Nigeria’s democracy is still on a tortuous journey. Apart from having inefficient electoral and political systems, our politicians are intrinsically selfish. To them, service to the fatherland is not a major consideration. What matters more to them is the unbridled penchant for accumulation of wealth. The essence of June 12, therefore, is to remind Nigerians of the pitfalls of the past, the mistakes of the present and the need to uphold the tenets of democracy.
June 12, 1993, was the day Nigerians trooped out in their millions to elect their President after years of military rule. It was adjudged the freest and fairest election in Nigeria’s history. The voting was devoid of tribal, religious and sectional sentiments. The Social Democratic Party’s (SDP) presidential candidate, Chief Moshood Abiola, and his running mate, Babagana Kingibe, were widely believed to have won the election despite their Muslim/Muslim ticket.
Nigerians eagerly awaited the result of the exercise. But they were rudely shocked when the then military President, Ibrahim Babangida, annulled the election. There were protests which led to the killing of many pro-democracy activists and other Nigerians by security agents. It led to the relocation of many citizens across the country.
Before Babangida was forced to leave office, he handed over to an interim government headed by Chief Ernest Shonekan. This hurried arrangement didn’t last as the late General Sani Abacha shoved Shonekan aside and took over power. In 1994, Abiola declared himself president. The government then accused him of treason, arrested and jailed him. Abacha and Abiola later died in June and July 1998 respectively in controversial circumstances. General Abdulsalami Abubakar who took over from Abacha, conducted elections and handed over to Chief Olusegun Obasanjo on May 29, 1999. Since then, Nigeria’s democracy has not witnessed any military interruption.
Transiting from one civilian government to the other since 1999 without military interventions is one of the benefits of the June 12 struggle. We have been celebrating this democracy every May 29 until last year when President Muhammadu Buhari signed the law making June 12 Nigeria’s new Democracy Day. Another outcome of this democracy is that in 2015, an incumbent President, Goodluck Jonathan, lost in a general election for the first time and conceded defeat.
But for occasional breaches by some overzealous security agents, Nigerians have also enjoyed freedom of speech more than what was obtainable under the military. Nevertheless, true democracy is still a far cry in Nigeria. Our elections have remained a ‘do-or-die’ affair, largely characterised by massive rigging, vote buying, ballot box snatching, violence and killings. In the presidential election of 2011, about 800 people were reportedly killed in different parts of the North. The election was between President Buhari and former President Goodluck Jonathan.
The 2019 general election also witnessed the killings of scores of Nigerians. In the last governorship elections in Kogi and Bayelsa states, scores of people lost their lives. Even after the election, violence did not abate. In Kogi State, suspected party thugs invaded the house of the Peoples Democratic Party women leader, Mrs. Abuh Salome, and burnt her alive.
Besides, Nigeria has been polarised along ethnic and religious lines. Political appointments, especially at the federal level, do not reflect the nation’s diversity. The worst is in the security architecture where a particular section of the country dominates. This has raised undue tension in the polity. The June 12 challenge for the Buhari administration is to run an all-inclusive government where favouritism and nepotism should take the back seat.
The President should keep to his promise on last year’s Democracy Day to tackle poverty and lift 100 million Nigerians out of poverty in 10 years. Currently, about 80 per cent of Nigerians live below the United Nations’ poverty threshold of $2 per day. Nigeria also has the unenviable record of being designated the poverty capital of the world. As at 2018 when the ranking was made, about 87 million Nigerians were living in extreme poverty. In fact, extreme poverty in Nigeria is said to grow by six people every minute. Apparently, this fuels the rising insecurity in the country. Thousands of Nigerians have been killed; many others abducted by criminals, who terrorise different parts of the country.
The significance of June 12 will be lost if we don’t see democracy as a system of government that meets the aspirations of the people. The outcome of our elections must represent the will of the people. Our leaders must recognise the sanctity of the ballot box. There should be no room for rigging. Money should not have undue influence in our political choices. People should vote for leaders who have the interest of the country at heart and who see governance as a public service. The President should initiate reforms of our electoral and political systems. The starting point is for him to sign the Electoral Act Amendment Bill into law.
Above all, our democracy must be anchored on the principle of the rule of law. The judiciary must be truly independent. And people should de-emphasise ethnicity, religion and other primordial sentiments and focus more on issue-based politics.