Is the June 12 struggle over?

Next Wednesday, June 12, is the first time in our history, when the anniversary will be celebrated nationally with all the paraphernalia of official recognition. From a commemoration observed by scattered bands of devotees, members of the Abiola family, and human rights activists, confined mainly to the South-West, June 12 has now mutated into a national observance and symbol of nationhood in the same class with other national holidays, totems and identity markers of statehood. Chief M.K.O. Abiola, the martyr of the struggle, has been awarded the highest national honour that a Nigerian could be given, while initiatives are in the works to permanently replace May 29 by June 12, as Democracy Day. President Muhammadu Buhari has earned kudos for being insightful enough to, as it were, steal the thunder of June 12 activists, by adopting its limited programme of recognising the demand to immortalise Abiola. So, Buhari can now half-jokingly ask June 12 campaigners, ‘What else do you want’?

Of course, as everyone knows, one of the ways of erasing from the political map, an issue-based campaign, is to simply adopt it officially, thereby destroying its bite. This is a tactic of making the agitation respectable, cosmetically deal with its animus, and then send it to the archives through ceremonial activities. It is in this sense, that one can declare the June 12 struggle as having been won; however, a deeper inspection will show that for those who took the agitation seriously, for groups of advocates who linked the struggle to envisioning a new Nigeria where elections can neither be rigged nor annulled, where the people, rather than party barons decide the nation’s destiny, where citizenship means more than having a passport or a Permanent Voter Card, where security of life and property is not a mirage but a governance right, and where the crisis of ethnic nationalities is justly addressed, the struggle over June 12 is far from over. Two recent examples will make the point.

On May 29, while Buhari and the governors were being sworn in, a group of activists converged on Freedom Park, Ojota under the guise of Peoples Alternative Fronts, to demand, among others, an end to insecurity and the fulfilment of governance rights, such as steady power supply, consistent water supply, conducive business and intellectual environment. The message and powerful symbolism of the protest are that democracy to be meaningful, must go beyond procedures and formalities, to connect with the transformation of people’s lives, and the institution of real changes in place of nominal ones. As this columnist has had occasion to argue, elections have come and gone, leaders have been recycled, but most Nigerians, paraphrasing a popular aphorism, might well be asking, ‘When will this democracy end?’ This of course shouldn’t be seen as a call for authoritarian regression, but one to institute proper and meaningful democratic civilities that would impact the lives of Nigerians. Certainly, this was one of the objectives of the long and entrenched struggle to revalidate the annulled June 12 election.

The other narrative, troubling, is the recent efforts of religious and ethnic minorities, especially in the Northern states, to state their case to the global community. Recently, a consortium of influential Nigerians, including former defence minister, Lt. Gen. Theophilus Danjuma (retd.), a former military governor of Rivers State, Gen. Zamani Lekwot (retd.), and Chief Solomon Asemota SAN, wrote to the British Parliament that the Buhari administration had embarked upon an Islamisation programme, as well as Jihad, in the process, complicating the insecurity problem in the nation. In the same manner, and very recently, the newspapers reported that Christians in Kaduna State under the aegis of Voice of Northern Christian Movement in Nigeria, wrote to Donald Trump, the United States President, alleging ethno-religious cleansing in Southern Kaduna. The issue is not even whether these allegations, weighty as they are, are valid or not. What is important is that highly placed Nigerians from that part of the country hold the perception that national security enforcement is being used against these religious minorities.

How does this connect with June 12? Recall that the protests as they were articulated at the time, included a demand for a nation where the rights of nationalities and minorities will be guaranteed. The annulment of the June 12 election by the military cabal of Northern origin brought to the fore the national question, and the need to design a federation in which all ethnic nationalities will be co-equal rather than being dominated by an imperial centre. The 1999 constitution, it is well-known, merely froze the authoritarian aspects of our political culture by creating an overbearing centre and facilitating presidential omnipotence. Unfortunately, Buhari, at least until recently, has tended to side-step and downgrade demands for a conference to revalidate our federalism through a redesign. It is not entirely clear how to read last month’s statement by Buhari that, “true federalism is necessary at this juncture of our political and democratic evolution”. There is also what will appear to be a nod of sorts to the policy of creating state police when Buhari, earlier this week, received the report of the Presidential Panel on the Reform of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad. What appeared to be a hopeful sign that state police might soon emerge as a feature of our federalism was reversed when the Presidency clarified that Buhari had yet to take a decision on the approval of state and local government police in the federation. This dilly-dallying is, at least, an improvement on the earlier emphatic disapproval of the President for restructuring, either through the front or the back door. The situation reminds one of the German philosopher, Karl Marx’s quip that men make history in circumstances that are not of their own choosing. To put it clearly, it is conceivable that the current troughs of escalating banditry, incessant herdsmen-farmers clashes, against which an outstretched, centralised police force is struggling heroically, have led to new thinking and fresh ideas connoting a more objective attitude towards the restructuring agenda, in one form or another. This ought to excite those committed to the national renewal and state building possibilities of what we may loosely call the June 12 movement. Persuading top policymakers to see the wisdom of reinventing Nigeria through a new political engineering should be one of the priorities of the unfinished quest for national self-revalidation and modernisation. There is a sense in which many of the aspirations for good governance are bound up with the kind of restructuring that will creatively unleash the energies of the federating units, many of which harbour the potential to become like Dubai or any of the Asian Tigers, if allowed to run on their own steam.

The other point to make is that those committed to remaking Nigeria in the image of an African giant playing on the world stage should understand that reforms require both institutional and non-institutional backup. Horizontal reforms are required at the level of state institutions, such as parliaments, parastatals, police and the judiciary.  Our experience shows, however, that these institutions would not reform themselves until there are organised impetus from civil society organisations, protest movements, and social forces. The abiding essence of the June 12 struggle is to keep putting reform imperatives back on the front burner through consistent clamour from below