BusinessDay

‘June 12’ redress: Buhari’s arbitrariness tells he’s a pseudo democrat

Once an autocrat, General Muhammadu Buhari later declared himself a “converted democrat.” And since becoming a civilian president in 2015, he has tried hard, often without success, to portray himself as a strong defender of the ideals of democracy. One major way he has tried to demonstrate this is, unlike his predecessors, revisiting and attempting to redress the issue of the annulment of the presidential election of June 12, 1993. But his capricious and arbitrary handling of the ‘June 12’ issue and his idiosyncratic and narrow conception of “democracy” show that his democratic credentials are questionable.

In his last Democracy Day speech as president earlier this month, Buhari left no one in doubt that he would like to be remembered as the president who finally tackled the June 12 issue. He reminded us that, in 2018, he moved Democracy Day from May 29 to June 12 to memorialise the historic election that was annulled by (then) military dictator, General Ibrahim Babangida.

Of course, Buhari also conferred Nigeria’s highest national honour, Grand Commander of the Federal Republic (GCFR), on Chief MKO Abiola, the acclaimed winner of the election, and second highest national honour, Grand Commander of the Order of the Niger (GCON), on Babagana Kingibe, Abiola’s running mate.

But that’s not necessarily true. The GCFR was conferred on Chief Obafemi Awolowo and Sir Adetokunbo Ademola, former Chief Justice of Nigeria, yet neither was president

Some saw these decisions as a “masterstroke” at the time. But what difference did they make beyond their symbolisms? For instance, did they resolve or foreclose the issue of the ‘June 12’ annulment? Did they tell us why the election was annulled and who took part in the decision? Did they, in fact, tell us, officially, who actually won the election?

Well, truth is, the measures resolved nothing and revealed nothing. They were President Buhari’s arbitrary and unilateral decisions, which, as Professor Wole Soyinka put it in 2018, were taken “with an eye on electoral fortunes, undoubtedly.”

Of course, that was wrong because an issue so monumental, so epochal, as the annulment of the presidential election of June 12 1993 should not have been politicised or addressed through whimsical executive actions. The capriciousness of the annulment cannot justify the capriciousness of attempts to redress it. Major decisions to address the ‘June 12’ annulment should have been preceded by a Judicial Commission of Inquiry.

Unavoidably, President Buhari’s arbitrariness on, and politicisation of, the ‘June 12’ issue had adverse consequences. One consequence was the lack of cross-party and cross-ethnic consensus on the decisions. For instance, the investiture ceremony held for Abiola and other “heroes of June 12” was attended almost solely by APC politicians and South-West leaders. It was a partisan and ethnic affair. There was another consequence: Buhari’s decisions left Abiola’s formal status unresolved.

Recently, in an interview with Arise TV, Chief Abiola’s first son, Kola, countered the interviewer, Sumner Sambo, when he referred to his father as the “presumed winner” of the 1993 election. Kola Abiola argued that the conferment of the GCFR on his father was his formal recognition as a president-elect. But that’s not necessarily true. The GCFR was conferred on Chief Obafemi Awolowo and Sir Adetokunbo Ademola, former Chief Justice of Nigeria, yet neither was president. One plausible argument, subject to any proof to the contrary, was that Buhari conferred the GCFR on Abiola in recognition of the grave injustice he suffered from the annulment. The GCFR alone did not make him a former president!

There is, to date, no official document, including a gazette, that identifies Abiola as former president of Nigeria. Indeed, in the Federal Government’s statement in 2018 announcing the ‘June 12’ decisions, and in President Buhari’s recent Democracy Day’s speech, Abiola was referred to as “presumed winner” of the annulled 1993 presidential election. A presumed winner does not, ipso facto, mean a confirmed winner.

Yet, something extraordinary, something utterly capricious, happened at the Democracy Day celebration at Eagle Square in Abuja. Several newspapers carried headlines that read: “FG recognises Kingibe as former Vice President”. According to the stories, the Master of Ceremony, presumably acting on an order from the presidency, introduced Kingibe as former Vice President, and invited him to join a group photograph with President Buhari. That action was deemed to have conferred the status of “former Vice President” on Kingibe.

But really? Can Buhari formally declare Kingibe “former Vice President” and, by extension, Abiola “former President” based on a presumption? Is he the electoral commission or a court of law that can declare someone winner of an election? What information does President Buhari have on the June 12 annulment that he’s not sharing with Nigerians? Buhari says he’s not an elected autocrat, but only an autocrat or a pseudo democrat would make decisions on such a fundamental issue on the hoof, without regard for process values.

For the avoidance of doubt, I absolutely support revisiting the annulment of the ‘June 12’ election and absolutely support recognising the winner. But a civilised society is not run on the whims and caprices of its leader. In a true democracy, a Judicial Commission of Inquiry would be asked to investigate the annulment, verify the results of the election, order the release of the results and make recommendations, including formal recognition of the winner. That way, the ultimate decision would carry significant weight and legitimacy, a far cry from when a president acts unilaterally and capriciously.

In 2018, after President Buhari announced his ‘June 12’ decisions, his senior media assistant, Garba Shehu, wrote a very insightful piece titled “June 12 Tsunami and the ones who won’t forgive Buhari” (Vanguard, June 10, 2018). In the piece, Shehu said “the unjust annulment was a huge elite conspiracy” and made allegations against several nebulous individuals and groups. “Now, would there be an inquisition into all the things that happened?” He asked rhetorically, then added: “On this question, only the President can say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ if there will be a probe as many have begun clamouring for.”

Read also: Numbers disprove Buhari’s claim on better Nigeria

Of course, Buhari rarely says “yes” to public clamour. But if he were to establish a Judicial Commission of Inquiry on the ‘June 12’ annulment, the probe would reveal that many of the politicians who parade themselves as “democrats” today, several of them in Buhari’s party, were co-conspirators in the annulment. Unfortunately, the absence of an inquisition into ‘June 12’ doesn’t only leave Abiola’s formal status in limbo, but it also means that no one is held accountable for the dastardly annulment and that no lesson is learned from it.

Yet, President Buhari drew false equivalence between the presidential election of June 12 1993 and the 2023 presidential race. In his Democracy Day speech, he said: “It is important for all of us to remember that June 12th 2023 will be exactly 30 years from the 1993 Presidential elections.” He urged that next year’s presidential poll should be free, fair and peaceful as the one of 1993; then he added: “The signs so far are positive.”

But which signs are positive? Is it the utterly corrupt presidential primaries? Is it the fact that Buhari’s party, All Progressives Congress (APC), and the main opposition People’s Democratic Party (PDP) have foisted on Nigerians presidential candidates whose integrity and sources of wealth are deeply questionable? How, in good conscience, could Buhari describe presidential primaries in which delegates were blatantly bribed as indicative of “positive signs”?

Last week, the APC’s Deputy National Chairman (South), Emma Eneukwu, said that some of his party’s presidential aspirants spent “billions” to get the ticket. In the end, the highest bidder, someone with massive inexplicable wealth, “won”. How is that a positive sign?

Buhari is a pseudo democrat. His unilateral and autocratic handling of the ‘June 12 issue and his attempt to whitewash absolutely corrupt presidential primaries show that he’s an elected autocrat, not the “converted democrat” he claims to be!

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