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Memory of June 12 and gains of democracy

By Babatunde Ayedoju

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Among all the dates in the year in Nigeria, June 12 stands out and tall.  About 10 years after the Second Republic was aborted through a military coup, the General Ibrahim Babangida (IBB) regime conducted a presidential election that was to usher Nigeria into what would have been the Third Republic.

 The presidential election featured Chief Moshood Kashimawo Olawale Abiola (M.K.O.) from the Social Democratic Party (SDP) and Alhaji Bashir Tofa from National Republican Convention (NRC). Abiola had Babangana Kingibe from the north as his running mate.

At the end of the election, MKO Abiola was believed to be leading with over eight million votes, winning 19 states, while his opponent, Tofa, polled over six million votes and was winning in 10 states. Out of over 14 million total votes cast, Abiola was said to have won almost 60 percent, making him the likely winner of the election.

Unfortunately, the IBB government annulled the election before the leading candidate could be officially declared winner. There was an outcry in the country over the annulment of the election and for the perceived injustice meted out to the winner of the polls. The pressure was so much that General Babangida had to “step aside” and Chief Ernest Shonekan, who hailed from Abiola’s home town Abeokuta became Head of the Interim National Government (ING).

Shonekan’s interim government was shortlived, as the military struck again on November 17, 1993. General Sani Abacha, one-time Chief of Army Staff and Secretary of Defence,  took over as the new head of state.

Abiola continued with the struggle to reclaim his mandate without success. A lot of individuals and groups, including the media, also campaigned against the refusal of the Federal Government to let the duly elected civilian president rule and the tyranny of the Abacha administration. Many political personalities who wanted Abiola to be declared winner of the election were arrested and imprisoned. Some had to flee the country for fear of being killed by the government. The presumed winner of the election was also imprisoned after he declared himself President of Nigeria.

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On June 8, 1998, General Abacha died. He was succeeded by General Abdulsalami Abubakar as Head of State. Sadly, Chief MKO Abiola died about a month later, before he could be released from detention by the new government.

The Abdulsalam Abubakar administration finally conducted the election that ushered in the Fourth Republic on May 29, 1999.

The new government set in place modalities on how to grant Chief Abiola freedom, but he mysteriously died on July 7, 1998; the day that he was to be set free from incarceration.

After Chief Abiola’s death, democracy in Nigeria reeled in the throes of mourning and pain. Abiola’s name was gradually fading off in history, especially in the minds of the young who did not know the sacrifice he made and struggles of pro-democracy leaders who fought the military to a standstill for the entrenchment of Nigeria’s democracy, 1999. That was when Chief Olusegun Obasanjo came in as executive president.

Though there were agitations from some quarters that June 12 be recognised as Nigeria’s Democracy Day, instead of May 29, that was not going to be, until June 8, 2018, when President Muhammadu Buhari declared June 12 as the new Democracy Day, instead of the May 29 date that had hitherto been observed since 1999.

The President did not stop at that. He also honoured the acclaimed winner of the annulled June 12, 1993 presidential election, Chief Abiola, with the highest national honour, the Grand Commander of the Federal Republic (GCFR).

President Buhari’s pronouncement was backed up by the House of Senate which on May 16, 2019, passed the Public Holiday Act Amendment Bill to recognise June 12 as the new Democracy Day and a public holiday to honour the heroes of democracy in the country.

The recognition of June 12 as democracy day was also to honour those who fought for the cause and struggle that led to the termination of the era of military rule in Nigeria.

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It has been 30 years since the June 12 presidential election was held. What has been the significance of the day so far?

Professor Simon Ehiabhi from the Department of History and International Studies, Adekunle Ajasin University, Akungba-Akoko, noted that the major significance of the June 12 celebration is that it renews the hope that the June 12, 1993 presidential election offered Nigerians.

Speaking further, Ehiabhi said that we have never really had a free and fair election in Nigeria, but June 12, 1993 only happened to be a time Nigerians came together to vote without considering ethnicity and religion of the candidates. He noted that this could be seen in the fact that both Abiola and his running mate, Kingibe, were of the same religion.

He said, “Abiola was from the west while Kingibe was from the north, but Nigerians voted for them because they were perceived as people who could lift the nation out of turmoil. Unfortunately, the just concluded 2023 presidential election showed fault lines along religion and ethnicity, indicating that the electoral process has grown worse.”

Meanwhile, Dr Bayo Fasunwon from the Department of Political Science, Adekunle Ajasin University, Akungba-Akoko, opined that the June 12, 1993 presidential election and the struggle that followed it laid the foundation for the continued democracy that Nigeria has enjoyed since 1999.

He equally said that for the first time, Nigeria has someone who participated at the forefront of that struggle being the president of the country, though it took about 30 years for that to happen. Fasunwon added that the acceptance that June 12 is our actual Democracy Day, not May 29, shows that the significance of that day is duly recognised by the government and people of Nigeria.

He, however, lamented that politicians are the ones undermining Nigeria’s democracy, saying, “They should understand that it came at a very huge cost for those who fought to secure it. Their style of leadership should show that they appreciate this sacrifice and render to the people better service than what is obtainable currently.”

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Dr Adedayo Afe from the Department of History and International Studies, Adekunle Ajasin University, Akungba-Akoko, described June 12 as a symbol of democracy for Nigeria because the best election in the country was held on June 12, 1993.

“Unfortunately, the winner was neither pronounced not sworn in. A lot of people lost their lives while others were jailed over the struggle, based on trump up charges.  Lot of the activities even left the country. All efforts to make the Federal Government declare June 12 as the actual Democracy Day, instead of May 29, proved abortive until the immediate past president did that about three years ago,” he recounted.

While explaining the need to guard our democracy jealously, the university don appealed to Nigerians not to contemplate anything that can tamper with our democracy. He added that we should learn a lesson from Sudan where, according to him, a democratically elected president was chased away and few months later the country was plunged into crisis.

With the belief that the worst civilian rule is better than the best military government and that countries that allowed their democracy to be truncated are now paying for it, Afe appealed to Nigerians to be patient with the new government, with the hope that the pains people are passing through currently will be shortlived.

He also appealed to political leaders to provide dividends of democracy and basic infrastructure for Nigerians, while ensuring that there is an improvement in the tax regime to ensure that those who should pay tax are made to do so promptly. According to him, a good tax regime can go a long way in strengthening our economy, as seen in how a lot of developed countries have used tax to sustain their economies.

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