PMB’s MKO Abiola’s GCFR Award and Nigeria’s New Democracy Day: the Foreign Policy Dimensions

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By Bola A. Akinterinwa

` On Wednesday evening, 6th June, 2018, Nigeria’s President, Alhaji Muhammadu Buhari (PMB), changed the date of Democracy Day in Nigeria from May 29 to June 12. This was done to honour late Chief Moshood Kashimowo Olawale Abiola, a devout Muslim and winner of the June 12, 1993 presidential election, the results of which were annulled by former military president, General Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida (IBB).

As explained by the Senior Special Assistant to the President on Media and Publicity, Mr. Garba Shehu, it was to ‘honour an illustrious son of Nigeria…who won a presidential election but was prevented from taking office when the results were annulled. The late Abiola died while struggling to actualise the mandate.’

As further explained by PMB himself, ‘June 12, 1993 was far more symbolic of democracy in the Nigerian context than May 29 or even October 1. June 12, 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 does not detract from the democratic credentials of that process.’ Therefore, PMB has said, his government ‘has decided that henceforth, June 12 will be celebrated as Democracy Day.’

It is in light of these considerations that PMB has also awarded Chief MKO Abiola post-humously the honour of Grand Commander of the Federal Republic (GCFR), which is Nigeria’s highest honour, normally given to an incumbent President of Nigeria, and Grand Commander of the Order of Niger (GCON), the second highest national honour of the land, to his then running mate, Babagana Kingibe.

The honour for Chief Abiola, it should be emphasized, is specially significant for many reasons. First, all efforts made in the past twenty-five years to have Chief Abiola nationally recognised and honoured have failed. Secondly, Chief Abiola has become the first Nigerian president we never had. He was duly elected but could not have his electoral mandate actualised. Thirdly, the national honour and the act of declaration of June 12 as the new democracy day have generated lively public interest and controversies. There is near national consensus on the adoption of June 12 as the new Democracy Day in the country but the need to first have the National Assembly amend the 1999 Constitution, as amended, to enable Government act within the frame of rule of law still remains a controversy as many questions are being raised on the extent of legality of awarding the GCFR to a dead person.

As regards June 12, 1993, there is no disputing the fact that Chief MKO Abiola was truly elected the de facto President of Nigeria; that he was, indeed, prevented from actualising his mandate for illegal and untenable reasons of force majeure, given by IBB; and that he would have also eventually been sworn in as the de jure President of Nigeria, under normal circumstances. As the de jure President of Nigeria, he would have been given the National Honour of GCFR in his own right as an elected president of Nigeria. Giving an honour normally due in 1993 in 2018 is unnecessarily belated but still requires special further reflections.

In this regard, there would not have been any good basis for the advent of the Fourth Republic to begin with. The protracted period between June 12, 1993 and May 29, 1999 would not have been a political issue. In fact, Chief Olusegun Obasanjo might have not at all come into the picture as a presidential candidate. It was precisely because Chief Abiola’s electoral mandate was stolen by the military government of IBB that June 12, not only became a national controversy and a new political struggle, but also given an international attraction and importance.

It should be recalled that Nigerians, led by the then NADECO (National Democratic Coalition), wanted June 12 as Nigeria’s Democracy Day in 1999 but President Olusegun Obasanjo was opposed to it. Subsequent leaders also did not take the matter up seriously. Consequently, what PMB has done by conferring the title of GCFR on Chief MKO Abiola post-humously and changing the date of Democracy Day from May 29 to June 12, is in the right direction. It is politically right, even if it conflicts with the spirit and provision of the 1963 National Honours Act. It has the potential to remove the political wounds that have divided the polity for more than two decades. And true, it is not only political tension defusing, but also political stability seeking, national reconciliation and nation-building oriented. It is sagacious in strategic calculation and suggesting that PMB, for the first time in his three-year administration, is now beginning to see clearly how to govern without engagement in politics of dictatorial democracy. And true enough, the title of the honour should not be GCFR but SGCFR, that is, Special Grand Commander of the Federal Republic, because Chief MKO Abiola’s honour is with a difference and special distinction.

Expectedly, the change of date and award of national honour has generated interesting controversies. It was former President Olusegun Obasanjo who chose the initial date of May 29, apparently to reflect the beginning of a new era of democratic politics in Nigeria as from May 29, 1999. Before then, Nigeria was under sixteen years of uninterrupted military dictatorship and oppression. The transition from military to civilian rule on May 29, 1999 was, therefore, considered significant enough to be marked, if not celebrated, annually.

In the eyes of most Nigerians, and particularly the NADECO activists, June 12, 1993 ought to be remembered for posterity, especially because of its political significance. For instance, Chief MKO Abiola and his presidential running mate, Babagana Gingibe, were both Muslims and Nigerians were not in any way much bothered about religious status. Senator Ayo Fasanmi, in commending PMB for the new date and honour, said, ‘Abiola, a Yoruba man, was accepted in the North, East and West. Despite a Muslim/Muslim ticket, Nigerians, irrespective of religious and tribal affiliation, supported him and voted massively for him in all parts of the country.’

Secondly, the June 12, 1993 presidential election was not only nationally, but also internationally, adjudged the most fair, credible, and free ever conducted in Nigeria’s political post-independence history. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, it was the first time the people of Nigeria were most unanimously united in support of the adoption of the Professor Humphrey Nwosu-introduced Option A-4 method of election, which guaranteed the freest and fairest election in Nigeria. Fourthly, and more notably, IBB has acknowledged this fact.

In an interview granted in a TV programme, ‘Moments with Mo Abudu on MNet Channel of DSTV,’ he admitted that the ‘June 12 presidential election was accepted by Nigerians as the best of elections in Nigeria. It was free and fair.’ ‘But unfortunately,’ he said ‘we cancelled that election. I used the word unfortunately for the first time. We were in government at the time and we knew the possible consequences of handing over to a democratic government. We did well that we wanted ours to be the last military coup d’état. To be honest…, the situation was not ripe to hand over at the time.’

If the time was not ripe to hand over to MKO Abiola or to civilians, why organise the election in the first instance? If the election was annulled to prevent an impending new coup, why not round up the potential coup plotters since IBB was almost very certain that there would be a coup in the following six months? Why not deal with potential coup-making rather than annul election results? If the election was won by Alhaji Bashir Tofa, would the election results have been annulled?

Without scintilla of doubt, this is one of the origins of the injustice and political chicanery that has bedevilled Nigeria since then and which PMB has now courageously tried to redress. In other words, there are good reasons to consider June 12 as national day of democracy, especially if lessons are to be drawn from political history for the betterment of the future. Put differently, PMB’s initiatives have more moral and legal dimensions than political and strategic calculations.

Concerning the award of GCFR to Chief MKO Abiola, former Chief Justice of Nigeria (2006-2007) and also Chairman of the 2016 National Honours Committee, Justice Alfa Belgore, has said national honours, and particularly, the GCFR, cannot be awarded post-humously. Under the 1963 National Honours Act, Justice Belgore has reminded that only soldiers or other servicemen could be awarded post-humous medals for their bravery. In the thinking of the former Chief Justice, the only thing PMB can rightly do ‘is to name a place after him, but national honours award, no.’ The award of GCFR to a civilian or non-soldier, and for that matter, to a dead person, is illegal in his eyes.

Justice Belgore appears to have reckoned essentially with Section 2 of the 1963 National Honours Act (Paragraph 2, Honours Warrant), according to which ‘a person shall be appointed to a particular rank of an Order when he receives from the President in person, at an investiture held for the purpose…’ On the basis of this provision, an honour of whatever rank can only be given by a sitting president. It can only be given during a ceremony specifically organised for the purpose. The honour can only be received in person, thus eliminating any delegated representation. And, perhaps most significantly, it is only at the juncture of receiving the honour in person, and regardless of the form of the honour, that the recipient is truly honoured.

In the thinking of Barrister Femi Falana, Senior Advocate of Nigeria, for example, there is nothing illegal about the award and change of date. On the award, he argued that Justice Belgore had simply ignored paragraph 3 of the same Honours Warrant which enables the president unqualified discretion ‘to dispense with the requirement of paragraph 2 in such manner as may be specified in the direction.’ Therefore, Falana has further submitted, ‘since the national awards conferred on Chief Abiola and Chief Gani Fawehinmi cannot be received in person, the president may permit their family members to receive same on their behalf.’

To a great extent, Falana, an academic writer by choice and Senior Advocate of Nigeria, cannot be wrong in the sense that the president has the competence to permit any of the Abiola’s relations to receive the award of honour on behalf of Chief Abiola. However, to what extent is the honour validly awarded if it is not received by the expected original recipient? In international protocolar and diplomatic practice, when an award of honour is given through a delegated representative, the representative is never decorated with the medal, but simply handed over to him or her. This is simply to say that only the intended recipient can receive it and be decorated.

Additionally, as noted earlier, it is only at the point an honour is received in person that the honour is also conferred. In this regard, on who is the award conferred: to the relation or to the deceased? This question raises the procedural question of the award. Dr. Umar Ardo of the University of Maiduguri, has posited that ‘legally, the president has no powers to confer National Honours on anyone without the deliberation and advice of the National Council of States (NCS). The Third Schedule of the Constitution of Nigeria (as amended) at Section 6(a)iii confers on the NCS the powers to advise the president on the award of national honours. The fact is that the NCS didn’t meet to deliberate and advise on this so-called investiture.’

As much as one would want to appreciate this argument, does the provision make it a desideratum, that is, must the NCS first advise before the president can act? In the event of an advice by the NCS, must the president always accept whatever advice is given? This is where not only Justice Belgore and Barrister Falana are both correct and the moral issues of justice, fairness, national reconciliation, peace and unity are not only raised butought to be given priority of consideration and where PMB has really done well in political reasoning and calculations. If not, how do we interpret this act of illegality in the context of Nigeria’s domestic politics and national security? How does the June 12 Movement in Nigeria see this new development? What are the foreign policy implications? In which way can the policy change help Nigeria’s international image? And, perhaps more curiously, can the June 12 date be subject to change under a new democratic dispensation? In whichever way the answers are presented, the politics of the policy decision is quite interesting.

The Domestic Aspects

The consideration of June 12 as the new democracy day ‘henceforth,’ as well as the award of the highest national honour of the land implies that Chief MKO Abiola died a Nigerian president even if he was not sworn in as one. This is because only a sitting president is entitled to that type of honour. His running mate, Babagana Kingibe was a vice president we never had. As he is still living by the Grace of God, the validity of his title, GCON, dates back to June 12, 1993, meaning that, in the order of precedence, he is senior to all other subsequent vice presidents and other recipients of the honour.

Secondly, the general environment of Nigeria is that of insecurity and unhappiness with the PMB administration. Nigeria has become a terra cognita for boko haramism, with specialisation in kidnapping and cruelty, agitation for separatist politics; armed robberies; official condoning of acts of serious misconduct; and politics of chicanery. In fact, every June 12 has always been a major source of grievances about democratic politics in which there is no display of internal democracy in the various political parties. The Yoruba South West are particularly aggrieved with the annulment of the June 12, 1993 presidential election results. Perhaps more of concern is the neither-here-nor-there or hide-and-seek type of relationship between PMB and Asiwaju Bola Tinubu. PMB appears to be much concerned with these questions as possible irritants and impediments to quest for a possible second term in office, and therefore, the need to douse the tension.

Without doubt, President Goodluck Jonathan made spirited efforts to honour Chief MKO Abiola by attempting to rename the University of Lagos after him. Public protests against the attempt compelled the President Jonathan to throw the idea immediately into the garbage of history. But with a renewed attempt and change in the form of the honour, PMB is shown a greater belief in and commitment to sustainable democracy in Nigeria with his new policy decision.

Thirdly, the change of date might have been directly targeted at Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, General Ibrahim Babangida and other Army Generals who have been attacking PMB, especially his quest to re-contest presidential elections in 2019. It was Babangida who annulled the 1993 election results in the first instance while Olusegun Obasanjo was the first beneficiary of the annulment of the 1993 election results. Obasanjo is also the architect of May 29 as current Democracy Day. The change in date cannot but be an attempt to undermine whatever Babangida and Obasanjo represent in the polity.

Fourthly, the moment the honour is conferred on June 12, 2018, the late MKO Abiola cannot but officially become a de jure elected president who never occupied the office but who must now enjoy the privileges and immunities attached to his office post-humously. In other words, he was the second elected president of Nigeria. In international political governance, only an elected person can be addressed as a president and who, by so doing, also answers ‘Head of State. Alhaji Shehu Shagari was the first elected president in Nigeria. Even though IBB calls himself a president, he is not, he is, at best, a military president. Chief Ernest Shonekan was Head of Government as the various military coupists also were. Chief Shonekan did not plan any coup. He was brought in to save national unity and patrimony as an interim Head of Government. Chief Obasanjo was Head of Government and also president as PMB is, currently.

Fifthly, if the effective date of the new Democracy Day is June 12, 2018, it means the day is another public holiday bonanza for the people of Nigeria. Nigerians are most likely to like that, at least, to celebrate the new clairvoyance of PMB. In this regard, many observers have argued that PMB cannot change May 29 as the date of Democracy Day without having amended the Constitution which precisely has retained May 29 as Nigeria’s Democracy Day. Barrister Falana has again reminded us that Section 2(1) of the Public Holiday’s Act stipulates that, in addition to the holidays mentioned in the Schedule to the Act, the president may appoint a special day to be kept as a public holiday, either throughout Nigeria or in any part thereof.’

Barrister Falana, in both cases of award of national honour and choice of date as Democracy Day, is largely capitalising on the open-ended powers conferred on the president to act as deemed necessary. Whatever is doable but not in conflict with established rules and regulations is permissible and therefore lawful.

Sixthly, and most interestingly, PMB’s initiative has become a new foundation for resolving other critical national questions: Fulani herdsmen’s terrorism, Boko Haram’s terrorist insurrection, political restructuring, and enthronement of non-selective justice and fairness in which objectivity of purpose and allegations are first objectively investigated before taking decisions as it was the case of Nigerian Institute of International Affairs under the General Ike Nwachukwu-led Governing Council. This brings us to the foreign policy dimensions of the subject-matter.

The External Dimensions

Many observers think the main rationale behind the acceptance to give national honour to MKO Abiola is nothing more than the 2019 presidential election, if not, there is no good reason for giving GCON to Babagana Kingibe on the basis of June 12 because he not only abandoned the June 12 struggle but also accepted a ministerial appointment under General Sani Abacha. The conferment of GCON to Abiola’s running mate who jettisoned the June 12 struggle to sustain the military dictatorship of General Sani Abacha can only send wrong signals internationally which Nigeria’s Foreign Affairs Officers are going to find difficult to defend.

Second, the misunderstanding between the Senate and the Inspector General of Police, Ibrahim Idris Kpotum, and particularly between the person of Bukola Saraki, as Senate President, and the IGP, cannot but have a very damaging effect on Nigeria’s international image. The mere fact that the IGP refused to honour an invitation extended to him to come in person to brief the Senate on the situation of insecurity in the country, and he bluntly refused, can only present democracy in Nigeria in very bad light, especially when it is remembered that contrary to public outcry against PMB appointing a convicted person in the public service, and yet, PMB was not bothered. The case of Abdulrasheed Maina, former Chairman of the Pension Reform Task Force Team, refers.

In fact, and more damagingly, in the letter written to the IGP, explaining his linkage with the suspects accused in the Offa armed robbery saga, Senator Dr. Abubakar Bukola Saraki, reportedly stated: ‘the thugs you said I hired were actually used to rig election for PMB in 2015. If in doubt, find below the total votes by Kwarans for PMB against former President Goodluck Jonathan.’ More disturbingly, the Senate President also has it that, ‘Buhari won Jonathan by wide margin in Kwara and that was made possible by those “good boys” you now call “robbers.” Professor Attahiru Jega Iscariot is my witness, wallahi!’

As verified by Professor Attahiru Jega, the then INEC Chairman, Buhari had 302,146 votes while Jonathan scored only 132,602 votes. Consequently, Senator Buhari, has responded, ‘in actual sense, those boys robbed Jonathan for Buhari, and, in turn, made you IGP. So, if there is any robbery, do well to hold PMB responsible for it.’

The foregoing is the reported response to the IGP regarding the relationship between the Offa criminal suspects and the Senate President. The implication of the foregoing is clear: of PMB’s victory in the 2015 presidential election is now much doubtful and also questionable. Professor Jega has, as revealed in Senator Saraki’s letter, aided and abetted electoral fraud and corruption, meaning that he has no moral integrity to even challenge the members of the National Assembly of taking bribes. The IGP also has the same challenge of non-integrity.

And most unfortunately too, the Senate President cannot be said to have any integrity if he jointly with Professor Jega rigged President Jonathan’s votes for PMB. How should the international community interpret these happenings? How will Nigeria’s diplomatic missions defend democracy in Nigeria in good light? Truly, diplomacy is good as an art, but difficult, indeed, when one has to defend the indefensible.

At the end of the day, one cannot but begin to see that political governance in Nigeria is largely predicated on electoral dishonesty of the highest order, and yet, everyone is playing the politics of holier-than-thou and, more often than not, using the name of God. May God forgive and help Nigeria.