By Ainofenokhai Isa –
If there is any sector of society that President Muhammadu Buhari was expected to leave an enduring legacy, most people would bet with their lives that it must be in the area of security. And it is not rocket science to decipher why most Nigerians believed that the president would instantly do well in the area of security. He is a retired General of the Army who had seen wars and even risen to be head of state in the past. In other words, he is versed in the area of national security as a trained soldier and former military leader.
However, this military background of the President in a way trades off quite significantly with civil life. This explains why many Nigerians did not initially take warmly to Buhari’s entrance into politics at the return of civil rule in this Republic. Thus, when General Buhari as he was known then joined the ANPP and consequently emerged as its presidential candidate in 2003, quite a lot of the registered voters were not convinced about his temperament for democracy. As we know, the values of democracy run directly contrary to those of the military. For instance, while the military will insist on compliance to orders, democracy preaches dialogue; while the military is obsessed with hierarchy, democracy would naturally anchor on equality; and while the military celebrates esprit d’ corps, democracy talks of all-inclusiveness.
That many Nigerians believed that Buhari did not have the right reflexes to operate in the democratic process reflected in his defeat at the polls in 2003, 2007 and 2011 presidential elections. Yet all that changed in the build up to the historic 2015 presidential election. Having learned his lessons, albeit the hard way, Buhari showed up for the 2015 president election reborn. He was now convinced that democracy is the best form of government and had submitted himself to all its values and processes. Hence, he declared at the Chatham House in February 2015, that he was a “converted democrat”. Specifically, General Buhari admitted that while he could do little to change the past, there were indeed more he could do to change the future, which was a clear repudiation of whatever past dictatorial baggage he carried.
The result of the 2015 presidential election clearly indicated that Nigerians believed President Buhari has become a democrat both in words and in deed. His resounding victory, the first of its kind in our electoral history in which an incumbent president was defeated, continued to raise President Buhari’s democratic credentials. And once in the saddle, citizens naturally expected the President to hit the ground running (to use that cliche) especially in the area of fighting insurgency and corruption. There were some though who believed that President Buhari’s claim of being a converted democrat was simply a political gambit to win votes. To this category, it was only a matter of time for the President to return to his old nature as it is said, “the leopard never changes its spots”.
It was therefore a rude shock for those waiting for President Buhari to fail in the area of democracy by regressing back to dictatorship. Shockingly again, while many Nigerians were waiting for the President to make his greatest marks in the area of fighting corruption and providing security, President Buhari pulled a rabbit from his hat in the area of consolidating our democracy by declaring June 12, as Democracy Day in our country. For those who do not know or who have forgotten, the present Republic, which was inaugurated on May 29, 1999, directly flows from the events that took place on June 12, 1993. On that day, Nigerians went to the polls to elect their president in the culmination of what became a long and winding democratic transition programme closely managed or mismanaged by the military regime of General Ibrahim Babangida. On that fateful day, the freest and fairest election took place in Nigeria. On that day, Nigerians of all walks of life threw ethnicity, religion and other fault lines that have held us back as a nation into the waste bin of history and voted their conscience such that a Yoruba man from Abeokuta roundly defeated his opponent in his own state of Kano. On that very day, democracy announced itself in our nation and defeated all our differences. On June 12, 1999, Chief MKO Abiola, GCFR, of the Social Democratic Party (SDP), was chosen by most Nigerians as their President. He defeated Alhaji Bashir Tofa of the National Republican Convention (NRC).
Sadly, the June 12, 1993 presidential election that would have galvanized our country into one nation for the very first time was aborted on June 23, 1993. It was annulled by General Babangida citing a purported court order and imaginary irregularities at the polls. And with that military fiat, the choice of the majority of our citizens was cruelly thrown away and an opportunity and hope to build a united nation dashed. Indeed, June 12, 1993 election would have been what political scientists refer to as our “founding election”!
However, the story and the importance of June 12 election did not die with its annulment. Instead, it set off a chain of democratic struggles and activism in the land. Although that struggle claimed the lives of many citizens including the arrowhead of the struggles, Chief Abiola, under the subsequent military regime of the late General Sani Abacha, Nigerians by now were convinced that democracy remained the preferred form of government. And this message seemed to have resonated clearly with Gen. Abdulsalam Abubakar who emerged head-of-state after the death of Abacha himself especially after the sudden death of Chief Abiola, the holder of the peoples’ mandate in detention. By May 29, 1999, President Obasanjo of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) had been sworn in as the elected President of the country. Watchers of Nigerian politics are agreed that Obasanjo’s election was more or less a consensus by most Nigerians that the people of the Southwest were unfairly treated with the annulment of the June 12 election believed to have been won by another Yoruba man.
Once elected, many Nigerians and indeed lovers of democracy the world over believed that President Obasanjo being a direct beneficiary of the aborted June 12 mandate would quickly step in to recognize the solemnity of that date in our history and bring closure to the events of that historic day. Instead, President Obasanjo decided to distance himself from that essential date in our history, of course, for no other explicable reasons than selfish. He had earlier gone to South Africa in the heat of the struggles to actualize June 12, to declare that Abiola was not the messiah Nigerians were expecting. While the Southwest governors and pro-democracy activists continued to call on the government to immortalize Chief Abiola by declaring the date as a national holiday, President Obasanjo remained unconcerned. In short, after sixteen long years of three different PDP presidents — Obasanjo, Yar’ Adua and Jonathan –, June 12 and Chief Abiola never got the recognition they deserved in a country mouthing democratic consolidation.
Who would have thought that it will take a retired General often associated with dictatorship to recognize June 12? So, it was gladdening that President Buhari in short while did what three PDP presidents found too hot to handle. That was how President Buhari declared June 12 as Democracy Day and national holiday. It did not end there: President Buhari also more or less recognized Chief MKO Abiola as an elected former President by awarding him the highest national honour of the Grand Commander of the Federal Republic (GCFR), which is reserved for only heads-of-state. So, it took a Fulani President to honour a Yoruba man whose kinsman as President did not consider worthy of honour.
It is important to note that what President Buhari did with June 12 remains his eternal legacy in the history of our country. The success of democratic leaders is not accurately measured by the bridge-road theory of democracy, which simply catalogues the number of boreholes, roads and bridges constructed. Not that the President has not done well even in this sector. The real success of democratic leaders inheres in those intangibles as the effort to uphold democratic values as free choice, civil rights and personal liberties on which democracy rests. June 12 provides the raison d’etre for the Fourth Republic. Without June 12, there couldn’t have been May 29. More so, June 12 reminds us of the high costs paid by Nigerian citizens including the ultimate price to win this democracy. It also cautions those who wield power to remember the real owners of the power, the Nigerian people. By recognizing June 12 and treating it with the national respect the date deserves, President Buahari has earned his legacy as a democrat. He is indeed now more than a converted democrat!
· Ainofenokhai Isa, a freelance journalist, sent in this piece from Benin City in Edo State.