Why is June 12 important to Nigerian Democracy?

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What happened on June 12? 

Last year, President Buhari announced that Democracy Day would move from the designated May 29th to June 12th as a mark of honor for the late M.K.O Abiola and a way of commemorating one of the most poignant days in Nigeria’s democratic history. May 29th had taken that designation as the day on which civilian rule returned and the 4th Republic was born with the inauguration of President Obasanjo in 1999.

June 12 is significant in the story of Nigeria’s democracy as it marked the day of the presidential election between the Social Democratic Party’s Abiola and the National Republican Convention’s Bashir Tofa. The election would have signaled a return to democracy after the military’s curtailing of President Shagari’s reign in 1983 by one Major General Buhari. Buhari was in turn dethroned by Major General Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida in 1985. Babangida’s government had overcome some coup attempts so it acknowledged the need for a return to democracy and took steps to prepare the country for the transition by managing the political registration process. The June 12 elections would have marked the culmination of this objective. Despite the depressed turnout, Abiola a Yoruba businessman, with strong military links was viewed as the winner with 4.3million of the 6.6 million votes that had been announced. However, the announcement was suspended with the NEC citing a court injunction which prohibited it leading to bursts of violence across the country and a leak of the final vote count. On the 24th of June, Babangida announced the annulment of the election throwing the country into disarray as the electorate bristled at the attempt to renege on the promise to end military rule. 

Why is June 12 important? 

In the fall out of the annulment, Babangida was forced to resign as had been originally prescribed with an interim government led by Ernest Shonenkan, a former Chairman and CEO of the United Africa Company of Nigeria- the biggest public company in the country taking over. Shonekan lacking political clout sought to smooth the cracks and oversee the process of ensuring the return to democracy while Abiola traveled across the world seeking the return of his mandate to no avail. This would lead to Shonekan’s Defence Minister and a key cog in Babangida’s administration, General Sani Abacha forcing Shonekan to resign and subsequently, taking control. Abacha, best remembered for his trampling on human and democratic rights sought to decimate the June 12 movement and the calls to return to democracy by arresting some of its key players. However, the movement only gained more momentum as some of the players were able to escape into exile waging the war against the dictatorship from safer climes. Abiola was one of those imprisoned after declaring himself the lawful President in Epetedo, Lagos on trumped-up charges of treason. Over the course of his time in prison, entreaties were made on Abiola to forego the mandate which he refused outrightly.  In 1998, when Abacha died it was expected that Abiola would be released. Sadly, he would also pass away on the day scheduled for his release from prison. Abiola’s been viewed as having sacrificed his life and those of some of his dearest- his wife, Kudirat was assassinated by Abacha’s agents for the good of Nigeria’s democracy- a sacrifice that must never be forgotten. June 12 is a metaphor for this struggle and Buhari’s decision to recognize it as the genuine Democracy Day was a bold but long overdue move.

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