Democracy Day: Lest We Forget


Issa Aremu

Tuesday was the Democracy Day, paradoxically dictated by former President Olusegun Obasanjo as he took oath of office in 1999!

The day commemorates the restoration of constitutionalism after decades of military dictatorships. In principle, some southwest states of the federation legitimately opted for June 12, as Democracy Day to keep alive the memory of the most celebrated pan- Nigerian free and fair election held on June 12, 1993. The election was criminally annulled by the military regime of General Ibrahim Babangida.

Of course globally, the devil is in the democratic details. In Nigeria one devilish question begs for answer; what Day is appropriate to pause and reflect on the rights of men and women to freely choose who rule them in Nigeria? Whether it is May 29 or June 12, posing this question once again points to democratic calling of all Nigerians. Even the date to extol liberty and freedom is open to contestation. The point cannot be overstated; democratic blood runs through the veins of all Nigerians ever desirous of liberty and development right from the struggle against British colonialism and oppression at the turn of 19th century to date.

This is 19th year of uninterrupted democracy. The first democratic dispensation was rudely interrupted six years after by some military adventurers in 1966. That singular anti-democratic adventure set the stage for a bloody civil war. The second democratic republic inaugurated in 1979 was even more short lived as the militicians staged another coup which ousted Shagari government in 1983. Addictive coups and counter coups of the mid-80s and 90s reveal that Nigeria has been under the heels of military Generals than elected officials. To that extent, 19 years of uninterrupted democratic contestation worth being celebrated.

This democratic process has been serially ruptured. What with the serial violence and serial killings across the country! I agree with Professor Attahiru Jega, former INEC chairman, who at 2018 Democracy Day Lecture suggested that both the Federal and states authorities should urgently develop “capacity, institutions, structures and process of peace building” as a necessary condition for democratic consolidation. As significant as the last two decades have been, Nigerian democracy is still vulnerable and fragile. Democracy is not measurable by how long but how well the institutions and actors perform. With almost six presidential elections in which incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan was electorally retrenched in 2015 historic elections, Nigeria has certainly come of democratic age. Notwithstanding the imperfect elections and riotous party primaries and snatching of maces, my take is that Nigeria still remains a Democracy Destination in Africa. With as many as over 73 million voters ready to exercise their democratic right next year, hundreds of presidential, gubernatorial and assembly candidates, voters’ choice is choice not absence of choice! Certainly Nigeria is not North Korea where the choice is between Kim and Jong-un!

But lest we forget; the significance of celebrating democracy lies in the realization that before return to constitutionalism, we were all victims of the serial atrocities, repression, violations of human rights and abysmal bad governance of the military regimes of varying hues. Only the short rule the late General Murtala Muhammed regime possibly could be given a clean bill with respect to selflessness and commitment to nation building.

Recently General Yakubu Gowon claimed that corruption in government started after him in 1975. Haba! Lest we forget Gowon military junta was overthrown on account of corruption. Indeed Murtala/ Obasanjo inquiries of Gowon regime showed that 10 out of the 12 military governors were enmeshed in wholesome mismanagement of public resources. There was a scandalous congestion in the Lagos Apapa port “as ships poured in with cement, over-ordered for a grandiose army barracks and claimed demurrage for each day’s delay”. In 1974, under Gowon regime a scandal rocked the –“ Benue-Plateau, Gowon’s home region – where Joseph Gomwalk, Military Governor of Benue-Plateau State in 1966 -75 and Joseph Tarka, Federal Commissioner of Communications in 1966-74 were implicated. Tarka resigned, but Gowon failed to discipline Gomwalk, who was a friend.” Gowon himself “had a lavish wedding when marrying his wife Victoria in Lagos in April 1969 with horse-drawn carriages”. That was at the height of the civil war in which the country lost as many as three million souls, mostly civilians. Indeed Gowon regime was famous with the mantra: the problem was not money but how to spend it. The worst policy corruption under Gowon was when he shifted the 1972 to 1974 and then 1976. He was overthrown in 1975.

The point to remember today is that despite the current challenges facing Nigeria’s democratic process, democracy is better than the decades of military rule which actually underdeveloped Nigeria. We dare not have nostalgia for the discredited military dictatorships. Today we take elections for granted despite their imperfections. But lest we forget on June 23, 1993: IBB military Government annulled the results of the June 12 elections in a most bizarre manner; nullified all the relevant court decisions, suspended National electoral commission (NEC) through an unsigned terse statement. The seed of theft of public funds started with unaccountable military regimes. Even 20 years after General Abacha died, Nigeria is still recovering looted funds posthumously in his name.

Lest we forget the detentions without trial and unravelled killings of varying proportions. On October 31, 1995: a Special Military Court sentenced Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other Ogoni activists to death. On November 10, 1995: Provisional Ruling Council (PRC) confirmed the sentence amidst global outrage and proceeded to hang Saro-Wiwa and eight others. The Common Wealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG) immediately suspended Nigeria from the body. Nigeria only returned to Commonwealth May 1999 after Nigeria returned to Democracy. On June 4, 1996: Alhaja Kudirat Abiola senior wife to the president-elect Moshood Abiola and a fierce fighter for the validation of his mandate, was murdered by unknown assassins in Lagos.

February 28, 1995, Brigadier Lawan Gwadabe, the longest serving governor during the Babangida regime, General Obasanjo (rtd), his former deputy, General Musa Yar’Adua, and others arrested over an alleged coup plot against the Abacha government. On December 8, 1997, General Shehu Yar Adua was proclaimed dead in prison in Abakaliki Ebonyi state. On August 18, 1994: the Abacha government responded to petroleum workers’ strike by sacking the Executive Council of NUPENG and PENGASSAN, and NLC, closed down three newspapers: the Punch, Concord group (owned by Abiola) and The Guardian. Lest we forget that Democracy might be frustrating with its celebrated and dramatised challenges but military dictatorship was certainly worse and unacceptable. Never again should anybody rule Nigeria and Africa without the free mandate of Africans.

Of course Nigeria’s current democracy requires quality control in terms of service delivery, development, combating corruption, insecurity and poverty eradication. But that in it calls for deeper democracy not less. We must therefore demilitarize the polity. Militarism takes more than military rule. Militarism “ forecloses debates, discussions, bargaining and compromise. Instead, it elevates force, order, intimidation, compulsion and control” and at worse factionalism.

On the contrary, let’s nurture culture of debates, dialogue as an art of reasoning together for a prosperous democratic Nigeria.

Long live Democracy!

• Comrade Aremu is a Member of the National Institute (mni), Kuru Jos