In a democracy, when two elephants [political leaders] fight, the grass [masses] becomes greener as a result of manure [good policies] from their droppings [actions]. Such is the beauty of democracy, where political advantage over opponents can only be gained by getting the support of the majority. This majority can only be obtained by sustained good governance mechanisms that satisfy the political aspirations and socio-economic needs of the people.
Like an unexpected lightning bolt out of a bright star-studded summer night sky, President Muhammadu Buhari’s proclamation of June 12 as Democracy Day and investiture of the winner of the annulled 1993 presidential election of same date, Bashorun MKO Abiola, with the highest national honour of GCFR came to many as a shockingly pleasant surprise. This latest move has spun a web of mixed reactions across the length and breadth of the Nigerian nation, cutting across partisan and ethno-geographic divides. Buhari was the least expected to accept the consistent demands of pro-democracy individuals, groups and civil society activists, who fearlessly demanded democratic rule from the brutal military regimes of Ibrahim Babangida and Sani Abacha, for the federal government to immortalise the late martyr of democracy who died in the cause of his uncompromising stand on the validation of his freely and fairly obtained democratic mandate.
Many have questioned the real motive, timing and intent of the Buhari administration in making this June 12 proclamation. Buhari is not known to be a democracy advocate, much less a June 12 enthusiast. However, within 48 hours of the announcement, supporters of the administration provided the answers when the move was triumphantly described as a “political master stroke.” This declaration of political intent was closely followed by a torrent of orchestrated attacks on the person of former President Olusegun Obasanjo for failing to honour MKO Abiola when he was in power despite being the chief beneficiary of his martyrdom. It is as though the sole purpose of Buhari’s June 12 declaration was to spite Obasanjo, who is today his most formidable one-man squad political opponent. Such is the beauty of democracy. The epic battle between these two political elephants has turned the grass greener by berthing perhaps President Buhari’s first statesmanlike action in the three years of his administration. MKO Abiola deserves the honour and recognition done him by a nation he sacrificed all, including his life for.
The politicisation of this important national event as seen in the sustained attack against the Obasanjo persona over the June 12 saga and MKO Abiola’s misfortune has almost obliterated certain salient facts of history in an attempt to make heroes out of villains and vice-versa in the struggle for the enthronement of democratic rule in Nigeria. The glorious memory of MKO Abiola and the essence of June 12 should be protected from political score settling between two fighting elephants.
Obasanjo is as much a hero of democracy as anyone else in Nigeria living or dead. As a soldier, Obasanjo never participated in any military coup against a civilian administration and capped these illustrious records with overseeing a transition to civil democratic governance as military head of state in 1979. The Shehu Shagari civilian democratic administration that took over from the Obasanjo military regime would be toppled by a military coup led by then General Muhammadu Buhari four years and three months later in December 1983. The Buhari military junta did not announce a time frame for a return to civil democratic rule until he was overthrown by his colleagues in August 1985.
In retirement, Obasanjo was a statesman and an outspoken advocate of good governance throughout the African continent. While Obasanjo boldly stood up to successive military administrations after Shagari and demanded good governance and a speedy return to democratic civil rule, Buhari remained a recluse nursing his botched foray into power and never demanded a return to civil rule from any government. His apparent disdain for democratic governance saw him remaining aloof from the political scene throughout the turbulent years of struggle for democracy in the 80s and 90s.
While Obasanjo was involved in a lifelong mutually beneficial friendship with MKO Abiola, Buhari loathed him [MKO] for his role in toppling his military regime as well as his continuous fraternity with his successor Ibrahim Babangida. In the build up to the June 12 presidential elections, Obasanjo who had severally criticised Babangida for his endless transition to civil rule programme, threw his modest political weight behind his friend MKO Abiola’s presidential aspiration. Among other efforts, Obasanjo was known to have helped Abiola broker a deal with SDP chieftains from Eastern Nigeria who had reservations about the MKO Abiola candidacy. In exchange for their support for MKO Abiola, the East was promised the top job of secretary to the government of the federation.
Following the annulment of the June 12 election by military president Babangida, Obasanjo made a hurried return to Nigeria from his overseas engagements and demanded for explanations. After series of engagements with the military regime of Babangida it became apparent to Obasanjo that they were unwilling to revalidate MKO Abiola’s June 12 mandate for very complicatedly complex reasons. As a man whom fate had enabled to participate in every epoch making event that has shaped Nigeria’s modern history, Obasanjo the statesman had deeper knowledge of all issues militating against the revalidation of the June 12 mandate than pro-democracy activists and tribal chieftains who were in the struggle for the interest of kith and kin.
Despite Obasanjo’s engagements with the military authorities, he was resolute in his demand for them to go back to the barracks. He insisted an unelected civilian government was better than any form of military government and suggested a formation of an interim national government and urged Babangida to step down. Under enormous pressure from labour, pro-democracy civil society groups and progressive politicians Babangida stepped aside and handed over power to the Ernest Shonekan led civilian interim national government. Unfortunately, this stop gap arrangement didn’t meet the aspirations of civil society democracy activists and the core traditional western Nigeria political support base of MKO Abiola. Denouncing Shonekan’s ING as illegal by pro-democracy activists played well into the power grab agenda of Sani Abacha, a military officer with a notorious history of rogue soldiering.
By November the 17th of 1993, Abacha announced the sacking of Shonekan’s ING to the delight of pro-June 12 forces. The Abacha take-over of power was hailed by leading pro-democracy stalwarts, prominent among whom was Gani Fawehinmi, in the erroneous believe that he will revalidate the June 12 mandate for MKO Abiola. This benefit of doubt for Abacha conferred on his rogue regime some measure of legitimacy. This legitimacy was enhanced when MKO Abiola met with Abacha and reportedly nominated some of his supporters into his government as cabinet members. When Abacha proved his enthusiast wrong by sitting tight on the seat of power, agitations were renewed calling for democratic rule by the actualization of June 12 mandate for MKO Abiola.
When this honeymoon between Abacha and MKO Abiola collapsed, leading to his incarceration, Obasanjo who neither welcomed Abacha’s take-over of power nor nominated members into his cabinet in a clear case of non-collusion will emerge as a leading voice for the release of MKO. When a compromise could not be reached between Abacha and MKO, Obasanjo went back to his lifelong passion of telling truth to power. Obasanjo severely criticised Abacha’s repressive governance style and urged him to return Nigeria to a constitutional democracy. For standing up boldly to the Abacha regime and demanding constitutional democratic good governance, Obasanjo was soon given the same treatment meted out to other pro-democracy activists; he was framed up in a phantom coup plot and sentenced to death but later commuted to life imprisonment.