Editorial: Democracy Day and the Shattered Hopes of June 12

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Exactly twenty six ago yesterday, Nigerians trooped out to cast their votes to elect a man of their choice to lead Nigeria as President. The historic event of June 12, 1993 in which Nigerians shunned religion, ethnicity and tribal differences to freely decide who leads them, has since become the most symbolic day in the political history of Nigeria. On that day, the presidential election was held as part of the long and highly controversial political transition program mid-wifed by the military regime of Gen. Ibrahim Babangida. Since the sordid events of June 12, 1993 till today, the biggest problem clogging the wheel of Nigeria's ride to socio-economic and political self-actualization has remained its inability to conduct free and fair elections. June 12 is a lesson to the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) that the phrase “free, fair and credible elections” is neither a political slogan nor an advertisement mantra.

The two-party system introduced at that time produced two Muslim candidates to slug it out at the polls. Late business mogul and philanthropist, Chief Moshood Kashimawo Abiola (MKO), a Yoruba Muslim was the presidential flag bearer of the then Social Democratic Party (SDP) while Alhaji Bashir Tofa, a Hausa-Fulani Muslim from Kano stood for the National Republican Convention (NRC). To further bring out the uniqueness of the June 12, 1993 election, the late Abiola settled for another Muslim from the north, Amb. Baba Gana Kingibe, a Kanuri man from Borno state as his running mate. Determined to ensure the enthronement of democracy, Nigerians ignored the apparent lopsidedness in the SDP ticket, which meant that both the president and his vice would be Muslims; and voted massively for the SDP.

Unofficial results trends showed Abiola was poised to emerge as clear winner of the contest. However, as Nigerians and the world waited anxiously for the official results, Babangida in a streak of authoritarian madness, annulled what was unarguably the most free, fair, peaceful and credible election in the history of Nigeria. The annulment was conveyed in a three-paragraph statement by the presidency on June 23, 1993. The public outcry and condemnation by politicians, pro-democracy and human rights groups was unprecedented. Even members of the opposition NRC were up in arms in unreserved trepidation calling on the military to de-annul the results and declare Abiola winner of the election. Late Major Gen. Shehu Musa Yar'Adua, whose chances of emerging as SDP presidential candidate had earlier been truncated when the entire primaries of the two political parties were cancelled, also called for the de-annulment of the election. Yar'Adua, in a statement he personally signed and distributed to reporters in Katsina demanded that Abiola be declared winner of the election.

Against the backdrop of logistical challenges, the genius with which Prof. Humphrey Nwosu conducted the June 12, 1993 presidential election was a healing fresh breath in the stench of Nigeria's political terrain. But the annulment of June 12 was predictable, because of the political miscalculation by IBB, who decided to create just two political parties and obliged Nigerians to join either of the parties. After presidential primaries conducted by the NRC and SDP, northerners emerged as the leading contenders in both parties; Adamu Chiroma and Umaru Shinkafi in the NRC and Yar Adua in the SDP. Babangida, ostensibly to prevent a "northernization of Nigeria" annulled the primaries and laid the foundation for the annulment of June 12; when the leading contenders in both the NRC and SDP were kept in detention and disqualified from participating in the re-conducted primaries. In the re-conducted primaries Abiola emerged as the flag bearer of the SDP, while Alhaji Bashir Tofa, emerged as the flag bearer of the NRC. In the June 12, 1993 presidential elections, Abiola easily defeated Tofa.

In 1993, Nigerians were so much desirous of reclaiming political power from the military that they subdued all their differences and built one of the most sophisticated political machines ever assembled in Nigeria to catapult Abiola to victory. The SDP that made Abiola's victory possible was an umbrella amalgam of political godfathers from every Nigerian tribe which included: Maj. Gen. Shehu Musa Yar'Adua, Dr. Olusola Saraki, Chief Alex Ekwueme, Abubakar Rimi, Sule Lamido, Anthony Anenih, Jim Nwobodo, Osaigbovo Ogbemudia, Solomon Lar, Atiku Abubakar, Bamangar Tukur, Baba Gana Kingibe among others too numerous to mention. These gladiators brought their political machines together under the SDP umbrella to make Abiola's victory possible

Another interesting development at the time was the realization of the fact that a truly detribalized Nigeria can win the hearts of Nigerians from North to South and from East to West. Abiola's generosity as a philanthropist was so well known, that ordinary Nigerians from across the tribal and religious divide had no trouble campaigning and voting for him. It is interesting too, to take cognizance of the way Nigerians from every tribe and walk of life rallied together to fight for the validation of June 12.

The struggle for the validation and sanctity of June 12 thus became a national affair. Chief Alfred Rewane who lost his life over his alleged financial support for the struggle was an Itsekiri man. Chief Anthony Enahoro who went into exile, in his old age over the struggle is an Esan man from Edo state. Vice Admiral Ndubuisi Kanu is an Igbo man, Air Commodores Dan Suleiman and Jonah Jang are from Middle Belt, Colonel Umar who lost his commission in the army for supporting the validation of June 12 is a Fulani man while Balarabe Musa is Hausa. Pro-democracy activists, including Olisa Agbakoba, Mike Ozekhome, Femi Falana and many more bravely and boldly led demonstrations all over Lagos agitating for the validation of June 12.

Despite the military’s efforts to muscle and stop all agitations, Nigerians remained committed in their belief to the sanctity of the elections. However, the events of 26 years ago are still fresh in the memories of Nigerians who cherish democracy as a decent way of attaining good governance and guarantee freedom and human rights. President Muhammadu Buhari’s decision proclaiming June 12 as Democracy Day, as opposed to May 29, is commendable, but the recognition of Abiola and June 12 ought to be part of a national healing process as the nation continues to bleed from old and new injuries. As evidenced by the public acclaim of the Abiola/June 12 gesture, the passage of time neither heals collective wounds nor does it diminish courageous restitution.

The annulment of June 12 was a tragedy of dashed hopes caused by Babangida’s coup against Nigeria's collective democratic aspirations. Twenty-six years after, our democratic failures have only made the wounds look fresh as if they were inflicted freshly. But the sum total of it all is that we are today paying the price of compromise which the political class committed in 1999 by reflexively buying into General Abdulsalami Abubakar’s transition without having a road map when all that was required was for a little more pressure to bring the June 12 struggle to its logical conclusion following the death of Gen Sani Abacha. The eight-month Abubakar administration was all that was needed to bring one of their own, Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo back to power to sustain and permanently seal the annulment of “HOPE 93.”

Twenty-six years of the compromise have brought home sharp pains of consolidation of the anti-democratic forces in the country as we wonder today if we are really in a civil dispensation. Like those who killed June 12 surfaced as our 'democratic leaders' in 1999, it is the apostles of tenure elongation for Obasanjo who dominate the democratic space in our country today. While Ghana which has perfected its June 12 and has repeated it over and over, Nigerians are still bogged down with whether INEC can deliver free, fair and credible elections. As Nigerians have abandoned the route of hope, the country remains a pathetic sight careering dangerously to the precipice of hopelessness with clueless leaders leaving the country on autopilot as they keep helping themselves and their cronies.

The challenge facing us after 26 years of our aborted hope is to get down to the drawing board and chart the course for another June 12. This becomes important as those who have brought us to this parlous state have gathered themselves again to give us their own compass as the way forward. Nothing good can come from their congregation. The way forward is to chart a new course and build a pan-Nigerian movement for change that will package another HOPE 2023. Let the men of vision all over Nigeria begin to step forward now to facilitate that credible platform that can galvanize our people around the banner of hope once again. With poverty, insecurity and rundown all over the country our people from all corners of Nigeria are yearning for real change, not the cosmetic change which the ruling APC promised and failed to deliver.

Nigerians are tired of looters but the fixers are not stepping forward as they should. If they are left as sheep without shepherd, they will line up behind the vermin again in 2023 or the vermin will write their figures to represent them. These times call for compassionate leaders who carry a special burden for our much abused and cheated citizenry to bell the cat knowing that a people’s mandate surreptitiously or openly stolen would, with time, be recovered. Like the Kashimawo in the spirit of the mythical Abiku, Chief Moshood Kashimawo Olawale Abiola (GCFR), came back in full glory. Therefore, the only way to re-enact the national atonement call June 12 –is for INEC to see the conduct free and fair elections as both a national assignment and a spiritual exercise. That would be the ultimate triumph of June 12 as all Nigerians would rise up and join in celebrating the majesty of democracy.