Abuja — Barely a week after marking this year's Democracy Day, nothing was on the horizon to suggest a shift in policy; a monumental one for that matter that will obliterate the military-imposed May 29 Democracy Day.
So, Wednesday, June 6, the country woke up to a unique Press Statement signed by the President himself. "... in the view of Nigerians, as shared by this administration, June 12, 1993 was far more symbolic of democracy in the Nigerian context than May 29 or even the October 1st", the five-paragraph statement said in part.
Indeed, the event of last June 12 was a defining moment. The old banquet hall at the seat of power in Aso Villa assumed a carnival-like atmosphere. There was plenty of back-slapping; palpable nostalgia marked by the re-union of old political associates and comrades in the June 12 Movement.
The feeling was akin to attending the swearing-in-ceremony of Moshood Abiola, the colourful politician who won the June 12, 1993, presidential election but denied his mandate by the then military junta . There were royal fathers, religious clerics, sports enthusiasts, artistes, business gurus and politicians of all persuasion. It was indeed like an 'Oyingbo' market where the Yorubas will say no one notices who is absent. The announcement of the names of absentees by the master of ceremony attracted a few murmurs. Gen. Babangida excused himself citing indisposition, Chief Olusegun Obasanjo was far away in Norway while Prof. Humphrey Nwosu wrote to applaud the day although he was also outside the country. To recall, Prof. Nwosu supervised the historic election as the Chairman of the defunct National Electoral Commission.
Perhaps, leading the clapping party, Prof. Nwosu, who has been labeled a "hero" and a "coward" by different commentators on the June 12 saga, had praised President Buhari for recognizing June 12 as Nigeria's Democracy Day and for honouring the memory of Chief Abiola. In a letter to the Secretary to the Government of the Federation, Boss Mustapha, Nwosu said the conferment of national honours on Chief Abiola and his running mate, Amb. Babagana Kingibe "will rekindle the national consciousness of all Nigerians for a better nation."
Boss Mustapha, the amiable scribe to the Federal Government set the tone for proceedings for what he described as "a historic day in the life of our dear country, Nigeria. This is a particularly significant event as it marks Government's proclamation of June 12 as Democracy Day and its public acknowledgement of our heroes past whose supreme efforts laid the foundation for our nascent democracy."
Delivering the key message of the day, he said: "Today marks a new dawn in the Nation's political and democratic advancement signaling the deepening of our belief in the democratic principles of inclusiveness in governance and hope for a greater Nigeria. The monumental election that took place on June 12, 1993 represented the first time in the history of our nation that Nigerians voted not for tribe or creed or region but for their convictions, affirming their common heritage and unity of purpose."
Mustapha, himself a member of Abiola's defunct Social Democratic Party, noted that "June 12, which more than any other day, symbolizes the varied struggles and sacrifices made by fellow citizens of this great nation, established democracy as our political system of governance, and opened a new chapter in the political history.
"It is in commemoration of this day, the spirit of which should be internalized in the consciousness of Nigerians of all ages and taught to our children and generations of Nigerians yet unborn, that this Administration has, in placing history in the right perspective, declared June 12 of every year as Democracy Day and as a national holiday," he explained.
President Buhari stamped the occasion as the "official Federal Government recognition of June 12 as National Democracy Day" even as he reiterated that the gesture "was not an attempt to open old wounds but to put right a national wrong,"
Indeed, the President agreed that "we cannot rewind the past but we can at least assuage our feelings; recognize that a wrong has been committed and resolve to stand firm now and in the future for the sanctity of free elections. Nigerians would no longer tolerate such perversion of justice. This retrospective and posthumous recognition is only a symbolic token of redress and recompense for the grievous injury done to the peace and unity of our country."
For those seeking to attach meanings to his decision, the President said: "Our decision to recognize and honour June 12 and its actors is in the national interest. It is aimed at setting national healing process and reconciliation of the 25 year festering wound caused by the annulment of the June 12th elections.
"Our action today is to bury the negative side of June 12, the side of ill-feelings, hate, frustrations and agony. What we are doing is celebrating and appreciating the positive side of June 12... which restarted democracy and freedom... that overcome our various divide... that produced unity and National cohesion. This is the June 12 we are celebrating today and we will nurture it to our next generation," President Buhari declared.
The climax came when President Buhari said: "on behalf of the Federal Government, I tender the nation's apology to the family of late Moshood Abiola, who got the highest votes and to those that lost their loved ones in the cause of June 12 struggle." The ovation was thunderous as Nigerians watched and heard a genuinely reconciliatory tone of a leader that delivered a political bombshell!
President Buhari later called for a minute silence in honour of the memory of Chief Abiola and Chief Fawehinmi and all those who lost their lives in the turmoil generated by the annulment.
In a rare departure from tradition, 16 people spoke after the President. Listed were Nobel laurette, Prof, Wole Soyinka; Kingibe; Kola and Hafsat Abiola; Fawehinmi's widow, Hajia Ganiyat; Asiwaju Bola Tinubu; former governors and lawmakers of the old SDP and representatives of allied combatants- the press and civil society organizations.
Kola Abiola and Muhammed Fawehinmi delivered their appreciation; Hafsat , poetic and pungent, also drew a loud applause when she apologized to President Buhari and his family for his father's perceived role in the coup which toppled his military junta in 1985. Tinubu was patronizing; Soyinka, Mr. Femi Falana, Senator Iyorchia Ayu and Chief Agunwa Anekwe assigned tasks to the president. They asked him to review his policies and assume direct control of governance.
Mohammed Fawehinmi described Buhari as "first sensitive and reasonable head of state in Nigeria" for recognizing June 12 which he said was the foundation of democracy in Nigeria. He said Abiola and his father sacrificed everything for Nigeria. "Their sacrifice has not been in vain. It will serve as a tonic to entrench unity," he opined. Hafsat Abiola-Costello, who also lost her mother, Kudirat, to the struggle, delivered a tribute to his father as "one of the greatest human beings created by God." She actually moved many in the audience to tears as she appreciated President Buhari for taking a decisive step to strengthen democracy in Nigeria. Quoting the legendary Nelson Mandela, Hafsat said the actualization of June 12 "seemed impossible until it is done".
The media, the labour movement and civil society families were present. Ms Ayo Obe, lawyer and civil rights advocate; Mr. Bayo Onanuga, publisher of the The News magazine and Chief Frank Kokori, erstwhile labour activist urged the government to remember the yet to be recognized foot soldiers of the June 12 struggle.
Onanuga, presently the managing director, News Agency of Nigeria, poured encomium on President Buhari for taking such an "earth-shaking decision to right the wrong of 25 years". To him, every good decision is meritorious, no matter when it's done even as he advised President Buhari to discountenance those reading meaning to his gesture.
Chief Kokori was elated. "Coming from the least expected quarters, June 12 has been recognized." He gave kudos to those engaged in the resistance to military dictatorship; the crowd "which fought the military with bare hands." He also recalled the roles played by the labour unions which gave muscle to civil society agitators.
Ambassador Kingibe said he was "overawed and humbled" in accepting the award of Grand Commander of the Order of the Niger and praised Buhari for contributing a most noble chapter in Nigeria's history. He also eulogized Abiola's sense of organization and deep passion to serve his country. He took time to explain his role as a "turn-coat" who abandoned the June 12 struggle while describing Abiola as the messiah Nigeria never had.
-Kareem is a media strategist and policy analyst based in Abuja.