By Rotimi Fasan
OCTOBER 1 was the most significant date on the Nigerian national calendar. It is, in a sense, still the most significant date in our national history. It was the day, in 1960, that Nigeria gained independence from Britain. It has ever since remained Nigeria’s national holiday during which Nigerians celebrate freedom from colonial bondage. Given its special status, important events in the life of Nigerians and Nigeria are often attached to that date.
It was the day Shehu Shagari was inaugurated as Nigeria’s first executive president in 1979. Promotion to new ranks in certain public and private sectors often takes effect from that date, as are other significant events such as the age of eligibility for candidates seeking admission into Nigerian universities through the Joint Admission and Matriculation Board. Thus, the significance of October 1 as Nigeria’s most significant date has spread beyond its political origin to cover other aspects of life in the country.
But a huge chunk of the significance and aura attached to October 1 was taken when after his inauguration as president on May 29, 1999, Olusegun Obasanjo, thereafter consecrated the latter date as the day on which a newly elected or re-elected Nigerian president takes office. At the time this happened, some Nigerians saw it as part of Obasanjo’s own self-aggrandising personality, an expression of his messianic pretensions. Or for what else, it was imagined, could one man effect such a change in the national calendar? Obasanjo’s own comments and what looked like serious emotional investment in that date, underlining its significance as the opportunity arose, might have added to the impression that he deliberately sought to promote May 29 over and above October 1. But then Obasanjo’s inauguration on May 29 was a matter he could not have helped. Necessity had a role to play in this.
Having painted itself into a corner in the crises that followed the annulment of the 1993 elections and the eventual death of Sani Abacha and Moshood Abiola, the military was impatient to leave. Nigerians on their part could not wait to see the exit of the military. The military could not afford to stay a day longer than could be accommodated on its self-imposed transition timetable. Every single day counted and the military that had obviously lost face and relevance at that time could not afford to destroy its reputation any further by risking any elongation in government, justified or not. That could have only brought back memories of the failed handover promises of the Ibrahim Babangida and Sani Abacha regimes, to say nothing of the Yakubu Gowon 1974 transition date which the ruler later reconsidered and thought ‘unrealistic’. Thus Abdulsalam Abubakar could not have hazarded any change or elongation in date. Certainly not till October, six additional months, if he was to maintain the October 1 traditional date of inauguration.
And so it was that May 29 has come to replace October 1 as inauguration day in Nigeria’s post military era. In the years since this happened, the Peoples Democratic Party has been in power and there has never been any doubt as to when a new president takes office. But following the defeat of Goodluck Jonathan in the March 28 presidential election, a new civilian president will take office in the person of a retired general, Mohammadu Buhari. There now appears to be some confusion as to when the inauguration would be. Is it May 28 or 29 ? Patricia Akwashiki, the Information Minister, appeared to have stirred up a little controversy around the handover date by her explanation that the handover date would be May 28.
The clear implication of this is that President Goodluck Jonathan would not attend the inauguration of Muhammadu Buhari. Given the acrimonious atmosphere of the elections, this could not be that surprising. But in the aftermath of the election and Jonathan’s concession of victory to Buhari, his proposed handover date is definitely being seen as a tactical way to avoid witnessing Buhari’s hour of triumph if not a definite snub. This would seem to contradict his much praised spirit of sportsmanship, a generosity of heart to which many in Nigeria and abroad attributed his readiness to accept defeat where a typical Nigerian politician would have thought nothing of holding the country to ransom by contesting the outcome of the election.
It may be within Jonathan’s right to choose to attend or not attend Buhari’s inauguration. He may, in fact, not see any reason to do so given Buhari’s own refusal to congratulate him when he had defeated him in the 2011 election. Buhari also did not congratulate either of Jonathan’s predecessors that had defeated the president-elect on the two previous occasions he contested for president before his first encounter with Jonathan. This is without considering the violence that trailed his defeat. Which then means that Buhari has never conceded victory to his opponents in his three failed bids to become president. This is not an enviable record for a supposed democrat. For these obvious reasons and others that may be personal to him, Jonathan may be within his right should he decide not to attend Buhari’s inauguration, especially since there is no legal or constitutional demand that he must. However, in matters like this, convention and not law should take precedence. What is more, the future must be taken into consideration.
Nigerian politicians must begin to lay a solid political foundation for the future. It is inconceivable that a President Buhari would refuse to concede victory in the hypothetical event that he is defeated in the 2019 election if he is still interested and eligible. That would be worse than terrible. He could afford to play the sour loser in his previous bid, but that is no longer possible after March 28. To this end, Goodluck Jonathan must look beyond the moment and be seen to be laying a good foundation for the future by attending Buhari’s inauguration.
Many thought he would not accept defeat when he did. Perhaps some of his hangers-on expected him to put up a fight after Buhari was declared winner of the election. His concession speech was eagerly awaited, even by Buhari. By making that call to Buhari conceding victory, Jonathan helped to lay the foundation of a new democratic practice. Kayode Fayemi pioneered it and Jonathan followed. Henceforth, a defeated politician knows there is such a thing as conceding victory and the manner of doing it. Should Jonathan refuse or fail to attend Buhari’s inauguration he may have helped to lay another booby trap for democratic practice, one in which a defeated candidate in an election can register their rejection of defeat by refusing to show up at their successor’s inauguration even after supposedly conceding.