Let’s give it to Buhari and his advisers. Whoever suggested making June 12 the country’s ‘Democracy Day’ (rather than May 29, which it has been until now) gave the Daura General a master stroke. It was a decision that especially excited the sensibility of the South-west – even more than Jonathan’s decision to give Ojukwu state burial with full military honours excited the people of the South-east. Yes, the motive for changing the ‘Democracy day’ from May 29 to June 12, was definitely political but since policies flow from the political process, it can be argued that every policy is tainted with politics anyway. The decision to declare June 12 the country’s Democracy Day, and to honour Abiola posthumously, is no doubt a right one – despite the lingering questions about their constitutionality and unrealistic expectations that decisions of this nature should be politics-blind.
During Abiola’s GCFR investiture, the President went a step further by tendering an apology to the Abiola family and said the decision to hold the investiture, where Babagana Kingibe, Abiola’s running mate during that ill-fated election was also conferred with GCON, was not an attempt to open any wounds but to right the wrongs of the past. In a clear jab at Babangida, Buhari said that June 12 produced unity and national cohesion but “for inexplicable reasons, the government of the day cancelled the election when it was clear Chief Abiola was winning”.
The popular reception of the June 12 gesture is making many of Buhari’s supporters ecstatic while the opposition groups are either muffling their acceptance of the gesture, or are being cynical about it or are trying to find creative ways of introducing new issues that will push it out of media headlines. Contrary to what Buhari said that the aim of declaring June 12 and the GCFR investiture on Abiola were not to re-open old wounds, the truth is that both moves were actually, at least in part, calculated to re-open those wounds that would hit back at his perceived key belligerents in the political warfare that Obasanjo declared with his ‘Dear John letter’ and the Nigerian Coalition Movement: Why was the election, declared as one of the freest in the country’s political history annulled “for inexplicable reasons”? (a call-out on Babangida). And why was May 29 instead of June 12 chosen as Democracy Day? Why was there no effort by previous governments to honour Abiola? (call-outs on Obasanjo and to a less extent Jonathan).
What is obvious is that the June 12 gesture and the Abiola investiture are escalations of the dogfight with Obasanjo, which formally started when Buhari talked about an un-named former President who boasted of spending $16bn on power and yet “there is nothing to show for it”. Like in wars, no one can predict with accuracy the trajectory of this roforofo between Buhari and Obasanjo because intervening variables can simply change its character and nature. As the19th century Prussian General Carl von Clausewitz would tell us, contact between the belligerents (which he called friction) determines the nature of any war, and once that contact is made (as Buhari and Obasanjo have now made), no one knows the elements that will be thrown up as the war assumes a life of its own. For now you can say that the joke is on Obasanjo and Babangida.
What is also clear for now is that a major emotional point has been scored with South-west voters, which can help to cement the alliance between the region and the Buhari government. If Nigeria were a country where opinion polls are taken very serious, I am sure that Buhari’s rating in especially the South-west will be heading towards the sky now and may also have notched up a few percentage points nation-wide on the basis of the June 12 gesture.
However before the Buharimaniacs will conclude that 2019 is already in the pocket, there is a need for some reality checks: Historically bounces of this nature and at this period in the election cycle, hardly translate into votes: For instance, between 1940 and 1945 Winston Churchill, Britain’s Prime Minister during the Second World War, was probably the most popular British Prime Minister of all time. In May 1945 his approval rating in the opinion polls, (which had never fallen below 78 per cent during the period), stood at 83 per cent. With few exceptions, politicians and commentators confidently predicted that he would lead the Conservatives to a resounding victory at the 1945 general election. But contrary to expectations, he led the party to one of its worst electoral routings in history.
Similarly George H Bush’s approval rating reached a historic 89 percent approval in a Gallup poll in early March 1991, just a few days after the first Gulf War was formally ended on February 28 1991. Despite this, he lost his bid for re-election in 1992, not just because it was the ‘economy stupid’, but also because what was required to prosecute the war (a coalition that emphasized America’s leadership of the world) was different from the domestic politics that is driven by bread and butter issues (or in our own case emotions). In the same vein, Igbo votes for Jonathan were fewer in 2015 than in 2011 – despite the euphoria in the South-east from giving Ojukwu a state burial with full military honours in 2012.
Though I believe that Buhari has done enough to make a strong showing in the South-west – a sitting Vice President that is seen as active and influential, a de facto Prime Minister (Fashola as Minister of Power, Works and Housing), choice political appointments and infrastructures – whether further political capital could be reaped from making June 12 Democracy Day will depend on a number of factors:
One, is what happens when the euphoria wears off – as they are bound to do. If Buhari capitalizes on the euphoria to re-invent himself in a manner that will address the angst of some supporters and opponents such as showing tough love on the murderous herdsmen, then there is a chance.
Two, is how the political dog fight with Obasanjo evolves. True, Obasanjo may not be a darling of the region. But any attempt to humiliate him (such as with a probe when no past President or Military Head of State has ever been probed) will stoke up our identity politics. As they say, it is only when you slap a mad woman that you will know that she has relatives. After all, Abiola, who is now celebrated especially in the South-west, was never the region’s hero as his Concord newspaper constantly inveighed against the region’s hero, Chief Obafemi Awolowo.
Let me quickly address what I believe is an emerging re-writing of history because of the euphoria over the declaration of June 12 as the new Democracy Day. Driven by a sense of nostalgia – or perhaps because things are ever so deteriorating in the country that the past always seems better than the present - some are beginning to see June 12 as a period in our political history when we were all ethnic- and religion blind such that it was no problem for the country to elect a Muslim-Muslim ticket. This is not quite correct. Ethnicity and religion have always been organizing principles in the country from the time colonialism triggered competition for the scarce socioeconomic values in the colonial enclaves. Before the June 12 election, there was palpable resentment in the South that the North had hijacked the country’s politics through the phenomenon of coups and counter coups dominated by Northern soldiers and wanted a power shift to the South. In this sense, Abiola, being someone from the South, and quite cosmopolitan, was accepted across the South. Similarly being a Muslim, he was also accepted as a good ‘concession’ by a substantial population of the Muslim North. This was the unique context that I believe we must not lose sight of when discussing June 12 and the success of a Muslim-Muslim ticket.