By SOC Okenwa
Last May 29 2018 the APC-led federal government marked with fanfare the so-called Democracy Day. May 29, it would be recalled, was the day democracy was restored in Nigeria in 1999 following the debilitating crisis that followed the criminal annulment of the June 12 free and fair presidential election won ‘fair and square’ by the late Bashorun MKO Abiola. President Muhammadu Buhari, as tradition dictated, had addressed the nation in a long speech fraught with detailed appraisal of the past and present challenges of the task of nation- building. Dutifully he had enumerated the mitigated achievements of his 3-year old administration hammering on the works still in progress toward the greatness of our nation.
President Buhari surprised not a few folks last week when he decreed that from next year June 12 would be celebrated in Nigeria as the ‘Democracy Day’ displacing May 29 that hitherto marked the annual event. The President equally bestowed post-humously the highest national honour, the Grand Commander of the Federal Republic, (GCFR), on the late “President” that never ruled, Bashorun MKO Abiola. Besides, he also honoured post-humously the late legal icon Chief Gani Fawehinmi, who fought the June 12 cancellation with the instrumentality of the law. Like Fawehinmi the running mate to Chief Abiola, Ambassador Babagana Kingibe, was also given the second highest national honour, the Grand Commander of the Niger (GCON).
While we recognize that the decision was a populist good one the timing was politically-motivated and therefore wrong! For one, Buhari is seeking a second term in office in next year’s presidential election against a groundswell of public opinion for or against the inordinate ambition. For another, he is not in the best of health for all we know. And for yet another, age is no longer on his side! Besides, there is perceived incompetence, nepotism and ubiquitous lack of security of lives and properties across the federation. Above all, it was morally wrong because one of the recipients of the award who collected his “in person” was Kingibe who currently holds an ace in the Buhari administration. For one, Kingibe was a deserter who betrayed both June 12 and Abiola by throwing in the towel as a coward. For another, he has been named as one of the powerful members of the Aso Rock cabal pulling the power strings in Abuja.
Indeed, whenever June 12 is mentioned Buhari cannot be considered as one of the defenders of the watershed of a poll in our national history. During the protracted electoral debacle he was nowhere to be found. He never uttered any word in support of Abiola or June 12! As poor Nigerians were being killed, jailed and hounded into exile by the expired dictator from Kano Buhari kept a troubling silence. Today he is playing politics with June 12! Despite his preachings to the contrary many Nigerians still see Buhari as a reluctant or accidental ‘democrat’ navigating a dangerous political terrain he is not used to.
President Buhari’s democratic baptism of fire is one that is difficult to define. It could be compared only to the biblical Saul/Paul Damascus experience. Here was a military General who alongside Gen. Babangida and the late Gen. Sani Abacha toppled the democratically-elected government of Shehu Shagari on December 31, 1983. Here was a man who persecuted democrats by jailing some, attempting crating others home from London and chasing others into exile! If a prophet or a seer had told Buhari then in the early 80’s that decades after he would be a civilian President who would be celebrating a democratic exploit like June 12 perhaps he would never have believed him!
Bashorun Moshood Kashimawo Olawale (MKO) Abiola was a monument in Nigeria. A philantropist whose munificence cut across ethnic or religious barriers Abiola meant many things to many Nigerians. He was stupendously rich as a patron, publisher, baker, soccer promoter etc. His rag-to-riches story transcended boundaries and inspired many. His zero-to-hero profile was a mixture of audacity and hope!
Here was a great man who rose to national and international prominence and reckoning by dint of hardwork. Here was an ‘Aare-Ona-Kakanfo’ of Yorubaland who survived and lived in a family where death had sown fear in the minds of parents. Abiola was said to have sold firewood to be able to sponsor himself to school! He was born to stay, live and survive in the land of the living where his siblings had come and gone too soon!
Abiola in his lifetime fed many indigent families, employed hundreds of workers in his many companies. He was greatness personified as he had the energy, intelligence and the integrity requirred for one to achieve greatness in any endeavour in life! Yet despite his stupendous wealth and popularity he decided not to continue living in ‘bondage’ in a fools’ paradise that was Nigeria then. Hence the birth of ‘Hope 93’.
Bashorun Abiola’s entire life changed dramatically before and after the June 12 presidential poll of 1993. General Ibrahim Babangida, the dictator-in-chief then was in his best ‘Maradonic’ element dribbling some, banning and unbanning politicians and branding, rebranding and disbanding political parties. The bogus transition programme he put in place was running its course amidst booby-traps and hidden agenda. As a master political swindler IBB orchestrated all sorts of chicanery that ensured that true democracy was subverted. Abiola, before engaging in the political scam, had sought assurances from the crafty dictator that he would not be pursuing shadows like many before him.
Twenty five years ago since June 12 happened in our national democratic evolution and 19 years ago in 1999 when democracy finally arrived Nigeria could be said to have changed in many ways, for better or for worse — depending on which side of the great divide one belongs. For the minority benefitting from the politico-economic status quo Nigeria has changed positively for better; the ‘change’ promised is here indeed. But for the majority eking out a living miserably in a climate of insecurity, insurgency, unemployment, lack of stable power supply and devaluation of the Naira Nigeria has changed negatively for worse.
During the pro-June 12 and anti-IBB violent demonstrations that rocked many cities in Nigeria in 93/94 the ancient city of Benin was locked down for days. A good student friend of mine, Osas, standing beside me at Sakponba Road junction was shot dead by the ‘zombie’ soldiers sent from the core north to kill and maim! Later in the evening as we were relaxing and having fun inside my late elder sister’s restaurant along New Lagos Road her boyfriend, Marvin, had his head broken with a bottle of beer! I was spared the barbaric treatment because of my teenaged looks and the fact that I had smartly lied to the invading soldiers that hardly spoke English that I was the one serving beer and pepper-soup in the restaurant!
I met Chief Abiola in Benin city a year after the controversial June 12 annulment. As a young hot-head, a radically-inclined student I was among the thousands that thronged the Oba’s Palace around the King’s Square (Ring Road) on the day he was scheduled to pay a courtesy call and homage to the reverred pro-democracy monarch. As the undeclared ‘President-elect’ came in triumphantly he exuded presidential confidence. He had a presidential swagger as he exchanged pleasantries with us. Amidst chants of “June 12, Presido!” he was ushered into the Palace.
Inside the Oba’s Palace Abiola spoke defiantly. He declared that he was the President-elect revealing how he had done the impossible by literally climbing the highest mountain and swimming the shark-infested waters to make the military rulers see reason to no avail. Sounding combative he made it clear that June 12 was non-negotiable! And we applauded nodding collectively in the affirmative! The late highly-respected traditional ruler concurred by giving him his royal blessings and assuring him that majority of Edo sons and daughters were behind him in the protracted struggle. Thereafter, we escorted Abiola out enthusiastically singing and dancing to some revolutionary songs.
Following the timely fortunate demise of the maximum ruler (Gen. Sani Abacha) who ate his last apple delivered by an imported Indian prostitute Bashorun Abiola was sadly assassinated by the Nigerian state aided and abetted by some foreign interlopers. Just a cup of tea allegedly laced with a toxic substance and the great man kicked the bucket!
For us, therefore, long before the Buhari regime did the needful by belatedly proclaiming June 12 the national Democracy Day, the authentic Democracy Day had been (and would ever remain) June 12. The spirit of electoral fairness and freeness that characterized the historic poll would live forever. Without June 12 there would not have been May 29. Without June 12 happening in our national life Olusegun Obasanjo would not have come out of prison to be ‘coronated’ President by military fiat. Without June 12 the Jackboot would not have beaten a hasty retreat. Without June 12 Buhari would not have smelt the ‘aroma’ of Aso Rock!
By doing justice to June 12, however, President Buhari seemed to be playing politics of remembrance to get at both Generals Ibrahim Babangida and Olusegun Obasanjo — the former having annulled the election and the latter having declared May 29 as Democracy Day. And above all, to pacify the South-West as the presidential election of next year looms dangerously. By immortalizing the memory of Abiola Buhari had struck a resonating chord with progressive politics. But that is not enough!
Abiola deserves better, much better! Conferring a post-humous national award on him is good and commendable but the result of the June 12 presidential poll ought to be declared in full officially. Since Prof. Humphrey Nwosu, former NEC Chairman, is still alive this cannot be said to pose a problem. Again, Abiola must be recognised officially as a “President-elect” and all entitlements to that effect restituted to his family. And above all, those who murdered his wife Kudirat and ‘killed’ June 12 ought to be brought to book. That way a new chapter would be opened in the protracted Abiola saga.
For us June twelvers, therefore, the seed of enduring democracy was sown by the martyrs of June 12 and their blood helped to water the seed to germination. Things can only get better when a youthful energetic detribalized President emerges next year February to knock sense back into the senseless situation in Nigeria. Something must definitely give come 2019!
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