By Tonnie Iredia
The decision by President Muhammadu Buhari to recognise June 12 instead of May 29 as Nigeria’s Democracy Day has no doubt been well received. Even if Buhari was merely playing politics as the opposition suggests, no one was in the last 25 years able to do what Buhari did a few days ago. The nearest was the abortive effort of President Goodluck Jonathan to name the University of Lagos after the late winner of the June 12 Presidential contest which is universally accepted as Nigeria’s freest and fairest election. It is therefore not difficult to see why many Nigerians are happy with the latest development.
However, for this writer who served in the electoral body at the time, there are far more serious issues than the declaration of June 12 as Democracy Day. It is in fact simplistic to assume that Democracy Day and Democracy are coterminous. They are not. Whereas the former is an anniversary that reminds one of the past, the latter is a dynamic system of government that is based on a set of ideals, practices and procedures designed to institutionalize freedom.
The truth is, having a particular day described by a nation as its Democracy Day, does not necessarily mean that such a nation is democratic. To qualify as democratic, a nation needs the following features: a) Sovereignty of the people, where the citizens of the nation are the subject rather than the object of politics, with political power residing in them. b) Rule of law; where everyone is equal before the law. c) Free and fair elections – where the votes of the people count. d) Majority rule- where it is the party/candidate with the VALID highest vote that assumes political office. d) Minority rights- where the majority can have its way, while the minority can have its say. If these features are poorly served in a nation, picking a day as Democracy Day would be cosmetic as several controversies would arise now and again to warrant the changing of an existing date as the most appropriate. Nigeria’s Democracy Day will suffer the same fate except we know why June 12 was annulled and are prepared to reverse the conditions which informed it.
Of course, the problems associated with the annulment were many, making it hard to easily identify why the election was annulled. As Professor Omo Omoruyi, the late Director General of the Centre for Democratic Studies CDS during the Babangida transition programme once said, the real reasons for the annulment were different from the official reasons. We can blame IBB for the annulment, but the anti-June 12 elements were legion. Some of them argued that soldiers were opposed to Abiola becoming their Commander in Chief, yet the man won in virtually all the polling booths across army formations nationwide.
Others said Babangida manipulated the process to remain in power yet he introduced a decree on the eve of the election to disqualify himself from the process. Indeed, his decision to step aside during the stalemate which followed the election was a reaction to the many powerful anti-June 12 elements in the corridors of political and traditional power. From some of the notes I made then as Director of Public Affairs of the Electoral Commission who was suddenly stopped from further announcement of results, what brought annulment of June 12 is still very much with us.
The most notable can best be described as the fragmentation of the political class and the desperation of the average Nigerian politician to hold ANY office. A typical Nigerian politician can sacrifice anything to be elected into office. This was quite true of the June 12 era. Just before the Presidential elections, Governors who had been elected were canvassing the system called Diarchy which would keep them in office as civilians working in harmony with a Military President. So, anti-democratic tendencies had been on well before June 12 crises. In fact, the problem of the presidential election did not start with the June 12 annulment. More than a year earlier, the first set of presidential primaries featuring leading contenders such as Shehu Musa Yar’adua and Adamu Ciroma were cancelled at the instance of those who lost.
Today, our politicians are reenacting same with their rancorous party congresses and conventions. For example, the nation has just seen the parallel congresses of the ruling party where nomination forms were turned into essential commodities and where in some cases, party officials vanished in the full glare of aggrieved members. Of course, there are ample signs that those short-changed would do all that they can to make the polity violent and render our elections hitch-laden.
If our elections will continue to be so bedeviled, it means they would neither be free nor fair, suggesting that we might have a Democracy Day in the midst of innumerable undemocratic practices. For our democracy to work, INEC has to design a system where persons who are not eligible to vote can NEVER be registered and where no one can use another person’s card to vote. For us to enjoy democracy, we need to put an end to the practice whereby a few miscreants can hijack ballot boxes in a state in the presence of an announced figure of 25,000 law enforcement operatives. Also to end before we begin to sing democracy songs is a judicial arm of government that is not feeding on justice for sale. These and many more have to be done for our people to find visionary leaders who can ensure good governance. Nigeria no doubt needs leaders who can make the security of lives and property of the people the primary purpose of government as prescribed in Section 14 of our constitution
Democracy being for the benefit of the people; should be based on development and not politicisation of public policy. With so many people seeing public office not as service but as business, we need to cut down on the size of government. 37 Ministers are too many just as a-2 chamber federal legislature is superfluous. Indeed, Nigeria is in dire need of part-time law makers, not legislators who collude with the executive to defraud the nation. More importantly, we need to improve on our institutional memory. Was anyone else, from running mate and party officials down the line in Abiola’s party ready to die with him for June 12? No one; instead they all abdicated and joined the military to bury June 12. So, what needs to change is not our Democracy Day, but our political culture.