the president for taking an important step towards fully recognizing June 12 as Democracy Day,  said: “President Muhammadu Buhari deserves our thanks and congratulations for taking another important step towards fully recognizing June 12 as Democracy Day in our country.

Tinubu said, “ The government moved the second term inauguration ceremonies to June 12 while events on May 29 would now be low-key swearing ceremonies in order to comply with the constitutional requirements covering the length of term for elected office-holders.

“By this wise yet visionary decision, the president has scored double: first he has accorded respect to the Constitution, which recognizes May 29 as the date to inaugurate new terms of office while at the same time ensuring the country moves on the rightful path to formalizing June 12 as new Democracy Day. This decision soundly balances current legal requirements with the quest for political justice.

“For this feat in moving the country in the right direction, President Buhari and the Federal Government deserve commendation. June 12 represents an important milestone in the annals of Nigeria’s democratic journey. It was the day Nigerians shunned ethnicity and religion to vote for that leader of their choice in an election adjudged clearly free and fair.

“To complete this process, that the president has started via Executive Order, we hope that the National Assembly act with reasonable dispatch in cooperation with the presidency to assure that the requisite constitutional amendments are enacted to fully establish June 12 as Democracy Day.”

But a chieftain of the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, Chief Olabode George, described as deceitful the celebration of June 12 as Democracy Day, saying while it was important to celebrate the heroes of June 12, the country had not learned from mistakes.

George said the June 12 celebration declared by the Federal Government would not put food on the table of Nigerians, saying, “What is in a date? What impact will this have?”

While cautioning President Muhammadu Buhari from declaring late Chief MKO Abiola as a President posthumously, George said, “ By doing so, you will be laying a precedent that is illegal. For me, we should work to avoid the pitfalls of June 12. I am also glad that the Federal Government has declared June 12 as Democracy day and also announced the date as a public holiday”.

“It is like Martin Luther King day. By saying the federal government should declare Abiola as president; can it bring back those who lost their lives during the democratic struggle? The most important thing like I said is what lessons we have learnt so that the younger generations won’t fall into that abyss?

“If President Buhari should listen to this demand by declaring Abiola as president, we may be heading for a constitutional crisis because some people will come out and say it is an illegal thing.”

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