Wednesday, last week, Nigeria, as a nation and Nigerians, as a people, celebrated the first ever national June 12 Democracy Day. That day, the country hosted many heads of government from countries far and near. Top government officials gathered in Abuja and cities across Nigeria to celebrate. Speeches were made. Pronouncements were made. Although we did not hear the refrain, “On June 12 We Stand,” the event was anchored on the annulled June 12, 1993, presidential election. It was supposed to be a celebration of democracy.
President Muhammadu Buhari made the celebration of Democracy Day on June 12 possible. He had declared, last year, that Democracy Day would cease to be celebrated on May 29 and, henceforth, be marked on June 12. He also announced the conferment of the highest national honour of Grand Commander of the Federal Republic (GCFR) on Chief Moshood Kashimawo Olawole (MKO) Abiola, who won the June 12, 1993 presidential election, whose result was annulled by the military government of General Ibrahim Babangida. He also apologised to the Abiola family for the injustice done to their patriarch by the cancellation of the election, bearing in mind that Abiola died in prison in the struggle to actualise the June 12 mandate.
To give legal backing to the presidential declaration, the 8th National Assembly passed a law making June 12 not only Democracy Day but also a national public holiday. To probably show how important he takes the June 12 Democracy Day, President Buhari refused to make any speech after he was sworn in as President for a second term on May 29. He only spoke on June 12 Democracy Day, wherein he devoted most of his speech, in any case, to what he has done in office, not on democracy per se. He did not say much about Abiola, apart from the announcement that the National Stadium, Abuja had been renamed MKO Abiola Stadium.
President Buhari deserves commendation for doing something for June 12. Whether what he did was for political purposes or a genuine atonement or restitution for the injustice done to Chief Abiola, it was a good gesture. He did what three civilian presidents before him could not do. He stole the show and put himself in the history book. Kudos to him!
However, it would be important for Nigerians to know what the nation celebrated last June 12 and will be marking yearly on that day. On June 12, will Nigeria be celebrating democracy or Abiola? It would be nice to know if the country is celebrating June 12 because, on that day, democracy triumphed or that Abiola taught us a lesson in democracy. Is it best to see June 12 as Democracy Day or MKO Abiola Memorial Day? The Federal Government, by President Buhari’s announcement and the law, in fulfilling the wishes of the Abiola family and some other people, says June 12 is Democracy Day. The government has its reasons, but I think the day should be a celebration of Abiola, the man who proved that Nigerians could actually come together as one people if we have a leader with purpose and national disposition.
June 12, to me, therefore, is not about democracy. It is about MKO Abiola. This is why I would rather have an Abiola Memorial Day, which would be a national public holiday, in celebration of the martyrdom of Chief Abiola, who sacrificed his life fighting for the actualisation of his “freely given mandate” and the birth of democracy. We cannot say Nigeria is celebrating democracy on June 12, when the democracy the election was supposed to midwife was aborted and the wishes, hopes as well as expectations of Nigerians shattered. June 12, as a day, is a reminder of an aborted dream to make Nigeria one. It was a coup against democracy, pure and simple.
In any case, we cannot say we are celebrating democracy day in Nigeria when our “democracy” is simply mouthed. We cannot truly say we have democracy in Nigeria. What we have, at best, is a civilian government. Abraham Lincoln’s position that democracy is “government of the people, by the people, for the people,” declared at Gettysburg to honour soldiers who sacrificed their lives so that democracy “shall not perish from the earth,” does not totally hold true in Nigeria. The tenets of democracy are not respected wholly here. Emergence of candidates is mere selection influenced by a few powerful people. The votes of the people do not count much, as elections are manipulated or rigged, as we say in Nigeria. The people are not part of government, as those who are supposed to be representing them, in the Executive and Parliament, are speaking for mainly no other persons than themselves.
Worse still, the government at the centre, which is making Nigeria to celebrate Democracy Day, is a product of an election whose result many believe is not a true reflection of the wishes of the majority of voters. The election is being challenged in court and Nigerians are waiting for the outcome of the legal battle. Also, with President Buhari’s refusal to sign the amended Electoral Act into law, to cause further electoral reforms, not a few doubts the government’s democracy credentials. With this profile, what democracy are we celebrating? June 12 Democracy Day, therefore, is a mockery of democracy. Democracy was not born that day. Democracy is not rooted with it, even with the celebration on that day.
It would have made more sense to me if Nigeria had declared an MKO Abiola Memorial Day, just like the Martin Luther King Jr Memorial Day or the Lincoln Memorial Day in the United States, in honour of Abiola. This could have been done on July 7, when Abiola died or August 24, when he was born. Such honour would be more enduring with a monument to be called the “Abiola Memorial,” specially built for the purpose of honouring Abiola in Abuja, the Federal Capital Territory (FCT). Abiola was a man that deserves honour, not the symbolism of denial, which June 12 stands for. It was not June 12, as a day, that brought Nigerians together. It was the man Abiola. June 12 was about Abiola, a man acknowledged nationwide. He was a man loved by Nigerians of all tongues and tribes, to the extent that even when he ran a Muslim-Muslim presidential ticket, Nigerians stood by him, irrespective of their faiths. Abiola was a symbol of unity. He was detrabilised. He was generous to all. He epotomised love, unity and concord.
Abiola, before contesting for the presidency, had endeared himself to Nigerians. His philanthropy was unmatched. He gave out without restraint. When he contested for the presidency, his good deeds and national acceptability made the majority affirm, “MKO is our man.” He proved to us that Nigerians could unite in brotherhood. That is a man we should be celebrating.
I hope that by making June 12 Democracy Day, celebrated close to May 29, the government has not unwittingly killed the essence of the day. Certainly, the clash between May 29 and June 12 will continue. As long as May 29 remains a day when the elected President and the majority of the governors take their oath of office every four years and mark their anniversary in government, the day will remain relevant. The temptation is that state governments will mark their anniversary on May 29 with pomp and ceremony and just observe June 12 as public holiday. Going by what happened last June 12, where government and people of some states minded their business, even as they observed the holiday, June 12 may end up as an Abuja celebration. The fact that some governors would prefer to be with President Buhari on that day, as against being at the centre of their states’ celebration at home, makes the matter worse.