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M.K.O Abiola, June 12 and Buhari’s gesture

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For the couple of weeks that I was away from this page, a lot happened which may have tremendous potential for the fortune of President Muhammadu Buhari’s second term ambition. The reincarnation and the final burial rites of June 12, the epochal watershed in the struggle for democracy, have ironically turned out to be the president’s moment of glory.

And as if to bolster its statistics of convictions in President Buhari’s war against corruption, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC, took two former governors, Jolly Nyame of Taraba State and his Plateau State counterpart, Joshua Dariye into the slammer, convicted of corrupt enrichment after a ding -dong legal battle that lasted more than one decade.

For a brief moment two weeks ago when it all happened a bewildered nation was at once astounded by the fact that it took a newly converted democrat – a former unapologetic military dictator – to recognise the injustice of June 12 election and take a bold step to rectify it.

But immediately the president announced that henceforth June 12, and not May 29, would now be Democracy Day as well as a national public holiday in honour of Moshood Kasmawo Olawale Abiola, the presumed winner of the June 12, 1993 presidential election which was annulled by Military President Ibrahim Babangida, a few people were quick to draw attention to the legal implications of the proclamation and the implications of even giving him a posthumous national honour fit only for the President.

Since the return to democratic government on May 29, 1999, that day has been constitutionally set aside as Democracy Day. And it is also a national public holiday. Those who drew attention to this, did not, in my view, do so to take anything out of this nationalistic wound-healing political masterstroke of declaring Abiola the presumed winner of that election.

For 25 years, there had been a consistent clamour for June 12 to be declared a nation-wide public holiday in honour of M.K.O Abiola and for the man to be declared president posthumously. The legal impediments to Buhari’s proclamation, I am pretty sure, can be removed through constitutional amendment before next year to actualise the June 12 national public holiday. But how about the swearing date of the new administration? Certainly this may pose its own peculiar conundrum. Will it remain May 29 with or without a public holiday? Or the new administration would wait for nearly two weeks to be sworn in on June 12?

Whichever way the conundrum is resolved, it is pertinent to put June 12 and the crisis that followed the annulment of Abiola’s election in its proper perspective. That election had promised to engender solid hope for the unity of this country considering the nation-wide enthusiasm by the electorate which was eager to see the back of military regime. In the process, all the sentiments about religious imbalance were set aside for the SDP to even field a Muslim/Muslim ticket.

This time around Nigerians from all walks of life had a candidate that they could identify with – a politician and a successful publisher with a pan Nigerian credential, carrying no ethnic baggage, a broad-minded philanthropist who had managed to touch the lives of uncountable number of fellow Nigerians irrespective of ethnicity and religion. Abiola was obviously the choice of majority of the people.

But when annulled, June 12 equally had all the potentials of starting another civil war. But the crisis that followed the annulment of that election also had a pan Nigerian outlook until it was eventually hijacked by Abiola’s kinsmen, majority of who, initially, were not even enamoured of his brand of politics which they felt was patently anti-Awo.

But as I had occasion to write in Newswatch in August 1993, the luck the nation had which prevented the apocalypse that we all feared, was that the “June 12 war” with all the monstrosity of its threat to pull the nation down, didn’t lend itself to easy categorisation. If it was going to lead to war, the question was a war between who and who? Certainly it was not going to be an ethnic war. And it was not a Yoruba cause because Abiola was not a tribalist. If it were a Yoruba cause, the people who trooped out in Kano and made Abiola to trounce his opponent, Bashir Tofa, in his home base were not Abiola’s kinsmen and were therefore not fighting an ethnic cause.

The same thing could be said for voters in Yobe, Jigawa, Borno, Benue, Kogi, Plateau, Kaduna and Kwara states. In fact, Abiola scored the mandatory one-third in majority of the Northern states while his opponent did not get it in any of the South West states. The results of the annulled election had proved Abiola to be indeed a true Nigerian. Neither could the June 12 war be regarded as religious. Abiola was comfortable at home with both the Muslims and the Christians. In fact, he took CAN into confidence when he picked a fellow Muslim, Babangana Kingibe, as running mate.
June 12 presented a complexity that was difficult to disentangle. Buhari’s political masterstroke may have mollified the injured and the multitudes of others who were equally bruised in the campaign for June 12, but he has to do more. He may never get at the truth or the justification of the annulment and those who stood on June 12, or stood against it or for it, but he must go beyond the symbolic gesture of anointing June 12 as Democracy Day and national public holiday to consolidate the gains of this momentous occasion.

As a true democrat that he has become, Buhari would do well to boost his own democratic credentials to imbibe and also to encourage other Nigerians to imbibe and even promote some of the true qualities of the man he has honoured, the quality of broad-mindedness, of regarding every Nigerian irrespective of ethnicity and religion as a fellow compatriot worthy of trust and empathy, a true believer of merit and one’s worth, a man who was always ready to give another man the benefit of doubt.

Abiola, might not have become president but his larger than life image came from his ability to triumph over base and primordial sentiments and an incredible sense of fellow feeling. He might not even have been a very good politician, but he was definitely a good humanist. It was not for nothing therefore that he became who he was – a man of the world courted by the high and the mighty.

Not many people can fault the president for recognising Abiola today as a symbol of democracy – the June 12 struggle was all about enthroning justice, human rights and the primacy of the rule of law. What the president has done may not necessarily give him the cutting edge in the 2019 presidential election. What will do the magic would be his actions going forward and the steps he will take post June 12 proclamation to promote the rule of law, human rights, social justice and good governance.

In practical terms, his administration must do more than it is doing now to stop the killings that have become rampant in the country especially in the North. Certainly the solution to the herdsmen-farmers feud resulting in deaths cannot be found in the prescriptions of Mansur Dan Ali, the minister of defence, who suggested the other day that for peace to reign, the states that have passed anti-open grazing laws should suspend their laws. His suggestion, in my view, is an open invitation to anarchy and the subversion of constituted authorities in the states where such laws are in operation. It is like the second cousin of an election annulment.

But need we remind the president of his vow that never again shall the country allow what happened to the June 12 election to repeat itself? That vow calls for eternal vigilance because overzealous government officials sometimes get carried away by the allure of power. They tend to speak before they think and they often behave in a way that would put the peace and unity of the country in jeopardy.


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