BY OUR EDITORS
In June last year when President Muhammadu Buhari declared June 12 Nigeria’s new Democracy Day, instead of May 29, the day Chief Olusegun Obasanjo was sworn in as president in 1999, a lot of people read political meaning into it, especially as it came in the thick of the electioneering for the last general elections in which the president’s reelection bid was being challenged by a strong opposition candidate, and he needed to woo the South West geopolitical zone whose son was denied his presidential mandate in 1993.
However, many Nigerians believe, and rightly so, that the president made the right call, for the events that surrounded June 12, 1993 election truly laid the foundation’s for Nigeria’s present democracy which has now lasted 20 unbroken years, the first time in the nation’s political history.
Exactly 26 years ago, Nigerians went to the polls to choose its president in an election that would have completed the long and arduous political processes in the aborted Third Republic that would have reclaimed the country from 20 years of military dictatorship. At the time, almost all the democratic governance structures were already in place: local government, governorship and National Assembly elections had been held and winners already in office. June 12 was for the presidential election.
In that election, two presidential candidates squared off: business mogul and philanthropist, Moshood Kashimawo Olawale (MKO) Abiola of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) and Kano prince, Uthman Bashir Tofa, of the National Republican Convention (NRC), in what was a two-party system cobbled together by the Ibrahim Babangida military junta.
However, the Babangida junta annulled the election which he himself had, in his broadcast to the nation, described as free, fair and peaceful; an election Abiola clearly won.
As condemnations intensified, Babangida quickly stepped aside and left power in the hands of a spineless and illegal contraption called Interim National Government headed by corporate boardroom guru, Ernest Shonekan, which barely lasted three months before Gen Sani Abacha seized power, starting another military era.
What followed was the darkest period in the country’s history bar the civil war, as the agitation for the restoration of the Abiola mandate took a dangerous turn after he declared himself president and was promptly arrested and clamped in jail by the Abacha regime.
The press, student unions, pro- democracy groups like National Democratic Coalition (NADECO), professional bodies and the international community mounted pressure on the Abacha junta to release Abiola and restore his mandate, but the junta increasingly became ferocious so much so that many pro-June 12 campaigners went underground while others fled into exile after a rogue military strike force started assassinating opposition figures, chief among them Abiola’s wife, Kudirat, who was vocal in rallying support for her husband and his mandate.
Fate caused a dramatic twist in the whole saga as Abacha suddenly died while midwifing a kangaroo transition in which he would have transmuted into a civilian president. His sudden death raised the hope of Abiola’s freedom but few days after, he too died mysteriously while in the company of US peace negotiators led by Susan Rice.
Following the deaths of the two protagonists , Gen Abdulsalami Abubakar oversaw a quick transition and handed over to President Olusegun Obasanjo in 1999.
There are many lessons from the June 12 struggle. It clearly showed the military that Nigerians were fed up with its dabbling in governance and were ready to fight for their democratic rights even in the face of state sponsored terror.
Apart from that election going down in history as the freest, fairest and most peaceful ever conducted in Nigeria, it was also the only time Nigerians were united on one purpose apart from football – to send the soldiers back to the barracks, even voting in a Muslim-Muslim ticket without anybody making a fuss about it. Nigeria needs that kind of unity of purpose to surmount the current security and economic challenges.
It is also pertinent to remind our present leaders that the return of democracy has not really made life more liveable for the majority of Nigerians who are now among the poorest in the world. Many of those who risked their lives then may be wondering whether the struggle was worth it. The present leaders must realise that democracy should lead to good governance, not the grand thievery and misgovernance that has gone since the return of democracy in 1999 which has denied the majority of Nigerians access to basic needs.
As Nigeria celebrates Democracy Day today, we also enjoin Nigerians to truly imbibe the democratic spirit and eschew the do-or-die attitude to political contest prevalent in our polity today.
Much as we commend President Muhammadu Buhari for recognising today as democracy day, we also urge this administration to go beyond the fanfare and flowery speeches to do something tangible to immortalise Abiola. It could start by naming the Abuja National Stadium after him and engraving him in our currency notes. That will keep his martyrdom ever green in our nation’s consciousness.
Finally, there are many others who paid heavy prices in the struggle for June 12. This is a good time to remember them, whether dead or alive.
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