Feature

June 12: Journey to recognition as Democracy Day

Before the now historical June 12, 1993 presidential election, Nigerians had patiently looked forward to the time the military government that made an incursion into the political space of the country via a coup de tat of December 1983 would leave power and the return of democracy to the country.

The events that led to the June 12, 1993 presidential elections are now for the records, but it is believed that it was a day that shaped the country and paved way for the current democratic dispensation the country is now enjoying.

However, on June 12, 1993, Chief Moshood Kashimawo Olawale Abiola of the then Social Democratic Party (SDP) and Alhaji Bashir Tofa of the National Republican Convention (NRC) were at the centre stage with high hopes and enthusiasm as everyone was interested in the outcome of the exercise. The election was organised by the Independent National Electoral Commission under the Chairmanship of Chief Humphrey Nwosu. The duo of Abiola and Tofa had individually toured the country, and told Nigerians what they had in stock for them if either of them was elected as president.

The 1993 presidential election was eventually conducted on June 12 and it was won by Abiola of the SDP, with a majority of 58.36% of the total votes cast, winning 20 out of 30 states against Bashir Tofa of the NRC. That the SDP had a Muslim-Muslim ticket, as Abiola’s vice presidential candidate, Ambassador Babagana Kingibe, is also a Muslim like him, did not deter Nigerians from voting overwhelmingly for the party.

Nigerians from across the world were in unison during the run-up to the elections after the Nigerian polity had been battered by successive military regimes which had led the head of state, Ibrahim Badamosi Babangida, into eventually acquiescing to a transition to civilian rule. But while the results of the elections were about to be announced, Association of Better Nigeria, (ABN) led by Francis Arthur Nzeribe had gone to court to halt its announcement. As this was unfolding, there was a broadcast on June 24, 1993 by IBB, who announced the annulment of the election, citing the issue of vote buying, as well as the need to protect the country’s judiciary.

The announcement did not only devastate millions of Nigerians, hopes and expectations were dashed, and this threw the country into unprecedented crisis that gave birth to several pressure groups and Non-Governmental Organisations with several activists springing up all over the country, asking the military to leave power and handover to MKO.

But instead of handing over to MKO, IBB stepped aside on August 26, and handed over power to Chief Ernest Shonekan whom he had appointed into a transitional government earlier that year. Shonekan became head of state or head of the interim national government, but not commander-in-chief of the armed forces. His regime lasted 82 days.

The late Gen. Sani Abacha, who was in-charge of the armed forces, ousted him in a coup on November 17, 1993. But, this did not end the agitation of Nigerians, including the late Chief MKO Abiola, for the recognition of the June 12, 1993 presidential election, which was described as the freest and fairest in the history of the country.

On June 11 1994, the now-deceased Aare Ona Kakanfo of Yorubaland, Moshood Abiola delivered a very rousing speech. In what is now referred to as the ‘Epetedo Proclamation’ in reference to the Epetedo area of Lagos Island where Abiola made his bold declaration in the presence of thousands of teeming supporters, the businessman-turned-politician in a show of defiance declared himself the winner of the 1993 presidential elections. He said, “People of Nigeria, exactly one year ago, you turned out in your millions to vote for me, Chief M.K.O. Abiola, as the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.

“But politicians in uniform, who call themselves soldiers but are more devious than any civilian would want to be, deprived you of your God-given right to be ruled by the President you had yourselves elected. “These soldier-politicians introduced into our body politic, a concept hitherto unknown to our political lexicography, something strangely called the “annulment” of an election perceived by all to have been the fairest, cleanest and most peaceful ever held in our nation.

“Since that abominable act of naked political armed robbery occurred, I have been constantly urged by people of goodwill, both in Nigeria and abroad, to put the matter back into the people’s hands and get them to actualise the mandate they gave me at the polls. “But mindful of the need to ensure that peace continues to reign in our fragile federation, I have so far tried to pursue sweet reason and negotiation.

“My hope has always been to arouse whatever remnants of patriotism are left in the hearts of these thieves of your mandate and to persuade them that they should not allow their personal desire to rule to usher our beloved country into an era of political instability and economic ruin. “All I have sought to do, in seeking dialogue with them, has been to try and get them to realise that only real democracy can move our nation forward towards progress, and earn her the respect she deserves from the international community.”

“Corruption had become institutionalised during the regime of the former military president which, in hindsight, regressed the country by several decades whilst countries around the world caught up with Nigeria in the race for development and the entrenchment of democratic ideals. “This general feeling of hopelessness was banished in anticipation of a new civilian president who will ensure the cleansing of the Augean stables whilst restoring Nigeria to its rightful place amongst the comity of developed nations.

“However, in a surprising volte-face, Babangida decided to invalidate the results of the elections — adjudged by international observers and the citizenry to be the freest and fairest in the country’s history — for reasons he described as ‘hiccups’ experienced by him and his colleagues in the Armed Forces Ruling Council (AFRC) which upended the transition programme.”

Abiola was arrested by the government of General Sanni Abacha shortly after the declaration. Ironically Abacha died in office on June 8, 1998, only for Abiola to die in detention one month later on July 7, 1998 after Gen. AbdulSalami Abubakar had become the head of state. Abubakar effected a successful transition to civilian rule to usher in Olusegun Obasanjo of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), another former military ruler, in 1999. A collective sigh of relief was heaved by the populace, with a lot of Nigerians and political analysts finally hoping the hallowed date of June 12 will be given its just place in the annals of the country’s history. However, Obasanjo decided to recognise May 29 as Democracy Day to the chagrin of Nigerians who were yearning and anticipating a June 12 Democracy Day, amid speculations that he harboured a grudge against Abiola.

This was despite the fact that, Obasanjo was known as a resolute defender of democratic ideals across the continent whilst never participating in any coup — as a matter of fact, he handed over to the Shehu Shagari-led civilian administration during the Second Republic in 1979. To his credit, Obasanjo restored the country’s image to an enviable height after being at its bleakest following years of pillaging by the military junta. However, the June 12 question was still burning in the mind of Nigerians, especially the Yoruba from the South West. This was why the decision of the Senate and President Muhammadu Buhari on May 16, 2019, to move Democracy Day from May 29 to June 12 was greeted with elation amongst political activists in the country and the generality of Nigerians. Buhari explained the reason for the move as being more symbolic in the context of democracy in Nigeria than May 29.

“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. “The first time this happened was on October 21st, 1979. 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,” Buhari explained. With this, Nigerians feel satisfied that the efforts of the late Chief Abiola to champion the democracy we are all enjoying today is not in vain. But one other demand by millions of Nigerians is that “MKO Abiola should be recognised as a former president, while his family members should be paid the salaries and allowances he ought to have earned from 1993 to 1997.” Only time will tell if this would see the light of the day.

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