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The meaningless symbolism of June 12 as Democracy Day

By Olu Fasan

IN principle, there is nothing wrong with setting aside a day to celebrate an epochal event in a nation’s life. Every country does it. But the official recognition by President Muhammadu Buhari’s government of June 12 as “Democracy Day”, the first of which was marked noisily but vacuously across the nation yesterday, is a political symbolism that lacks substance.

Of course, the annulment of the June 12, 1993 election was a significant event. But why did it happen? And what lessons has Nigeria learned from it? Unfortunately, the answers to these questions are not only negative, they also make the official recognition of the event a self-serving political gesturing that does little to enrich Nigeria’s political development.

Take the first question, why did the annulment happen? The official reason in a statement issued on June 23, 1993 was that “in view of the spirit of litigation pending in various courts”, the government was “compelled” to annul the election “to protect our legal system and the judiciary from being ridiculed and politicised”.

Late MKO Abiola

But really? Who believes that General Ibrahim Babangida, the military dictator who annulled the election, did so “to rescue the judiciary from intra-voyaging”, as the statement said?

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To date, General Babangida has said nothing publicly about the annulment other than his usual refrain: “I take full responsibility for the decision”. Elsewhere, such a pivotal figure would have written a book on the event. Elsewhere, a future democratic government would have set up a judicial commission of enquiry to investigate the annulment, expose the roles several individuals played in it and document all the behind-the-scenes events that led to the decision for posterity. But, alas, Nigerians may be commemorating the annulment, few know anything of significance about it, beyond the fact that it happened.

Think of any significant commemorative event in any civilised country, the citizens are fully enlightened about the grand narratives of what they are commemorating through official enquiries and reports, books and other historical documents.

Of course, the lack of an enquiry on the June 12 annulment has perversely allowed several people who should be named and shamed for their ignoble roles to parade themselves as true democrats. For instance, it remains within the realm of speculation that David Mark was one of the middle-ranking army officers who put a gun on Babangida’s head, so to speak, and forced him to annul the election. If that’s true, and we won’t know without an enquiry, it’s an affront on democracy that the same Mark later became president of Nigeria’s Senate for eight years!

But leaving aside the military, what about the shameful complicity of the politicians? The Babangida regime created two parties, National Republican Convention, NRC and Social Democratic Party, SDP and drafted their constitutions. Indeed, he later removed the elected chairmen of the parties and appointed administrators to run them. Yet, in their desperation for power, the politicians allowed themselves to be strung along; they joined the two parties and saw nothing undemocratic about them even though they were being herded in both parties like sheep!

Later, in October 1992, Babangida cancelled the results of the presidential primaries of the parties and banned all the 23 presidential aspirants. Chief MKO Abiola, who later joined the race, and was the presumed winner of the annulled election, only did so after virtually all the prominent politicians had been banned, but he saw nothing wrong or undemocratic about the process. Truth is, the Babangida election, given all the chicanery that preceded it, was not different from any conducted by Communist China or North Korea; participation in such an election comes with caveat emptor!

Of course, the annulment of the June 12 election was iniquitous, but a thorough enquiry would have exposed the duplicitous, unprincipled and opportunistic roles of the politicians in the decision or in the events leading up to it. Sadly, even today, the Nigerian political class remains as opportunistic and unprincipled as ever!

Which brings us to the politicisation of the June 12 Democracy Day decision. As Professor Wole Soyinka rightly said at the time, the decision was made “with an eye on electoral fortunes, undoubtedly”. Since 1993, South-West politicians had ethnicised the June 12 annulment; some of the governors even legislated to make June 12 a public holiday in their states. Buhari, who had rarely said anything publicly against the annulment, suddenly decided to recognise the date as Democracy Day, make it a national public holiday and award Abiola the highest national honour, GCFR, all in a bid for the Yoruba votes – not wholly successfully in the end!

But it was empty symbolism because, apart from the above reasons, there is no official recognition that Abiola won the election.

If the gesture was to be credible, Buhari should have released the results of the annulled election, declare Abiola winner, if he won, and formally recognise him as a former president with all the entitlements, not just a GCFR – after all, Chief Obafemi Awolowo got a GCFR without being a president!

Of course, June 12 is more credible than May 29 as Democracy Day. The latter existed because of the former. But due to the empty symbolism of the president’s decision and its crass politicisation, June 12 only gives Nigerians another public holiday. Beyond that, it signifies nothing meaningful!

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