“It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.”
Those words from Charles Dickens befit the 20th anniversary of the most bittersweet event in the history of Nigerian electoral politics – the June 12, 1993 presidential election. For a fleeting moment, we tasted a precious thing: free, fair and honest elections where the people truly elected who they wanted as their leaders.
We thought that historic election would bring the best of times. Just as we tasted the euphoria of the moment, it was snatched from us for reasons that reason shall never understand; its annulment cast the nation into the worst period of military dictatorship. June 12 showed the people’s capacity to exercise political wisdom; it also showed the folly that brews when a powerful few believe they know what is good for the people better than the people themselves.
June 12 shined the light of hope; its termination enveloped us in darkness. Some claim we regained civilian democracy in 1999; that claim is not completely true. What took place in 1999 and what is taking place now is but a shadow of June 12. Things are such that many wonder if we, having lost this great chance, will ever revisit the fullness of that moment. I pray we do. The fate of the nation and the over 150 million people occupying it hang in the balance. The past has not always been kind to us; we hope the future does what the past has not.
Two decades have elapsed since Nigerians cast their votes across ethnic, religious and regional divides for Chief Moshood Kashimawo Abiola. Despite the passage of time, June 12 remains etched in our national conscience. It symbolizes Nigeria. A day that began with full promise, ended in twisted disappointment because a cunning few thought their interests paramount to the wishes of an entire nation.
Since June 12, we have struggled to reach the level of democratic quality experienced that moment. Today, we live halfway between sun and storm. While better off than the bleak days of reactionary dictatorship, we have yet to reach the democratic level of June 12.
This is why we must never forget June 12. We must never lose hope that we can attain the level of democratic practice of that day. We cannot change the past; thus, we cannot return to correct the bad turn taken. However, we can dedicate ourselves to a better future. We can go forward to a new, more complete June 12 that has an ending as benign as it’s beginning.
The annulment of June 12 and the regression to full-scale dictatorship hurled the country into a severe crisis of legitimacy. June 12 reminds us that, although the vast majority of us want democracy, reactionary elements work to stifle these aspirations. These elements are not always in uniform. No military dictatorship could do to us what they have done without having its full complement of civilian lackeys and courtiers.
Against these forces, the people struggled for democratic restoration at great costs. Many of our compatriots spilled their blood and lost their lives. As such, the struggle for internal democracy has proven more costly than our quest for colonial independence. Sadly, if asked the identity of our worst enemy, all we can do is point into a mirror.
After 14 years of civilian rule, June 12 is not nationally commemorated because of the power of these reactionary forces. Chief MKO Abiola deserves a posthumous honour recognizing him for being so stalwart in his democratic beliefs that he refused to forfeit his mandate. At the costs of personal deprivation and his life, this man stood his ground. In doing so, he stands as our tallest hero in the cause of Nigerian democracy.
Many of those who have come to power since 1999 try to belittle June 12. We must not sweep the lessons of that day under the carpet. Those things will only re-emerge later, in ways uglier and more resistant than the first time. We must imbibe these lessons that they may keep us from tragedy’s repeat and move us to finally realize the full blossoming of our political democracy.
Those who discount June 12 don’t do this because of regional chauvinism or anti-southwest motives. June 12 belongs to all Nigerians, except a certain class frightened by what full democracy would mean for them. This has nothing to do with region, religion or ethnicity. It has everything to do with a person’s view of democracy. Reactionary forces detest June 12 because it reminds them their days will be numbered should the people’s will ever be respected.
In essence, June 12 serves as a reminder that the struggle for democracy is never-ending. Just as there are heroes willing to lay down their lives and livelihoods to secure the people’s future, there are still elements that would rather snuff out democracy than let the people attain freedom’s stride.
When we talk June 12, we talk not about dead heroes and dead evil. We talk not about ghosts. We talk about today and the future to come.
At some point, this government must ensure appropriate national recognition for Chief MKO Abiola and those who sacrificed to protect the mandate so openly and freely won that day. We must safeguard One Man, One Vote, which made June 12 a watershed. We must ensure electoral integrity where the sovereign right of the people prevails.
If things continue as they have for the past 14 years, we shall never attain the quality of elections or the promise of good governance June 12 represents. The country has drifted for too long. The current government is long on problems, short on solutions. We have too much poverty, too much unemployment, too much violence, too much hunger, too much corruption, insecurity and disease. We have too little electricity, jobs, progress, justice and hope.
If we are the giant of Africa, it is a masochistic fellow who revels in shooting himself in the foot instead of feeding his starving children. There are many lessons to draw from June 12. Here, I would like to focus on three of them.
First, the current one-party dominance of the political economy rewards bankrupt governance and corrodes the national fabric.
A more balanced system featuring a countervailing progressive party to oppose the ruling retrogressives promotes democratic competition that augurs great change. This is why agents of the inefficient status quo busy themselves casting roadblocks in the way of the formation of the new party instead of focusing on good governance. They have opened their bag of tricks to thwart the merger. But, there is no stopping an idea whose time has come. Let them waste their time. After all, they have wasted so much of the nation’s.
The other clear lesson from June 12 is, given their free choice, the masses prefer progressive government. Thus, Nigeria is politically bifurcated nation. We have a hard working and progressively-minded citizenry under thumb of an unabashedly retrogressive political elite. The only way this is sustainable is for the elite to impose themselves as a quasi-elected modern aristocracy.
Third, June 12 was a product of an open, fair electoral process. Despite marginal improvements in the current process, we still have a grossly unreliable voters register. This is because the current hybrid, half electronic, half manual system is both engine and fuel for malpractice. To solve this obvious problem, we must demand a fully integrated biometric voters’ register that guarantees accuracy and eliminates multiple voting.
The use of the biometric system for elections in Nigeria should be non-negotiable. Ghana, Kenya, Sierra Leone and Liberia employed forms of the system and it worked in these cases. It is modern and reliable. Nigeria should not be different. Additionally, the National Assembly must pass measures deepening electoral reform by enhancing INEC’s autonomy and ensuring electoral tribunals are reconstructed to have truth and respect for the rights of every citizen as their objective. Currently, most tribunals and the legal processes they employ are constituted in a way that legitimates misconduct instead of punishing it.
Nigeria today stands with one foot on the rock and one in the rising waters. We need to decide whether we want to stand or sink. Nigeria is trapped by a defective federal structure that promotes underdevelopment for the many in the guise of the vast enrichment of the few.
Twenty years after the happy June 12 election and its dismal termination, sufficient lessons should have been learned. I know that the conspirators now must have their regrets. But there is yet hope for redemption. The only way for redemption is for them to embrace a new thinking that will reflect the will of the people. They must now join hands with the progressives to propel a people-oriented government to office. Then the dream of June 12 would have been fulfilled.
Because those in power look the wrong, undemocratic way, they have learned the wrong, undemocratic lessons. They have learned not to give the people the chance to truly express their political will. The current system does not foster the public’s will. The system squeezes it. The system is so corrosive that even an election among thirty-five governors for the chairmanship of the Governors' Forum becomes an exercise in blatant mischief where the loser is tagged the winner because he is a well-paid courier delivering to those in Aso Rock as they wish.
In the end, there is no end. That is the essential lesson of June 12. A nation never keeps democracy except it continually fights for it. To slumber is to lose. We remember June 12 so that one day Nigerians from all walks of life and all parts of the nation can describe an election as, “It was the best of times,’’ and mean it as the full and complete truth. This is the Nigeria we seek. For today and for tomorrow.