June 12, 1993 was the day eligible Nigerians trooped out in their numbers to choose between the late M.K.O. Abiola of the defunct Social Democratic Party (SDP) and Alhaji Bashir Tofa of the defunct National Republican Convention (NRC) who would be president of the of Nigeria.
The foundation for the politics, religion and theatre that would later define the election and its ramifications was laid on that day. A majority of Nigerian electorate looked at the bigger picture and shattered the miniature fault line of religion by casting their votes for the Muslim-Muslim ticket of Abiola and Ambassador Babagana Kingibe in a rare approbatory gesture.
The candidature of Abiola, his seemingly larger-than-life humanity and eleemosynary persona had in the main helped to insulate the ticket from the primordial prejudice of religion. The then military regime of General Ibrahim Babangida that superintended the political transition programme had on that score written off the ticket as a strategic electoral blunder.
The Muslim-Christian ticket of Tofa and Dr Sylvester Ugoh coupled by the NRC was expected to benefit from the factor of religion. Alas! Babangida and his men were mistaken. That thesis has continued to reinforce the narrative that they never wanted Abiola, for reasons best known to the cabals in power, to become president of Nigeria.
A very influential and cosmopolitan Abiola had gone ahead to win the election. President Muhammadu Buhari has just, sensationally, confirmed the historic verdict that the defunct National Electoral Commission (NEC) under the chair of Professor Humphrey Nwosu was prevented from officially announcing.
At the time, the Babangida military junta had annulled the election, citing, among others, heavy monetization of the presidential primaries, the election proper, the rulings by the courts stopping NEC from proceeding with the poll and other bad conducts.
In his speech justifying the annulment, Babangida had specifically said: “Evidence available to government put the total amount of money spent by the presidential candidates at over two billion, one hundred million naira (N2.1 billion)….Apart from the tremendous negative use of money during the party primaries and presidential elections, there were moral issues, which were also overlooked by the Defence and National Security Council.”
Babangida’s plan to reset the entire transition programme, especially to fix end of July 1993 for the SDP and the NRC to put in place the necessary process for the emergence of two presidential candidates under the supervision of a recomposed NEC, did not materialise. The decision to annul the June 12 election precipitated a rash of nationwide protests for the revalidation of the result.
The sustained protests forced Babangida to step aside on August 27, 1993. He had coupled an Interim National Government (ING) that was headed by a British-trained Nigerian lawyer and former Chairman and Chief Executive of UAC, Chief Ernest Shonekan. That was after some notable Nigerians, had reportedly lobbied to be given the job. This is a story for another day.
Ironically, Olusegun Obasanjo, who was reportedly opposed to an Abiola presidency, would later become the greatest beneficiary of the June 12 debacle. When the politics of necessity, that historic obligation, came about in 1998 to compensate the southwest zone for denying Abiola his mandate and for paying the supreme sacrifice in the custody of the Nigerian state, it was in the direction of Obasanjo that the military cabal looked.
At the time fate beckoned, Obasanjo was in jail in which the Abacha military junta had clamped him for alleged phantom coup plot. The harsh sentence handed down to him generated a great deal of public empathy. He also enjoyed the support of his military constituency to emerge president in April 1999 election. He was inaugurated on May 29.
While in the saddle as president, he could have used his good offices to honour Abiola’s memory, political martyrdom and heroism. He never did. Obasanjo declared May 29 as Nigeria’s Democracy Day in spite of the undying advocacy by pro-democracy activists whose strategic hub was the National Democratic Coalition (NADECO) to designate June 12 as such in honour of Abiola.
Credit must be given to those advocates who continue to drive the annual ritual of celebrating the day through all manner of intellectual engagements. They have, indeed, approached June 12 with a sense of religiousness. For them, June 12 has become a religion that fits perfectly into and finds vast expression in the history of the nation’s democratic enterprise. The southwest is generically the pantheon of the June 12 worship.
Unsurprisingly, for all of eight years of Obasanjo in power, he remained an outsider to the worship of June 12. Former President Goodluck Jonathan could have done what Buhari has just done by declaring June 12 as Democracy Day; perhaps, he did not enjoy the benefit of a good advice in that direction. He had, however, in good faith attempted to rename University of Lagos (Unilag) after Abiola but the move was resisted by some quarters, which preferred the elegant, fashionable and famous Unilag nomenclature.
Jonathan, as rationalized by some writers close to the development, did not confer national honours on Abiola because he was advised that it could not be done posthumously. A former Chief Justice of Nigeria, Alfa Belgore, whose weighty advice was in the context of the provisions of the National Honours Act No. 5 of 1964, must have encouraged the Jonathan government to embrace circumspection on the matter.
Belgore has also now declared Buhari’s award of Grand Commander of the Federal Republic (GCFR) to Abiola posthumously as illegal. That also coextends to the human rights activist, the late Chief Gani Fawehinmi’s Grand Commander of the Order of Niger (GCON). Buhari’s audacious decisions have precipitated some theatrics, bordering on the sublime and the ridiculous. The sublimity is writ large evident in the interrogation of the laws regarding the process-whether he had acted legally or not.
Sections 3 (2) and (3) of the Act cited supra have been adduced to justify Buhari’s decision to honour Abiola and Fawehinmi posthumously. While subsection 2 talks about living persons for honours, subsection 3 vests powers in the president to waive the preconditions in the preceding subsection. If there were law(s) recognizing May 29 as Democracy Day as claimed by some persons, Buhari should set machinery in motion to expeditiously propose a June 12 Democracy Day bill that will repeal and supersede it.
Any other legal encumbrance should be dealt with. Recognition that has been accorded June 12 should be appreciated over and above consideration of imperfections in the declaration. Indeed, Buhari has struck the bull’s eye by the gestures.
Ojeifo, an Abuja-based journalist, writes via [email protected]