By Jide Ojo
WITH a consensus unknown in the past, Nigerians will today rise to uphold the sacredness of June 12 as an essential milestone in the democratic history of the country. For the first time, the country will, with one accord, mark the date as a public holiday, instead of the past practice where that gesture was confined to a handful of states, primarily in the South-West. As Nigerians celebrate June 12 today, there should be a collective resolve that never again should the country experience such a gangster treatment foisted by a few individuals hell-bent on pursuing their ambition to the detriment of the general good.
As it is usual with national holidays, states will be busy with one event or the other. It will not be surprising if some decide to mark it with pomp and ceremony, featuring march-pasts and other forms of celebration, granted that such would be permitted by the current mood of a people ensnared in the web of unbridled insecurity and a dehydrated economy. But to the more serious-minded, it is important to look at the event beyond the generous backslapping and clinking of glasses. Although that day had meant different things to different people over the years, June 12 has since evolved and has acquired a different significance today. June 12, for those who mean well for this country, presents an opportunity for deep reflection about where the country is now and where it is headed after 59 years as an independent state.
The June 12, 1993 presidential election, in which the business mogul, Moshood Abiola, and his running mate, Babagana Kingibe, defeated Bashir Tofa and Sylvester Ugoh, was adjudged the freest and fairest election ever held in Nigeria. It was the day Nigerians participated in an election in which they shunned ethnicity, religion and all other divisive and centrifugal forces to vote in a manner never before witnessed in the country. Abiola, a highly detribalised Nigerian, was a Southern Yoruba and his opponent, a Northern Kanuri. Both Abiola and Kingibe were Muslims. Yet, they garnered massive votes, thus defying almost all of the negative attributes of Nigeria’s politics since independence in 1960. No other election has come near it ever since in terms of transparency and acceptability.
It was gratuitously annulled by a power-drunk military junta under the leadership of Ibrahim Babangida. Yet, beyond blabbering on about the military not being comfortable with Abiola’s victory and his bogus claim of too much money going into the election – of which he was even more guilty after organising and cancelling several elections and ensuring that billions in government resources went down the drain – Babangida could not give a satisfactory reason why the election was annulled, just as Abiola was coasting home to victory. Apart from June 12 being a seed sown for the growth of Nigeria’s democracy, there are other reasons why it is such a milestone. It is also a cry for justice, a cry for redress.
But lest we forget, that event led to unprecedented loss of lives as Nigerians insisted on the actualisation of their mandate to Abiola. In one day, hundreds were killed in one fell swoop when the convoy of a sadistic and narcissistic Sani Abacha, the then Minister of Defence, opened fire on demonstrators who thronged the Lagos Airport Road through to Ikorodu Road and Oworonsoki. These were the people whose blood watered the democracy being enjoyed currently in the country. The climaxes of hard months of protest against the June 12 injustice were the murder of Abiola’s wife, Kudirat, on June 9, 1996 and the mysterious death of Abiola’s himself on July 7, 1998.
Apart from the killing of Abiola and his wife as well as the mass murder that attended the series of protests, other prominent individuals were assassinated by Abacha’s killer squad. Alfred Rewane, another stalwart of the June 12 struggle, was murdered in his sleep. Bagauda Kaltho, a journalist, was killed in Kaduna by those suspected to be agents of the government, who thereafter tried to implicate him as a terrorist who had died in a bomb blast. Many political figures and journalists fled the country, while those who could not were taken into custody in Abacha’s gulag. Abacha’s crackdown as he tried to deny Abiola his mandate, saw prominent Nigerians such as Wole Soyinka, elder statesman, the late Anthony Enahoro, and a former state military administrator, Dan Suleiman, taking refuge abroad. But that did not stop them from fighting from outside. If Nigeria can now boldly stake a claim to being a democracy, it is because some people paid the price.
The dictator’s bared fangs were not limited to killings, but also targeted at perceived opponents’ businesses, especially the mass media, forcibly shutting down many of the organisations and ensuring that the workers remained jobless. While a few, by reason of sagacious management, were able to bounce back from that setback, others did not recover from it.
Yet, 26 years on, it is bitterly apparent that with all our pretence to democracy, there is a frontal assault on those democratic ideals Abiola stood and died for. The June 12 message appears to have taken a detour. Contrary to what happened on that historic day, people’s ballots hardly count as elections are mindlessly and violently stolen. In the main, religion and ethnicity determine who gets what, when and how. We can only envision the sorrow Abiola would endure if alive to see the desecration of the country he made so much sacrifice for. Those Nigerians, too, who died did so because they were desirous of living in a country of their dreams and enjoying the freedoms and liberties that come with democratic rule. It is imperative to note that Nigeria has become rudderless because of deliberate efforts to reverse the gains of June 12.
The anniversary is a moment to reflect on the past and take decisions for the future as the country is at another crossroads where her survival is being threatened. Democracy remains just routine, with flawed elections, the economy in doldrums and security of lives and property at the lowest ebb. The fault lies in the 1999 Constitution that is absolutely at odds with the plural nature of the society. The framers of the terrible constitution wickedly ignored the reality of Nigeria as a country of many nations with different languages, cultures, aspirations and levels of development. The bitter truth is that national unity cannot be legislated into existence. Nations are built, not coerced. No matter how long we live in that denial, the Constitution cannot deliver robust development. In a country that has over 400 ethnic nationalities, the best way to realise this dream is a return to the practice of true federalism as was the case in the First Republic before the military adventurers aborted it and foisted a unitary system on a natural federation. The government cannot claim to have laid the ghost of June 12 to rest as long as Nigeria is not restructured and restored to a federal status with powers properly devolved and the federating units allowed to control their resources.
We have to fashion a new political arrangement that will make democracy in Nigeria a means to an end, not an end in itself. Today offers an opportunity for the enthronement of democratic values and best practices. Just like on June 12, 1993, elections should no longer be a war, where people are killed and violence unleashed on voters; it should not be an opportunity for godfathers to impose candidates; people’s votes should matter in elections.
In the United States, for instance, when the Martin Luther King Day was declared, it was meant not just to honour him, but to uphold the principles and ideals that the late Martin Luther King Jr stood for as a champion of civil liberty, whose campaign against racial segregation made America a better place. In some schools, teachers even take out time to teach the pupils about the life of the civil rights activist. In much the same way, the celebration of June 12 would remain hollow if the values and ideals associated with it are not imbibed and internalised.