Honouring June 12 and Desecrating It

Honouring June 12 and Desecrating It

By Azuka Onwuka

Chief MKO Abiola

Last week, June 12 was celebrated for the first time nationally as a public holiday. After over two decades of the struggle to recognise June 12 as Nigeria’s Democracy Day and honour Chief Moshood Abiola, last year President Muhammadu Buhari took that step. He also conferred the highest honour reserved for only heads of state (Grand Commander of the Federal Republic) on him.

This year, the bill was passed by the National Assembly and was signed into law by the President. On June 12 this year, a special ceremony was held in Abuja to mark June 12 as Nigeria’s Democracy Day. At that event President Buhari announced that the National Stadium, Abuja would henceforth be known as Moshood Abiola Stadium, Abuja.

That recognition and honour brought a sense of closure to the June 12 struggle that started in 1993 after the presidential election held on June 12 of that year was annulled by the military government of General Ibrahim Babangida midway into the announcement of the results. Chief MKO Abiola of the Social Democratic Party contested the election against Alhaji Bashir Tofa of the National Republican Convention, with Professor Humphrey Nwosu as the Chairman of the National Electoral Commission.

The presidential election of June 12, 1993 came ten years after the overthrow of the civilian government on December 31, 1983 by the military led by Major General Muhammadu Buhari. So Nigerians were weary of military rule and were eager to return to democratic rule. With Abiola leading in the state-by-state results being released by the chairman of NEC, Babangida announced that the election had been annulled. That announcement destabilised the nation. All efforts made for Babangida to reverse that annulment failed. He had to leave office and hand over to the Interim National Government led by Chief Ernest Shonekan on August 26, 1993.

On November 17, 1993, General Sani Abacha forced Shonekan to resign and took over government, pretending that his mission was to reverse the decision of Babangida. But he had his own plans. When Abiola realised that Abacha had pulled a fast one on him, he declared himself President on June 11, 1994 at Epetedo, Lagos. He was subsequently arrested and charged for treason.

His arrest kick-started a robust struggle for the de-annulment of the election and restoration of Abiola’s mandate. The Abacha government came hard on those who were part of that struggle. Many people were killed and many were arrested. Many fled the country. On June 8, 1998 Abacha died and General Abdulasalam Abubakar took over. But while the nation was awaiting the release of Abiola, news came on July 7, 1998 that Abiola had died. It was shocking. Many people suspected foul play. But nobody was able to prove anything.

Eventually Abubakar conducted fresh elections with General Olusegun Obasanjo (retd) declared the winner and sworn in as President of Nigeria on May 29, 1999. Obasanjo declared May 29 as Democracy Day and a holiday. Those who led the struggle for the restoration of the June 12 mandate demanded that June 12 be recognised as the true Democracy Day. But Obasanjo ignored that throughout his eight-year tenure. Alhaji Umaru Musa Yar’Adua, who took over from Obasanjo as President, also did not recognise June 12 or Abiola.

On May 29, 2012 Dr Goodluck Jonathan as President announced that the University of Lagos would be renamed Moshood Abiola University in honour of Abiola’s sacrifice for democracy. Rather than attract praise, he was condemned by the arrowheads of the agitation for the recognition of Abiola. Despite the reasons given for opposing that announcement, it was obvious that it had more to do with politics. Jonathan was in Peoples’ Democratic Party while the arrowheads of the struggle for June 12 in the Southwest were in the opposition Action Congress of Nigeria. Allowing him to honour Abiola would give him some political mileage in the Southwest, the political base of the ACN. Jonathan later reversed the announcement.

In 2018 Buhari announced the plan to honour Abiola as stated above. It was received with joy. Buhari is of the APC which is also the key party in the Southwest. The announcement that the National Stadium, Abuja would be renamed after Abiola was also received with joy. But some people have noted that the National Stadium, Abuja had been abandoned for years and allowed to be overgrown by weeds. If a president from another party had named it after Abiola, the action would have been dismissed as a ridicule of the image of Abiola.

By honouring Abiola and June 12, Buhari has reaped the goodwill. History will record it in his favour. Even though he was the chairman of the Petroleum (Special) Trust Fund under Abacha who arrested and detained Abiola, all that is past. He is the President who gave full recognition to June 12 and Abiola.

However, the drawback is that many of the things happening today in Nigeria under the government of Buhari are against the spirit of June 12. June 12 is seen as the day the freest, fairest and most transparent election was held in Nigeria. The election conducted this year by the Buhari administration fell short of the standard of being free, fair and transparent. In addition, there was excessive intimidation and killings in the election.

Secondly, June 12 election proved that Nigerians could vote across ethnic and religious lines. The election under Buhari has taken Nigeria back to the era of ethnic and religious divides. In addition, Buhari has run a government that divides Nigeria into those who are his kinsmen and those who are not, with preference clearly and unapologetically given to those he sees as his kinsmen. He has also divided Nigeria into those who voted for him and those who did not vote for him rather than seeing Nigeria as one immediately after campaigns.

Thirdly, while campaigning for votes in 1993, Abiola used “hope” as his key promise. He promised Nigerians a new country where hunger and poverty would be eradicated. On the contrary, under Buhari hope is low and poverty has risen to its highest level.

Fourthly, June 12 was a vote for the rule of law. Under Buhari, rule of law has received a blow. Many court decisions and constitutional matters have been disobeyed or breached under Buhari.

Finally June 12 was the hallmark of democracy. It is recognised as Democracy Day to buttress its importance in the democratic journey of Nigeria. But lately, democratic principles have been eroded. One point some people raise against Abiola is that he had some anti-democratic and unpalatable sides. No doubt, Abiola was not a saint –nobody is a saint. However, the majority of the voters decided that they wanted him as their leader irrespective of his ethnicity or religion. Nobody has the right to change that decision.

Ironically, during this year’s election, in some parts of Nigeria, especially in Lagos, where the fire for the restoration of the June 12 mandate burnt strongest, voters were intimated and prevented from voting by the arrowheads of the struggle for June 12, because of their ethnicity. Voters were told that they even had no right to vote for the candidate of their choice or to be voted for because Lagos is not their state of origin. In areas where it was obvious that a non-indigene was poised to win, underhand steps were taken to ensure that it did not happen. It was a template perfected during the gubernatorial election in Osun State in September 2018. It has been replicated in different states and districts since then. Sadly, those who lead the struggle for the restoration of June 12 have been behind this travesty, and their action has been defended and rationalised by many of those who see June 12 as an electoral watershed that should be emulated.

Therefore, even though the recognition of June 12 and Abiola is a good step that is long overdue, it is embarrassing that the same people purporting to be championing the principles of June 12 have been desecrating those principles. What obtains in Nigeria today is a mockery of the spirit of June 12.

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