Nseobong Okon-Ekong, Segun James, Shola Oyeyipo and Sylvester Idowu write that the conferment of national honours today on some key figures in the annulled June 12 presidential election highlights the possibility to objectify a June 12 national holiday

One of the earliest actions by General (then Lt. Col.) Yakubu Gowon after power was thrust upon him as Nigeria’s Head of State following the counter-coup of 1967 was the release of Chief Obafemi Awolowo, first premier of the western region from Calabar Prison where he was committed for treason. His freedom was not only guaranteed, as federal commissioner for finance and vice chairman of the Federal Executive Council, Awolowo was the highest ranking civilian in that military regime.

The rehabilitation of Awolowo was seen by many as a rapprochement to the Yorubas who were seething with pain from injuries arising from the tumultuous crises that engulfed that region, including Awolowo’s incarceration.

Throwing every anchor from the harbour to salvage the sinking ship of state which was threatened on all sides, particularly with an impending secession by the eastern region, Gowon needed to secure the understanding of the Yorubas. Releasing their leader from prison did the trick.

With today’s conferment of national honours by President Muhammadu Buhari restoring the memory of late Chief Moshood Kashimawo Abiola, his running mate in the annulled June 12 presidential election, Babagana Kingibe and another Nigerian patriot who was committed to the actualisation of June 12, Chief Gani Fawehinmi and his declaration of June 12 as Democracy Day, history seems to be repeating itself.

Though, Chief Moshood Abiola has passed on, rehabilitating his memory at this juncture in Nigeria’s political history, is a very skillful and opportune act by Buhari. Coming 25 years after, it is arguable whether it still carries a convincing sway. What is not in doubt, however, is that it is several inches closer to objectify a June 12 national holiday!

Attempts to Immortalise Abiola

There have been several attempts at various levels to immortalise Abiola, but none has been as decisive as the latest by Buhari.

Perhaps, the disturbing spirit of people who suffered different types of losses, including loss of life will be appeased, 25 years after they vehemently protested the annulment of what was tagged the freest and fairest election in Nigeria history.

For sacrificing his life for the attainment of democracy in Nigeria, Abiola’s memory has been decorated with a growing number of monuments.

For instance, his home state, Ogun State, has the MKO Abiola Stadium, Abeokuta, June 12 Cultural Centre and Moshood Abiola Polytechnic, Abeokuta, which the National Universities Commission upgraded to Moshood Abiola University of Science and Technology in 2017.

In Osun State, an airport under construction in Ido-Osun, Osun State, was named after MKO. The Lagos State Government has also concluded plans to name the National Stadium, Surulere, which was recently passed to it by the federal government, after the acclaimed winner of the June 12, 1993 presidential election.

There is Moshood Abiola Way in Abuja, Moshood Abiola Way, Ijora, Lagos, Moshood Abiola Model Market, Market • Ogba, Lagos. It is also noteworthy to catalogue the 2014 effort (even if many considered it half-hearted) by former President Goodluck Jonathan to name the University of Lagos after Abiola. The initiative was, however, thwarted on the altar of political differences between the former ruling Peoples Democratic Party and then opposition party (now ruling party), All Progressives Congress (APC).

Calls for Bolder Steps

Praiseworthy as the Buhari announcement may appear in some quarters, the Nigerian Senate wants the President to take a bolder step by asking the Independent National Electoral Commission to announce the official result of the June 12 presidential election.

Among other things, the lawmakers also want government to grant entitlements to the winner, recognise Babagana Kingibe as a former vice president and an unambiguous declaration of June 12 as a national holiday. Many states in the south west already take a break from official duties on that day.

But constitutional lawyer and former National Secretary, Labour Party, Mr. Kayode Ajulo, argued that some of the demands on the presidency by the senate are unattainable.

According to him, for political exigency, Senate or any other group and/or individual may urge INEC to perform any act in the circumstance. That should not be translated to mean Senate could compel INEC to declare the June 12 presidential election result.

“We operate a constitutional democracy where powers of state actors and institutions are prescribed with little allowance to broaden same.

“By clamouring for the release of result of an election held 25 years ago, the Senate missed it in assuming that it can do things that catch their fancy without taking recourse to the law under which the election was conducted.

“Under the constitution and our electoral act, the power of INEC is limited to the election it conducted, with a specific time frame of casting ballots, collation of results, eventual declaration/release of result and finally, petitions if any.”

Resting the Ghost of June 12

The most important effect of the Buhari declaration is the perception that the action may have finally laid to rest the ghost of the June 12, 1993 elections and the place of Chief Moshood Kashimawo Abiola in the politics of Nigeria.

June 12 cast a dark shadow on the political firmament of the nation. The election data showed that Abiola won the polls but he was never formally declared winner and was not sworn into office by the military government of Ibrahim Babangida. Abiola was later detained by the Sani Abacha regime for daring to actualise his mandate. He died in detention in 1998.

Successive governments brushed aside calls to honour Abiola and to recognise June 12 as Democracy Day.

That was the situation until last week when Buhari said Abiola will be conferred with the nation’s highest honour, the Grand Commander of the Federal Republic, GCFR. The honour is exclusively conferred on presidents and former presidents. The government also said that Abiola’s running mate in that election, Babagana Kingibe, is to be conferred with the second highest honour of the Grand Commander of the Niger, GCON, which is reserved for the vice president of the country. Also to receive a GCON is the late foremost pro-democracy activist, Chief Gani Fawehinmi, SAN.

The decision of the federal government has elicited contradicting opinions. While the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) is elated at the verdict, the main opposition party, PDP is not amused at all.

Most Nigerians regard, June 12 as a watershed, but majority in the south-south and south-east have been lukewarm to that landmark date.

According to Chief Nathan Egba, a former Commissioner of Information in Bayelsa State, “the reason some parts of the south-south region did not actively participate in the struggle to actualise June 12, was two-fold. First, the people of the region felt alienated by the manner the main actors and the vocal press which was mostly based in the western part of the country conducted the struggle.

A Face Saving Act?

Egba said, “Their approach clearly marginalised a lot of Nigerians including, the south-south, south-east and virtually the entire northern part of Nigeria. Instead of conducting a pan-Nigerian struggle, some of them made it seem like MKO was to be President of western Nigeria.

“However, the eventual recognition and declaration of June 12 as Democracy Day by the Buhari administration and the conferment of the highest national honour on Abiola, for me, is a political master stroke. Buhari has done what other leaders couldn’t do for one reason or the other.

“I think President Buhari should complete the good work he started by directing the electoral body to comply with the Senate resolution and do the needful. This will bring proper closure to an inglorious chapter in the history of Nigeria’s democratic evolution.”

Egba also advanced another reason people of the south-south developed cold feet for June 12. “At the time of the election, the vast majority of the people of the south-south region leaned towards the NRC, which was the opposing party to Chief MKO Abiola’s SDP. For that reason the people could not actively engage in the struggle. But as a people who continue deprivation from the Nigerian state, the south-south people appreciated the essence of the struggle and even sympathised with Chief Abiola.

“We must not forget  that there were certain individuals from the region like late Pa Alfred Rewane, Chief Frank Kokori of NUPENG and Alex Ibru of The Guardian Newspapers amongst others, who were key figures in the struggle that suffered personal deprivation, pain and material loss as a result of their critical roles in the struggle for the actualisation of the June 12 presidential mandate.”

An All Progressives Congress chieftain and former Chief of Staff in Bayelsa State Government House, Chief Samuel Ogbuku, said, “June 12 remains a remarkable date in the political history of Nigeria. It represents patriotism, when Nigerians for the first time trooped to the polls to vote for their choice candidate devoid of ethnic inclination.

“Annulment of the June 12 election united Nigerians in their resolve for democratic rule which gave birth to the democracy we enjoy today. Consequently, without the struggle and the sacrifices of Chief M.K.O Abiola, civil society organisations, NADECO and other Nigerians, may be Nigeria wouldn’t be celebrating 19 years of democratic rule today. Therefore, any sacrifice for June 12 should not go unrewarded while its key figures deserve all the honours by the federal government.

“For the south-south, it’s only the Governor of Bayelsa State who has commended the federal government for honouring Chief Abiola. I think leaders from the region, especially those from PDP, are only playing politics since it is coming from an APC government. They fail to appreciate the struggles of those who sacrificed for today’s democratic rule in Nigeria.”

To Mr. Sam Ese, an opinion leader in the Niger Delta region, the reason for the lukewarm attitude of the south-south people is because the south-west has never identified with the people of the Niger Delta.

“To me, June12 is a distraction. It may not work in Buhari’s favour because the 2019 election is still far away. The Niger Delta has not benefited from the Buhari regime and therefore, any antics to further his stay in Aso Rock Villa is anathema to the Niger Delta.”

The euphoria over President Muhammadu Buhari’s recognition of June 12 as Democracy Day does not excite the people of the south-south.
They see the June 12 issue as a regional affair which does not concern them and being in the opposition ruling Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), they are not happy since the gesture is coming from the ruling All Progressive Congress (APC).
Former governorship aspirant on the platform of the PDP in Delta State, Chief Sunny Onuesoke described it as a Greek gift to the people of the south-west.

He said there has been no singular comment from leaders of the south-south because of the way their son, former President Goodluck Jonathan was chased out of office.

“The south-south felt that if a majority tribe like the Yorubas could be treated like that, then the minorities from the south-south have no say in the scheme of things in this country.”  On a personal note, Onuesoke said he was pleased with the honour done to the presumed winner of the June 12 election, Chief M.K.O. Abiola which he, however, claimed was belated and laced with political

But the National Coordinator of South South Reawakening Group (SSRG), Mr. Joseph Ambakaderemo has a different view noting that it is the attitude of his people to always take a back seat on very important national issues.

He maintained that the people of the region should be heard on the significance of June 12 which laid the foundation for the democracy being enjoyed today.

“I believe it is our attitude of always taking a back seat on very important national issues. As a people, we should be heard. The significance of June 12 should be a wake-up call to all Nigerians to ensure we replicate that feat which should bring us all together once again as a civilized people and heal this wound of divisiveness that has plaqued us.
“The south-south voted in that election and I see no reason why our people have suddenly developed heavy lips to commend the President who has mustered the political will power to right the wrong done to Nigerians,” he said.

The former president, Ijaw Youth Council (IYC), Comrade Udengs Eradiri also sees June 12 as a regional issue which should be of little concern to the people of the south-south.

“We are indifferent. The issue has been put to rest. What is paramount now are policies that will impact positively on the economy,” he said.

From the North, Dr. Umar Ardo, a known critic of the president shares similar sentiments. He called on President Buhari to abide by the provisions of the constitution in the award of national honours to avoid a court action

“Pursuant to the powers of the Council of State in section 6(a) (iii) of Part 1 to the Third Schedule of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999 (as amended) to advise the president on the matter of awarding national honours, I call on President Buhari to convene a meeting of the National Council of State to deliberate and advise him on the decision to confer national honours on the late Chief MKO Abiola, Ambassador Babagana Kingibe and Chief Gani Fawehinmi before performing the planned investiture today. This is simply to comply with due process of law.”

“To perform the investiture as planned is to indulge in flagrant illegality and a breach, not only of the constitution but also of his oath of office.

 “It is important, however, to state here that I have absolutely no objection to the president conferring such national honours. They richly deserve such awards and much more, but it is only right to do the right thing.”

The spokesperson, Rivers Ijaw Renaissance Group, Mr. Sotonye Ijuye-Dagogo said, “June 12 is a national issue. If anybody takes an exception to it, particularly people of the south-south or south-east, they are seeing it from the background of recent happenings. People in the south-south voted massively for Abiola.

“Most of them are still pained over the defeat of Goodluck Jonathan. They have this thing I call ‘Post-GEJ Traumatic Disorder’. That is why some people are saying Buhari is just trying to use it to score cheap point.”

A Peoples Democratic Party chieftain in Kogi State and former Special Adviser to former president, Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, Chief Tunde Olusunle was of the opinion that “President Buhari’s recent hasty decision to recognise June 12 as the most appropriate Democracy Day smacks of desperation and opportunism.

“In the years succeeding the annulment of June 12, there is no documented comment or intervention of any kind in the June 12 saga by Buhari when several Nigerian leaders even from the military fraternity, stood up against the nullification of that election.”

According to him, “With the mammoth loss of goodwill from the electorate even in erstwhile strongholds of fanatical support owing largely to his under-performance, thus far, the gradual resurgence of the opposition and the imminence of political realignment, President Buhari seems to be clutching at every straw to placate Nigerians. However, Nigerians are too sophisticated to be hoodwinked.”