Against all odds, President Muhammadu Buhari recently honoured the presumed winner of the acclaimed freest and fairest presidential elections conducted on June 12, 1993, late Moshood Olawale Kashimawo Abiola, 25 years after the election. However, Buhari’s intent and action have generated ripples, TOPE SUNDAY writes.
June 12 is different strokes for different folks. Nigerians, in their thirties and above, are expected to recall the events that culminated in the June 12 saga. But those who are still approaching the Tricenarian stage may not appreciate the date. June 12, to some activists who fought for the restoration of the late Abiola’s ‘stolen’ mandate, is a day to behold. To those who lost their loved ones to the struggle, June 12 is a date that would re-open their healed wounds. In a nutshell, June 12 can be likened to the solid rock upon which the country’s present democracy is laid.
The history of June 12
After a series of agitations on the need have a democratically elected president and to return to democracy, the then Military President, Gen. Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida (IBB), bowed to pressure. And in 1993, precisely on June 12, after almost 10 years of uninterrupted military rule; the presidential election was conducted. The election was adjudged to be free and fair.
In that election, which was conducted through Option-A4, where people would queue behind their prefer parties, the Social Democratic Party (SDP) presidential candidate, Moshood Kashimawo Olawale Abiola, and the National Republican Convention (NRC) candidate, Alhaji Bashir Tofa, slugged it out.
At the end of the election, which was midwifed by the National Electoral Commission (NEC) led by Prof. Humphrey Nwosu, Abiola won the election based on the collated results, but the process of announcing him as the winner of the polls was blocked midway by the Babangida administration; the action which denied him victory. Although the results of the election have never been officially certified, nevertheless, they are well known and readily-accessible. According to African Elections Database, Abiola polled 8,341,309 votes to defeat Tofa, who garnered 5,952,087 votes.
For the first time in Nigeria, another lexicon entered its dictionary as Babaginda annulled Abiola’s election. Another principal actor in the election, Tofa , who refused to accept the unannounced result of the poll, reportedly lost to Abiola in his polling unit in Tofa village in Kano state. Babangida, who hinged his action on the allegation from NRC camp, annulled the poll, and his action denied late Abiola the opportunity to rule Nigeria.
In his official broadcast, IBB as he the former military president is called, said: “Therefore, when it became clear that the courts had become intimidated and subjected to the manipulation of the political process, and vested interests, then the entire political system was in clear dangers. This administration could not continue to watch the various high courts carry on their long drawn out processes and contradictory decisions while the nation slides into chaos. It was under this circumstance that the National Defence and Security Council decided that it is in the supreme interest of law and order, political stability and peace that the presidential election be annulled. “As an administration, we have had special interest and concern not only for the immediate needs of our society, but also in laying the foundation for generations to come. To continue action on the basis of the June 12, 1993 election, and to proclaim and swear in a president who encouraged a campaign of divide and rule among our ethnic groups would have been detrimental to the survival of the Third Republic. “Our need is for peace, stability and continuity of politics in the interest of all our people. Fellow countrymen and women, although the National Electoral Commission and the Centre for Democratic Studies officially invited foreign observers for the presidential election, the administration also considered it, as important as a democratic society, that our activities and electoral conduct must be open not only to the citizenry of our country but also to the rest of the world.”
Abiola’s incarceration and death
The agitation to reclaim the ‘stolen’ mandate of the Late Abiola was so massive and too aggressive with the formation of the National Democratic Coalition (NADECO) and Civil Society Organsations. The two bodies were said to have given IBB a tough time, the smoke which hecould not endure that made him to throw in the towel; and forcefully put in place an interim government, led by Chief Ernest Shonekan, who hails from Ogun state, like Abiola.
Despite Shonekan’s ‘installation,’ the agitations in the country for the actualisation of the June 12 mandate did not abate. This development led to the ouster of the Interim National Government (ING) by the military led by the late Gen. Sani Abacha after a court pronounced it illegal. Upon resumption of Abacha in power, the protests across the country, especially in the South-West reduced ostensibly, because there was an alleged understanding between Abiola and the military government that the June 12 mandate would be restored.
But when the alleged agreement was not adhered to, the agitation resonated with the Oodua Peoples Congress (OPC) leading the struggle, in the South-West.
The struggle, however, resulted in the arrest and detention of Abiola by Abacha in 1994. By June 1998, Abacha died on June 8. Unfortunately, Abiola followed Abacha to the world beyond on July 7, of the same year. Abiola’s death, however, dashed the hope and aspirations of some of his followers who believed that the struggle for the June 12 has gone into oblivion.
After five successful governments had brushed aside calls to honour Abiola, President Muhammadu Buhari, in an unusual display of courage, on June 6, directed that effective from 2019, the Democracy Day, marked every May 29 for the past 18 years, will be shifted to June 12 to honour Abiola, the presumed winner of the 1993 presidential election.
The president in a personal statement said that Abiola will now be conferred with nation’s highest honour, the Grand Commander of the Federal Republic, GCFR, which is exclusively conferred only on presidents and former presidents.
In the same letter, Buhari also announced that Abiola’s running mate in that election, Ambassador Babagana Kingibe and the late Human Rights Lawyer, Gani Fawehinmi, would be conferred with the second highest honour of the Grand Commander of the Niger, GCON, respectively. He proceeded to fix a date for the investiture, which took place on Tuesday, June 12th.
Legality of Buhari’s declaration
As soon as the president made his pronouncement on his desire to honour Abiola, Kingibe and Fawehinmi, dusts were raised.
This time, people from all strata of the country were the lending voices for and against the president’s directive.
The first person to fire the salvos was the former Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN) His Lordship Alfa Belgore, who contended that the Nigeria’s highest national honour conferred on the Late Abiola is illegal.
Belgore, who chaired the 2016 national honours committee, argued further that national honours could not be awarded posthumously, much less the GCFR, which is the highest honour in the land.
The former CJN’s whose position was countered by some senior lawyers said: “It is not done. It is for people living. The only thing they could do is to name a place after him, but national honours award, no.”
He said under the 1964 National Honours Act, only soldiers or other servicemen could be awarded posthumous medals for their bravery. Justice Belgore’s position was initially backed by the embattled Senator representing Kogi West, Dino Melaye, who faulted the president’s directive. He went further to declare the late Abiola as a non-Nigerian because of his demise.
Though, Senator Melaye backtracked days later after immense pressure from his constituents, who are Yoruba, his action, was faulted by some political pundits, who said he was not a student of history.
They admitted that GCFR is exclusively conferred on presidents and former presidents, but the former President Shehu Shagari laid the precedence, which President Buhari followed when he conferred it on the Late sage, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, in the Second Republic.
Both Belgore and Melaye hinged their arguments against the GCFR honour to Abiola on the provisions of Chapter 43(2) of the National Honours Act, and declared that the act does not allow for conferment of the honours on non-Nigerians.
Expectedly, the position canvassed by the duo of Belgore and Melaye was backed by some lawyers that Abiola can’t be conferred with GCFR posthumously.
However, senior lawyers like the chairman of the Presidential Advisory Committee on Anti-corruption (PACAC), Prof. Itse Sagay, SAN; newly appointed spokesman for the Buhari campaign organisation and a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, Mr. Festus Keyamo, SAN; and human rights lawyer, Femi Falana, SAN, faulted both Belgore and Melaye’s claims.
In his usual character, Sagay chided the former CJN for pursuing technical law and abandoning justice, saying: “Is it proper for a man of his (Belgore) age and who has been a Chief Justice of Nigeria to throw cold water on something that all people of good faith are rejoicing about and giving glory to God that it has happened? Is it right? Should he now go about looking for some fault or error to throw into the spokes of the wheel? Is that a proper role for a man of his background and eminence? So, I blame him for that.
“I have not read the provision, but I am told by those who have read it that immediately after that sub-section, there is another sub-section which gives the President the right to override that invitation. I have not read it, but I have been told. Now, if that is correct, then, I do not see what the former Chief Justice is complaining about.
“I also want to add that we need to be careful in this country, that when something is positive and right, particularly when a great wrong is done before, it is the duty of every inhabitant of this country to find a way of contributing to that good result and not pouring cold water on it. This man is pursuing technical law and abandoning justice. He is going for narrow interest and abandoning the big picture. It is not befitting of a man of his age and experience.”
On his part, Keyamo said nothing in the law expressly barred President Buhari from conferring national award on Nigerians who were deserving of the honour before their demise, adding that “nobody should try to throw any spanner on the works of the President,” arguing that “such award could be given on the basis of political expediency.”
While marshalling his points, Keyamo said: “I want to respectfully disagree with Justice Alfa Belgore. There is nowhere in the Constitution that it was expressly prohibited that posthumous awards cannot be conferred. Nowhere in the constitution was it equally expressly stated that the President is denied the right to confer such award posthumously. The law is that what is expressly prohibited is deemed to have been allowed.
“The National Honours Act did not say that it cannot be posthumously awarded or that it is totally prohibited, there is no such provision. The Act actually listed the requirement for conferment and if someone met all the requirements before the person died, the award can be conferred on such person posthumously.”
Also, Falana said: “The Honourable Justice Alfa Belgore, a retired Chief Justice of Nigeria, was reported to have questioned the legality of the decision of President Buhari to confer posthumous awards on Chief MKO Abiola and Chief Gani Fawehinmi.
“Curiously, his lordship did not refer to any section of the National Honours Act or any other law that has been violated by the President. In like manner, some persons have alleged that the June 12 holiday declared by the President is illegal on the grounds that the approval of the National Assembly was not sought and obtained.
“With profound respect to the Honourable Justice Alfa Belgore, the National Honours Act has not prohibited or restricted the powers of the President to confer national honours on deserving Nigerian citizens, dead or alive. No doubt, Paragraph 2 of the Honours Warrant made pursuant to the National Honours Act provides that ‘a person shall be appointed to a particular rank of an Order when he receives from the President in person, at an investiture held for the purpose…’
“But Paragraph 3, thereof, has given the President the unqualified discretion “to dispense with the requirement of PAaragraph 2 in such manner as may be specified in the direction. Therefore, since the national awards conferred on Chief Abiola and Chief Fawehinmi cannot be received by them in person the President may permit their family members to receive same on their behalf.
“Furthermore, Section 2 (1) of the Public Holidays Act stipulates that in addition to the holidays mentioned in the Schedule to the Act, the President may appoint a special day to be kept as a public holiday either throughout Nigeria or in any part thereof. It is crystal clear that the President is not required by law to seek and obtain the approval of the National Assembly before declaring a public holiday in the country.
“In view of the combined effect of the National Honours Act and the Public Holidays Act the legal validity of the well deserved awards and the historic holiday has not been impugned in any manner whatsoever.”
The attendant ripples
Despite the stiff opposition by some people who linked President Buhari’s determination to honour Abiola with the GCFR posthumously alongside the Late Fewehinmi, and Kingibe, the president still recognised them.
The president’s action is allegedly coloured with political permutations ahead of the 2019 elections, and his determination to court votes from the South-west geo-political zone where the late MKO hailed from.
The timing of the honour, some pundits alleged, is aimed at silencing the former President Olusegun Obasanjo, who is one of the leaders of the Yoruba Nation, for his criticisms of the government of President Buhari.
According to the opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), Buhari’s declaration is a mark of his desperation to win in the 2019 elections.
The party, in a statement by its Publicity Secretary, Kola Ologbondiyan, alleged that Buhari “wants to use the name and person of Abiola to gain political capital and not out of genuine reverence and recognition for him.”
Also, the newly revived Social Democratic Party (SDP) on which platform Abiola contested the 1993 presidential elections also rejected the GCON honour conferred on Kingibe for ‘betraying the June 12 struggle.’
Also, PDP, the leading opposition party, which labelled Buhari as a non-democratic and claimed that he served in the late Abacha’s government, who jailed Abiola, rejected the award conferred on Kingibe for renouncing June 12.
“It is, therefore, a sign of political desperation for President Buhari to seek to use Chief Abiola’s name as a tool to sway Nigerians in less than twelve months to an election where he, (President Buhari) is seeking a second term.
“It is also shocking that the respectable grave of Abiola can be dishonoured by granting a posthumous award on him along with someone who denounced the June 12 mandate and preferred the company of his (Abiola’s) traducers. Even those who now masquerade as change agents were opposed to the naming of University of Lagos after Chief Abiola,” the party claimed.
On its part, the pan-Yoruba socio-political group, Afenifere, asked Nigerians to take the declaration of June 12 as Democracy Day and the posthumous award to the Late Moshood Abiola, with a pinch of salt; and questioned the motive behind it and its timing.
However, despite the criticisms trailing President Buhari’s honour on Abiola, some Nigerians backed the president’s action on the declaration of June 12 as the National Democracy Day; and asked that MKO to be declared as former president.
While advocating that Abiola be declared as a former president, a Rights Activist, Dr Joe Okei-Odumakin, said: “The decision is accepted because we have been asking for it in the past 24 years. Since 1999, when May 29 was declared Democracy Day, we have been kicking against it.
“Today’s decision is highly noted and accepted, would be even better appreciated if Mr. Buhari could declare Mr. Abiola, a former president. We want a posthumous declaration of Mr. Abiola as a former President of Nigeria and we want his portrait to be lined amongst past presidents of Nigeria.”
One of the victims of the June 12 struggle, who was incarcerated for almost 50 days, Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu, on his part sees the honoured bestowed on Abiola as the confirmation that he won the 1993 presidential election.
Tinubu, a national leader of the All Progressives Party (APC), and spent years in exile during the struggle, said: “Along with all democratic and fair-minded Nigerians, I welcome the news that June 12 will replace May 29 as Democracy Day. I too applaud Buhari for making this courageous and rightful decision.
“He has shown all Nigerians and the world that we have the moral fortitude to objectively face our history, learn from it and improve our society by virtue of this learning. June 12, more than any other day, symbolises the struggles and sacrifices made by countless Nigerians to establish democracy as our way of national governance.
“Chief MKO Abiola and others gave their lives that we might have democracy, that the will of the people will be sovereign and not suppressed by the will of the few. This proclamation by Buhari will forever immortalise the sacrifices made by these patriots who gave off themselves in service of such a noble and rightful purpose.”
Now, that the president had officially conferred the posthumous awards on both Abiola and Fawehinmi; and Kingibe who was accused of betraying the June 12 struggle was personally received the honour, what next?
For days to come, the ripples will still be vibrating because some people as Comrade Segun Mayegun, a student union leader during the struggle put it, are forgotten.
In his argument, he claimed that many students in their hundreds who lost their lives to the struggle should be honoured, and called them the true heroes of June 12.
Similarly, some sections of the country also made the case that the same honour be conferred on Prof. Humphrey Nwosu, who conducted the June 12 elections.
The puzzle now is the call for the recognition of Abiola as a former president, though Prof. Nwosu had again re-affirmed him as the winner of the election 25 years after the annulment of the polls.
Should Buhari summon the courage to declare Abiola a former president? What will be the legal implications of such pronouncement? These and many others are puzzles that are yet to be solved.