On May 29, Nigeria entered another decade of uninterrupted democratic rule. As significant as it may be, the day is merely an arbitrary date on which the military handed over the reins of power to civilians.
The real struggle, however, began on June 12, 1993, now officially the nation’s Democracy Day. Although with a measure of self-inflicted anti-democratic tendencies, Nigeria’s tot democracy is progressing.
When the military regime led by the cunning General Ibrahim Babangida once again postponed civil rule elections, it was unaware that it was setting a historical date that will eventually consume it and disgrace the military out of power. IBB was unaware that two decades from then, that same day will become a national holiday.
June 12 carries huge significance for older Nigerians. Being the first presidential elections since the 1983 military coup, citizens had high hopes. It was an event many observers have described as the most significant in Nigeria’s post-independence political history. It is still viewed as the freest, fairest and most peaceful election ever held in Nigeria
On the day, an estimated 14 million Nigerians – irrespective of ethnic, religious, class, and regional affiliations, (in a period when religious acrimony and tension had reached its zenith) – defied bad weather to elect their president with the hope of ending eight years of military dictatorships.
The euphoria was short-lived. The results of the election were never released. But unofficial scores gathered through the various polling stations by civil society groups across the country indicated broad national support for the presidential candidate of the Social Democratic Party, Chief Moshood Kashimawo Olawale Abiola.
Abiola was a businessman, publisher, politician and aristocrat of the Yoruba Egba clan. He made his fortune through various enterprises, including communication, oil and gas. His first shot at the presidency was in 1983. By then, Nigeria had endured a great deal of political upheaval since its 1960 independence. It was a deeply divided nation, riven along ethnic, religious and regional lines. Political and military power was held by the North.
Enter MKO, a man from the South. He brought a different perspective to the table and was able to connect with people across divides. Come 12 June 1993, he tried for the presidency again.
Despite his popularity, and the turnout, the elections stalled. Babangida annulled the outcome, claiming that activities preceding the election were inimical to peace and stability.
Some analysts however believe that the military underrated Abiola’s popularity. It also did not envisage the level of crisis after the annulment of the election result.
The June 12 election and subsequent annulment marked the beginning of the decades-long struggle to see the election result restored and democracy rehabilitated, culminating in civilian take-over in 1999.
Nigeria has continued in this path ever since although one-half of its leaders were once IBB’s acquaintances in the military. Chief Olusegun Obasanjo began the experiment which ultimately yielded Muhammadu Buhari in 2015.
True democracy is still a far cry in Nigeria, though; at variance with the dreams of our founding fathers. Instead of political inclusion, for instance, what we have currently is democratic exclusion. Many sections of the country feel alienated from the scheme of things. The nation is polarised along ethnic and religious lines.
The rate of poverty is worse now than what obtained during the military era. About 80 per cent of citizens currently live below the United Nations (UN) poverty threshold of $2 per day.
The cornerstones of any democratic society are freedom of speech and freedom to access information. Relatively, we have enjoyed this fundamental right more than in the military regime. Nevertheless, the recent ban of the micro-blogging giant, Twitter, is a dent.
On top of that, elections have remained a ‘do-or-die’ affair, largely characterised by massive rigging, vote-buying, ballot box snatching, violence and killings. Political appointments, especially at the federal level, do not reflect the nation’s diversity.
But June 12 should remind our politicians, who are compulsively lured by immediate gratification, that a people’s mandate openly or surreptitiously stolen would with time be recovered. It is also a reminder to incurable pessimists and aspiring leaders who desire to get their mandate by hook or by crook that something cannot be too good to be shrouded by evil.
The significance of June 12 will be lost if we don’t see democracy as a system of government that meets the aspirations of the people. The outcome of our elections must represent the will of the people. Our leaders must recognise the sanctity of the ballot box. There should be no room for rigging. Money should not have an undue influence on our political choices.
The President should initiate reforms on our electoral and political systems. The starting point is for him to sign the Electoral Act Amendment Bill into law.
This year’s commemoration provides lessons for a country heading for the precipice; overwhelmed by widespread insecurity of various forms, pillaged by endemic corruption and economic downturn and emasculated by official recklessness and gross impunity in high places.
Above all, our democracy must be anchored on the principle of the rule of law. The judiciary must be truly independent.
Amidst the mirage of challenges, Nigerians must not lose. Democracy is here to stay.