Human rights activist and former President of Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), Olisa Agbakoba, in this interview with Onyedika Agbedo, urges the Federal Government to take the recognition of June 12 a step further by declaring it MKO Abiola Day and given Abiola his place in as president even though he never allowed to serve
You are one of those who waged the struggle for the restoration of June 12 as a member of the civil society. Does the recognition of the date as Nigeria's Democracy Day give you any sense of fulfilment?
Of course, it does. And I think there is still a step further because MKO Abiola personalised the June 12 struggle. To a lot of us, he was a symbol of it.
Internationally, the way to acknowledge it is to personally dedicate the day to him just like January 15 is dedicated to Martin Luther King Jr. Even though it's civil liberties day, it is personalised to Martin Luther King Jr. So, I will hope that as we go along, a number of things will occur.
First will be to personalise the day as MKO Abiola Day. Then number two is to recognise him as the president. If President Buhari has apologised on our behalf, even though I don't know whether he should apologise on our behalf because we didn't do anything, it was just the military, but let us say he has apologised on behalf of Nigerians and has said 'sorry,' that means that Abiola is supposed to take his place in history as president. So, I need to see his photograph up as Nigerian president even though he never served. These are the outstanding issues I think the next government or whatever government should look at. But it's full marks for President Buhari for at least recognising June 12.
So, you align with the school of thought that says the result of the June 12, 1993, election should be announced? Absolutely! That's part of the things that should be still be done.
If you apologise for the wrong you did, at least the National Electoral Commission (NEC) of the time or INEC of today, the successor to NEC, should now declare the entire result and say, 'from June 12 when the election took place to June 24 when it was supposed to announce the results before it was cancelled, these are the results and MKO Abiola and Babagana Kingibe won.' That therefore completes the June 12 process. And then announce that June 12 will be referred to as MKO Abiola Day. I am not sure anybody will have any disagreement with this.
As an advocate of restructuring, does this declaration of June 12 as Democracy Day in any way address Nigeria's national question?
How can? That's a totally different issue. How can? I expect that President Buhari will use the opportunity of June 12, when he is going to make an inaugural statement, to make a major policy statement.
As you know, he didn't say a word when he was sworn in for a second term on May 29. And I think not just us who were in the civil rights movement for June 12 will understand that unless Nigeria's problematic issues are addressed constructively, we are going to be in this situation of no roads, no jobs, no electricity and no nothing for a long time.
It's simply impossible that Nigeria can run on what democratic scholars call centrifugal democracy, meaning that the centre is very strong. So, we need to start the process that simply devolves powers to the states or regions because there is a question mark on which are the federating units. Will it be the 36 states, the six regions or two more regions as people are advocating: one in the Mid-West and another in the Middle Belt to make it eight regions. But whether it is the 36 states or the six or eight regions, what is critical is that we need to unbundle the powers of the Federal Government.
So, we can't begin to talk about Nigeria if we don't deal with the structures around which the country is formed. The current political model has expired. It's like you have an iPhone and your iPhone's operating system expires. You will have no phone. So, right now, we don't have an operating model. I expect that the June 12 speech would deal with that, to say it is important that we have a model that can work for us.
You fought for the restoration of June 12 mandate because it was largely believed that the election was free and fair. With the recognition of the date now, the question on many lips is, what next with regard to the electoral process?
I would expect that electoral reforms should be the seventh amendment to the constitution after devolution of powers to the states or regions. But let me speak on the 'I' before the 'NEC'.
INEC should be truly independent. If INEC were independent in the real sense, we can always tell who has won and who has not won an election, in that INEC, for instance, makes everything, all the records of an election, available for all to see. INEC should be so open that if I question the election of my opponent, it just makes the records of the election available. INEC just goes to the court as a neutral observer and says, 'here are all the results'. INEC is not interested in whether it made mistakes or didn't make mistakes in the conduct of election. It just says 'here are all the results as we followed them'. But when the onus is on the petitioner, the person who is challenging the result to prove, that's why petitioners don't succeed.
So, there must be an amendment that puts the onus on INEC to present results. Once you have done that, then the credibility of the election is determined. Everybody will know that these are the results.
So, I'm expecting the next major amendment to deal with the issue of independence of INEC. If INEC becomes truly independent, the tension in the electoral process will go down. There is so much tension each time there is an election in this country; it's as if we are in a civil war. People kill each other just to get to power. So, this is part the things that needs to change.
The other thing I think that needs to be done if we want to strengthen our democracy is to deal with this issue of how a holder of public office is perceived. The type of money paid to them will entice even an angel. So, we need to lower that expectation and make it almost like if you are not ready to make a sacrifice, then you can't come because what you are going to get will be enough to sustain you but not enough to make you a billionaire.
Why the intensity of the struggle to be Speaker of the House of Representatives or President of the Senate? It's simply because of the pay. At a point a certain President of the Senate was earning about N1 billion. So, why won't anybody want to be there?
So, we must deconstruct the issue of these politicians who are supposed to be our servants but we are now their servants. When they travel through the airports, they shut us out. We don't see them again. They don't consult anybody. They just stay in Abuja or wherever and do what pleases them. So, these are the issues that need to change. When these things are in place, democratic consolidation will begin to occur. But from 1999 till date, for me, nothing has changed; rather, the country has come downwards.
It's kudos to the civil society. What is your message to your constituency as the country continues its democratic journey?
Well, we didn't do it because we were looking for anything; we did it because we believed in it. Though I think we made a mistake.
I think we committed the strategic error of thinking that our work stops with just engaging the military and removing them. I think the important strategic error was in not understanding that we needed to go into politics. And that was a big error. If we had gone into politics, it might have changed a lot of things in Nigeria; that is my assumption.
So, my personal regret was that we didn't see far enough to say we are going into politics. I should have gone to the Senate and so many of us like Femi Falana and others. I think we could have set a different tone to governance. We would have dealt with this issue of the way a new Nigeria should be run.
Yes, the civil society is powerful but at the end of the day it doesn't have power. It doesn't have political power and so it can't change anything. So, that is the regret I personally have; that we should have taken advantage. But so far so good; we are happy about the MKO Abiola Day. I call it MKO Abiola Day, not June 12!