Resident Electoral Commissioner of Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) in Akwa-Ibom State, Mike Igini, speaks on President Muhammadu Buhari’s decision to recognise June 12 as Democracy Day.
The current administration has instituted June 12 as Democracy Day; what is your response to this development?
It is a watershed decision that we had commended. Decades from now, when many governments would have been forgotten, this is one of the touchstones by which this administration will be remembered because it is an initiative anchored on an ideal that transcends political leanings, it is a compact of faith that we all agree to abide by as a system of democratic governance. You see, of all the definitions of governance that I am familiar with, the one that resonates most with me is that by Kaufmann, Kraay and Mastruzzi which states that governance is the traditions and institutions by which authority in a country is exercised for the common good, thus by casting this democratic commitment in stone to be commemorated on a permanent basis on June 12 every year, it connotes that we have all accepted to remind ourselves yearly on that date, of our commitment to be a country where the traditions and institutions by which authority in our country are exercised for the common good. It is a fitting day, given the historical democratic consensus by which Nigerians from all parts of the country voted in the majority for one party, with a Muslim-Muslim ticket on June 12 1993, reminding all of us that we can all rise above the socially constructed and other natural divisions in our country. Having committed to this ideal, we must move forward with the policy options that different political groups offer, on how best to operate in these democratic traditions and institutions by periodically choosing those who can best practice what they preach in free, fair and credible elections.
You were one of those who through student union activism fought against the annulment of June 12 presidential election in 1993; tell us briefly about what transpired then?
What happened then was that, we as presidents of our respective students’ bodies recognised that the Nigerian people voted for a leadership, but an unelected leader, that even created a convoluted ambience that Nigerians decided to turn into opportunity for freedom from military rule and voted in that peaceful election unlike the ones we are having these days, decided that his whim was bigger than the sovereignty of the people. Having articulated the scenario and its portent, we recognised that it was a turning point for us as a people to assert our common will and the right to choose our own leaders. Abiola was the focus for our common cause and he played the role of a leader, a rallying point without letting the people down.
For his resolute position, he was made to pay the supreme price. As I have often restated on this occasion every year, it is unfortunate that many who enjoy the best benefits of democracy today would have sold us off at the mere threat of a quarter of what Abiola was made to pass through, yet many pontificating on their attributes, some even had the temerity to question the notion that Abiola and June 12 should be commemorated, many of them do not even know what democracy means to us and why we will do everything to preserve it because of the sacrifices many made to ensure that democracy takes root in Nigeria.
For instance, all the final year students who should have graduated in 1993 lost that year from struggling with military rule. Those who undermine the current democratic processes for selfish ends often do so only because many have a very short memory of the struggle and many others witnessed it only from a distance. Those who paid profound cost for the June 12 struggle know why they tolerate the excesses of those who find themselves in positions of leadership today that were not part of the struggle. They know that many such people got democratic leadership by luck or opportunism rather than struggle so they can afford to be careless and to put the democratic practice and institutions in jeopardy, they can afford to toy with our national aspirations, and our lofty values because they did not have to hold the burning metals of torch of the democratic struggle in Nigeria when life and limb were at stake.
When MKO Abiola came back from London, I led a team of other activists to meet him because the student body in UNIBEN had decided to name the new student union complex then after the incident of the election by calling it the June 12 Building as it is called till date. We felt that since he had just returned back to Nigeria, it will give great impetus, a renewed momentum to the struggle if he came personally to open the complex. We found during private interactions with him that he was resolutely committed to actualising the people’s mandate. He assured us that he will not waver because he recognised that the issue was no longer his personal matter anymore. He pointedly said, ‘if this was just my personal transaction it would be different, this issue is now a matter of the Nigerian people and those who stand against their democratic aspirations.’ He was such an intelligent man, his depth of insight inspired strength. In those few moments I could see in the strength of his character why he was able to conquer his spheres of influence.
Given the current state of democracy in Nigeria, will you say that the kind of democracy we have now was what you aspired for in 1993 as a student Union leader in UNIBEN?
Taking it from my earlier premise that democracy is a qualifying adjective for a governance ideal and governance is a set of regimes, traditions and institutions for exercising authority for the common good, we have to understand that we need a consensus of vision about where we want that ideal to lead us. If we go back to the pre-independence talks of Nigerian leaders in London, our different peoples agreed that these traditions, institutions and practices for exercising authority should be anchored on a federal structure, deviations from that notion has historically taken us further apart and experience shows that going back to that understanding helps our union better as a nation.
Our founding fathers found that when we follow a federal structure to achieve decision making, more Nigerians are able to participate by deciding more of the things that affect them within their localities and are better able to solve those problems quickly and effectively, than when we have to send all or most problems to Abuja or the state capitals. Even when we elect representatives in these capitals, it does not mean that we have given up the right to make these decisions ourselves, we have only delegated that right and we do it periodically through elections, because if we all sit down to do it every Sunday it is no longer feasible to reach quick decisions because society and the diverse things we have to do are now numerous and complex.