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From June 12 to Democracy Day

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HAD the result of June 12, 1993 presidential election been officially declared or June 11, 1994 ‘Epetedo Proclamation’ stood, Moshood Kashimawo Abiola would have become the 2nd executive president of Nigeria. But for the business mogul and philanthropist turned politician, he was a president that never was, a man of substance, hugely popular at home.

His support cuts across ethnic and religious spread, he also enjoyed the support of the international community. The annulment of June 12 presidential election was a dream that went down the drain for Abiola’s second shot at the presidency.

On June 11, 1994, in Epetedo, Lagos Island, a day shy of one year that his electoral victory was trampled on, in an attempt to reclaim his mandate, Chief Abiola proclaimed himself the President and Commander-in-Chief of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, beside proclaiming, a new ‘Government of National Unity,’ in the famous ‘Epetedo Proclamation’, declared in the mainly Yoruba populated area of Lagos. In the speech, Abiola also reconvened the National Assembly, “reinstated” all dismissed governors, and “reconstituted” the state assemblies and local government councils.

Abiola, popularly called Are Onakankanfo of Yorubaland, the highest chieftaincy title bestowed on a living Yoruba person, ran for the presidency of Nigeria in the short-lived Third Republic under the ticket of Social Democratic Party (SDP) on June 12, 1993. The election’s provisional result showed an overwhelming victory over his opponent Bashir Tofa, of the National Republican Convention (NRC). The election result which was adjudged the freest and fairest election by national and international observers until date. Scores of people died in the chaos that followed the annulment and the sheer political pressure that ensued forced Gen. Ibrahim Babangida to hand over power to the Interim Government (ING) on August 27, 1993. On November 17, 1993, Defence Minister, Gen. Sani Abacha forced the Head of ING, Chief Ernest Shonekan, to resign and hand over power to him.

The Gen. Sanni Abacha led military administration declared Abiola wanted on treason charges for declaring himself president. The junta sent two hundred police vehicles to bring him to custody. Abiola died in custody on July 7, 1998, the day he was to be released under suspicious circumstances. While incarcerated, prominent people, such as Pope John II, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Kofi Annan, Emeka Anyaoku, among other prominent people, the international communities and human rights activists, lobbied for his release. His second and most senior wife, Kudirat Abiola who had been drumming public support for Chief Abiola was assassinated in 1996, while Abiola was still in prison.

Imprisoned until Abacha death, nobody gave a glimpse of hope that Abiola’s would regain freedom for declaring himself president but hours before his release, he was announced dead. Who or what killed him has remained a mystery. Some high controversial deaths in the country has been linked to some people or factors like in the case of Dele Giwa, but in Abiola’s case, some people claimed that he was poisoned to level Abacha’s death.

On June 6, 2018, 25 years after June 12 debacle, President  Muhammadu Buhari, posthumously awarded MKO Abiola, Grand Commander of the Federal Republic GCFR and declared June 12 as Nigeria’s Democracy Day. The new Democracy Day was done to commemorate the democratic election of Moshood Abiola on June 12, 1993.  Until June 6, 2018, declaration it was held annually on May 29, the day Nigeria returned to democratic rule, ending decades of military rule. The May 29, 1999, handover to an elected civilian government marked the beginning of the longest continuous civilian rule since the country’s independence. Among many Nigerians that ran for the highest political office till date in Nigeria, the Ogun State born billionaire was the most nationally accepted.

June 12 remained one of Nigeria’s turbulent political narratives until the date was declared as Democracy Day; it was a metaphor for political movement. The movement had its birth in the formation of the National Democratic Coalition (NADECO) and Campaign for Democracy (CD) broad coalition of Nigerian democrats, progressive and human rights activists, who pressured Gen. Sani Abacha led military regime to hand over power to MKO Abiola. The Abiola Epetedo Proclamation resulted from NADECO initiative.

The annulment of June 12, 1993 election result threw Nigeria into turmoil, the debacle precipitated movement across the country, close to pre-Nigerian Civil War. Among the Igbo speaking people, it was called ‘Oso Abiola’, As the tension of the annulment mounts, the Igbo, to avoid being caught in crossfire between the West and North, many of them temporarily relocated to the East to avoid reliving the painful experience of the Nigerian Civil War. The relocation ordeal led to death of many people and loss of businesses, which many never recovered from it. The annulment crises heightened the cynicism and distrust among Nigerians, creating friction between North and West.

The election annulment earned Nigeria a pariah status in the comity of nations. Even as 1994 African Cup of Nations title holders, Nigeria did not defend the title in 1996 in South Africa. Most Nigerians bemoan the lost chance as opportunity for the Super Eagles to dominate African football. Many NADECO members and prominent Nigerians fled the country for fear of being killed. The Commonwealth, the umbrella body of former British colonies had to suspend Nigeria’s membership of the organisation.

In 2018, ahead of the 2019 general election President Buhari declared June 12 as Democracy Day and the award of GCFR to Chief Abiola, which many people not only see as a ploy to revive its dying popularity but also to sway Western votes for the election. The Afenifere, the Yoruba apex socio-political group believed the gesture was a strategy to appease Yoruba voters. The group spokesperson, Yinka Odumakin, said President Buhari did the right thing which Afenifere had championed for years, noting that they accepted the declaration of June 12 as a public holiday but argued that the Yoruba would not be swayed by Buhari strategy.

The present Aare Ona Kakanfo of Yorubaland, Iba Gani Adams welcomed the decision by President Muhamadu Buhari to recognize June 12 as Nigeria’s Democracy Day, but would want the President to step further by restructuring the country, if he wants to win the hearts of the progressive minded Nigerians.

However any opinion tilts on the motive behind President Buhari declaration of June 12 as Democracy day, the current Fourth Republic emerged from its agitation. President Olusegun Obasanjo, who shunned pleas to immortalize Abiola, besides other heads of state in the current republic benefited from it. It was the bid to pacify the Yoruba that President Obasanjo, who hails from Ogun State with Abiola, was anointed in Prison to become president of Nigeria. The June 12 iconic date which came with its first public holiday definitely has changed Nigeria’s political landscape for good.

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