Mixed reactions trail Buhari’s declaration of June 12 Democracy Day
President Muhammadu Buhari in a statement on Wednesday directed that effective from 2019, Nigeria’s Democracy Day, marked every May 29 for the past 18 years, be shifted to June 12.
This, according the statement, is to honour Moshood Abiola, the acclaimed winner of the 1993 presidential election in the country. Buhari said Abiola actually won the election.
The President also pledged to award Nigeria’s highest national honour, the Grand Commander of the Federal Republic, GCFR, on Abiola. He also announced the award of the second-highest national honour, the Grand Commander of the Order of the Niger, GCON, on Gani Fawehinmi, a pro-democracy campaigner, rights activist and legal practitioner. Mr Fawehinmi passed on in 2009 at 71. The same GCON honour was also announced for Mr Abiola’s running mate in 1994, Babagana Kingibe.
Analysis of the election materials showed that Abiola, from South-West Nigeria, won the polls but the then Military government led by General Ibrahim Babangida annulled the election and he was never formally declared winner nor sworn in the office.
However, the opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) said the declaration is a mark of Buhari’s desperation to win 2019 election.
PDP, in a statement by its publicity secretary, Kola Ologbondiyan, alleged that the president’s action merely seeks to use the name and person of Abiola to gain political capital and not out of genuine reverence and recognition for him.
The pan-Yoruba socio-political group, Afenifere, has urged Nigerians to take the federal government’s declaration of June 12 as Democracy Day and the posthumous award to the late Moshood Abiola, with a pinch of salt.
The group said although it accepted the recognition of Mr Abiola and June 12 by the All Progressives Congress federal government, there is a need to test the motives and true intentions of the government with the coming elections in Ekiti, Osun and next year’s presidential elections.
The opposition party says it recalled the president never associated, either by words or actions, with Mr Abiola. It said Mr Buhari was not also sympathetic to the Abiola family when Mr Abiola’s wife, Kudirat, was “gruesomely” murdered by the agents of a government which Mr Buhari served.
“It is therefore a sign of political desperation for President Buhari to seek to use Chief Abiola’s name as a tool to sway Nigerians in less than twelve months to an election where he, (President Buhari) is seeking a second term.
“It is also shocking that the respectable grave of Abiola can be dishonoured by granting a posthumous award on him along with someone who denounced the June 12 mandate and preferred the company of his (Abiola’s) traducers.
The party claims “Even those who now masquerade as change agents were opposed to the naming of University of Lagos after Chief Abiola.
The party said if the president genuinely wants to honour Abiola, he should do so by ending all “anti-democratic proclivities of his administration and allow for the rule of law and respect for our constitution”.
In their reactions, pro-democracy campaigners on Wednesday welcomed the Buhari administration’s declaration of June 12 as Nigeria’s new Democracy Day.
“This is a well-received development,” said Yinka Odumakin of the Campaign for Democracy. “President Buhari has affirmed our longstanding believe that June 12 is Nigeria’s Democracy Day.”
Mr Odumakin said even though the timing of the announcement was suspect, Nigerians should see its substance.
“It is another election season where political moves and gimmicks would be in the air,” Mr Odumakin said. “But the declaration of June 12 is what we are really happy about as a victory for the country.”
Also welcoming the development was Joe Okei-Odumakin, a rights activist.
Mrs Okei-Odumakin, wife of Yinka Odumakin, said today’s victory was appropriate for democracy as well as Mr Abiola, whom she said paid the supreme sacrifice for the freedom of all.
“The decision is accepted because we have been asking for the past 24 years,” Mrs Okei-Odumakin said. “Since 1999 when May 29 was declared Democracy Day, we have been kicking against it.”
Today’s decision, which she said is “highly noted and accepted”, would be even better appreciated if Mr Buhari could declare Mr Abiola a former president.
Although Mr Abiola won the election, he was never sworn in as president or so formally declared.
“We want a posthumous declaration” of Mr. Abiola “as a former president of Nigeria and we want his portrait to be lined amongst past presidents of Nigeria,” Mrs Okei-Odumakin demanded.
Mrs Okei-Odumakin said the real test for Mr Buhari’s democratic credentials would be in 2019 when he would have to preside over an election in which he would be a contestant.
“Conducting a free, fair election is the best way to entrench democracy and immortalise” Mr Abiola, she added.
Ebenezer Babatope, a politician, said he welcomed the declaration of Mr Abiola as a posthumous holder of GFCR, but said the timing was “suspicious”.
In his take, Mike Igini, a rights activist and serving electoral commissioner, said his happiness could not be over-emphasised.
“This is one of the days I feel so elated,” he said. “That an injustice that has been going on for so long was finally put to rest by the president today.”
“Those who made May 29 as their Democracy Day have been put to shame,” Mr Igini said. “We have long condemned the celebration of Democracy Day on May 29.”
Former President Olusegun Obasanjo proclaimed May 29 as Nigeria’s Democracy Day to the consternation of June 12 activists, and rebuffed all demands for him to rescind the decision in favour of June 12.
Mr Igini said June 12 marked a watershed in Nigeria’s history and should not have been a subject of prolonged struggle to be dedicated the Democracy Day.
Mr Abiola was later imprisoned by the Sani Abacha’s military regime as he struggled to actualise his mandate. He died in prison in 1998.
The statement read: “For the past 18 years, Nigerians have been celebrating May 29th, as Democracy Day. That was the date when for the second time in our history, an elected civilian administration took over from a military government. The first time this happened was on October 21st, 1979. But in the view of Nigerians, as shared by this Administration, June 12th, 1993, was far more symbolic of Democracy in the Nigerian context than May 29th or even the October 1st,” a statement by the presidency said Wednesday.
“June 12th, 1993 was the day when Nigerians in millions expressed their democratic will in what was undisputedly the freest, fairest and most peaceful elections since our Independence. The fact that the outcome of that election was not upheld by the then military Government does not distract from the democratic credentials of that process.
“Accordingly, after due consultations, the Federal government has decided that henceforth, June 12th will be celebrated as Democracy Day. Therefore, Government has decided to award posthumously the highest honour of the land, GCFR, to late Chief MKO Abiola, the presumed winner of the June 12th 1993 cancelled elections. His running mate as Vice President, Ambassador Baba Gana Kingibe, is also to be invested with a GCON. Furthermore, the tireless fighter for human rights and the actualization of the June 12th elections and indeed for Democracy in general, the late Chief Gani Fawehinmi SAN is to be awarded the GCON.