I want to commend President Muhammadu Buhari for officially declaring June 12 our Democracy Day, which is actually what it’s always been in the hearts of most democracy-loving Nigerians. It’s 25 years now, but truth has no expiry date. In this piece, I want to dwell on the things I believe the President got wrong in making this declaration, but also on the things he has to do now that this official recognition has been given to the day.
There are two or possibly three things the President got wrong. The first is awarding the national honours posthumously to MKO Abiola and Gani Fawehinmi. This is difficult for me to say because I consider myself a child of June 12 and an astute disciple of the great Gani Fawehinmi. In fact, in my pantheon of Nigerian heroes, after Obafemi Awolowo, these two men follow in that order. I would be the last person to deny them any honour bestowed on them by Nigeria because no honour is too much for them.
However, while I’m happy for their families for accepting the honours on their behalf and while I wholeheartedly rejoice with them and other Nigerians of goodwill, I am a Nigerian committed to law, as we should all be. Any honour granted to any Nigerian unlawfully is null and void, no matter the giddy emotionalism greeting the decision from any quarters. I mean, I don’t know what legal advice the President received, but he needs to know that these honours cannot be given posthumously. The 1964 National Honours Act is clear about this and that is the reason we have never had anyone posthumously awarded these honours in the 54 years they have been instituted. It is instructive that immediately the news filtered out about the awards, a former Chief Justice of the Federation, Justice Alfa Belgore declared without hesitation that it’s not right. I strongly support his view.
The second thing the President possibly got wrong is the constitutional requirement to take advice from the Council of State before granting these awards. Section 6(a)(iii) of the Third Schedule of the Constitution says the Council of State shall have power to advise the President in the exercise of his powers with respect to the award of national honours. This means that the President cannot act unilaterally without advice from and consultation with the Council of State. In other words, there has to be a meeting of the Council of State called in the Council Chamber where the President will present his proposal for the award of national honours and take the advice of the Council on the matter. Note that the Constitution says the Council has POWER to advise. This is not power the President can usurp or ignore because it’s constitutional power. Obviously, he can listen to their advice and act or not act on it, but he must not deprive them of the platform or opportunity to exercise their power to advise before making the decision.
Now, we don’t know if the Council of State met over this. Normally, when a President calls for a Council of State meeting, it’s national news. We see them all troop in for the meeting and a statement is then issued thereafter. We have not seen that with President Buhari. Though we haven’t heard from all the members of the Council of State to know if they met or if they gave advice to the President on this; but, at least, we have heard from Justice Alfa Belgore who stated clearly that he was not consulted, even though apart from being a member of the Council of State, he was also the 2016 Chairman of the National Honours Committee. So, did the President meet the constitutional requirement for this decision or are we stumbling into a constitutional crisis? This needs to be clarified.
Whatever the case, it is crucial the President corrects the mistake of these posthumous awards immediately because it would be a bad precedent, apart from the fact that it has the capacity to undermine the good he has done. For instance, there are those who would accuse the government of deliberately trying to divide the populace over this matter. There are those who would say the President did this to blackmail persons who would insist on the law being obeyed by presenting them as Abiola and Fawehinmi haters or people who cannot simply be happy for others. Such emotional blackmail has no place in national affairs. We do not want people to be tagged haters of Abiola and Fawehinmi for their insistence on lawful awards.
The third thing the President got wrong was the award he gave Ambassador Babagana Kingibe. It is akin to mocking the spirit of June 12 by giving a national honour to the man who sold out the June 12 mandate to the military, the man who betrayed Abiola and the cause. The President cannot be doing this at the same time he is purporting to be honouring Abiola. Sure, it is the President’s prerogative to honour anyone he wishes, but to honour Kingibe because he was Abiola’s running mate when he was the killer of the dream is an insult to Abiola and to all June 12 advocates. It’s like giving us water to quench our thirst after a long time only to add a little poison to the water. The President could have chosen some other time not related to June 12 to give Kingibe a national honour if that is his wish, but to tie him to the great legacy of June 12 when he is the foremost destroyer of that legacy is an injustice. Nigerians must call for Kingibe not to be given that award. Yes, the President has named him for the award, but he has not been awarded yet, so the principles of Deprivation under the law cannot apply yet. I urge the President to quietly rescind his decision in this regard. Kingibe must not be given any award on the back of June 12.
So, having stated what I think the President has got wrong, let us now consider the other implications of this welcome action and what the President needs to do as part of the official declaration and acceptance of June 12 as our Democracy Day:
(1) Once the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria reverses his unlawful decision to posthumously grant national honours to MKO Abiola and Gani Fawehinmi, he should immediately proceed to do something meaningful to immortalize the great men and put real concreteness behind the mere declaration of June 12 as Democracy Day. What Abiola suffered was an injustice of the worst kind. He won the June 12 1993 election as President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria and that election for no good reason was annulled. The declaration of June 12 as Democracy Day is only one step towards righting that wrong, towards granting Nigerians justice. The natural thing that should follow would be to reverse the annulment and declare the result of the election. Once the result is officially declared, MKO Abiola should immediately be officially declared as the duly elected President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria on June 12, 1993. That would mean that even though he never sat as President for one day, Abiola would rightfully take his place officially amongst the list of our former national leaders.
(2) The second thing the President must do is to immortalize Abiola and Fawehinmi’s names in very memorable ways. If June 12 is our Democracy Day, it is logical that we must honour Abiola with one of the greatest symbols of our democracy. I do not see any bigger symbol than the State House, Abuja. The seat of our democracy must be named Moshood Kashimawo Olawale Abiola House. Yes, Aso Rock must be named MKO Abiola House. That would be one honour worthy of the man. When anybody gets elected to sit on that seat in that House, he or she must know whose shoulders they are standing on. Gani Fawehinmi was a great advocate of democracy and the rights of Nigerians under military or civil rule, but he was mostly known for using the law to fight his cause. Therefore, it would not be out of place to name the Nigerian Law School, Abuja after him. The point is these two great men must be honoured with things that are commensurate with or more than the unlawful posthumous national honours given to them, both of which must be withdrawn in order not to set a bad precedent and undermine the good the President has done with his decision on June 12.
(3) June 12 was not just a day and the events that led to it were not just normal events in the life of our nation. They were historical events the effects of which are still with us today. June 12 is a movement that never died despite the schemes and machinations of Ibrahim Babangida, Ernest Shonekan, Sani Abacha, Abdulsalami Abubakar, Olusegun Obasanjo and Umaru Yar’Adua. I have not included Goodluck Jonathan on this list because he attempted to right this wrong, but was opposed by persons who today are celebrating after they have joined to kill the June 12 legacy in everything they have been doing in politics ever since. Today, President Buhari is a Daniel come to judgment, though an unlikely one. As one of the henchmen behind General Sani Abacha, Mr President was not known to be an advocate of June 12. He might want to deny this, but history does not lie. However, today, God has made him the instrument of His judgment over this issue, so he must rise up to the occasion. Many citizens paid the ultimate price in defence of June 12. The government of General Sani Abacha in which Mr President served as the head of the Petroleum Trust Fund (PTF) for five years declared war on Nigeria and killed young and old, men and women in its attempt to silence the voices of June 12. Many were imprisoned, many were sent into exile, many had their businesses destroyed and many are till this day still suffering the effects of the war the state has waged against them for 25 years. There has to be restitution now that the state has recognized its historic mistake, now that June 12 is our Democracy Day. There has to be true healing, there has to be a full restoration of our faith in our country.
(4) To achieve (3) above, I suggest that the government in collaboration with civil society groups should organize a June 12 Truth and Reconciliation Commission where all those who suffered any form of injustice, including those who lost loved ones to the Abacha crackdown can publicly appear and state their case. We must have that forum where they can finally have the opportunity to make their case for compensation and restitution. They must have a forum they can come and speak and confront those who as agents of the state have done them wrong with a view to forgive and for all of us to thereafter move on as one nation. This is crucial. This is the healing our nation needs now. It would be a great springboard to rethink many things undermining our progress as a nation. President Buhari must boldly make himself the history man.
(5) Finally, let it be clear to President Muhammadu Buhari that the suggestions I have made above are naturally things that should follow from the decision he has taken to declare June 12 Democracy Day. If he does not seize the opportunity now to let justice roll down the nation like a river, his declaration of June 12 as Democracy Day would be seen only as tokenism, it would be seen as hollow and it would mean the battle for June 12 continues. Already, there are some of us who believe he is doing this to win the election of 2019. Yes, that is a cynical view, but it does not mean it’s untrue. The only way President Buhari can prove to Nigerians that this is not just an attempt to win an election, but a real effort to right the historical injustices associated with June 12 is to do the things I have humbly suggested. Nigerians wait.