June 12, 2020 marks the second anniversary of the declaration of the June 12 as Democracy Day in Nigeria. It is also affords one, the privilege of looking back at the journey so far and to recall the historic moment, the heroes/heroines that made this possible, lesson and significance of the Day in our national life.
One of the things that President Muhammadu Buhari would be fondly remembered for, after his tour of duty, would be the recognition of the significance of June 12 and its rightful placement in our national diary. It is even more satisfying that the symbol of the struggle for the enthronement of democratic order in Nigeria, Basorun Mashood Kasimawo Olawale Abiola, the winner of the June 12, 1993 election whom the previous administrations had refused to recognize as the winner of the June 12 1993 election, has now been duly acknowledged by the President as indeed, the undisputable winner of the election. He did not stop there, he also awarded, posthumously, the highest honour in the land, generally conferred on presidents, the award of the Grand Commander of the Federal Republic (GCFR), on him.
This symbolic gesture has provided a psycho-social healing for the people who sacrificed, including their lives, for the enthronement of democracy. Human life is generally ritualized and practised and that is the reason we talk of culture as an established conduct that has gained repeated and entrenched value for some time among a people. The declaration of June 12 as our National Democracy Day therefore, means for me, a significant and courageous move to further enculturate accountability even about knotty and unresolved historical issues of national importance. One therefore has to commend the president for this historical righting of a wrong past.
As one of the protagonists of the June 12 Struggle myself, one caught in the maelstrom whilst completing my doctoral studies outside the country, I appreciate what the token of this Day meant to my self-fulfillment if one were to reminisce on the cluster of dangers that we confronted during the time. Those who have read my exile memoirs, Out of the Shadows : Exile and the Struggle for Democracy and Freedom in Nigeria will recall many of these hair raising moments that I and many others encountered in our determination to rid our country of military jack boots.
It would be recalled that the regime of Gen. Sani Abacha was initially construed to be a corrective one to promptly conclude the transition process truncated by the Babangida junta before it became violently truculent and embarked on a scotched earth destruction of pro-democracy figures. He unleashed an unprecedented brutality on defenseless protesters peacefully making legitimate demands like an army of occupation.
One can only look back now and thank God for surviving one of the most horrendous eras in our national history. The return of democracy in 1999 therefore, was a direct consequence of the relentless agitation by a coalition of civil society groups, students, labour movement, politicians, rights activists, journalists, academics and a host of people in the diaspora and diplomatic circles. It is one important moment that should never be forgotten because the tree of our democracy was irrigated with the blood of many known and unknown people who died as martyrs of democratic struggle.
Arguably, June 12 was the second most significant national crisis after the civil war of 1967-1970, because of the reverberating effect that it had on the polity of the nation. The whole nation was crippled to a standstill after the annulment of the election as a result of the strike action by organized labour and the sustained daily protest by the mass of the public. In response to this, the panicked regime moved military tanks to the street to mow down defenseless crowd of protesters.
In spite of this, the mass of the public remained undaunted but rather re-strategized to confront the regime head on. It highlighted the power in collective struggle and unity of purpose. It must be noted that the blame of the annulment goes squarely to the administration of Gen. Badamosi Babangida, who, after supervising a great electoral process, inexplicably fell victim to the lure of untrammelled power.
June 12 was not just an event of what happened on the Election Day, it is a concept that aggregates the collective resolve of the nation to see the end of military rule in Nigeria. It is therefore gainful to note that some of the events that highlighted the significance of the struggle preceded the election itself.
For example the processes that led to the fielding of Basorun MKO Abiola and Ambassador Babagana Kingibe was a major milestone in our walk to a nation where religion did not signpost our electoral decision. Both presidential candidate and his running mates were Muslims. Even though Abiola was a a Yoruba man from Abeokuta Ogun State, he defeated his National Republican Party’s rival, Alhaji Bashir Tofa in his Kano state base. This greatly showed that the idea of tribal bloc voting did not play a strong role in the election. So, a new nation was in the womb of time, waiting to be born until the midwife did the unthinkable. And this new era held a great importance to the destiny of Nigeria and that of the black race as a whole. Unfortunately, the optimism of the benefits of the spirit of the time for a new direction for the nation never materialized.
In spite of the disappointing end of the electoral process and the chain of events that followed, one major feature of the time was a new spirit to work together across the Niger in our quest for a national consensus on how to go ahead. For example, Chief Olusegun Obasanjo formed a group named Association for Democracy and Good Governance in Nigeria, ADGGN with personalities like General Muhammadu Buhari, Gen. Joe Garba, former Minister of Foreign Affairs, civil war hero and former Chief of Army Staff, General Alani Akinrinnade, Late Prof. Adebayo Adedeji among others as members.
June 12 also forced the mass of the political elite to come together in their own enlightened interest. This led to the formation of National Democratic Coalition (NADECO) was formed as part of efforts to have a pan-Nigeria approach to the struggle against the military rule. This group was led by the likes of Chief Adekunle Ajasin, Pa Alfred Rewane, Anthony Enahoro, Abraham Adesanya, Chief Bola Ige, Chief Arthur Nwankwo, Senator Ayo Fasanmi, Chief Olu Falae, Prof. Bolaji Akinyemi, Air Cmdr Dan Suleiman (rtd), Asiwaju Bola Tinubu, Chief Olusegun Osoba and a host of others.
There were also a plethora of independent groups, coalitions and individuals within the civil society fraternity. The National Liberation Council of Nigeria, (NALICON) led by Prof Wole Soyinka with whom I worked as a liaison between it and other organisations like Campaign for Democracy led by Beko Ransome-Kuti, Committee for the Defence of Human Rights led by Femi Falana, Democratic Alternative led by Chima Ubani, National Conscience Party led by Chief Gani Fawehinmi, Movement for the Survival of Ogoni People led by late Ken Saro-Wiwa, Arewa Defence League, Academic Staff Union of Universities led by Attahiru Jega, National Association of Nigerian Students (NANS), Frank Kokori of NUPENG, and our own New Nigeria Forum led by me, Tajudeen Abdulraheem, Bisi Adeleye-Fayemi, Tayo Oke, Olu Oguibe and other brave activists of the time.
There were individuals, especially media personalities who were also part of the movement. Many were incarcerated, brutalized, dehumanized, framed up on trumped-up charges, exiled, maimed or killed. Among these were personalities like the Late Bagauda Kaltho, Kunle Ajibade, Dapo Olorunyomi, Bayo Onanuga, Seye Kehinde, Niran Malaolu, Babafemi Ojudu, Sylvester Odion Akhaine, Onome Osifo – Whiskey, Chris Anyanwu, Osa Director, Richard Akinnola, and others too numerous to mention.
When we recall the many sacrifices of these individuals, we would appreciate that the journey to our democratic nationhood was not an easy one. We must therefore, not only consciously tell the story of the significance of having June 12 as a National Democracy Day, we must also continue to re-engage ourselves in the useful conversations about how to re-enact the spirit of the time at a time of fractured unity.
16. The greatest take away from June 12 is that of the possibility of a new Nigeria where our so-called fault lines would no longer matter as our best lines. I therefore urge that we start a new conversation around a democracy that instills confidence in the citizenry, enables unrestrained breathing and holds a promise of a better life for all irrespective of whom they are or where they come from. This, for me, was the most significant lesson of June 12 and we must teach it, learn it and keep it etched in our sub-conscious in the certainty that a new Nigeria, a better Nigeria is possible.
Dr. Kayode Fayemi, CON, is Governor of Ekiti State.