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‘Declaring June 12 Democracy Day closes Abiola’s mandate’

By Joseph Onyekwere
14 June 2019   |   4:14 am
This is very significant. I am not even sure that government recognizes the magnitude of what it has just done. I acknowledge and thank President Muhammadu Buhari...


Professor of Political Science, renowned diplomat and former Minister of External Affairs, Bolaji Akinyemi in this interview with JOSEPH ONYEKWERE appraised the declaration of June 12 as Democracy Day and the significance of such an action by the Federal Government. He also spoke on other topical issues of national importance.

The Federal Government has recognised June 12 as Democracy Day. What is the significance of this to you?
This is very significant. I am not even sure that government recognizes the magnitude of what it has just done. I acknowledge and thank President Muhammadu Buhari for recognising June 12 as Democracy Day instead of May 29 and for giving Abiola a national honour, GCFR as well as his vice, Ambassador Babagana Kingibe GCON. These are courageous steps and I thank him for them. To me, it closes the mandate chapter of June 12. Abiola has been recognised. His victory has been recognized. There is no use going into pedantic debate about whether Abiola should be called the president-elect. If you say three and I say one plus two, we are saying the same thing. He has been given all the honours that go along with being a president and the date of his victory has been recognised as Democracy Day. So, that mandate aspect of June 12 has been recognised. Let us leave it at that. June 12 is just more than the mandate. In the process of time, June 12 has grown bigger than just the election of that date. June 12, when it was June 12 was the birth of a new Nigeria. And if I can borrow from Chinua Achebe’s title and amend it; Achebe said, “there was a country” and I am saying: “That was when there was a nation.” We voted across ethnic, religious and social lines. Both the rich and the poor voted for multi-millionaires. There was no class warfare. The electoral victory was a victory across and we voted for the manifesto, which was titled: ” Farewell to poverty.” So, we voted social development, infrastructure, development in education, health, youth employment and the rest. All those were part of the victory of June 12. It is important to focus on that because since 1993, we have been going backwards. The cleavages that we thought we had buried in 1993 have resurfaced in 2019 and are even worse now than they were then. You don’t need to wear a glass or a clear vision to see the state of our infrastructural decay. Whether in terms of road, light or supply of water, you don’t need to be a professor to know that our educational system has basically collapsed.

Are you saying that this declaration has remedied the injustice of that annulment?
That is all that it has done. I am saying that June 12 is more now than the justice of that annulment. June 12 now stands for revision of farewell to poverty, which must now be addressed. So, the struggle for June 12 is not over and it would never be over because the job of government never finishes. You would always need to build and repair roads, hospitals, build schools and maintain the standards as well as providing jobs for the youths and the unemployed. Those are the things that the government must always do, and that is why June 12 will never finish. If we focus on just the annulment, we run the risk of forgetting the larger dimensions of June 12.

I will like you to appreciate the standpoint of those who are arguing that beyond declaring June 12 as Democracy Day, Abiola should also be declared president-elect. Those people see this declaration as admittance that he actually won the election and therefore should be given all the privileges due to ex- presidents, even if posthumously.
What do we do? Dig him up and do what with the privileges?

But he has next of kin?
What would the next of kin get? Pension right? The soul of the fight about June 12 would not be degraded to the fight about material things. No, we would be demeaning it. I paid a heavy prize for June 12. My younger brother, who was in the Army, who was arrested and tortured, died. That would be demeaning all of that and it would be demeaning the sacrifice that I also made by reducing it to a pension right for Chief Abiola. It is a no, no for me!

Wont it give his children some sense of pride to see the picture of their father hung alongside that of other former presents of the country?
That is what I said to you that if you say one plus two and I said three, we are saying the same thing. He has been given the GCFR. There will be a room of portraits of those given GCRF because that is only reserved for those who are president or have been president. Chief Obafemi Awolowo is the only other person, who has not been president but was given the GCFR by Shehu Shagari. In this particular case, even the man who ran with Chief Abiola has been given the GCON. So what more evidence are you asking for to show that that man has been recognised as president? Whether it was president-elect or president that never was, he has been recognised. And the day of that election has been declared a national holiday in his honour as well as in the honour of democracy, what more are you asking for? I feel rather strongly about this that the people who are asking for these petty things have not seen the big dimension of June 12. I would rather fight for infrastructural development, fight for youth employment, fight for better schools and hospitals as part of the recognition of June 12.

So your position is that the argument by Afenifere for further honour is unnecessary because they have just made a statement in respect of that?
I am not going to target anybody and I have made my own statement.

There are people who think that the president wants to score a cheap political gain?
Everything is political. If the president decides to build a road linking your village with Enugu, will you reject it because it is political? If the president decides to go and build hospital in my village or in my town, will I reject it and say it is political? No, everything is political in life.

Are you satisfied with our level of progress as a country in the last 20 years?
No, I am not satisfied with the progress we have made since the return to civil rule. In any case, we don’t have democracy yet. What we have is civilian rule. We have never had a free, fair and transparent election. I am not satisfied with the lack of progress in the country in the last 20 years in the area of infrastructural development, in the area of generation of power, in the area of industrial growth, in the area of health (the condition of our health facilities), in the area of education, whether tertiary, secondary or primary. All these indices of social development according to United Nations report, we have gone backward since 1999.

So, what do you think is the reason we are where we are today?
The problem is bad governance. Government has not addressed what it should have addressed. I am not talking about Buhari’s government. I am talking about governments from 1999. All those issues I itemised, they have not addressed them.

You earlier said we are not practicing democracy. What is the difference between democracy and civil rule in our own context?
The difference between civilian rule and democratic rule is in the lack of free, fair and transparent election. We thank God we have kept the boys in khaki out for 20 years, but we have not had a free, fair and transparent election. Apart from the Goodluck Jonathan election against Buhari, the Supreme Court has determined every presidential election we have had. Yes, I agree that the judiciary has a role to play in conflict resolution in electoral process, but when the judiciary determines every election of every politician, then there is something wrong with our electoral system. I served as a member of the electoral reform committee, set up by late president Umaru Yar’Adua and headed by Justice Mohammed Uwais, former Chief Justice of Nigeria. So I know what I am talking about. Even Yar’Adua himself confessed to us when he was setting up the panel that the election was not free and fair; and that he didn’t win that election. He confessed and said that the purpose of setting up the committee was to have going forward, a free fair and transparent elections. Unfortunately, the state of his health did not allow him to squash the pressure from the PDP to bury that report. Most of what the PDP suffered in the 2019 elections, if they had implemented that report, they or any other party would have been protected by it. But sheer arrogance of power – because they thought they would be in power for 50 years did not allow them implement that report. It is only when free, fair and transparent election leads to election of civilians that we can say that we have a democratic rule. Until then, it is just a civilian rule. Maybe, we would say that half a loaf is better than none.

You were part of the election reform committee. Are you not bothered that the recommendations of that panel have not been given any attention up till this moment?
Government is a continuum as you pointed out earlier.

So why has succeeding governments unable to implement at least those far reaching recommendations that would have helped to address the electoral challenges we face today?
I agree with you, that the recommendations of the committee would have, if accepted and implemented assisted Nigeria to come on to having a free and fair election. I think it is a matter of regret and it pains me. And I think it should pain all Nigerians. Today, you may be the victor, but tomorrow you may be the victim of this shenanigan that we have in our electoral system. But one will still take solace in the fact that life goes on. You don’t measure life in terms of five, ten or fifteen years. Sooner or later, Nigeria would reach that goal of having free, fair and transparent election. Other parts of Africa have learnt their lessons. Even in Ghana, they have free and fair elections. We would get there but it would take time.

What motivated you to say military should take over from Ernest Shonekan in 1993, a call that Abacha heeded and sacked the interim government? Some said you wanted your brother who was in the military or some of your relatives to benefit from the system.

I wrote a letter, asking the military to take over, when Ernest Shonekan was in power, because June 12 has been annulled, civil society went to a high court in Lagos, got a judgment declaring that Shonekan’s government was illegal, unconstitutional and that his appointment was null and void. Don’t forget that it was the military that appointed Shonekan’s government. It was not as a result of election. The Shonekan’s government did not appeal that judgment and he did not resign. So, that is why I then wrote a letter, saying to the head of military, since you put his government in power, the court has declared it unconstitutional and null and void, remove it and let us have civilian rule. That was what I did. Any other person can read any selfish motive. And incidentally, my brother had left the military by that time. So, it would not have benefitted him. I wasn’t in the military, so it wouldn’t have benefited me.

If you wrote that the military should sack Shonekan’s government, what would have happened afterwards? Is it for a fresh election or for the military to continue?
No. Again, the court had ruled that the annulment was illegal. So, we are back to one plus two equal three. So, if the court had ruled that the annulment was illegal and that the interim government was illegal, then you go back to status quo ante. There are so many ways of skinning a cat without saying so. The problem with Nigeria is we want everything to be spelt out. So we must say one plus two equal three before we agree. If we say one plus two, and you stop there, they would say what do you mean? Why must everything be simplistic and elementary? If the court had ruled that what you did was illegal and what you replaced it with was unconstitutional, then what should follow?

What is your reason for asking Nigeria to develop nuclear weapon?
It arises from my conviction that we were conquered and enslaved, not because our culture was inferior to that of the Europeans, but because their weapons were superior to ours. Somebody once asked Lord Lugard, how did you manage to conquer this vast area called Nigeria? And he said, we have the Maxim guns and they didn’t. They came here with guns and we had arrows. And that caused us heavily. We still have not got over the enslavement of Africa. Due to that fact, I didn’t want that gap between their capability and our capability to continue to put us at a disadvantage. Incidentally, I am not the only one who holds that view. That was what was behind my mind. Since then, Pakistan, India, Israel and Iran have developed nuclear weapons. Why should we be happy in leading the record in importing and consuming champagne, importing Jaguar, Rolls Royce, Mercedes and other consumer goods that come and go, but something that would protect us and our children we found fault with, why?

At the time you made the call, did you in all honesty believe we have the means to actualize that dream due to our challenges on critical infrastructure?
Where there is a will, there is a way. If you want to actualize a policy, you will found a means to do it. When we want to pay several billions to politicians, we don’t ask whether we have the means. Do you know the amount of illegal outflow of funds from Nigeria? When you want to do something, you will find the means. If by tomorrow we get a government like that of Muritala Mohammed and it wants to ban generators overnight, you can be sure that PHCN will start working probably within six months.

If you hold this view, how do you then react to the international relations policy on proliferations of weapons of mass destruction?
Super powers are against proliferation of nuclear weapons. Of course it is not in their interest to share this weapon, which will diminish their power to control you and direct you. It is not in their interest to support you. In spite of their opposition, India, Pakistan and Israel acquire nuclear powers. There are other medium power countries, which actually are working secretly to acquire nuclear power. Iran was on its way of becoming nuclear power. Of course they would seek to stop you, but it depends on your own determination.

What is your assessment of the APC led federal government in terms of foreign policy performance?
I wont answer that question, not because I don’t have things to say, but it became my policy after I stopped being foreign affairs minister not to run any commentary on the activities of my successors. I have had my earnings and I have moved on. So let others take their own turn and do their best, but I don’t run any commentary on my successors. I don’t think it is proper for anybody who has occupied a particular sit to run a commentary on the activities of his successors. Be a gentleman, move on and have a life.

Does that include when you are pleased or displeased with what your successor is doing?
Either! Whether I am pleased or displeased, I am not going to say a word about Nigerian foreign policy. May be I am wrong to say I will not say a word, I hope and wish government would fund them to achieve their objectives.

What are the key issues your election reform panel recommended that can in the short term assist us reform the electoral process?
It was revolutionary report, which probably was why the ruling party at that time did not want it. We proposed that if a tribunal finds that the winner of an election won that election through dubious means as part of annulling that election, it should ban the dubious winner from contesting any election in the next five to ten years. Secondly, we proposed that where an election is disrupted by violence, instigated by a particular party, the man who ran on the platform of that party should be banned for subsequent elections. We proposed that where the challenger of the outcome of an election is found that his ground of challenging that election is of no substance, he should pay the legal fees of the man he has just challenged. This is just to make sure that there is no frivolous challenge to an election. We proposed that nobody should be sworn in into office when there is still a case before the tribunal, so that he doesn’t use government fund to defend his own case. We proposed that the youth and women should have a fixed percentage of party post as well as elective posts. We also proposed a form of representation rather than winners take all. So these were the kind of things that were addressed. I am not sure of what our position was on electronic voting. I know we debated it vigorously. We also proposed that nominations of chairman and members of INEC should be by NJC. They will make recommendation to the president who will forward the recommendations to the senate. And we also propose that in nominating chairman of INEC, IGP, CJN, the yes vote must include one-third of members of the opposition. That is to ensure that people who are being appointed where not just members of ruling party and in removing them from office, it would require two-third of the senate. And that number must include one-third of the votes of the opposition. That is just to make sure that when you are talking for instance of removing and IGP, it would not just be a question of political vendetta.

Did you recommend the setting up of electoral offences commission?
Yes, we did because nobody has been punished for violence behavior on election time. So we recommended electoral offences commission.

What is your position on state police?
I don’t want to confuse the position of the panel with my own position. My position is rather conflicted honestly. I am conflicted about state police. Originally, I was against it because I have fears about the level of integrity and decency of our state governors. From what I have seen, there are state governors who would have used the police to decapitate their opponents and opposition leaders. The governors have their militias, which they use and you and I know about it.

It is illegal to have militia.
But they do and we all know it. They have militia which they use and which they continue to use. I read in the paper that a particular governor in one of the South West state, on leaving office, handed over an armoured personal carrier and so many AK47 to the commissioner of police of that state, saying it was what he had hidden all the years he was in office that if he had wanted to take over the state by force, he would have done so. Anyway I am shifting on my position now. Give me some time!

What do you think about insecurity in the country today?
I am alarmed! I feel bad because this is not the country I grew up in. I am 77 years and half. I have a long memory of a country that was once at peace with itself. If we were all saints, we would not have policemen or the prisons, but then crime was in a minor scale at that time. But gradually, things fell apart. And gradually it is no longer a country of peace. We have got a state where we cant believe that this is the same Nigeria that 20 years ago, we were not making the headlines all over the world for banditry, kidnapping and all kinds of shenanigans. At a point, we were saying that Nigerian parts were tied with iron rods. It has now degenerated to the point where it is tied with threads and now we are not even tied together at all. Shortly, we are going to pieces and that is frightening. It only spells one thing – disaster for Nigeria and West Africa.

Do you think the commander in chief is doing enough to address the security challenges?
Do you remember that chapter in the Bible where John the Baptist sent his disciples to Jesus and asked; “Are you the one we are expecting or are we expecting another one?” Jesus said to them, go and tell him what you see, that the blind see, the deaf hear and the lame work? So, if all were going well in the country, would you have asked me this question? Why would you be asking me obvious questions when you know the answer? I have told you that I am not happy with the state of things in the country whether security or infrastructure. I have told you that there was once a nation where there was peace, where children could walk to school and where there was fellowship. I am telling you now that 2019 Nigeria is no longer that country.

Are we going to throw our hands in the air and say we are doomed?
I didn’t say that! I am a diplomat and a professor. I don’t believe in crudity of language. I believe you could be able to infer from my body language and answers what I mean. I am not going to speak like a market woman, apologies to all women. My one plus three is going to be equal four. If you say four and I say one plus three, we mean the same thing. So, infer from all that I have said in this interview because they emanate from what I see, hear and think.