Nigeria’s New Democracy Day and the Challenge of Manu Militari Governance: The Foreign Policy Dimensions

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Muhammadu Buhari

By Bola A. Akinterinwa

President Muhammadu Buhari (PMB) has made strenuous efforts to sustain the legitimacy of his election in 2015 by addressing some of the issues that have centrifugal character in the polity. One of them is the question of whether May 29 or June 12 should be retained as Nigeria’s Democracy Day. Both dates have proponents and opponents with powerful arguments for and against.

The proponents of May 29 underscore the end to military dictatorship with the handing over of power from the military to elected civilians in 1999, while the proponents of June 12 emphasise the factor of the political recklessness of the military in denying the nationally and universally acknowledged, freest, fairest, peaceful, and most credible election. The military-led government of General Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida (IBB) prevented the winner of the June 12, 1993 presidential election, Chief Moshood Kashimowo Olawale Abiola, his mandate to govern Nigeria.

The opposition to the choice of May 29 is largely explained by the consideration that the June 12, 1993 election was the fairest, freest, most peaceful, and the most credible election completely devoid of political chicaneries, of ethnic chauvinism and religious bigotry. The election was considered as the most hitch-free. And true enough, it was an election that served more as a catalytic, centripetal factor in the country’s efforts at nation-building. But, most unfortunately, the then military president of Nigeria, General IBB, reportedly ‘annulled’ the election and its results.

It is useful to first of all note at this juncture that an election that had taken place cannot be annulled. It is impossible to do so, because such an election was already a fait accompli. An election result can be disregarded and also manipulated, but cannot be annulled to give the impression that it never existed, simply because the results are already in the possession of all party agents. The worst scenario is to declare the results invalid. Invalidation does not imply that an election never took place. There cannot be a result or invalidation without election…

One truth is that IBB, knowing well that the collation of the election results was in favour of Chief MKO Abiola and some military leaders did not want the transfer of power that would be detrimental to the interests of the ruling military, the winner of the election was simply denied of his mandate by preventing the further announcement, and by implication, the conclusion of the compilation of the whole election results. The alleged annulment of the June 12, 1993 election should therefore be correctly interpreted to mean inconclusiveness of the announcement of election results, a manu militari coup against the winner of the election, and a coup d’état against Nigeria and its people. This is the background against which the proponents of June 12 as Nigeria’s Democracy Day should be explained and understood.

Without doubt, the sponsors of May 29 as Nigeria’s Democracy Day, mainly led by Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, who, indeed, unilaterally declared May 29 as Nigeria’s Democracy Day, but without legal backing, has it that MKO Abiola could not, and was not the Messiah Nigerians voted for and wanted, place the day of transfer of military power to a civilian, which is quite different from the manifestation of a democratic will vested in MKO Abiola.

From the foregoing, many questions have to be raised and answered: what makes May 29 wrong as Nigeria’s Democracy Day and what makes June 12 right as Nigeria’s Democracy Day? Let us assume here that nothing is wrong with the choice of the two dates, which is then better a date and what makes it better than the other? More interestingly, since May 29, 2000 was the first imposed Democracy Day, and since then, that day has always been observed as a Democracy Day in Nigeria, what has prompted the controversy over it, to the extent that, on June 6, 2018 PMB had to review the date, announcing that henceforth, June 12 would be observed as Nigeria’s Democracy Day, as well as a public holiday?

Two explanations are possible. The first is that PMB appears to have weighed the truth of the matter in light of the pressure brought to bear on him, especially by the Yoruba ethnic group, and the NADECO (National Democratic Coalition), comprising various nationalists from different ethnic backgrounds, which argues that nothing, even the October 1 Independence Day nor the May 29 returning of power to civilian authority can be considered as important as June 12, a very historical and symbolic date in Nigeria’s political history. The NADECO, the Yoruba people, and more importantly, majority of all other ethnic groups were agreed that Chief MKO Abiola should be honoured.

For instance, Ayo Opadokun, the General Secretary of the NADECO, is on record to have said that ‘President Olusegun Obasanjo who the military foisted on Nigeria for eight years ignored all appeals to close the chapter of military’s disrespect to the popular will of the Nigerian people as expressed on June 12, 1993, which results have been officially announced at all wards, LGAs, and state levels of collation confirming Abiola’s victory.’ Ayo Opadokun also recalled that ‘General Obasanjo, in reaction to the popular rejection of the General IBB annulment of the Abiola’s victory said that MKO Abiola was not the Messiah the Nigerian people needed.’

A second explanation is the factor of analytical objectivity of purpose. PMB has eventually accepted that June 12 is more symbolic and relevant as a Democracy Day. He honoured MKO Abiola with the highest award in the land, that of the Grand Commander of the Federal Republic (GCFR) post-humously. The award was to suggest that MKO Abiola was also a formerly elected president of Nigeria.

In his analysis of the implications of June 12 Democracy Day Declaration, Muhammad Ajah, noted on June 11, 2018 that ‘historians and relevant government agencies should work out the period he served or might have served in that capacity (July 07, 1998). Though he was not sworn in, they can consider the period after the election till he died . Furthermore, his picture should now be fixed in all places where past presidents of Nigeria are showed case.’ More notably, Ajah has argued, ‘if there are any national recognition(s) to which the wife and children were due for, there is the need to release it to them. As simple as that, the wife and children should be granted access to federal government opportunities like other past presidents.’

Additionally, PMB did well by also conferring the second most important award of the land, GCON (Grand Commander of the Order of the Niger) on the running mate of MKO Abiola, Alhaji Babagana Kingibe, as well as on Chief Gani Fawehinmi, the illustrious son of Ondo City, who led the campaigns for the actualisation. As argued by many Nigerians, PMB has taken the measures to simply douse the tension created by the ‘annulment’ or rather the suspension of the final collation of the election results, for the Yoruba ethnic group from where MKO Abiola came.

And perhaps more interestingly, the controversy generated in the public explains in part why Mr. Kayode Oladele, one of the June 12 activists, representing the Yewa North/Imeko-Afon Federal Constituency of Ogun State in the House of Representatives to sponsor the June 12 bill, which eventually led to PMB’s signing it into law after all due processes. in 2018. Additionally and, in fact, it was in light of the need to make the Yoruba stop taking the bad end of the stick that the northern military oligarchy reportedly supported the election of Chief Olusegun Obasanjo. And this brings us to the third consideration.

The third consideration is the aspect of hardly-talked-about rivalry between PMB and Obasanjo. Obasanjo is simply referred to as OBJ, that is, Olusegun Okikiola Obasanjo while Buhari is referred to as PMB. Both OBJ and PMB are military-turned politicians. OBJ was former military Head of State, and so was, and still is, PMB. OBJ served as a military Head of State before and more than PMB. OBJ also successfully served two terms as elected President of Nigeria. PMB has just completed only one term. He began his second term last May 29. Apart from this factor of seniority, OBJ is also senior to PMB in the military setting. These similarities and differences are largely driven by a Cold War between the two leaders. Impression is given that PMB wants to be à la hauteur of the record of OBJ

Probably, but also apparently, the factor of seniority appears to have always impacted on OBJ’s patriotic instinct to give advice to PMB on how best to address national questions, especially as regards national insecurity issues, but to which PMB has also been giving apprehensions. At times PMB would prefer that OBJ should have drawn his attention to such issues without the use of media platform, and particularly since OBJ is believed to have unfettered access to the presidency. One of the latest manifestations of this Cold War is the allegation by OBJ that PMB might have an agenda of or be aiding and abetting the Fulanisation of West Africa, and by extension, Nigeria.

And most relevant to this discussion is the opposition of OBJ to June 12 as a Democracy Day. One popular interpretation of PMB’s support of June 12 as a Democracy Day is said to spite OBJ. Whatever is the case, many seasoned members of the political elite are agreed with the OBJ’s allegation. The Yoruba leaders are generally in his support, even though some of them have accused him of laying the foundation for such alleged Fulanisation. Now that June 12 has legally become a Democracy Day and a Public Holiday with effect from 2019, how does this impact on Nigeria’s foreign policy?

The Foreign Policy Dimensions

June 12, 2019 was the new and first Democracy Day for all Nigerians to begin to observe henceforth as a public holiday backed by law. It is made different from May 29 which is now only for the remembrance of the throwing of the obnoxious military dictatorship into the garbage of history and the ushering in of civilian rule as a basis for evolving enduring democratic rule and culture. In this regard, June 12, 2019, as a new beginning, is particularly interesting from its foreign policy dimensions: first, at the domestic level, and second, at the international level.

At the domestic level, it is made a day of rest for all citizens and residents in the country. But what really does June 12 mean as a Democracy Day at the domestic level? As for June 12, 2019, it was more of a day for presidential speech, military parade, cultural displays, music making, etc. Very little of the meaning of democracy was brought to bear on the day. Democracy, in terms of its etymology, simply means rule (demo) of the society or people (Cracy).

In other words, how can June 12 be remembered as a day of rule by the people, beyond being a day of failed democratic elections? Observation of June 12 as a Democracy Day should, under normal circumstance, should not be by manu militari. It should be a special day for national reflections on democracy as an instrument for nation-building in all its ramifications. It should be a time to review all efforts undertaken to grow democracy in the previous 365 days. Academic seminars, colloquia, workshops, debates, etc should be the hallmark of the day. June 12 should be one of pillars of intellectual restructuring. It is by so doing that the Nigerianess in nation-building can be made manifest. Put differently, as a public holiday, ample room has to be given to ruminate on how best to develop democracy as a system of government and also gradually evolve a democratic culture from it.

In fact, June 12 has two dimensions in terms of implications and how to grow democracy in Nigeria. The change of date from May 29 is not stricto sensu to honour Chief MKO Abiola but democracy as an instrument of international political governance, hence the international dimension to it. It is to inform the international community that Nigeria should henceforth be always reckoned with as a developing, if not, a quasi-developed democratic nation, to begin with. This is why invitation was extended to some foreign leaders, who are not dictators, but aspiring democracies, to attend the inauguration.

And true, a democratic government of Nigeria, when truly developed as a democracy, cannot but have the potential to facilitate, with much ease, the execution of the Mission Charters approved for Nigeria’s diplomatic missions in the host states. In this regard, relationship between Nigeria’s Foreign Service Officers, on the one hand, and their host communities, on the other, cannot but be positively enhanced, especially that transactions will be held with perceived diplomatists from a democratic background. Besides, Nigeria’s personality, the mediation and reconciliation integrity of Nigeria cannot but be considerably enhanced. Without jot of doubts, Nigeria cannot avoid being able to pontificate in African issues of political governance on the basis of its democratic power.

The other dimension is June 12 as a mark of respect for MKO Abiola. He was given a post-humous highest national honour of the land, GCFR. This award can only validly and legitimately be conferred on the President or Head of State of Nigeria. The conferment of GCFR on MKO Abiola is an expression of a de facto and de jure recognition of his election as an elected president of Nigeria. And thus, he is by force of desideratum the third president of Nigeria after Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe and Alhaji Shehu Shagari, and the second executive President of Nigeria, coming only after Alhaji Shehu Shagari and before Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, GCFR, PhD. This consideration does not factor in the case of Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe whose presidency should have been considered the first, but which, unfortunately, was ceremonial.

The implication of this, and particularly for academics, politologists, social researchers, documentalists, diplomatic historians, etc, is that Chief MKO Abiola should henceforth be placed on record as a former President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. His tenure as president, undoubtedly, was from June 12, 1993 until the time of his death on June 7, 1998. He can also be validly considered to have been re-elected after the first four years.

The other side of the implication is that, in the period from 1993 to 1998, it can be rightly argued that Nigeria had Heads of State (IBB, Sani Abacha, Abdulsalami) along with an elected president, MKO Abiola. This makes the political history of Nigeria quite interesting to investigate and Nigeria’s Foreign Service Officers to be more engaged internationally as they cannot but be more consulted for special enquiries.

Additionally, PMB extended the scope of the honour by renaming the National Stadium in Abuja. He called it ‘Moshood Abiola National Stadium.’ This shows that PMB is now increasingly showing clarity of vision in his policy and strategic calculations. MKO Abiola was, indeed, a man of sports. He is on record to be the primus inter pares in terms of philanthropic donations to development projects in Africa. He was identified to be the richest in Africa when he was alive, but he refused to be so considered. He preferred to be recognised and remembered for what he had done in life. His knowledge of the Holy Koran is not less than that of the Holy Bible. Easy going and friendly he was. PMB has simply recognised all these attributes and has only demonstrated objectivity of purpose in renaming the stadium after him. If truth be told further, PMB has succeeded in considerably reducing the level of animosity vis-a-vis his administration.

At the international level, several world leaders were invited to the inauguration ceremonies. They included the leaders of Ghana, The Gambia, Liberia, Niger, Namibia, Rwanda, and Sierra Leone. Some countries were represented by their vice presidents, while some others were represented by their plenipotentiaries in Nigeria. What is noteworthy about the inauguration ceremonies was that PMB was able to give an account of what his administration was able to do in the area of maintenance of national peace and security, anti-corruption war, and economic vibrancy, poverty alleviation, and unemployment. More important, he underscored the next level of the challenges to be addressed.

Additionally again, PMB noted in his address that the thrust of his ‘new administration is to consolidate on the achievements of the last four years, correct the lapses inevitable in all human endeavours and tackle the new challenges the country is faced with and chart a bold plan for transforming Nigeria.’ As good as this statement is, it is largely predicated on a wrong-belief approach.

True, there is nothing wrong with seeking to consolidate on the previous achievements. However, there cannot but be problems with the manner of going about it. For instance, how can PMB ‘correct the lapses inevitable in all human endeavours’? If it is admitted that lapses are inevitable, that is, are unavoidable, how does he want to deal with the factor of unavoidability? If the lapses were inevitable in the past, there is nothing that can be done to correct them again. If the issue is to address what made the lapses inevitable in the past, has PMB the required scientific means to predict the nature of future environmental conditionings, and for that matter, in all human endeavours to make the lapses preventable? Without scintilla of doubt, many are the things that were not doable in the past four years and should not have been done, but which PMB always tried to do and enforced by wilful wrong interpretation and manu militari. His interpretation of the national security interest as having precedence over the rule of law in a democracy is a case in point. This must not be allowed in the context of a national Democracy Day.

Another point is that the same statement has assumed that the petition of Atiku Abubakar and the opposition People’s Democratic Party against PMB and the APC ruling will fail. To have so assumed is to also give the impression to the general public that the election tribunal looking into the matter is most likely to be influenced by government. In other words, planning development on the basis of the next four years has merits, but what if PMB’s election is overturned? This is one major challenge that has serious implications for foreign policy. Why is June 12 not also taken advantage of to reunite Atiku Abubakar and PMB since June 12 is also an instrument of national reconciliation?

Whatever is the case, there is the need in every presidential speech to avoid ambiguities and unnecessary controversial statements. It is by so doing that the international community will be able to have a fair and objective evaluation of where Nigeria stands on the question of democracy and good governance. With the signing into law of June 12 as Nigeria’s Democracy Day, PMB started his second term on a good patriotic note, but he must refrain from the use of manu militari in the governance of Nigeria. This was the bane of his administration in the past four years and must not be allowed to feature in the current dispensation.