It is exactly three decades today that Nigerians went to the polls to exercise their inalienable right to elect a President of their choice to lead the transition from military dictatorship to a representative government of the people.
The abortion, by military fiat, of the decisive victory of Chief Moshood Kashimawo Olawale Abiola of the defunct Social Democratic Party (SDP) in the June 12, 1993, presidential election, up to that time, the fairest and freest election in the country’s political evolution, turned out, ironically, to be the seed that germinated into the prolonged struggle that gave birth to the democracy we currently enjoy since 1999.
In rising to strongly oppose the arbitrary annulment of the will of the majority of Nigerians as expressed in that historic election, the substantial number of our people who participated in the struggle to de-annul the election signified their fierce commitment to enthroning democracy as a form of government that best ennobles the liberty, the dignity of the individual and the integrity as well as the stability of the polity. The fierce opposition to the annulment of the June 12, 1993 presidential election and the unrelenting pro-democracy onslaught it unleashed was the equivalent of the battle against colonial rule by our founding fathers that resulted in the gaining of Nigeria’s independence in 1960.
Just like the anti-colonial movement, the pro-June 12 vanguard demonstrated, once again, the enduring validity of the 19th century historian, Arnold Toynbee’s eternal postulation, that civilization and societies experience progress as they are forced to respond to challenges posed by the environment. The unjust annulment of a widely acknowledged free and fair election was a challenge that elicited resistance by a resurgent civil society, leading ultimately to the attainment of our ‘second independence’ as exemplified by the return of democratic governance in 1999.
Fellow compatriots, we celebrate a day that has remained a watershed in our nation’s history, not just today, but for every June 12, for the endless future that our beloved country shall exist and wax stronger and stronger, generations of Nigerians will always remind themselves that the democracy that is steadily growing to become the defining essence of our polity was not gifted to us on a silver platter.
We can easily recall the sacrifice and martyrdom of Chief MKO Abiola, the custodian of the sacred mandate that was so cruelly annulled. He sacrificed his life in unyielding, patriotic defense of the ideals of democracy as symbolized in his choice, by his fellow countrymen and women, as their duly-elected President. There was an easier choice for him. It was to forgo the justice of his cause and opt for the path of ease and capitulation in the face of the tyranny of power. To his eternal credit and immortal glory, Abiola said no. He demonstrated the time-tested eternal truth that there are certain ideals and principles that are far more valuable than life itself.
Everyday, on this day, down the ages we will recall the several other heroes of democracy such as Kudirat Abiola, wife of Chief Abiola, who was brutally murdered while in the trenches fighting on the side of the people. We remember Pa Alfred Rewane, one of the heroes of our independence struggle and Major General Shehu Musa Yar’Adua (rtd) who were silenced by the military junta while in pursuit of democracy. They gave their yesterday for the liberty that is ours today.
The point is that we must never take this democracy for granted. We must forever jealously guard and protect it like a precious jewel. For, a people can never truly appreciate the freedoms and rights democracy guarantees them until they lose it.
We have traversed the dark, thorny path of dictatorship before and those who experienced it can readily testify to the unbridgeable gap between the dignity of freedom and the humiliation and degradation of tyranny. True, rancorous debates, interminable wrangling, ceaseless quarrels, bitter electoral contestations may be perceived by some as unattractive features of democracy. But they also testify to its merit and value.
This year, we held the seventh in the cycle of elections that have become sacred rituals of our democratic practice in this dispensation since 1999.
That the polls were intensely contested is in itself positive evidence that democracy is well and alive in our land. It is only natural that even as those who won and experienced victory in the various elections are elated and fulfilled, those who lost are disenchanted and disappointed. But the beauty of democracy is that those who win today can lose tomorrow and those who lose today will have an opportunity to compete and win in the next round of elections.
Those who cannot endure and accept the pain of defeat in elections do not deserve the joy of victory when it is their turn to triumph. Above all, those who disagree with the outcome of the elections are taking full advantage of the constitutional provisions to seek redress in court and that is one of the reasons why democracy is still the best form of government invented by man.
For Chief MKO Abiola, the symbol of this day, in whose memory June 12 became a national holiday, democracy is eternal.
It is about rule of law and vibrant judiciary that can be trusted to deliver justice and strengthen institutions. It has become imperative to state here that the unnecessary illegal orders used to truncate or abridge democracy will no longer be tolerated.
The recent harmonization of the retirement age for judicial officers is meant to strengthen the rule of law, which is a critical pillar of democracy. The reform has just started.
The democracy that will yield right dividends to the people who are the shareholders means more than just freedom of choice and right to get people into elective offices. It means social and economic justice for our people. To the winner of June 12, democracy offers the best chance to fight and eliminate poverty. Thirty years ago, he christened his campaign manifesto, ‘Farewell to Poverty’ because he was convinced that there is nothing divine about poverty. It is a man-made problem that can be eliminated with clearly thought out social and economic policies.
It is for this reason that, in my inauguration address on May 29, I gave effect to the decision taken by my predecessor-in-office to remove the fuel subsidy albatross and free up for collective use the much-needed resources, which had hitherto been pocketed by a few rich. I admit that the decision will impose extra burden on the masses of our people. I feel your pain. This is one decision we must bear to save our country from going under and take our resources away from the stranglehold of a few unpatriotic elements.
Painfully, I have asked you, my compatriots, to sacrifice a little more for the survival of our country. For your trust and belief in us, I assure you that your sacrifice shall not be in vain. The government I lead will repay you through massive investment in transportation infrastructure, education, regular power supply, healthcare and other public utilities that will improve the quality of lives.
The democracy MKO Abiola died for is one that promotes the welfare of the people over personal interests of the ruling class and one where the governed can find personal fulfillment and happiness. That is the hope MKO Abiola ignited throughout our country in 1993.
On this year’s Democracy Day, I enjoin us all to rededicate ourselves to strengthening this form of government of free peoples that has been our guiding light these past 24 years. In particular, those of us who have been privileged to be elected into public offices at various levels in both the executive and legislative arms of government must recommit ourselves to offering selfless service to the people, and delivering concrete democracy dividends in accordance with our electoral promises.
On my part and that of my administration, I pledge anew our commitment to diligently fulfilling every component of our electoral pact with the people – the ‘Renewed Hope’ agenda.
We shall be faithful to truth. Faithful to equity. And faithful to justice. We shall exercise our authority and mandate to govern with fairness, respect for the rule of law, and commitment to always uphold the dignity of all our people.
On this note, I wish us all a happy Democracy Day celebration and pray that the light of liberty shall never be extinguished in our land.
Thank you all and may God continue to bless the Federal Republic of Nigeria.