How June 12 became Nigeria’s Democracy Day

Ogun state: When two elephants fight..., By Bolanle Bolawole
Bolanle Bolawole

By BOLANLE BOLAWOLE

Last week as I re-arranged books and old newspapers in my library, I stumbled on a piece of historical evidence that I consider germane to the ongoing discussion on the direction towards 2023. The find was fortuitous because I did not set out to look for it; in fact, I never knew it existed or was there. It was the Vanguard newspaper of Thursday, June 1, 2000. The story, which began on the COVER, was titled “FG tackles Tinubu on June 12” and carried the by-line of the reporter, Rotimi Ajayi.

It reads: ABUJA -THE declaration of June 12 every year as a public holiday in Lagos State may have pitched Gov. Bola Tinubu with the Federal Government in a fresh face off, with the Attorney General of the Federation and Justice Minister, Mr. Kanu Agabi, saying yesterday that the state had no constitutional right to proclaim a public holiday… Mr. Agabi told State House correspondents in Abuja at the end of the weekly meeting of the Federal Executive Council (FEC) that declaration of public holiday was an exclusive responsibility of the Federal Government.

Just as we have experienced with Buhari, we can only come to grief if we allow those who seek to reap where they did not sow to hoodwink us once again. I have taken a stand: They will not have my support.

Gov. Tinubu had, on Tuesday, said June 12 would be observed as a public holiday in the state in view of its importance in the political history of Nigeria. However, Mr. Agabi said: “I heard that one of the states has declared June 12 as a public holiday. You cannot do that because only the National Assembly and the President can do it. If the President declares June 12 as a public holiday, it would be a valid declaration but if any other person in this country does so, it is invalid.”

The minister pointed out that what the Lagos governor should have done was to persuade the President to make the declaration. His words: “The power to declare a public holiday can only be vested in the President because it is an executive function. It is not a judicial function, it is not a legislative function; it is an executive function. We have in existence a law called the Public Holidays Act Cap 378 of Volume 21 of the Laws of the Federation of Nigeria. This law was in existence at the time the Constitution came into effect on May 29, 1999. It is an existing law and all existing laws are valid to the extent of their conformity with the Constitution…”

He pointed out that it was on the basis of this law that the President declared May 29 of every year a public holiday… Speaking on why he did not go to court over the issue of Sharia, the minister stated that there was nothing in the Constitution that empowers the Federal Government to take any state to court over Sharia”

The realities of our present circumstances tell us how the then president, Olusegun Obasanjo, and his A-G/Minister of Justice, Kanu Agabi,  left leprosy (Sharia/Jihad) and pre-occupied themselves with skin rashes (Tinubu’s declaration of June 12 as a public holiday), possibly out of Obasanjo’s alleged inveterate hatred for MKO Abiola, winner of the June 12, 1993 presidential election.

Remember that ever before he became civilian president, the same Obasanjo had, in far-away South Africa, declared that MKO was not the messiah Nigeria desired. Had Obasanjo done the needful when the fire of Sharia/Jihad was freshly ignited under his watch, we possibly would have been spared our current ordeal. So when men like Obasanjo and Agabi point accusing fingers these days, we need to point them in the direction of history.

Now, we all know how June 12 came about: After many rigmaroles and shifting of goalposts which one of my favourite musicians, Orlando Owoh of blessed memory, described as “Babangida don fuck Nigeria tire”, we eventually had the June 12, 1993 presidential election which was free, which was fair, which was peaceful and which, in fact, was the best the country had ever had – and this was attested to by both local and international observers and the winner was MKO Abiola. Abiola, a Yoruba moderate Muslim, like most other Yoruba Muslims, won convincingly in most parts of the country, beating his challenger, Bashir Tofa, even in his ward and state (Kano). Tofa had no qualms accepting defeat but Babangida annulled the election and will forever have that decision as an albatross around his neck. It is a yoke, and a burden, he will carry into his grave and even beyond to wherever he is destined!

Opposition to the annulment was massive and universal at first but as it is with all human affairs, human factors gradually set in as some people began to compromise and negotiate away the popular mandate freely and overwhelmingly bestowed on Abiola by the people. At a point, the June12 struggle was, in the words of those who traded it away, reduced to a Yoruba ethnic agenda, which they now gave as both an excuse and a reason for their treacherous and lecherous act.

I still remember Dozie Okebalama, one of my correspondents at the time (I was editor of The PUNCH/Saturday PUNCH), who wrote an opinion page article in The PUNCH using an Igbo proverb which so irked the then Chairman of the PUNCH, Chief Ajibola Ogunshola, that he ordered the summary dismissal of Dozie; but I convinced him we should not, even though the then Admin. Manager, Chief Olukolade, had promptly signed and delivered Dozie’s sack letter to my desk.

Dozie said in his native Igbo land, when you hear the sound of gunshot in your father’s compound, you do not call on someone else to go and help you find out what was happening there. You go to find out by yourself! June12, he said, was a gunshot fired in the compound of the Yoruba; so it is their duty to go and find out what happened there. In other words, it is their cup of tea and they must drink it! With that, he appeared to justify those abandoning the struggle for the de-annulment and revalidation of June 12 while entrusting the arduous task solely to the Yoruba. Thank God, the Yoruba did not disappoint! They fought on bravely! They weathered the storms – and they were many! They heroically paid the price! Did not the German poet, Henrik Ibsen, say the strongest man is he who stands alone? Those who must go into exile to wage the struggle from abroad did so – the likes of Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu, Prof. Wole Soyinka, Dr. Amos Akingba, Dr. Kayode Fayemi, Comrade Opeyemi Bamidele, etc. If I forgot any name, kindly remind me!

Ex-Lagos State Military Gov. Ndubuisi Kanu, retired Commodore Dan Suleiman, foremost politician Alfred Rewane; Anthony Enahoro, the mover of the famous “Independence Now” motion during the colonial era, were other prominent names who continued the fight despite that the gunshot was not fired in their father’s compound, as it were!  Again, if I skipped any name, kindly remind me!

The exiles founded “Radio Kudirat” and battled the evil military junta to a standstill. Those who remained at home founded NADECO, PRONACO and many others to demand an end to military dictatorship. The likes of former governor of old Ondo State and my school principal, Pa Michael Adekunle Ajasin; stormy petrel, Chief Gani Fawehinmi; Dr. Beko Ransome-Kuti, Femi Falana, and many others.

Space constraint will not allow us to mention all the names but kindly help add additional names on your own list! How many of the martyrs do we even know? What of the hundreds, even thousands, mowed down on the streets of Lagos and elsewhere by Abacha’s armoured tanks?

Abiola died in controversial circumstances in the unjust and wicked incarceration of the military while the struggle to revalidate the mandate, described by him as sacred, was still ongoing. The Gen. Abdulsalami Abubakar/Admiral Mike Okhai Akhigbe military junta carries the burden of that guilt forever. Why, for instance, did that junta release other detainees of Abacha but inexplicably left Abiola behind?

In the end, however, the June 12 fight was not a total failure: First, we saw the back of the military and, secondly, when the country was to return to civilian rule in 1999, the presidency was conceded to the Yoruba (South-west), ostensibly to placate them over the loss of June 12, the death of Abiola, and the many other terrible things done to the region as a result of its single-minded struggle for the revalidation of June 12.

But were the Yoruba sufficiently placated? They were not because their manifest choice for president, Chief Olu Falae, was denied them in favour of ex-military dictator, retired Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo, whose administration’s demonstrable bellicosity, even animosity, towards the Yoruba and their interests justified the Yoruba’s opposition to his ascension to power in the first place.

So, the struggle continued, as they say! While no one could raise Abiola from the dead, the agitation that justice be served him in his grave raged on all the same. That goal was achieved on June 6, 2018 when the incumbent president, retired Major-General Muhammadu Buhari, another vile dictator in his own military days, declared June 12 as Nigeria’s Democracy Day, effective 2019, as against the subsisting May 29th.

If it is true, as some have posited, that Buhari did what he did in his quest for a second term in office, he did well. If it is also true that Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu was instrumental to Buhari arriving at that decision, Tinubu has done better. Tinubu’s declaration of June 12 as a public holiday in Lagos was precursor or forerunner to the FG’s declaration of the same June 12 as Democracy Day and a public holiday all over the country.

For eight years, Obasanjo, a presumptuous Yoruba and fellow Egba man like Abiola, was president and never wanted to hear anything positive said about Abiola and June 12. So, then, is the Yoruba saying fulfilled before our very eyes that “Ajumobi o kan taanu; a f’eni t’ori ba ran si ni” Oh yes; that someone is your blood relation does not mean he or she will be your destiny helper; except him whom God had so mandated!

For my highly esteemed readers asking why it appears I am in support of Tinubu’s quest for the 2023 presidency, this is one of the reasons. There are many others!

Now, those who, by choice, did not fight for democracy cannot defend it. Those who worked against Nigeria’s return to democracy but sided with vile military dictators cannot extend the frontiers of democracy or enlarge its coast, as it were. If I may ask, on which side of the June 12/fight for democracy divide was Atiku Abubakar, Peter Obi et al? We have all seen the role played by Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu.

For my highly esteemed readers asking why it appears I am in support of Tinubu’s quest for the 2023 presidency, this is one of the reasons. There are many others! I, too, was in the trenches fighting for June 12; barely escaping with my life. Those who, like biblical Esau, sold June 12 for a mess of pottage; who, like Judas Iscariot, negotiated it away for filthy lucre; and those who, like the Sadducees and Pharisees, did not lift a finger in its support cannot move our democratic experiment forward and in the right direction. Just as we have experienced with Buhari, we can only come to grief if we allow those who seek to reap where they did not sow to hoodwink us once again. I have taken a stand: They will not have my support.

*Bolawole (turnpot@gmail.com /0705 263 1058), former Editor of PUNCH newspapers, Chairman of the Editorial Board and Deputy Editor-in-Chief, was also Managing Director/Editor-in-Chief of The Westerner newsmagazine. He writes the ON THE LORD’S DAY column in the Sunday Tribune and the TREASURES column in the New Telegraph newspaper. He is also a public affairs analyst on radio and television.