By Eric Elezuo
The feverish acceptance of President Muhammadu Buhari’s declaration of the ever popular June 12 date as the new Democracy Day in place of the regular May 29 has remained a topic of discussion in literarily all the spaces of human endeavor in Nigeria – political, social, economy, entertainment, creative and many more in recent days.
The desire to recognize the June 12 as a special day in Nigeria has been a topical issue since 1993 when on June 14 of the same year, the Military President, General Ibrahim Babangida went on national television to declare that the election credited as the fairest and freest in the history of Nigeria could no longer be adopted, and as a result everything concerning it hereby becomes null and void. In simple terms, Babangida annulled the election and suspended the release of further results.
However, as at the time of cancellation, about 14 out of the then 30 states of the Federation, had had their results released, with the candidate of the Social Democratic Party (SDP), Bashorun Moshood Kashimawo Olawale Abiola, popularly known as MKO, winning virtually all of them. His opponent, Alhaji Bashir Tofa, of the National Republican Convention (NRC), was trailing far behind.
Then the shocking annulment! It took the entire nation by surprise.
The politicians kicked, the civil society cried blue murder, the activists raised their voices to high heavens while the entire populace wondered aloud, yet the visible architect of the annulment, Babangida, did not change his mind. In the midst of the crises the generated afterwards, Abiola stood stoutly on the mandate given to him by the generality of Nigerians, and refused to be intimidated.
Three months after the annulment, Babangida ‘stepped aside’ as the hit from the civil society and activists became hotter. He handed over to a civilian technocrat, Chief Ernest Shonekan. Another three months was all he could stay in office before General Sani Abacha, on November 17, 1993 conducted a palace coup that ousted Shonekan. Abiola celebrated with Abacha in apparent belief that a Daniel had come to judgment, but that was not to be as Abacha proved to be the problem waiting to happen. He threw in to the dungeon as many that raised their voices in favour of the annulled June 12 1993 election.
On June 11, 1994 therefore, Abiola declared himself president in a speech he titled Enough is Enough at Epetedo area of Lagos. He went ahead to declare that he was forming a government of National Unity. He drew the displeasure of the military junta, and was subsequently arrested and incarcerated. He was never released until he died in custody on July 7, 1998 under the leadership of General Abdulsallam Abubakar. Recall that Abaha had died a month earlier on June 8, 1998.
Abubakar’s speedy return to democracy the following year did not douse the hunger for the return of June 12. This time to honour the champion of the date with recognitions not limited to declaring him as the winner of the annulled election, and then announcing him as a former President of the country.
One of the activists, who later became the Governor of Lagos State wasted no time in declaring June 12 the authentic democracy day in the state. He replicated the act in all the states in the west under the then Action for Democracy (AD), and beckoned on the Federal government to do same. The government of Chief Olusegun Obasanjo will not. Instead, the clamour was divided on party line with Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) states recognizing only May 29 and AD controlled states recognizing June 12.
But Abiola needed to be recognized, and much as subsequent governments understood, no one was willing to tamper with the May 29 date. Jonathan’s attempt to honour Abiola was rebuffed when he named the University of Lagos after the hero of democracy. He reversed his decision because majority of Nigerians, especially from the Southwest refused. But the clamour for a sustained recognition continued unabated.
Today, the government of Mohammadu Buhari has actualized the yearnings of democracy activists, and honoured Abiola with the honour of Grand Commander of the Federal Republic GCFR as well as made June 12 a national holiday to mark Democracy Day though May 29 remains handover day in order to avoid tenure elongation.
Buhari’s pronouncement elicited reactions from many quarters, especially from the judiciary which claimed it was illegal to honour Abiola with GCFR as it is only reserved for presidents and ex-presidents, and more especially that it is meant for living beings and can never be given post humously.
However, President Shehu Shagari broke the jinx when in 1982, he honoured Chief Obafemi Awolowo with GCFR honours in as much as the statesman was yet to become a president, and never was.
Awowolo bagged the honour as a deserving citizen based on the good works that are credited to his person including establishing the first television station in Africa, giving free education and health care the people of the Western region of his time.
Again, Awolowo was succeeded by Alhaji Shehu Shagari as a Federal Commissioner, and it was obvious the later to be President understood the magnitude of work the acclaimed Yoruba leader put into the job. Shagari Awolowo as a deserving citizen, and honoured him with the award.
Later in his administration, President Goodluck Jonathan declared that he would not hesitate to confer the highest national award, Grand Commander of the Federal Republic, on any deserving individual.
He said although many believed the award was for presidents, former President Shehu Shagari conferred the same category of award on the late sage, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, who was never a president.
Jonathan spoke in defence of the criticisms he got for conferring the award of Grand Commander of the Order of Niger on a bussinessman, Alhaji Aliko Dangote.
He said countries all over the world honour people who had contributed immensely to national growth like Dangote is currently doing. The President said the earlier individuals and groups especially opposition politicians stopped playing politics with every decision of government, the better for the country.
He said, “One of the problems we have is that some Nigerians play politics with everything, but we cannot destroy our country because of personal political ambitions.
“We now have a constitutional democracy and no one can stay in office forever. It will therefore be best for our nation if we all support whoever is there for the development of the country instead of trying to pull him down by all means.”
Recall that in July 2017, the House of Representatives advised the Nigerian government to immortalise the acclaimed winner of the June 12, 1993 presidential election, MKO Abiola with a posthumous Grand Commander of the Order of the Federal Republic (GCFR). They were emphatic and categorical on the basic award needed.
The mentioned that would be in recognition of the deceased sacrifice and contributions to the unity and development of Nigeria and Africa.
The sponsor of the motion, Sanni Zoro (Jigawa-APC), said “It is worthy to remember him always as a Nigerian who touched lives more than any other person in his life time.”
“Abiola also contributed in ensuring religious harmony by building bridges between faith organisations in the country,’’ he added.
Zoro argued that apart from being acclaimed winner of June 12, 1993 presidential election by polling eight million out of the 14 million votes cast, Mr. Abiola contributed immensely to the political development of the country.
“It will not be a novelty to bestow the GCFR on someone who is not a president of the country.
“Former President Shehu Shagari bestowed the same honour on late Chief Obafemi Awolowo in 1983.
“I believe that we should immortalise MKO Abiola by conferring on him this highest honour in the country,” he said.
Contributing, Anayo Nnebe (Anambra-PDP) urged the federal government to declare June 12 of every year as Democracy Day in the country.
“June 12, 1993 election had more significance for the country’s democracy compared to May 29, which is currently being celebrated as Democracy Day.
“The annulment of June 12 is an act of irresponsibility and recklessness by the then military regime.
“I want to add that June 12, should be declared a national holiday to reflect issues that transpired; It should be seen as a national issue and not regional one,” Nnebe stated.
Member representing Epe Federal Constituency of Lagos, Wale Raji, urged the federal government to declare the result of the annulled election by announcing late Abiola the posthumous President-elect.
In reality, all the members prayed for are exactly what the President granted. It is therefore uncalled for when diverse views are heard condemning the award.
Chief Awolowo hitherto was the only non-Nigerian President who has the award. Today, the late MKO Abiola has joined the fray.