Government should ensure that the new democracy day endures, writes Monday Philips Ekpe

So, quarter of a century has gone by since the historic June 12, 1993 presidential election. And the proverbial bridge has watched plenty of water that flows under it with reckless speed. Even those who witnessed the conduct of the fairest poll in Nigeria to date and its subsequent abortion by the very government that midwifed it have different opinions about the things that actually transpired. But that is the very nature of history, ancient and modern. People have always approved and sided with narrations that align with their own sense of self importance and security. It helps them mentally, emotionally and socially to stick to the truth, again, as defined and perceived by them.

One should therefore not be surprised by the divergent reactions that greeted President Muhammadu Buhari’s replacement of May 29 with June 12 as the nation’s new and authentic Democracy Day and the bestowal of the highest national honours on the late Chief Moshood Abiola, winner of the race, Ambassador Babagana Kingibe, his running mate, and the late Chief Gani Fawehinmi, arguably the most respected champion of the struggle that followed its cancellation. The voices that praise government’s actions are louder now, not surprisingly. The frenzy in the land occasioned by the renaissance of democratic alliances, both genuine and fake, is palpable. The chorus of progressive forces is deafening in many quarters. But we have seen this drama before. “MKO is our man o!!!” “We will all die with you….”

My liking for Chief Abiola stemmed mainly from his blind, robust and somewhat wanton generosity. That might have been a major selling point of the Abiola brand, something that worked for him like magic in the last public contest of his eventful life. However, when he made that fateful attempt at self- inauguration on June 11, 1994 in a hall in Epetedo, Lagos, I felt he had probably not read the situation and Nigerian masses well. I recall part of his speech to his loving memory: “Since that abominable act of naked political armed robbery occurred, I have been constantly urged by people of goodwill, both in Nigeria and abroad, to put the matter back into the people’s hands…My hope has always been to persuade them (the thieves) that they should not allow their personal desire to rule to usher our beloved country into an era of political instability and economic ruin… No one can give you power. It is yours. Take it!”

That day, I told anyone who cared to listen about my premonition that after the crowd that surged around him had been dispersed, he would be arrested and jailed and that they would go on with their own lives. I did not see his death in custody coming. My understanding was that one year after his overwhelming endorsement by Nigerians, the music had changed substantially. In refusing to let go of his mandate in exchange for physical freedom, he indeed exhibited true heroism. What happened after his demise, however, should be a lesson for the living. While those who insisted that it was better for him to remain in detention than walk out free were not expected to jump into his grave, they still could have done more for him in his absence. Holding conferences, organising protests and declaring public holidays in their states were good but not enough. Even moderate patronage from just one or two of the states that keep shouting about Abiola’s democratic legacy and credentials could have saved his family and businesses from the coma they are in today. Hypocrisy, treachery and selfishness do manifest in various forms.

Nobody should be in doubt about the significance of majority of Nigerians speaking with one voice through their votes. And the choice of June 12 to mark democracy cannot be seriously faulted, especially with the public acceptance of guilt by the government. We need to guard against some tendencies, though. To begin with, the whole issue was ethnicised and localised too soon way back in 1993 instead of pursuing it to a logical conclusion as a national emergency. After all, a chunk of the votes that gave Abiola the victory came from the north. Unfortunately, mob mentality took the front seat. The conspiracy theory about the northern gang-up to stop power shift to the south gained ascendancy quickly. Many people failed to remember that the primaries earlier conducted by the National Republican Convention (NRC) and Social Democratic Party (SDP) actually produced two northerners – Alhaji Adamu Ciroma and General Shehu Yar’Adua respectively- as their flag-bearers but were annulled by the same person who eventually thwarted the people’s will in Abiola’s case.

That period gave birth to the doctrine of rotation, sadly. We do not even know yet where the clamour for “our turn to rule” will lead us. Religion, ethnicity and region – identities that were not consequential considerations 25 years ago – are now entrenched in our polity. The country ought to have explored and tried to understand the factors that enabled Chief MKO to succeed where more intellectually and ideologically qualified persons like the late sage, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, did not. The nation came under pressure to pacify the west for a wrong done to it. The process of shooting ourselves in the foot and doing a disservice to the common verdict of the generality of Nigerians had begun.

This same government which wants to heal old wounds must do it properly. Abiola should be repackaged as a true Nigerian product, patriot and leader that he was. Efforts to recognise June 12 as a rightful symbol of representative government can only live beyond the present political dispensation and expediencies if people from all over the country are made to own it.