A date with democracy


Why the Nigerian President’s announcement of a new Democracy Day is being criticised.

Nigeria has announced that Democracy Day will henceforth be celebrated on June 12, to coincide with the 25th anniversary of the annulled 1993 elections and rededicate itself to the ideals of Moshood Kashimawo Abiola.

The Social Democratic Party candidate was the presumed winner in that poll, an outcome that Ibrahim Babangida, the dictator since 1985, was never going to honour. The latter promised fresh elections within months, only to bar the rival candidates of the earlier contest. On the first anniversary of the 1993 franchise, a defiant Abiola declared himself as the rightful President. But General Sani Abacha, an accomplice in previous coups, had him incarcerated almost until Abiola’s very end.

Banning political parties, breaking labour union strikes in the oil industry and curtailing press freedom were routine under Abacha’s repressive regime. But the 1995 execution of nine human rights activists, including the reputed poet Ken Saro-Wiwa, was arguably among the darker chapters in postcolonial Nigeria. The episode shone a light on the international response led by the U.S., high on righteous condemnation while safeguarding its oil imports from Abuja.

When Nigeria returned to civilian rule in 1999, after 16 years of military rule, a former general, Olusegun Obasanjo, commenced a difficult transition. His record was stained by the military’s killings of hundreds of civilians in southern and central Nigeria. His seeming rationalisation of the deaths and his overall approach to governance stoked controversy, leading to a threat of his impeachment.

The 2007 polls, marred by violence and fraud, raised concerns over the fragility of the electoral process. But the legislature’s 2006 decision vetoing a constitutional amendment on a third presidential term, and a judicial verdict lifting the bar on the vice-president from the contest, are important examples of the evolution of transparent institutions in the country. The confirmation of Jonathan Goodluck’s presidency in 2011 and the subsequent regional and religious tensions climaxed in the Islamist Boko Haram’s 2014 kidnapping of 200 children. Nigeria’s Nobel Laureate, Wole Soyinka, described the 2015 elections as the most “vicious and violent” that he had seen, and hailed Muhammadu Buhari, the presidential candidate, as a “born-again democrat”. The verdict marked the first victory for the opposition All Progressives Congress against the People’s Democratic Party in the 16 years of unbroken civilian government.

Ironically, the decade-long army rule, which the 1993 ballot was meant to end, commenced in a coup engineered by Gen. Buhari. President Buhari’s motives in honouring Abiola with the Grand Commander of the Federal Republic have been questioned by critics, who recall the former General’s repressive rule in the ’80s and role in the tumultuous years thereafter. Mr. Soyinka has welcomed the recent symbolic step as marking a belated closure to the collective denial of a nation’s sacrifice.

The writer is a Deputy Editor at The Hindu in Chennai.

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Printable version | Dec 16, 2019 6:43:13 PM |

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