The journey to June 12 as Democracy Day - BUSINESSDAY
For 19 years, the commemoration of the annulment of the June 12, 1993 presidential election was not a national affair. Initially, it was observed only by civil society organisations (CSOs) and human rights activists to press their insistence that an injustice was done by the military junta under Ibrahim Badamosi Babangida, who annulled the election presumably won by the late Moshood Kashimawo Olawale (MKO) Abiola.
A series of events that culminated in Abiola’s death on July 7, 1998 had angered many Nigerians, particularly those from the South West geo-political zone of the country, who felt that it was a double tragedy to have denied Abiola the office and also allowed him to die in prison. A month earlier, precisely on June 8, 1998, General Sani Abacha, the then head of state, had died suddenly and was succeeded by General Abdulsalami Abubakar. Abiola died in suspicious circumstances on the day that he was due to be released.
Although Olusegun Obasanjo, another South West indigene, was elected in a democratic election and sworn in on May 29, 1999 to succeed Abubakar, many Nigerians had insisted that Abiola must be recognised as a president posthumously.
All through the administrations of former Presidents Obasanjo, Umaru Musa Yar’Adua and Goodluck Jonathan, there was no attempt to recognise Abiola as president, proclaim June 12 as a national holiday, or change the date to be a presidential inauguration day.
In May 2012, however, Jonathan had changed the name of the University of Lagos to Moshood Abiola University in honour of the late Abiola. The action drew a welter of criticisms.
Bola Ahmed Tinubu, current national leader of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC), had congratulated Jonathan for taking an action, but urged him to “do it right”, adding that “we must be careful not to localise or sectionalise MKO”.
The defunct Alliance for Democracy (AD), which was formed in 1998, took control of the South West states during the 1999 general election. With the formation of Action Congress of Nigeria (formerly Action Congress) in 2006 through a merger with AD, it continued its dominance of the South West states, thus the remembrance of June 12 became institutionalised in those states under ACN control.
That was the case until June 6, 2018, when President Muhammadu Buhari announced June 12 as the new date when Democracy Day would be celebrated in the country to honour MKO Abiola.
Buhari had explained that the date was more symbolic of democracy in Nigeria than May 29, or even October 1.
He subsequently conferred a posthumous Grand Commander of the Federal Republic (GCFR) title on Abiola, while his running mate in the election, Baba Gana Kingibe, got a Grand Commander of the Order of the Niger (GCON) national honour.
Before it wound down on June 6, the 8th National Assembly passed the Public Holiday Act Amendment Bill to recognise June 12 as the new Democracy Day, and the bill has also been assented to by President Buhari.
To make good his promise, President Buhari refused to give a speech when he took oath of office on his inauguration day for the second term in office, saying he would unfold his agenda on June 12.
The Presidency also, to show commitment to his decision, did not invite world leaders for the May 29 event, stating that invitation had been extended to these dignitaries for the June 12 elaborate programme.
But in a recent interview with SaharaReporters during the 23rd anniversary of the death of his mother, Kudirat, at the family’s home in Ikeja, Lagos, Abdulmumin Abiola, the youngest son of MKO Abiola, asked President Buhari to use his constitutional power to release the full results of the June 12 presidential poll.
He also said June 12 would not be fully recognised until some of the national issues his father had fought so hard to achieve were addressed.
“I don’t believe June 12 will be fully recognised until some of the issues that my father tried to address during the 1993 (presidential) election are addressed today,” he told Sahara Reporters. “Some of these issues can be poverty eradication, gender equality, women involvement, free health care and so on. If we have free health care services, do we have people to utilise these facilities? We have about 200 million people in Nigerian. I look forward to a time when we would start looking at ourselves as part of the solutions and not the problem,” he said.
Joe Okei-Odumakin, president of the rights groups, Women Arise for Change Initiative and the Campaign for Democracy, said the recognition of June 12 as Democracy Day shows hope for Nigeria’s democracy.
“[I]t is an affirmation of our long-held position that the Nigerian state must officially recognise June 12 as the authentic Democracy Day in the country. There is no doubt that June 12 symbolises our journey towards ending military rule in Nigeria,” she said.
She, however, advised that beyond the official declaration, the government, politicians and Nigerians must embrace every other lesson that June 12 elections symbolise.
“First is the fact that free and fair election is a sine qua non in a democracy. Politicians of today should learn the value of fair contest by eschewing all forms of electoral malpractices and violence,” she said. “The electoral umpire must show uncommon determination to do the best they can in the discharge of their very important mandate.”
Olisa Agbakoba, a former leader of CSOs and human rights activist, said who had applauded government for recognising MKO Abiola by recognising June 12, said, however, that there were two important things he would like to see happen.
“One; yes, June 12 was Abiola’s day, but it ought to be personal – MKO Abiola’s day, not June 12 day. If he is the symbol of it, then it is to his remembrance that the day is dedicated. So, I would like the circle to be complete by naming it MKO Abiola Day,” Agbakoba said.
“I would also like a legislated action so that he takes his position as Nigerian president. That is very important. Otherwise, it will look as if it’s got a political purpose. Those two things ought to happen,” he said.