June 12: A better Democracy Day
By Mustapha Aminu Yusuf
But for the official hitches that went on the way last year, Nigerians would have began celebrating June 12 as Democracy Day, then with those hitches now resolved, from this year onwards the historic day will be commemorated annually. And because I am convinced that it is a good decision, Nigerians should be happier.
Indeed both June 12, 1993 and May 29, 1999 are important dates in the political history of the country. The later day in which Chief Olesugun Obasanjo, a democratically elected civilian president, took over from General Abdussalmi Abubakar marked the end of a 16-year-old military interregnum and of the current so far longest democratic dispensation since independence.
Since it featured the long-awaited transition to civilian and inspired fresh hopes for a lasting democratic future, its commemoration as Democracy Day for the past 19 years has never raised any concerns.
However, soon after President Muhammadu Buhari substituted it with June 12 on June 6, 2018, the issue generated an unnecessary controversy.
The opponents of the change, many of them under the wrong notion that June 12 is an exclusive Yoruba affair, criticize it for upholding tribalist interest. They claim that it is an unfair, selective gratification of the Yoruba people such that the APC will gain more support in the South West, their area.
Although too emotional and dull as to deserve any serious attention, these arguments should be refuted lest they mislead the gullible.
To begin with, there should be no argument against any political party to popularize itself. Every party reserves the right to exploit popular sentiments to its advantage, regardless of the voting group holding them. If a simple change of a ceremonial date would give a certain group of people, as in this case, the Yoruba, a deeper sense of belonging, then be it so.
After all, drawing a people’s support through their aspirations is the capital with which party politics is played. And for such proper response to South West aspirations, both the APC and the Federal Government are beyond reproach.
The significance of June 12 to the nation is as national as River Niger is to its name.
A national election took place on the day, the cancellation of which caused many protests which eventually sacked the tight military grip on political power. The fact that the protests were more or less championed by the Yoruba does not reduce its national significance one bit.
On that day, a peaceful free and fair election was conducted under a suspicious transition programme of General Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida, then military Head of State or president. It was presumably won by late Chief MKO Abiola, a Yoruba candidate of the Social Democratic Party (SDP), who defeated the sole contender, Alhaji Bashir Othman Tofa, a Hausa Fulani of the National Republican Convention (NRC).
But after suspending further announcement of the results, midway, the military authorities later annulled the entire elections, a questionable action that sparked widespread protest. With the SDP in the lead at the initial stages, Nigerians from across all divides and affiliations rose and challenged the Babangida regime over the decision.
They defiantly demanded for the restoration of Abiola’s mandate and the termination of military rule, a situation that set them on confrontation with the military government. Never before, since independence had Nigerians ever fought for democracy or against any form of injustice with such spirit as this time.
The cancellation of the June 12 elections only confirmed their worst fears that the military were not keen on either early or late hand over and the transition programme was arise.
Be that as it many, both the SDP and the NRC were established, sponsored and controlled by the military government, a situation that subjected them to manipulation. And prior to the election, this new idea of joint military civilian administration diarchy, being officially promoted had gained some acceptance among a section of the political elite.
In any case, even when the pressure became unbreakable, weakening his grip on power, General Babangida could only be compelled to “step aside.”
With those two portent words, he handed over to a fragile Interim National Government providing a good opportunity for his eagerly waiting lieutenant, late General Sani Abacha, who within weeks topped it and took control.
With this second General, equally ambitions but visibly less tolerant, it was a different game altogether. He moved with maximum force to suppress the mounting pro-democracy protests he inherited.
Unfortunately, the SDP and many of its Northern stalwarts withdrew their involvement at this stage to giving the struggle an ethnocentric coloration by leaving mainly South West groups of Yoruba extraction to slug it out with the authorities. Some were arrested and detained, while many others fled the country in panic.
Meanwhile, encouraged by the increasing support he enjoyed, Chief MKO Abiola mobilised at home and abroad to retrieve his mandate. Eventually on June 11, 1994, he went to the extent of declaring himself head of a Government of National Unity (GNU) both as President and Commander-in-Chief. Asserting his GNU as the only legitimate constituted authority, he then called on the General to resign.
Of course, the General did not resign. He prevailed instead, after arresting and detaining the Chief. With his rival conveniently behind bars, Abacha, like Babangida before him, earnestly began to unfold his project of transforming to a civilian president.
The deaths, both of the General on June 8, 1998 and of the Chief on July 7, 1998 paved the way for Chief Olusegun Obasanjo to take over on May 29, 1999, a transition that probably had as much of military’s influence as Chief Shonekan’s ING.
This hand-over, as a culmination of the June 12 actualisation struggle would not have happened if not for the brave defiance of the pro-democracy activists.
They made great personal sacrifices, sustaining a risky five-year confrontation with sit-tight military rulers before the current democratic dispensation could be established.
In other words, if not for the June 12 actualisation struggle, Nigerians might have well been waiting for democracy to this day and hour.
Because they owe the current democratic rule to the June 12 struggle, Nigerians should commemorate it annually in preference to May 29.
In my view, the date is so important in the nation’s political history that we can rank it second to October 1, our independence date. As we gained our political independence from Colonial Britain so do we gain our democratic rights from sit-tight military rulers as a result of the June 12 struggle.
Commemorating the date annually reminds of our courageous compatriots, even if exclusively Yorubas, and we appreciate their sacrifies for the democracy we now enjoy.
What is more, it sends a powerful message as well to unborn generations that since we did not get our democracy on a platter of gold, they must accordingly value it. And in the same spirit, we fought for it, they must also stand up to defend it, whenever it is threatened.
Yusuf wrote this piece from Tukuntawa Quarters in Kano Municipal Local Government Area and can be reached via GSM: 08038583127 or 08055776070.