Democracy Day in Nigeria is being celebrated on the 12th of June this year. This is the first time the day has been marked on this date. And the change carries heavy symbolism for a country that’s known more years of being ruled by military men than by democratically elected leaders.
June 12 carries huge significance for older Nigerians. It was on this date in 1993 that presidential elections were held for the first time since the 1983 military coup. It was an event many observers have described as the most significant in Nigeria’s post-independence political history. It is still viewed as the freest, fairest and most peaceful election ever held in Nigeria.
On the day, an estimated 14 million Nigerians – irrespective of ethnic, religious, class, and regional affiliations, (in a period when religious acrimony and tension had reached its zenith) – defied bad weather to elect their president with the hope of ending eight years of military dictatorships.
The euphoria was short-lived. The results of the election were never released. But unofficial results gathered through the various polling stations by civil society groups across the country indicated broad national support for the presidential candidate of the Social Democratic Party, Chief Moshood Kashimawo Olawale Abiola.
Abiola was a businessman, publisher, politician and aristocrat of the Yoruba Egba clan. He made his fortune through various enterprises, including communication, oil and gas. He made his first, unsuccessful run at the presidency in 1983. By then, Nigeria had endured a great deal of political upheaval since its 1960 independence. It was a deeply divided nation, riven along ethnic, religious and regional lines. Political and military power was held by the north.
Then came Abiola, a man from the South. He brought a different perspective to the table and was able to connect with people across divides. Come 12 June 1993, he tried for the presidency again.
Despite his popularity, and the turnout, the elections stalled. The then military head of state, General Ibrahim Babangida, decided to annul the results of the election. He justified the annulment on the grounds that it was necessary to save the nation. He alleged that political activities preceding the election were inimical to peace and stability in Nigeria.
Some people however believe that the military underrated Abiola’s popularity. It also did not envisage the level of crisis after the annulment of the election result.
The June 12 election and subsequent annulment marked the beginning of a decades long struggle to see the election result restored and democracy rehabilitated.
The annulment of the election result was not taken lightly in the south-Western part of the country. Civil violence in the South Western states provoked by electoral fraud and political exclusion previously contributed to the breakdown of the first and second republics. These ran from 1993 to 1999 when Nigeria had its return to democratic rule.
According to political scientist Professor Emmanuel Ojo, Southern resentment over Abiola’s rebuff also threatened to create fissures within the military. This in turn raised the spectre of wider civil conflicts and state collapse. In his official reaction to the annulment, Abiola was quoted as saying:
I might embark on the programme of civil disobedience in the country. If those who make the law disobey the law, why (should) I obey it? There is a limit to the authenticity one could expect from a military ruler who is obviously anxious to hang on to power.
Abiola’s statement threw the country into unprecedented crisis. The Campaign for Democracy spearheaded mass protests by calling for a five-day non-violent protest.
Protests later turned violent. At least 100 protesters were killed, shot by police. The violence prompted a mounting exodus from the major cities, as southern ethnic groups (most especially the Ibos), fearing a recurrence of the communal purges which had preceded the 1967 Civil War, fled to their home regions. Author B.O Nwabueze lucidly and graphically described the crisis like this:
The annulment of the June 12 presidential election plunged the country into what indisputably is the greatest political crisis in its 33-year life as an independent nation.
Never before, except during the murderous confrontation of 1966 to 1970, had the survival of Nigeria as one political entity been in more serious danger. The impasse created was certainly unequalled in the country’s history.
Push for change
Civil society groups pushed for the re-democratisation of Nigeria. Their first call was that the mandate be returned to Abiola. During this period there was a great deal of fear and insecurity in the country. But, as Ebenezer Babatope, in his book “The Abacha Regime and the June 12 crisis” notes, people mobilised to face the challenges of a military leadership that had reneged on its promise to hand over power to democratically elected leaders.
Under tremendous pressure, the Abubakar administration arranged for elections to be held.
These took place – for state governorships, the senate and local councils – over a few months from late 1998 to February 1999.
Finally, Abubakar’s transition reached the climax with the declaration of General Olusegun Obasanjo, who had retired from the military, as the president elect in late February 1999. He was duly sworn in on 29 May 1999.
This explains why May 29 became the official public holiday on which Nigerians celebrated the country’s return to civilian rule.
During most of this time, Abiola was in jail. In 1994 he declared himself Nigeria’s lawful president after returning from a trip to win the support of the international community for his mandate. After declaring himself president he was accused of treason and arrested on the orders of then military President General Sani Abacha, who sent 200 police vehicles to bring him into custody.
Abiola died in suspicious circumstances on the day that he was due to be released, 7 July 1998.
Buhari’s decision to mark 12 June as Democracy Day should be viewed as an attempt to placate the South Western Nigerian State, which has always set aside the day to remember Abiola’s stolen mandate and an annulled election that many still view as the country’s freest and fairest in the history of Nigeria and democracy.