From May 29 to June 12: The march of politics
I woke up on the morning of May 30 only to realise that May 29 was the previous day. I had missed it. Don’t put it down to COVID-19-induced amnesia. May 29 slipped off my memory for reasons that had more to do with the baptism and the de-baptism of the day itself than with the fading memory we are all progressively afflicted with as the inexorable march of time piles on the numbers.
In the year 2000, President Olusegun Obasanjo declared May 29 Democracy Day. He meant to make an important statement about our long and tortuous journey from khaki to agbada. On that day in 1999, democracy replaced autocracy in our country, thanks to that self-effacing officer and gentleman, General Abdulsalami Abubakar. We sighed; we heaved a sigh of relief.
Democracy is a precious gift from the ancient world. We fought for it at various fora to pry it from the grips of the khaki men. It was a struggle carried out with sweat and tears, death, destruction and the loss of personal liberty. We soldiered on, no pun intended, encouraged by the fact that democracy is the only form of government devised by man, abused by man, traduced by man but still retains its shine because of its capacity to offer, if not fully deliver, on its promises of freedoms.
Each year since Obasanjo made the declaration, the drums rolled, the champagne flowed and the nation invited itself to the feast at both high and low tables on May 29. For 19 years May 29 was thus a very important date on our national political calendar. It was a watershed, obviously. We stood on it and looked back and saw the road to the confines of the barracks had emptied itself of the military men who departed the stage, I would imagine, with some reluctance. We looked before us and saw that the anointed men, godsons of godfathers, bedecked in expensive flowing traditional gowns, had become the movers and the shakers of our political kingdom where some animals, using the wisdom of Napoleon the pig, are necessarily made more equal than others.
But on May 29, 2019, misfortune, as it often does in a politically unstable country, befell May 29. President Muhammadu Buhari stripped it of its glory and relevance and downgraded it to just another ordinary day, a day you could afford to silence the alarm clock in the morning and bury your head in your pillow, even if sleep has deserted you. He chose a different day, June 12, and elevated it as the new Democracy Day. It is the war of the generals by other means – the march of politics. I will tell you why.
On June 12, 1993, we went to the polls to elect a new civilian president. This would have neatly concluded President Ibrahim Babangida’s Maradonic transition to civil rule programme. But the election was not concluded. No winner between the late philanthropist, Chief M.K.O. Abiola, of SDP and Alhaji Bashir Tofa of NRC, was declared. The election was annulled to a deafening howl of local and international protests. And smarting from the sense of injustice and injury done to Abiola who, from every indication, was coasting home to victory, a befuddled nation took up arms both in real and metaphorical terms to do battle with the generals. The generals had their way but June 12 refused to be dislodged from the conscience of the nation.
Every president wrestled with the pressure to immortalise Abiola and June 12. Obasanjo was under pressure to declare June 12 democracy day. He resisted it. Buhari had been under similar pressure. He caved in and decided to do something about Abiola and June 12. He not only chose it as democracy day, but he also fell short of validating Abiola’s election. He conferred on him and his former running mate, Baba Gana Kingibe, the highest and second-highest national honours – GCFR and GCON – respectively. I thought he could have declared Abiola president and entered a caveat, to wit, that because of his death and the effluvium of time, it was no longer realistic to validate his election.
The man whose nose he rubbed in the mud here is, of course, Babangida, the man who conducted the only election in the country adjudged by local and international communities to be the freest and the fairest in our nation so far. In taking the two steps, the president had settled political scores with his political enemies and thus would emerge as a hero. The halo is still missing.
Was June 12 an election day or the day we won the struggle over military autocracy? We had six more years of military rule after June 12. It did not end military rule. June 12 was not the June revolution it is now portrayed to be. But it has become a potent and manipulative political weapon, clothed as it is with emotions. I wonder how many of the ardent apostles of June 12 realise that each time they extol the election, they pay tributes to the man who conducted the said election, General Ibrahim Babangida.
The June 12 Democracy Day is not about Abiola or June 12. It is essentially about Buhari and his political enemies – Generals Obasanjo and Babangida. It is about rubbing the noses of these men in the mud. He did what Obasanjo refused to do. Vantage Buhari. He partially righted the wrong done to Abiola by Babangida. Vantage Buhari.
I need to make two points about Abiola and June 12. The first is that June 12 remains an important political development in our country. Every single politician in the country owes his elevated status to June 12. Had it been actualised and Abiola had succeeded Babangida, as president in 1993, it would have thrown up different actors on the political from 1999. Obasanjo and Buhari would most likely not have returned to power as presidents. Talk of a soul of goodness in things evil.
The second point is that we betrayed both Abiola and June 12. We are all guilty of this. Latter-day sympathies cannot wash away that mud. Some of us stood on June 12 and some stood by June 12. The parallel lines could not meet. The voices were discordant. The situation was worsened by the emergence of ethnic champions who muddied the water and muddled and confused the situation. Abiola expected an outpouring of national support to actualise his mandate when he declared himself president at Epetedo, a suburb of Lagos. None came. Thus instead of emerging from his hideout as president, floating on the wave of popular national support, he found Abacha’s security men waiting for him. He was taken into detention and never returned home.
June 12 was our chance to tell our rulers, in khaki or agbada, that we would not tolerate the high-handed abbreviation of the expression of our preferences at the ballot box. We lost the chance to tell them then and ever after that the ballot box is sacred and we shall always protect its sanctity from being traduced by pretenders to the keepers of the democratic flame. In failing to use the annulment of the June 12 presidential election to insist that never again would the will of the people freely expressed at the polls be subverted by anyone or a group of persons, we have made election rigging the defining principle of our democracy.
June 12 as democracy day is mere exploitation of both the date and the man who symbolised it. I suppose that is why the president has not articulated the philosophy of the day and its relevance in our national life. I suppose his action was not anchored on any philosophy. Without such a philosophical underpinning, June 12 as a democracy day says nothing about Abiola, his struggles, his eventual loss and the lessons for our country and its political leaders. Abiola’s rehabilitation, as it were, requires something much more profound than democracy day. An Abiola day as a national public holiday is much closer to his immortalisation than June 12 as democracy day.