As politicians of all shades and stripes converged on Abuja on Tuesday to mark the 25th anniversary of June 12, the declaration of that day as the new Democracy Day and the investiture of MKO Abiola with GCFR, the motive of President Muhammadu Buhari continued to dominate conversations.
The President’s action has been described as a bribe for Southwest vote and a mocking portrait of him with strong Yoruba tribal marks has gone viral.
There’s a lot that I disagree with about Buhari’s government, the main points being its double-standards, insularity, cult worship and its disdain for dissent.
It’s also concerning that in the last decade or so, and particularly on Buhari’s watch, the fault lines of religion, nepotism and ethnicity – and virtually every token that divides the country, of which June 12 was a redemptive symbol – have widened remarkably.
Yet, I believe it is possible to call Buhari out for the failings of his government without denying him credit for what was clearly a courageous act. There’s no point splitting hairs over his motive for revalidating June 12.
Delegates from his Northwest constituency who attended the 2014 National Conference must think that Buhari has gone mad.
Only four years ago, on June 12, 2014, when Orok Duke, a delegate from Cross River State, called for one-minute silence at the plenary of the conference to honour the June 12 dead, some Northern delegates led by Naseer Kura and Mohamed Hadajia, pounced: June 12 was a no-go area. They almost came to blows with Ayo Adebanjo and others before Chairman Idris Kutigi intervened.
Now, Buhari has chosen where his thunder would strike.
I’m not interested if Buhari did it to spite former military President General Ibrahim Babangida, who had the chance to install the winner of the fairest and freest election in the country’s post-war era, but chose, instead, to annul the result and live in regret for the rest of his life.
I’m not interested if Buhari did it to spite former President Olusegun Obasanjo who was the major beneficiary of Abiola’s struggle and death but who, after procuring his own amnesty, simply refused to give honour where it is due.
Nor am I interested if Buhari, who may not have mentioned the words, “June 12” or “MKO Abiola” after visiting Abiola’s grave with his running mate Tunde Bakare in 2011 did what he did to curry favour from the Southwest ahead of 2019, if he tossed in a GCON for the indefatigable Gani Fawehinmi to broaden his support base, and then dropped a GCON for the shame-worthy Babagana Kingibe for political balance.
When the time comes, the Southwest, and indeed voters across the country, will decide what it is about Buhari’s four year in office they wish to reward or punish him for. But to beat him over the head on his motive, as if there’s any thinking politician who will act against their self-interest, is a waste of time.
We waited 25 years and six and a half heads of state for the right thing to be done and it seemed it would never happen. We waited for the man who won the election and gave his life to defend it to be honoured and it seemed the day would never come.
We waited for a day to honour the heroism of students, traders, workers, rights activists and ordinary people who stood up to defend their vote on June 12 (at the risk of their lives) when politicians were “chopping on June 12”, but it seemed the day would never come.
And finally, when the first steps are taken we begin to obsess on the government’s motives? What was Shonekan’s motive for accepting to serve and continuing to do so even after a court declared his government illegal? Or what is the motive of the Nigerian state in continuing to recognise his interim government and in treating him as a former head of state?
What was Obasanjo’s motive for neglecting even one minute’s silence in honour of the man who paved the way for him or for despising over 100 martyrs, murdered by the state on the streets of Lagos and elsewhere and on whose back he rode to power? A valiant attempt to resist allegations of incestuous sectionalism? Ego? Jealousy? Or just a vile attempt at malicious amnesia? What was Obasanjo’s motive?
What was Jonathan’s motive for the backhanded compliment of attempting to rename the University of Lagos Moshood Abiola University, when he continued to despise June 12, its heroes and heroines as well as its symbolism?
Until the military government of General Abdsalami Abubakar declared May 29 handover day and Obasanjo, being Obasanjo, renamed it Democracy Day, it meant nothing more than the day Constantinople fell to Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II, ending the Byzantine Empire, or the Ecuadorian Independence Day.
May 29, was a rabbit from the hat of the Abubakar military regime, just another convenient day, better than August 27, which Babangida wanted to consecrate on the national calendar to mark the day he seized power; it is a day incomparable in national historical significance to October 1, January 15, July 29, or June 12.
Three of the four leading candidates in that election – Abiola, his running mate Kingibe (SDP); and Bashir Tofa (presidential candidate of the NRC) – were all Muslims. Yet Nigerians voted massively for the Abiola-Kingibe Muslim-Muslim ticket in defiance of the hubris of religion and ethnicity.
Even when Babangida’s government claimed to annul the election and Sani Abacha refused to release Abiola until he died in Abdulsalam’s custody, the spirit and symbolism of that day had suffused progressives young and old. Not a few risked their lives and fortunes in the earnest struggle to make the outcome of the election the minimum irreducible standard for future polls and civic engagement.
If a section of the political elite sectionalised the post-June 12 struggle, as Columnist Mahmoud Jega said in his Monday article, they did so, as politicians will always do, to press their own advantage. It neither justified the refusal of the military to do the right thing nor did it vitiate the pan-Nigerian mandate.
This moment was long overdue; and, whatever the motive, the ultimate prize for courage may yet go to the government that authorises the release of the complete results of the June 12 election, formally declares Abiola the winner, and publishes a thorough and carefully vetted honours’ roll; one that truly does justice to the struggle. But even that will be building on this first step.
There is a sense in which the controversy over Buhari’s motive reminds me of the biblical encounter between Jesus and the Pharisees over the man with a withered hand.
The Pharisees were members of a conservative Jewish political party. As Jesus reached out to heal the man with the withered hand, they confronted him with the Mosaic law, which forbade any work on the Sabbath. He ignored them and set the man free when they refused to answer him if any of them would let their fallen sheep die in the pit on a Sabbath.
If Buhari has restored the dignity and symbolism of June 12 out of some selfish political motive, his selfishness will be remembered more than the generosity of his predecessors who turned a blind eye to the right thing.
Ishiekwene is the Managing Director/Editor-In-Chief of The Interview and member of the board of the Global Editors Network