June 12: How to honour Abiola
It seems President Muhammadu Buhari did not quite get it. June 12 was an opportunity for him to do two things: (a) enunciate the political philosophy of June 12 and why it merits being transformed into democracy day and (b) tell Nigerians what would lift up their hope and spirit in these rough and tough times trying the soul of the nation and its political leaders.
Instead, he treated us to the litany of his uncommon achievements on the sixth anniversary of his administration. By making June 12 rather than May 29 the anniversary of his administration, the president appears to have elongated his tenure by two cool weeks. I thought that was unconstitutional. I could be wrong.
So, what did the president say about democracy on Democracy Day? In paragraph 45 of his 59-paragraph speech, he said: “When this administration decided to change our democracy day from 29th May to June 12 in my first tenure, it was not only to honour the sacrifices of the men and women of our country who fought for the return to democracy but also demonstrate our commitment to satisfying the aspirations of the people and creating an environment for democracy to be an accepted way of life.”
If that is the whole essence of his proclaiming June 12 Democracy Day, I think it is rather bald and pedestrian. I admit that June 12 is more about politics than philosophy but raising the day to this level should invite us to consider its essence and place in our national politics beyond what I see as the politics of rubbing some people’s noses in the mud. June 12 did not quite succeed as a political cause because we failed it and made it fail to galvanise the whole country to fight for the de-annulment of the election. Rising to the challenge of its de-annulment would have made the clear and unambiguous point that the will of the people expressed through the ballot box must be respected in the sacred tradition of all true democracies; and that the sanctity of the ballot paper and the ballot box must never be violated. I thought these were at the roots of what made the annulment of the election a national cause worth the blood and the sweat of those who fought it on the streets, in the media and other fora. But the sacrifices appear wasted because our political leaders still think nothing of protecting the sanctity of the ballot paper and the ballot box and still gratuitously subvert the will of the people expressed through the ballot paper.
I had expected Buhari to expatiate on the two points and preach the virtues of democracy and why every Nigerian should commit to its best practices so that our country could gradually but steadily attain the height of the true meaning of the democratic creed as the government of the people, by the people and for the people. Buhari, as president, has managed our democracy for six years now. Time enough to see his imprint on this form of government. He has railed against everything but election rigging.
Since our return to civilian rule in 1999, our democracy has been subjected to multiple asinine assaults best captured by what Professor Humphrey Nwosu once referred to as mago-mago and wuru-wuru. The storm of intolerance and the inclination towards autocracy have buffeted our democracy and tossed it about in the rough seas of the primitive exercise of political power in the interest of the few, at the expense of the many. I thought Buhari would tell us what further sacrifices we need to make to sustain, grow and solidify our democracy. But he did not. It was more important to him to reel out his records and create the impression that those who criticise him on his performances are either too dumb to know or too unkind to grant him the credit he deserves. But roads, railways to our people across the border and all other infrastructures for which we have taken money from China would avail the people nothing if they are not safe and secure in their own country.
The times are rough and tough for us and our country. Buhari, however much his minions hide the facts from him, cannot deny he is not totally ignorant of what ails the people and the existential threats to the nation under his watch. When the times try the soul of a nation, its leaders and its people, a democratic leader must say and do things that rekindle the hope and the trust of the people in him. These are not the times for chest-beating, however sonorous the sound might be. These are not the times for talking tough because good leadership is not about talking tough. These are not the times for cowing and intimidating people. No democratic leader should pray for a cowed and quiescent citizenry. Autocracy is anathema to democracy.
These are the times the president should throw his arms around the people and make one nation out of the many nations with varied interests and aspirations as individual groups. This is his big challenge, bigger than infrastructural development and bigger than catching men and women with palm oil on their hands. All Nigerians want peace and security. Our differences in tongues and faith are not our national weaknesses. They can be turned into our strength. The challenge to our successive leaders has been – and we cannot say this too often – to manage our diversities such that there is a little for every ethnic unit and all the constituent units of the federation.
Still, June 12 must be put in context. It was the day President Ibrahim Babangida conducted the presidential election, the last in the series of elections in his transition to civil rule programme. In that respect, June 12 was no more important than other days on which presidential elections have been held in the country. The presidential election was an outstanding achievement for Babangida. The election was adjudged by local and international observers as the fairest, the freest and the most credible election so far in the history of our elections at both national sub-national levels. It still remains so. The conduct of the election remains a tribute to the former president; its annulment remains a blot on his administration and its exploitation by others must necessarily haunt him.
What gave June 12 its measure of political importance was the annulment by the military authorities. It injured us as a people. In recognising June 12 as Democracy Day, Buhari obviously caved in to the same pressure on President Obasanjo to do the same. The former president was not persuaded. The day that brought us democracy was May 29, 1999. On that day the head of state, General Abdulsalami Abubakar, unlocked the gates of democracy and returned the country to civilian rule.
In recognising June 12 as Democracy Day, Buhari gave a nod, inadvertently, to Babangida who conducted the election. It was not his intention. Call it the unintended consequence of a political decision. He did it for Abiola. Although Buhari conferred GCFR, the highest honour conferred only on presidents and heads of state, on him, he did not formally recognise him as a president-elect. He could have gone the whole hog and wiped the slate clean and put him on pension. That way, he would have posthumously fully righted the perceived wrong and served the cause of June 12 as a watershed in our wobbly democracy.
June 12 has had a great influence on our national politics. Because of it, Obasanjo returned to power as a civilian president some 20 years after he returned the country to civil rule in 1979. Because of it, power shifted from the north to the south. Because of it, a southern minority handpicked by Obasanjo became president.
I believe Abiola deserves to be honoured but not the way Buhari chose to do it. In contesting the presidential election of June 12, the chief was not primarily fighting the cause of democracy; rather he was oiling his own political ambition to become president. We must admit that in doing so and given the injury the annulment caused him and the nation, he was transformed into our political giant and hero. Still, merely naming June 12 Democracy Day does not really honour whatever the chief stood for or did too and for our national politics. Future generations of this country who celebrate June 12 would still wonder what it was all about; nothing in the literature of June 12 as Democracy Day says anything about the place of Abiola and the struggle for an end to military rule.
The proper thing to do to properly honour Abiola would be to do what the Americans did for Dr Martin Luther King Jr – and that is to declare Abiola’s birthday a national holiday. That would help to cement him in our national consciousness as the man who was denied victory in life but gained victory in death; was transformed into a national hero and influenced power shift in the country.