President Muhammadu Buhari’s decision to bring the June 12 imbroglio to a resounding closure is simply a political master stroke. He has declared June 12, the day 25 years ago that MKO Abiola won the presidential election that Professor Humphrey Nwosu conducted, the real Democracy Day. The result of that election was blocked midway by the Ibrahim Babangida administration, which eventually aborted the entire process. The annulment of that election, which many Nigerians considered the freest and fairest in Nigeria’s electoral history, brought into the streets hordes of placard-carrying angry people. The rest, as it is often said, is history.
Now, President Buhari has applied an official healing balm on that wound. He has also given national honours to three persons: Grand Commander of the Federal Republic (GCFR) to Abiola, Grand Commander of the Order of the Niger (GCON) to Babagana Kingibe, Abiola’s running mate in that election and Grand Commander of the Order of the Niger (GCON) to Gani Fawehinmi, the valiant lawyer-warrior for a better society.
These recognitions are coming 25 years late but Buhari has done well for himself, his party and the nation by being the man courageous enough to do it. Some analysts have pooh-poohed the idea on the charge that the decision is pure politics. For me, if it is politics, it is good politics.
Since Babangida made that fatal mistake in 1993, six persons have run the affairs of Nigeria without bothering to sink their teeth into the June 12 problem. They simply thought it would go away but it was there, hanging ugly in the air like the Sword of Damocles, it didn’t go away. See the roll call: Ernest Shonekan, Sani Abacha, Abdulsalami Abubakar, Olusegun Obasanjo, Umaru Musa Yar’Adua and Goodluck Jonathan. Of all these men it is only Jonathan who made an awkward move to bring the narrative to a conclusion. He renamed the University of Lagos after MKO Abiola without doing appropriate legal circumspection. When he made the announcement the students, faculty and alumni of the university were up in arms against the decision because it violated the statute that set up the institution. When he was checkmated he simply lost interest in the matter and went to bed.
In terms of timing, Buhari’s decision on the June 12 matter is a good tonic for his government. The government’s performance rating at the end of three years is low. This decision will shift attention briefly from that lackluster performance and give it a rating boost. It will also boost the President’s rating as someone who has had the courage to right the wrongs of the past. Perhaps, the most important advantage of the decision for Buhari is that two of his foremost opponents, Obasanjo and Babangida, are given a black eye and a bloody nose by this single stroke.
Babangida, the man under whose watch the election was conducted but who turned round to rubbish it, will be squirming in his chair as what he did has been undone in his lifetime by his lifelong foe. Obasanjo can be regarded as Abiola’s sibling being that they both come from the same state, Ogun. Obasanjo went to a Military School while Abiola went to an Accounting School. Both of them became successful in their chosen professions. One became a head of state in 1976 while the other tried to become one 17 years later, but failed. When Obasanjo was elected President in 1999, many people had thought that despite his remark that “Abiola was not the messiah” he would do something for his brother who died in the democracy struggle to which he had become a happy beneficiary. He did nothing to repair the injustice and many thought that his posture was a reflection of some kind of metaphorical sibling rivalry.
Abiola’s recognition by Buhari is not simply about the June 12 narrative. It is also recognition for a worthy warrior. Abiola had a chance, when he travelled abroad, to stay there and fight but he didn’t. He came back fully aware that hostility from the usurper government would be his welcome mat. He also had a chance, when the election was annulled, to throw up his arms in despair and tell himself that if he lived he would be able to fight another day. He did not buckle under the pressure of some friends and family. He simply looked into the eye of the gun and did not blink. The gun blinked. He is not around to take his seat as President. He is not around to receive his garland reserved only for Heads of State. But his mandate and dignity have been restored. His family can walk erect and keep their heads high on his behalf.
The other honoree, apart from Abiola’s running mate, Kingibe, is Gani Fawehinmi, who was one of the relentless fighters for June 12. Gani, as most people fondly called him, used the instrument of the law for the pursuit of a better society. By his many legal exploits he was able to advance the frontiers of the law. He was a perpetual litigant on behalf of the common people of Nigeria and when the legal authorities denied him the rank of Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN), the people named him the Senior Advocate of the Masses (SAM). I had written in one of my columns at the time that by denying him the silk robe despite his tremendous contributions to the legal profession the conferring authorities had inadvertently devalued the SAN award. And when good sense eventually prevailed and he was decorated belatedly with the silk robe and admitted into the Inner Bar it seemed anticlimatic. For Buhari, what may have mattered to him over and above Gani’s contributions to the development of the law and the restoration of June 12 is the fact that in 1984 Gani was in his corner. When Buhari, a military dictator, set up a military tribunal to try corrupt persons, the Nigerian Bar Association kicked like a horse and asked its members not to appear in that tribunal. Gani defied the association and lent his enormous weight to the tribunal’s proceedings. His argument was that accused persons, whether in civil or military courts, must not be denied the benefit of legal representation at their trial. It was not a favour to Buhari. It was not a vote for military despotism. For Gani, it was a vote for legal egalitarianism, a vote for the view that every accused person, irrespective of the nature of the offence, deserved legal representation. He stood alone against those who were opposed to the tribunal idea. Now, Buhari remembers. He has now paid his debt to the fiery lawyer.
A few people have raised some concerns about the legality or otherwise of post-humous awards to Abiola and Fawehinmi. Such concerns must be addressed speedily so that a good decision is not hurt by some legal booby traps.
Also, the full result of the June 12, 1993, election was not officially released by the Election Chief, Professor Humphrey Nwosu. As the compilations were being announced state by state, the Babangida government ordered him to stop further release of the results. What we know today as the result of that election is unofficial. It would be appropriate to ask Professor Nwosu to officially release the results, otherwise the Buhari government would have no proper and legal basis for its actions on June 12. Since the man who conducted the election is still alive he, and he alone, is in the best position to make the announcement, because, as lawyers normally say, “you cannot put something on nothing.”
May 29 has been recognised as Democracy Day since the beginning of the Fourth Republic. Many people had questioned the appropriateness of that naming ceremony and its accompanying public holiday status. At the presidential level, that day has remained sacrosanct for presidential inauguration. But in some of the states that has not been the case. Some governors have been sworn in on days other than May 29. So the universality of its acknowledgement as Nigeria’s Democracy Day has become increasingly suspect. However, June 12 has no such encumberance and its new name as Democracy Day is quite appropriate, historical and merit-driven.
The Buhari government has a right to enjoy this moment of national recognition for a wise decision that past governments had failed to take. Whether it is a political decision or not, it is full of merit. However, we will only reap the full and ripe fruits of Buhari’s decision if he ensures that the 2019 elections are as free, fair and credible as the June 12, 1993, election.