Victoria Ngozi Ikeano
One can say that to all intent and purpose, President Mohammadu Buhari’s second term in office which he secured in the February 23, 2019 general elections begins on June 12, Nigeria’s new, official Democracy Day. Although the president was sworn on May 29, it was more of a symbolic gesture to meet the constitutional requirement; a constitution that was handed over to the populace by the military which then unilaterally declared May 29 as Democracy Day simply because it was the day they handed over power to a democratically elected government after some 15 years of jackboot military rule.
Why the military chose to step down on that day rather than follow their previous precedence of October 1 when they similarly handed the baton to an elected President Shehu Shagari in 1979 in the third Republic, one may never fully understand; one can only conjecture that they perhaps were in a hurry and under immense pressure to leave the scene given unrolling events. One of such was that Nigerians were becoming impatient with military rule and disdained it following cancellation of the 1993 presidential election which was adjudged free and fair and which billionaire businessman, Chief Moshood Kashimawo Olawale (MKO) is widely believed to have won. That election was unique in that despite Abiola and his running mate being both Muslims, Nigerians still rallied round them to give them their votes. Abiola was acknowledged as a man with a large heart whose generosity transcended religious and tribal divides.
Invalidating that election thereby truncating the return to civil rule, really angered millions of Nigerians. This sowed the seed of activism in Nigerians some of whom teamed up to form NADECO – the National Democratic Coalition. The military later sought to pacify Nigerians somehow by setting up a civilian Interim National Government (ING) headed by Chief Ernest Shonekan a former managing director of UAC, one of the largest companies in Nigeria who is also from same Ogun state as Abiola. However, this did not help matters as most Nigerians considered the ING an illegal government. Under this condition, it was not long before, the then chief of army staff, so appointed by General Babangida who “stepped aside” after announcing the ING, overthrew the government and announced himself as head of state. Agitations for return to civilian rule and actualisation of June 12 continued in parts of the country.
Abiola was arrested and put under house arrest. Negotiations for his release on bail were said to be ongoing, being brokered by some third parties too. It was said that one of the conditions given for his freedom was renunciation of his ‘mandate’. It was also said that he rejected that proviso, insisting that he stood on June 12. From the moment of the annulment, the slogan, “On June 12 we stand” had become the singsong of those pushing for validation of that election… Soon afterwards, news broke that the acclaimed winner of that election had died in custody, mysteriously. Nevertheless, south westerners in particular believed that he was poisoned by the government. Abiola’s first wife, his ‘beloved’ Kudirat also died in the struggle as did some others that were killed during the countless strike actions called to press for de-annulment of that poll results, restoration of Abiola’s mandate. The deaths resulted from clashes between police and protesters as well as motor accidents suffered by people rushing to their hinterlands to avoid the tensions in the western part of Nigeria, especially Lagos, Nigeria’s commercial nerve centre.
Lagos the epicentre of the struggle, was intermittently locked down by the protesters in those years especially as they had an effective ally in the National Union of Petroleum Tanker Drivers (NUPENG) presided by Frank Kokori.This writer had her own personal tales of the June 12 imbroglios. I was Features Editor of the old, Daily Times at the time. As is known, strike or no strike, newspapers must appear on the news stand every day. So, I had to always package my own section of the newspaper daily. On one of those numerous strike days, I dared to go to the office with my vehicle thinking that I could manoeuvre my way through with my identity card.
At Ijora, I ran into a ditch caused by harassment from area boys. I managed to get them to pull it out after bribing them with some cash. I continued to dare my luck until I got to Onipanu when I ran out of mother luck. I bumped unto a set of gangsters who started hitting my car. Somehow I managed to swerve it off the road and into a house in that area. As providence would have it, it was the house of a familiar face, one of our contributors, a medical doctor who is however, a prolific writer. The car remained there. On several occasions I had to trek from my residence at Wilmer, Olodi-Apapa area of Lagos to Agidingbi, Ikeja where our offices were located.
At yet another time, I ran into some protesters and walked along with them, the police intermittently dispersing them with teargas. Eventually, the crowd petered out and I then had to continue my journey to our office, passing by numerous roadblocks mounted by the police while telling them some ‘tales’ to elicit their sympathy and passage. Sleeping in the office soon became a routine.
Soon after Abiola’s mystery death, Abacha’s followed suite, in a mysterious way too. Still the seething and barely concealed anger against the military over Abiola, his wife and others’ deaths and the invalidation of that election continued. So when General Abdulsalam Abubakar took over upon Abacha’s death, he quickly announced a six month time table for return to civilian government. They drafted Chief Olusegun Obasanjo from prison to contest the elections under PDP. He won and governed for eight years, from May 29, 1999. Obasanjo was of same Egba stock as Abiola, the reason being to ‘compensate’ the Yorubas for the annulled 1993 election which claimed lives. Still, nothing can truly compensate for a lost life.
Although former president Olusegun Obasanjo disdained June 12 by not recognising it, I believe his successor, Umar Yar’Adua but for his illness and subsequent short tenure, would have been sympathetic to the June 12 issue because of his progressive tendencies and the fact that his brother an army general also lost his life whilst in prison. Dr. Goodluck Jonathan who took over from Yar’Adua was I believe, aligned somehow with the June 12 cause but his hands appeared tied by the powerbrokers at the time, hence his attempt to name what he considered a federal monument, the University of Lagos after Chief M.K.O.
Eventually, President Buhari last year took the giant step of recognising the monumental place of June12, 1993 in our political history by giving a presidential order declaring it as ‘Democracy Day’. The national assembly sometime in May gave it legal backing as a public holiday and now we have the first official, nationwide Democracy Day on June 12. President Buhari will truly celebrate start of his second and final term on this June 12; foreign dignitaries will be in attendance and the president will address Nigerians for the first time after his swearing in, giving us the direction of this his final term. It has been rather quiet since he took the oath of office some two weeks ago. It is hoped that from this day June 12, governance will be speeded up. Happy Democracy Day.
Ikeano a journalist writes from Lafia via [email protected]