President Muhammadu Buhari pleasantly shocked most Nigerians on June 1, when out of the blues, he announced the change in Democracy Day from May 29 to June 12, and awarded Chief M.K.O. Abiola, the acclaimed winner of the June 12, 1993 election, the highest national honour of Grand Commander of the Federal Republic, GCFR.
His running mate in the election, Ambassador Babagana Kingibe, received the second highest national honour of Grand Commander Order of Niger, GCON, as well as the fiery lawyer and human rights activist, late Chief Gani Fawehenmi. Both Abiola and Fawehinmi received the awards posthumously.
This action of the president was so strategically timed and politically executed that even his political opponents had very little to say against it. June 12 was a watershed in the democratic march of the nation and the forerunner to the present political dispensation of the 4th republic that most Nigerians had been frustrated by the attitude of previous governments not to acknowledge its significance in our history.
Since 1999, only the south west states have been marking the Day in recognition of the sacrifice of Abiola and the struggle to actualize the mandate. By that singular move, President Buhari has taken the initiative and assumed the moral high-ground over people like former president Obasanjo, the immediate beneficiary of June 12, who opposes him his reelection; and IBB, the culprit, who also frowns at his return.
Suddenly all the ground-swell of opposition to his continuing in power has fizzled out replaced with praises and recommendation even from the most unlikely quarters. By that action Buhari has not only divided the ranks of the opposition but surely guaranteed his reelection in 2019.
As a newspaper, we commend the gesture and praise the president for ‘righting the wrongs of our history’ as he put it. We believe that June 12 symbolises all the political ills of the nation and its effective resolution is critical to the survival of democracy in the country. It was the day Nigeria conducted the freest and most credible election which was inexplicably annulled by the military regime that conducted it led by Gen. Ibrahim Babangida.
The rot in the country and perfidy of democracy being practised today are fallouts of that action; the constitution under which the election held was a far improved version of the 1979 constitution and the people that inherited the present dispensation far more capricious and undignified than those in 1993.
Annulling the election was the worst political action ever taken against the nation; indeed, it is worst than a military coup because coups take place when there is popular agitation against the government in power for whatever reasons, unlike the annulment which was against a popular expression of the people’s will in an election. It was a very retrogressive step, one that the nation may never recover from in this generation.
So recognising the importance of this Day is very positive and instructive. It begins the process of actually healing the wounds and refocusing our attention on its symbolism. But to demonstrate that the move is altruistic and goes beyond reaping political advantage, the president should take it a notch further to revive and restore the slide in national cohesion and quality of governance.
Only a blind person or power irredentist would ignore the crumbling edifice of the nation. Governance has become virtually impossible, political corruption has become a way of life, critical development indices are lacking and the value of life disappearing while simple democratic practice, such as conducting elections has become hazardous.
And the reason in the main is this: The structure of the country is so hierarchical skewed that grass root governance is nonexistent. Democracy is about the people, which invariably is about the grass root. To run a democracy in a large country like Nigeria from the centre is to expect the impossible. Without restructuring this will be the inevitable outcome.
And this has to do with the 1999 constitution. Two constitutional conferences in 2005 and 2014 had been held on the way forward. Democracy and development would be hard to come by in the country if things like elections and census are so contentious and violent in nature, simply because of the premium and high stakes attached to the control of the centre.
This is the real significance of June 12, which Abiola represented, because his campaign slogan was HOPE. Buhari cannot honour Abiola without giving hope to the Nigerian people who voted for him to change their stations in life. Nigeria as it is today is a far cry from the hope Abiola promised and unless Buhari carries out some fundamental reforms in the polity his recognition of Abiola and June 12 will only be a political token to win election and not a statesman’s action to address the basic and fundamental dysfunctions and ills of the nation; this, in our thinking, would be very sad.