PRESIDENT Muhammadu Buhari is at pains to show that he is truly a “converted democrat”. Indeed, he’s desperate to be seen as a strong defender of democracy. To that end, his democratic lodestone is the annulment of the presidential election of June 12, 1993, which, unlike his predecessors, he revisited and sought to redress. But his capricious and arbitrary handling of the ‘June 12’ issue calls his democratic credentials into question.
Earlier this month, in his last Democracy Day speech as president, Buhari signalled his desire to be remembered as the president who finally tackled the June 12 issue. He reminded us that, in 2018, he moved Democracy Day from May 29 to June 12 to memorialise the historic election annulled by General Ibrahim Babangida, then military dictator. In addition, Buhari conferred Nigeria’s highest national honour, Grand Commander of the Federal Republic, GCFR, on Chief MKO Abiola, the acclaimed winner of the election, and second highest national honour, Grand Commander of the Order of the Niger, GCON, on Babagana Kingibe, Abiola’s running mate.
But good as these measures were, did they resolve the issue of the annulment? Did they tell us why the election was annulled and who took part in the decision? Did they, in fact, tell us who, officially, won the election? Well, truth is, the measures resolved and revealed nothing; they were President Buhari’s arbitrary and unilateral decisions. Yet, an issue so monumental, so epochal, as the annulment of the presidential election of June 12, 1993, should not have been addressed through whimsical executive actions. The capriciousness of the annulment cannot justify the capriciousness of attempts to redress it. Major decisions on ‘June 12’ should have been preceded by a Judicial Commission of Inquiry.
One of the consequences of Buhari’s arbitrariness on, and politicisation of the ‘June 12’ issue was the lack of cross-party and cross-ethnic consensus on his decisions. For instance, the investiture ceremony held for Abiola and other “heroes of June 12” was attended mainly by APC politicians and South-West leaders. It was a partisan and ethnic affair. There was another consequence: Buhari’s decisions left Abiola’s formal status unresolved.
Recently, in an interview with Arise TV, Chief Abiola’s first son, Kola, countered the interviewer, Sumner Sambo, when he referred to his father as the “presumed winner” of the 1993 election. Kola Abiola argued that the conferment of the GCFR on his father was a formal recognition that he was president-elect. But that’s not true. The GCFR was conferred on Chief Obafemi Awolowo and Sir Adetokunbo Ademola, former Chief Justice of Nigeria, yet neither was president. One plausible argument, subject to any proof to the contrary, was that Buhari conferred the GCFR on Abiola in recognition of the grave injustice he suffered from the annulment. The GCFR alone did not make him a former president!
To date, no official document, including a gazette, identifies Abiola as former president. Indeed, in the Federal Government’s 2018 statement and President Buhari’s recent Democracy Day’s speech, Abiola was referred to as “presumed winner” of the annulled 1993 presidential election. A presumed winner does not, ipso facto, mean a confirmed winner!
But something extraordinary, something utterly capricious, happened at the Democracy Day celebration at Eagle Square in Abuja. Several newspapers later carried headlines that read: “FG recognises Kingibe as former Vice President”. According to the stories, the Master of Ceremony, presumably acting on the presidency’s order, introduced Kingibe as former Vice President, and invited him to join a group photograph with President Buhari.
Really? Can Buhari formally declare Kingibe “former Vice President” and, by extension, Abiola “former President” based on a presumption? Is he the electoral commission or a court of law that can declare someone winner of an election? What information does President Buhari have on the June 12 annulment that he’s not sharing with Nigerians? Buhari says he’s not an elected autocrat, but only an autocrat or a pseudo democrat would make decisions on such a fundamental issue on the hoof, without regard for process values.
For the avoidance of doubt, I absolutely support revisiting the annulment of the ‘June 12’election and absolutely support recognising the winner. But a civilised society is not run on the whims and caprices of its leader. In a true democracy, a Judicial Commission of Inquiry would be asked to investigate the annulment, verify the results of the election, order the release of the results and make recommendations, including formal recognition of the winner. That way, the ultimate decision would carry significant weight and legitimacy, a far cry from when a president acts unilaterally and capriciously.
In 2018, after President Buhari announced his ‘June 12’ decisions, his senior media assistant, Garba Shehu, wrote a very insightful piece titled: “June 12 Tsunami and the ones who won’t forgive Buhari” (Vanguard, June 10, 2018). In the piece, Shehu said “the unjust annulment was a huge elite conspiracy” and made allegations against several nebulous individuals and groups. He asked rhetorically: “Now, would there be an inquisition into all the things that happened?” He then added: “On this question, only the President can say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ if there will be a probe as many have begun clamouring for.”
Of course, Buhari rarely says “yes” to public clamour. But if he were to institute a probe on the ‘June 12’ annulment, the inquiry would certainly reveal that many of the politicians who parade themselves as “democrats” today, several of them in Buhari’s party, were co-conspirators in the annulment. Unfortunately, the absence of an inquisition into ‘June 12’ doesn’t only leave Abiola’s formal status in limbo, but it also means that no one is held accountable for the iniquitous annulment and that no lesson is learned from it.
So much, then, for Buhari’s zealousness. He wants redressing ‘June 12’ to be his enduring legacy. But his unilateral and autocratic handling of the issue leaves much to be desired and shows he’s not fully enamoured with democratic process and values!