June 12 as a Signpost for Democracy

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On June 12, 1993, over 14 million Nigerians went out to vote with great excitement and eagerness to elect their president, between Chief Moshood Kashi­mawo Olawale (MKO) Abiola, of Social Democratic Party (SDP), and Alhaji Bashir Othman Tofa, of National Republican Conven­tion (NRC).

The citizens went to the polls with the expectation of ending the almost 10 years of military rule, after the elected civilian government of late Alhaji Shehu Shagari was toppled on December 31, 1983 by the then General Muhammadu Buhari.

However, the hope of the people was dashed and their euphoria short-lived, when the then General Ibrahim Badamosi Babangida (IBB)-led military junta refused to release the results and subsequently annulled the election for no just reason.

Even as results were not announced before the annulment, compilations made by civil society groups from the different polling units across the country showed Abiola, the late exceptionally popular business mogul and uncommon philanthropist overwhelmingly won the election.

Interestingly, religion, ethnicity and other primordial considerations played no role in the cancelled June 12 poll which was adjudged to be and still remains the freest, fairest and most peaceful election ever held in the annals of Nigeria’s political history. The cancelation of the election gave birth to progressive agitations and consistent clamour for democratic rule that eventually came to fruition on May 29, 1999.

In the course of the struggle to actualize his June 12 mandate believed to have been gladly given to him by the people, Abiola declared himself president and he was incarcerated by the late General Sani Abacha for treason. Abacha had ascended to power as the military head of state via a bloodless coup, overthrowing the Ernest Shonekan-led interim national government that IBB handed over to after his unjustifiable cancellation of the June 12 election.

Regrettably, Abiola died on July 7, 1998, the day he was due to be released from prison. His death was trailed by suspicious circumstances, while an official autopsy stated that Abiola died of heart attack, General Sani Abacha’s Chief Security Officer, Major Al Mustapha, said Abiola was beaten to death.

How Significant Is June 12 To Nigeria’s Polity?

June 12 is widely regarded as the most important day in Nigeria’s post-independence political history. The significance of the day to Nigeria as a political entity, observers say, cannot be over accentuated.

The day is seen as a turning point in Nigeria’s chequered political voyage coming after the collapse of the first and second republics. For once, Nigerian citizens cast their votes, according to the dictates of their conscience, without pandering to religious and ethnic considerations. Voters from diverse ethnic groups and religions threw their entire weight behind Abiola and his running mate, Babagana Kingibe, regardless of the fact that both of them were Mus­lims.

June 12, in the estimation of enlightened minds, laid a solid foundation for the country’s return to democracy which has remained uninterrupted and unshakable since 1999. This was why prodemocracy activists and other right-thinking Nigerians made repeated calls for Abiola to be immortalized and June 12 recognized as the real Democracy Day by the federal government.

After previous administrations from 1999 failed to the needful, President Muhammdu Buhari, in June 2018, declared June 12 as the country’s official Democracy Day and conferred Abiola with a posthumous award of the Grand Commander of the Federal Republic (GCFR). On June 10, 2019, Buhari signed into law a bill passed by the National Assembly to legalize June 12 as the new Democracy Day and it was marked for the first time with a declaration of public holiday.

As the country formally marks the day for the second time, analysts feel that with the President’s recognition and official designation of June 12 as Democracy Day in Nigeria, those who courageously championed the cause and lost their lives in the process did not die in vain. It is viewed that making every June 12 a public holiday, translates to venerating and honouring the country’s fallen heroes and heroines, who passed away while battling for the enthronement of democratic government.

A Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN), Senator Victor Ndoma-Egba, described June 12 as a watershed and missed turn for the country.

Ndoma-Egba said: “It was a missed turn, a missed opportunity for us and our country, because it provided us with an opportunity to relegate those primordial sentiments like tribe and religion. For once, Nigerians demonstrated that they could just vote for people they believed in irrespective of tribe or religion. But when it was annulled we missed that opportunity. What is the relevance of that today? The relevance for that today is that it is still possible for Nigeria and Nigerians to have a country where religion and tribe are totally irrelevant. It is a possibility that we can work for because it happened before. And once it has happened before it can happen again.”

Stressing the significance of June 12, the former Senate Leader posited: “That was the day that Nigerians actually proclaimed their democracy. That was the day of proclamation. That was the day of liberation from the clutches of our unpleasant past. The present government has acknowledged that that is the day with historical relevance when you relate to democracy. That is the actual date. Because May 29 was just a whimsical date that anybody picked it. It has no significance as such. It was just made significant. But June 12 represents an ideal. And the present government has acknowledged that ideal and the possibility of realizing that ideal.”

Erstwhile Senate President, Adolphus Wabara, opined that June 12 is an eye opener in Nigeria’s democratic history. He noted that there was need for the country to learn from past mistakes made with regards to June 12 to enhance democratic governance in the country.

Dwelling on the relevance of June 12 to Nigeria’s democratic growth, the country’s former number-one lawmaker remarked: “The initial Democracy Day May 29 was subjective. It had no historical significance. It is personal to whoever created it. I’m indeed one of those who believe June 12 is very relevant when we are talking about Nigeria’s democracy because everybody even the children unborn would ask, why June 12? What happened on June 12? What are the stories behind June 12 that even led to the death of the winner of the June 12 election? So, there is a lot to write about June 12. You can even do a PhD dissertation on June 12 whereas there is nothing to write on May 29. Somebody just wanted to create his own niche and his own day and date without any historical background or significance.”

The ex-Senate President also hailed Buhari for his acknowledgement of June 12 as Democracy Day, noting that it was the best decision to take by any government that “understands how we got to where we are today in our struggles for the enthronement of democracy.”

He said: “I’m a critic but a constructive critic. I don’t just criticize for the sake of criticism. No! That is a well-deserved decision that the government took. And they should be applauded for that and one or two of such other decision. It’s indeed a wise one. It’s not political. The government looked at the significance of the day and decided that there is nothing to write home about May 29 but there is a lot to write to remind us and even children yet unborn of June 12. On that day in 1993, Nigerians never cared that two Muslims were going to be President and Vice President of this then great nation.”

In a commemorative message to Nigerians for this year’s June 12 celebration, the National Chairman of SDP, Prof. Tunde Adeniran maintained that the onus lies on all and sundry to ensure that the nation is driven by the ideals of June 12.

According to Adeniran, a former Minister of Education, “All of us, both the government and the governed, have crucial roles to play in moving our country away from the life of horror, poverty, continual fear and dangers of violent death into a life of dignity, peace and prosperity. Mind­ful that poverty is said to be the mother of crime, we must in ally with the spirit of June 12 which centres around the promotion of justice, democracy, fundamental rights and human dignity as well as the general well-being of the people, strive to lift our people from the present degrading poverty and take them to a life that is meaningful and dignifying. In this regard, there is need for an enabling environment for the Nigerian people to play their parts.”

The one-time Nigerian Ambassador to Germany noted that “To achieve national retrieval from the suffocating grips of our multifaceted challenges, we must continue to promote and uphold the ideals which June 12 represents by getting all of us to commit to the building and pushing of the frontiers of a good society. By this we mean a nation where no one goes to bed hungry; where no child of school age is out of school; where no one is discriminated against or deprived of his or her rights, freedom and basic entitlements on grounds of eth­nicity, religion, socio-economic background, gender or political views or opinions. Justice and equity for all is a condition for national integration and harmonious co-existence.”

Adeniran added: “On behalf of the national leadership and the entire SDP family nationwide, I congratulate all Nigerians for the coming to reality of our long quest for a deserving national recognition and pride of place for JUNE 12 in our national life. It is so fulfilling that Chief MKO Abiola who was the symbol and personification of the struggle has ultimately been officially recognized as the winner of the election. We also want to pay special tribute to the great souls of all our heroes and heroines who were martyred in the course of the struggle. The plant of democracy they watered with their precious blood is gradually taking root in the country, but there is still a lot of work to do to nurture it.

“As a party on whose platform the late Chief MKO Abiola ran and won the presidency, we remain committed to upholding the noble ideals for which he fought and died. We will continue to work for the promotion of the greatness of Nigeria and the well-being of all Nigerians in line with our people-oriented ideology and popular Manifesto. We will also remain committed to the essence of June 12 by working to ensure that the death of the heroes of our democracy will not be in vain and that democracy will continue to take root and be deepened firmly in Nigeria and be made beneficial to all Nigerians. It is the strong belief of the SDP that, in line with this, President Muhammadu Buhari should assent to the Electoral Reform Bill dutifully passed by the National Assembly. The success of any democracy depends both on the orientation of citizens as well as the legal framework. Nigeria has already climbed two decades on the lad­der of the 21st Century. Without the implementation of the Electoral reforms already overdue, democratic consolidation would be a mirage.”

A senior lecturer at the Department of Public Administration in Federal Polytechnic, Nasarawa, Garba Ibrahim, also submitted that June 12 remains significant in all the struggles that led to the ultimate entrenchment of democracy in the country 21 years ago.

Ibrahim stated: “The June 12, 1993 presidential election entrenched democracy in Nigeria. It laid proper foundation for democracy in Nigeria. MKO Abiola was accepted by all Nigerians regardless of ethnicity or religion, meaning that the electioneering activities were free from ethnic or religious bias. Nigerians came out en masse to vote for MKO Abiola even though he was from the West and his opponent Bashir Othman Tofa was from the northern part of the country. MKO Abiola was more accepted and he was voted for. That June 12 election paved way for the democracy that we are enjoying today. People came out without fear, without bias to vote for the candidate of their choice. Today Nigerians know the beauty of democracy and they will ensure that we continue to practice de­mocracy without allowing mili­tary incursion into the country’s polity again.

The senior lecturer further said: “When it was announced that June 12 has been recognized as democracy day a lot of Nigerians were happy. All the politicians were happy regardless of their party affiliations. They were happy because of what happened on June 12. I told you that that election was the freest and fairest we have ever had in this country. There was no reason for the military regime of IBB to have annulled that election. It was a very transparent election. People came out on their own to vote. No intimidation, no violence, no crisis! That is why a lot of Nigerians were saying that June 12 should be democracy day. And a lot of Nigerians including myself were happy when June 12 was declared as our new democracy day against May 29 that it used to be. We will continue to celebrate June 12 in Nigeria. I think the whole world even recognize June 12.”

A political analyst based in Lokoja, Kogi State, Kabirudeen Tiamiyu, noted that there were many lessons the country ought to have learnt from the conduct of the June 12, 1993 presidential election to advance the country’s democracy. Tiamiyu wondered why Nigeria has not been able to uphold the principles of June 12 as exemplified by the man that led the struggle and died along the line.

His words: “June 12 was a significant milestone in the political history of our dear country, Nigeria. That was why I joined in welcoming Buhari’s marking of the day as democracy day. It was a day that most eligible voters in Nigeria came out en masse and rose above ethnic and religious bigotries to embrace national cohesion and oneness to elect a man whom they believed would deliver them from the precipice of destruction, abject poverty and put them on a path of self-contentment and comfortability. The election marked the commencement of a long and tortuous struggle to see that democracy is restored after a long period of misrule by the military in Nigeria.”

A civil society group, Centre For Liberty (CFL) wants Buhari and NASS members to use the occasion of this year’s democracy day celebration to rededicate themselves to electoral reforms.

The centre insisted that marking the day will amount to an exercise in futility, if there was nothing on ground to ensure enduring electoral reforms that could guarantee better elections. The CFL further said the occasion of June 12 represents a great opportunity for galvanising the public towards reforms that could tackle the inadequacies in the country’s electoral process.

The Co-conveners of CFL, Ariyo-Dare Atoye and Adebayo Raphael in a statement said: “We appeal to the President to use the occasion of June 12, 2020, to re­commit to an enduring electoral reform by tasking the National Assembly on the timely passage of the Electoral Act Amendment Bill, 2019, currently before the Senate, and to equally pledge his immediate assent to the act, once it is transmitted.

The centre implored political parties, civil societies, election observer groups, international monitors, the media and every concerned stakeholder to re­double their efforts towards the push for electoral reforms and the passage of the Electoral Act amendment bill.

The group observed that “Countries with credible electoral processes seem to be bet­ter governed the world over; so, therefore, there is a direct correlation between the quality of the electoral process that can guarantee credible recruitment process for leadership and good governance… After (over) 20 years of uninterrupted democratic dispensation, it is incumbent on every Nigerian to ensure we conduct elections that meet global standards and can be likened to the June 12, 1993, Presidential Election.”

However, Dr. Saidu Ahmad Dukawa, a senior lecturer with the Department of Public Ad­ministration in Bayero University Kano (BUK), has a completely different view about June 12. For him, there was nothing unique or significant about June 12. He argued that its pronouncement as Democracy Day was a blunder on the part of President Buhari.

The lecturer is miffed that Buhari honoured Abiola’s camp without extending same to Tofa, insisting that nobody can be too sure who won the June 12 elec­tion of 1993 since the results were never officially announced.

Former Minister of Interior, Comrade Abba Moro, equally does not think the proclamation of June 12 as Democracy Day was done in good faith. Moro, who is currently the Senator representing Benue South Senatorial District in the National Assembly, wondered how a day an election was aborted will now be more important than the day democracy was seen to have been actually enthroned.

In the words of Moro, “June 12 was an accident in the chequered political history of Nigeria. That was when the smooth transition of democratic leadership was truncated by a cabal of military adventurers. It is a very sad commentary on the evolution of democratic governance in Nigeria. However, I see some anachronisms in the Nigerian declaration of June 12 as democracy day for celebration. The day democracy was aborted cannot and should not pass for democracy day. It is very sad though that an election that was adjudged as the most credible and the freest in Nigeria was brazenly annulled with impunity.”

As for Anthony Agbo, a former senator, the federal government should re-designate June 12 as “A National Day of Thanks­giving To God.”

In a statement, Agbo said: “I call on the federal government of Nigeria to re-designate June 12, as A National Day of Thanks­giving To God in recognition and appreciation of God’s faithfulness in keeping this country together, despite several decades of challenges, ranging from the Civil War, several military coups, misrule, extreme corruption, insecurity, religious fundamentalism and sabotage.

“Democracy is good to be celebrated but, taking cognisance of the nature of our beloved Country and all the factors that have over the years weighed against it, the democracy we celebrate annually could never have been achieved without one single fundamental factor, which is the divine factor, being God Himself who made it all possible. It is therefore my opinion that celebrating democracy instead of the personality that actualized it, is like celebrating an axe for felling a tree instead of the axe wielder.”

– Michael Jegede, a journalist, writes from FCT-Abuja

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