At last, June 12 has been recognized as Nigeria’s Democracy Day. President Muhammadu Buhari has done great for the bold step to proclaim the day a Democracy Day and for honouring late Chief Moshood K.O. Abiola with the Grand Commander of the Federal Republic (GCFR), the highest honour in the land, on June 6, 2018.
While honouring Abiola and declaring June 12 as Democracy Day, Buhari averred that while it was not possible to go back into the past, it was necessary to recognize that a wrong was done and that Nigerians would no longer tolerate such perversion of justice.
He maintained that his government’s decision to recognize June 12 as Democracy Day and honouring Abiola with the highest honour in the land were in the national interest and urged all Nigerians to accept it in good faith. According to him, the intention of his administration was to bury the negative side of it and celebrate the positive side of the day the nation overcame all divisions such as ethnicity and religious sentiments.
By that proclamation, President Buhari put June 12 in its proper position. It is a peculiar achievement that distinguishes his administration from others before him. Any time June 12 is celebrated as Democracy Day, Buhari’s name will be mentioned as one who made it happen and it will, of course, be written in gold.
The National Assembly, NASS, also deserves commendation for giving the legal backing to June 12 as Democracy Day, to be observed for the first time this year. The action of NASS shows that they appreciate the sacrifices and contributions made by the media and pro-democracy groups who put their lives on the line and others who laid down their lives to enthrone the democracy and liberty we are enjoying today in our country.
Most importantly, Nigerian journalists deserve to be applauded as well as members of NADECO and other pro-democracy groups for the five years of a titanic battle they put up with the Nigerian military for the revalidation of June 12 and the enthronement of democracy.
June 12, 1993, was a day Nigerians trooped out in large number to their various polling units nationwide to cast their votes for Chief Abiola, the presidential candidate of the Social Democratic Party (SDP). It was also a day Nigerians overcame divisions and shunned ethnicity and religious bias which have been the bane of Nigerian politics to vote for Abiola and his running mate, Amb. Babagana Kingibe, even though they were Muslims. In fact, in that election, Abiola defeated Alhaji Bashir Tofa from Kano State, who was the presidential candidate of the National Republican Convention (NRC). Abiola also defeated Tofa in Kano, his home State.
Rather than celebrate and appreciate the feat recorded by the Nigerian electorate, the military, led by General Ibrahim Babangida, annulled the election which local and international observers, including Center for Democratic Studies (CDS) headed by Prof Omo Omoruye, described as the most credible, freest and fairest in the history of elections in Nigeria. By that act, General Babangida created an unprecedented crisis that would have consumed Nigeria.
Unable to stomach such insult at the nation, and after being in the political wilderness for many years under his tortuous and elongated transition programme, fearless Nigerian journalists and pro-democracy activists battled the military to revalidate the election and enthrone democracy.
The military was fought to a standstill for five years, dislodged and sent to the barracks where they naturally belong and democracy enthroned. As a result of the heat, General Babangida hurriedly stepped aside. The heat also consumed General Sani Abacha and suffocated him to death as well as General Abubakar who quickly retreated and handed over power to a democratic government on May 29, 1999.
Sadly, Chief Abiola, the symbol of that struggle, and his wife, Chief (Mrs) Kudirat Abiola, fondly called “Mama Democracy”, lost their lives. Chief Abiola died in military detention; his wife was assassinated in Lagos on June 4, 1996, allegedly by Abacha’s strike force. It was a black day for many Nigerians who saw her death as a big blow to the June 12 activism.
Chief Alfred Rewane, a multimillionaire, an associate of Chief Obafemi Awolowo and chief financier of the National Democratic Coalition (NADECO), was also murdered in cold blood in his home in Ikeja, Lagos, allegedly by the same strike force (Abacha’s killer squad) set up to checkmate the pro-democracy groups and agitators.
Mr Chima Ubani, a former Executive Director of the Civil Liberties Organization (CLO), died in a motor accident on his way to Borno State to join the Nigeria Labour Congress’ (NLC) in a planned protest. At the Lagos protest, Chief Olisa Agbakoba, SAN, almost lost one of his eyes. He was choked and almost suffocated from teargas released on protesters by the police.
Chief Alex Ibru, the late publisher of the Guardian newspaper, survived several assassination attempts by the strike force. As a result, many pro-democracy agitators like Chief Bola Ahmed Tinubu, Prof Wole Soyinka, Lt General Alani Akinrinade and others relocated abroad to continue the struggle. Prof Soyinka established “Radio Kudirat” abroad to campaign and attack the military, in the fashion of “Radio Biafra”.
Many Nigerians were detained, jailed and killed. Some died while demonstrating against the annulment of June 12 while others died while travelling to their various homes to escape the so-called bombing of targeted cities, including Abuja as being propagated by Babangida’s spokesmen and mischief makers.
Blood and tears flowed in the land. Some notable pro-democracy media houses were proscribed by the military. A few went underground and practised gorilla journalism. The military was confused and in disarray. It was the most turbulent times in Nigeria.
In fact, it was an era of national madness. The military was mad at the civilians and vice versa. Hell was let loosed The annulment of June 12 turned out to be the greatest crime and injustice the Nigerian military committed against the land and its people since the attainment of nationhood in 1960.
All these show that May 29 did not come on a platter of gold. It came through struggles, blood, tears and sweats of the June 12 agitators and pro-democracy groups. Without June 12 there wouldn’t have been May 29. Thus, June 12 begat May 29. Therefore, June 12 is the real Democracy Day, not May 29.
What happened on May 29, 1999, was a mere call on Nigerians by General Abubakar that the meal prepared by June 12 was ready for consumption. Just as late Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe and his compatriots fought our colonial masters to achieve independence for Nigeria, so Nigerians fought the military to achieve democracy for their nation.
When President Buhari declared June 12 as the new Democracy Day, many Nigerians mocked him. They claimed it was a fraud and gimmick; others said it was to woo the South West electorate to vote him in the 2019 general election. Some said that May 29 Democracy Day and hand over remain sacrosanct and unequivocal.
Those who made these statements were either unaware or hobnobbing with Abacha’s government at the time, otherwise, they wouldn’t have uttered such statements. If they had participated in that struggle, they would have understood what pro-June 12 activists went through to actualise the mandate.
In all, June 12 is a day of national liberation. It brought pains and calamities to the Abiola family and indeed many Nigerians. Besides the death of Abiola and his wife, his business empire crumbled. It was the price the family and other activists had to pay to move Nigeria forward. Therefore, as the day is observed, the supreme sacrifice made, not only by the but by other Nigerians, must not be forgotten.
Ogbuehi, a journalist and a former June 12 activist, wrote from Eagle Island, PH.