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June 12, the speech, the politics

Published by The Nation on Sat, 15 Jun 2019


FINALLY, after many years of pussyfooting and controversies, June 12 has finally become the public face of Nigerian democracy. President Muhammadu Buhari proposed memorialising the date months ago by taking the first tentative steps towards redeeming it, then he submitted an executive bill to back it, and has now signed the proposition into law, complete with a national holiday package and, perhaps soon, formalising it as inauguration day. This president has been giving the pro-democracy and human rights communities things to celebrate, and the recipients are all pleased, including those who see it as a Greek gift and those who regard it as a superficial gesture. In whatever way June 12 is regarded, the gains of the past one year, which began with the president apologising to the winner of the June 12, 1993 presidential election, MKO Abiola, has culminated in a public holiday proclamation that is unlikely to be reversed.Many top politicians and analysts, particularly from the Southwest, have damned the June 12 gains with faint praise. While a few critics see the gains as a red herring, many others see it as nothing more than a symbolic but largely empty gesture in the direction of democracy. They argue that the countrys fundamental problems, such as a poor and misshapen structure and weak institutions, can only be tackled by a deep and scientific re-examination and remedy of the issues that destabilise the polity. Mere amelioration or administration of palliatives will amount to futile tinkering. The critics do not admit that President Buhari has wrong-footed them on the matter of June 12 consistently for about a year; instead, they see him as playing realpolitik. They squirm over the integrity of the June 12 declarations and law, and castigate the dissonance between the apologies and declarations on the one hand, and the presidents own consistent and obvious anti-democratic practices on the other infuriating hand.It is indeed possible that the president may not be fundamentally disposed towards anything that has to do with June 12, or have an inspiring understanding of its many nuances and implications for democracy and the rule of law. It is even possible that privately, the president, who has never come across as someone with a great sense of history, may be offended by the persistence of many activists on the need for the nation to come to terms with the issue of June 12 and find a closure to something that has inflicted so much pain on the nation. It is also possible that the position of June 12 in the nations history as a watershed may completely or partially escape the president. But because these analysts and sceptics are not mind readers or soothsayers, they may in fact be unfair to the president to suggest he is acting mala fide. Even if it is argued that he had never said anything persuasively favourable on June 12, there is nothing to suggest that he has not become converted to its historical significance.Happily, however, many commentators from the Southwest, including the regions leading political figures, have suggested that President Buhari has done and said the right things about June 12. They acknowledge that it would be futile to cavil at the presidents apology offered on behalf of the country to the Abiola family which bore the brunt of the June 12 harassments. They also find nothing evil in the president acknowledging Chief Abiola as the winner of that fateful election. And they enthuse over the national holiday proclamation and the recognition of June 12 as Democracy Day. Indeed, it is hard to fault their summations. It is even harder to support those who grumble against the presidents many, though piecemeal, efforts to come to terms with the event of that date and find a fitting closure.If President Buhari meant his efforts on June 12 as politics to curry favour with the electorate, it is inconceivable that he should be denied his due as a politician. And so whether he is genuinely persuaded about June 12 or not, he has said and done the right thing. If righting the many wrongs surrounding June 12 is meant to give sop to the devil in preparation for unleashing evil upon the land, it still does not make sense to second-guess him or rebuff his salutary efforts because of some anticipated evil. What if the other shoe does not drop' The nature of politics is to estimate and judge every move on its own merit, and from time to time. Some soothsaying may be apposite, and some complex ratiocinative exercise may come in handy, but these must never be to the detriment of correctly gauging the mood of the times and judging the rightness of the issues. President Buhari has taken agreeable steps on June 12; he must be encouraged to do more than naming a national monument, the National Stadium in Abuja for instance, in honour of the winner of the June 12, 1993 president poll, Chief Abiola. The late politician needs to be officially declared the winner who everyone, including the electoral umpire of the time, knows him to be; symbolically installed president, and his privileges and transferable entitlements be accorded his family. His business empire was virtually crushed. The nation needs to make reparation. There will be some arguments about whether to make June 12 MKO Abiola Day, but in the end, making that day Inauguration Day seems to trump any other suggestion.President Buhari may have played politics with June 12, particularly wrong-footing his political opponents, but who prevented his sulking predecessors, all of whom had the chance to find a closure to the matter, from coming to grips with the issue, staring down his critics and the controversies that hamstring it, and delivering their own closures' Who denied them that leeway' They probably lacked the courage, or are convulsed by guilt, or lacked the conviction, or lacked a sense of history. It is misplaced anger to blame President Buhari for exploiting the issue to position himself well in the eyes of the public. The place in history he has chosen, just like the sacrifice Chief Abiola courageously made, will remain indelible.But while the president may have done a lot on June 12, including renaming the national stadium and rechristening inauguration day, and also said the right things, he gives little indication in his inauguration address that he fully appreciates the symbolism of the moment. No one compelled him to defer his May 29 inauguration address to June 12; but once he did that, he had an obligation to judge the moment and give an inspiring speech that would rally the country, sans religion and tribe, behind a lofty banner he had hypothetically concretised in words and defined with philosophical aplomb. Not only did the speech read like a tedious budget address, except for the redemptive elements of the stadium renaming and one or two pearls, it was a humiliating disservice to the spirit of June 12.It was an opportunity for the president to soar to dizzying rhetorical heights, after delivering so illustrious a tantalising package of events and sayings which had incubated in him for about a year. But what came out very clearly, which his opponents tried to exploit to belittle the plaudits he should receive over June 12, was that he is at bottom a president who is uncomfortable with democracy and its disciplined and rigorous concomitances of the rule of law and respect for institutions. Consequently, he made no profound statement on democracy, federalism, rule of law and the rights of the people. He is unlikely to make any such statement anytime soon or in the distant future, let alone advocating the complete subjection of the three arms of government to the strict provisions of the constitution.The presidents detractors can neither change nor obliterate what he has done on June 12. They accuse him of being presumptuous and hypocritical. Since they know so well what else he should have done on the issue, they are at liberty to continue to advocate for a refinement of those things until June 12 reaches a transcendental and glorious finale, an apotheosis that no one in Nigeria can gainsay.
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