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On Democracy Day, calls for better life, functional society re-echo

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Fraudulent. Not well thought-out. Action smacks of desperation, hypocrisy. It’s for cheap political gains…
These and more were some of the words and phrases that trailed President Muhammadu Buhari’s declaration of June 12 as the nation’s new Democracy Day when he made the pronouncement on June 6, last year.

Buhari had said: “For the past 18 years, Nigerians have been celebrating May 29th as Democracy Day. That was the date when for the second time in our history, an elected civilian administration took over from a military government… But in the view of Nigerians, as shared by this administration, June 12th, 1993, was far more symbolic of democracy in the Nigerian context than May 29th or even the October 1st.”

“June 12th, 1993 was the day when Nigerians in millions expressed their democratic will in what was undisputedly the freest, fairest and most peaceful elections since our independence. The fact that the then military government did not uphold the outcome does not detract from the democratic credentials of that process. Accordingly, after due consultations, the Federal Government has decided that henceforth, June 12th will be celebrated as Democracy Day.”

Buhari went on to award, posthumously, the highest honour of the land, GCFR, to late Chief Moshood Abiola, the acclaimed winner of the June 12, 1993 presidential election.Criticisms followed. At the time, the narrative was that the action was ill-intentioned, more so as the nation approached a general election. Most of the brickbats, spurned largely by members of the opposition, have yet to abate till date.

But this year, President Buhari has taken the honour he seeks to do the late Chief Abiola and his family, a notch higher. He moved the fanfare and speeches that ought to have accompanied his inauguration on May 29 to today as part of activities for the first ever commemoration of June 12 as Nigeria’s Democracy Day. In addition, earlier in the week, he assented to the Public Holiday Amendment Bill conferring official recognition on June 12 as Democracy Day and indeed, a public holiday. And the nation is in joyous mood.

Senator Femi Okurounmu, a former Secretary-General of the pan-Yoruba socio-cultural group, Afenifere, who represented Ogun Central Senatorial District from 1999 to 2003, said the move by the President is commendable. He noted that the move had put former President Olusegun Obasanjo to shame given that he ignored all pleas to honour MKO Abiola and declare June 12 a public holiday during his eight-year tenure.

Okurounmu said, “It is a commendable act. Recognising the late MKO as the real winner of that election is long overdue. For us, June 12 had always been the authentic Democracy Day.” 

Exactly 26 years ago, on June 12, 1993, Nigerians trooped out en masse to vote for Chief Abiola in an election that became known as Nigeria’s freest and fairest election in history. Abiola died in detention while struggling to actualise his mandate as contained in the annulled election. However, while government’s decision has been trailed by criticisms, there has been an almost equal measure of commendation, expectations and agenda setting.

The consensus does appear to be that the government should go beyond mere recognition to taking actions to activate and entrench some of the ideals and benefits that an Abiola presidency may have brought to Nigerians. Prime among such ideals is restructuring, which has been described as the solution if Nigeria were to be preserved as a nation. Such other issues as good governance, socio-economic development, federalism, accountability, transparency, security of lives and property, and the like, have also formed the thrust of some demands being made on the Buhari-led administration.

The Yoruba socio-cultural group, Afenifere, though hailed the recognition of June 12 as national Democracy Day, noting that it is what progressives had clamoured for over the years. But it urged the FG to go a step further by recognising the late Abiola as a former elected President of Nigeria.

Afenifere’s spokesperson, Yinka Odumakin, stated that the government should demonstrate that its decision was not a political gimmick by ensuring that the spirit of June 12 signposts all government actions going forward.He added, “Though the GCON is the highest honour in the land, we want Abiola to be formally recognised as a former elected President of Nigeria.

“Besides, the spirit of June 12 is about free and fair elections. We just finished an election. Was its conduct in the spirit of June 12? June 12 was about ethnic and religious harmony, and the integration of Nigeria. Today, Nigeria is much more divided than we were before 2014 with Fulani herdsmen killing people all over the place. These are in the negation of the virtues of June 12.

“In addition to this recognition of June 12 as Democracy Day, we must demand an end to banditry; we must demand a restructuring of Nigeria; we must demand transparency in government, and we must demand free, fair and credible elections.”Opposition party, the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), which has earlier described the recognition as “an act of desperation and hypocrisy,” called on President Buhari to “end all anti-democratic proclivities of his administration” and “allow for the rule of law and respect for the constitution” if genuinely he wants to honour Abiola.

Global norms relating to rule of law are quite unambiguous. In any true democracy, certain creeds and tenets stand inviolable.
Of the lot, the separation of powers and respect of ordered liberties top the list. These narratives are foundational and settled concepts of any worthwhile democracy.

This stance was echoed by some observers who noted that since the Buhari administration was inaugurated after the 2015 presidential elections, Nigerians have gauged the performance of the current administration not only in terms of three public policy priorities – fighting corruption, tackling security and reviving the economy — that Buhari campaigned on, but also watched his every move on rule of law. And the verdict has been that he performed below par.

A security expert said, “Security and national interest ought not to precede legalities that derive from the Constitution.
It is a false choice to pit national security or national interest against the rule of law. Citizens in a democracy are entitled to both. At a time when the nation should be embarking on modernisation of its economy and strengthening the foundations of its democracy, we are witnessing a reverse, especially in regard to the latter.

“President Buhari must, indeed, strive to strengthen our democracy. The Democracy Day action is good. But such issues as the Electoral Act (Amended) Bill must be signed into law. That would take care of the issues of credibility with our elections.”

Ejeviome Eloho Otobo, a non-resident expert at the Global Governance Institute, Brussels, also tasked President Buhari on respect for the rule of law, saying that what separates a well-functioning democracy from non-democracies or illiberal democracies is the rule of law.

“In its broadest and best construction,” Otobo said, “the rule of law means that all persons are equal before the law, constitutional norms are supreme and must be strictly adhered to, and when there is doubt about the application of the law, the courts are the only arm of government that is empowered to interpret and clarify the situation.

“Nigeria isn’t alone in manifesting certain governance limitations in a democratic dispensation. Its current governance leaning mimics discomforting trends elsewhere; the discomforting truth is that some amount of ethnic nationalism is not just tolerated, but accepted as completely legitimate. This erodes the very foundation of Nigeria’s nationhood, more so its quest for true federalism. And this reality also fuel calls for restructuring.”

That Nigeria has survived thus far as a political entity represents a triumph of faith over resilience and experience. But faith in the country cannot depend on good will or benevolence of leaders for too long; it must be cultivated and nurtured. And this requires fair, even and consistent application of rule of law.

In addition, much more than an annual commemoration of Democracy Day, Nigerians, going forward, must enjoy quality education, health care, functional infrastructure and public services, good governance, and protection lives from violence and crime, among others. 


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