Nigeria’s Democracy Day: We still Can’t Breathe

👤 Dare Glinstone Akinniyi

The expression: ‘I can’t breathe’ is derived from the words of Eric Garner and George Floyd, two African-American men who died of suffocation during their arrests in 2014 and 2020, respectively, as a result of excessive force by primarily white police officers.

The phrase is used in protest against police brutality in the United States. It originated with the death of Eric Garner in July 2014, after being put into a chokehold by a New York City Police Department officer. A graphic video of Garner being restrained by multiple officers showed him in agony saying, ‘I can’t breathe’ 11 times before losing consciousness. That was police brutality-cum-racism!

Permit me to rewind to events that happened in Nigeria in 1983, 1993 and 2020.

Today is June 12, 2020: Nigeria’s newest national holiday. The date is to commemorate the most free and fair presidential election in the history of Nigeria. It was conducted in 1993. What makes up cruelty and lack of discernment from one’s democratically elected leaders? They include racism, totalitarianism or tribalism; maybe pseudo democracy.

The 1993 presidential election was held on 12 June 1993, the first since the 1983 military coup ended the country’s Second Republic. The elections were the outcome of a transitional process to civilian rule organised by the military president (as he was called), Ibrahim Babangida. The unannounced result of the election suggested a victory for M.K.O Abiola of the Social Democratic Party (SDP), who by assumption, defeated Bashir Tofa of the National Republican Convention (NRC). Unfortunately, Abiola was never declared winner of that election or president-elect. Babangida mentioned electoral irregularities as the basis of his decision for annulment. The annulment, however, led to protests and political unrest, including the resignation of the then military junta, a government instituted by Ibrahim Babangida and an interim civilian government, and subsequently terminated by General Sani Abacha, who took over power as the military head of state via a bloodless coup later in 1993.

Flashback to 1983. Moshood Kashimawo Olawale Abiola of the Social Democratic Party (SDP), and the defeated Bashir Tofa of the National Republican Convention (NRC) were both previously involved with the ruling party—the National Party of Nigeria. Abiola had failed to secure the nomination of the NPN for the 1983 presidential elections against President Shehu Shagari, the incumbent president. He had only been part of the SDP for a month when he gained the presidential ticket. Though Abiola, on the one hand, was widely known throughout the country, Tofa, on the other hand, was not well known except in Kano, his state. Tofa picked Sylvester Ugoh, a Christian from the South-East as his running mate, thereby creating a regional and religious balance. Abiola only went for regional balance, picking an ex-diplomat, Baba Gana Kingibe. There was no fracas regarding why two Muslims should represent the SDP. They were able to win by the goodwill of their personage. But the results were never announced.

Not too long, the National Electoral Commission (NEC) began publicising the first batch of election results on 14 June, 1993. MKO Abiola won in 19 out of 30 states, and the Federal Capital Territory. He won in all the south-west states; three of the seven south-east states; five of the nine northern states including Kano, Tofa’s home state; and four out of the seven states in the central middle belt. Of the 6.6 million votes that had been announced, Abiola had received 4.3 million and Tofa 2.3 million. If Abiola had been declared the winner, he would have been the first southerner to be elected as president of Nigeria, breaking through ethno-religious divides having received support from all regions of the country.

Finally, MKO Abiola, in a dramatic manner, immediately after his return from South Africa, declared himself ‘President-Elect’ in Lagos. This declaration led to his arrest in Lagos and was never allowed to see sunshine until he was pronounced dead in Aso Villa, on the 7th of July, 1998.

We Nigerians, disappointed by the democratic leadership style of the PDP in 2015, wanted a leader who would stop corruption and insecurity. That’s when we thought about bringing a ‘GENERAL’. This led us to the current aberration. Today, we are faced with a raging Boko Haram insurgency, increased corruption interlaced with lack of purposeful leadership, not forgetting also the prevailing high rate of youth unemployment, electricity challenges and various other social and economic problems.

Since the return of democracy in the Fourth Republic, no one can beat his/her chest and exclaim: ‘This is a democracy!’ Nigeria’s year of profound disaster took place when we opted for President Buhari in 2015 over ex-president Goodluck Ebele Jonathan.

For unhappy Nigerians in hundreds of millions, not much has changed, and, for them, the country has taken a major two-decade step backwards. We can’t breathe! No one dares to speak openly against the state of Nigeria’s affairs. Can anyone ask questions? We could not even state the obvious with very people we stood out in the ‘rain and shine’ to elect via the ballot. Nigerian political officer holders have been quietly crushing human rights and press freedom. But we seem to be entangled in the culture of ‘obey and shut up’. I will cite few instances and allow you to decide for yourself.

Our leaders at all levels, have shown more dictatorial tendencies ever since the return of the Fourth Republic. Leaders, from local government chairmen to state legislators; from governors up to the president, have been applying extreme force and declaring any unfavourable criticism of their leadership style as a serious crime, nay treason. State governors are now emperors in their zones, not excluding legislators who go about in commando-style convoys to bully their critics. The state security agents are now used to kidnap and intimidate journalists, activists and voices who challenge their actions or dare tries to hold them accountable for their misdeeds.

We remember how Dadiyata Abubakar Idris, a university lecturer and critic of the governor of Kaduna state, was picked up in August 1, 2019 and has not been seen since then. We pray he returns in one piece soon. Stephen Kefas, Omoyele Sowore, Agba Jalingo and Jones Abiri have had their share of these undemocratic acts towards the citizenry. Hundreds of people have been picked up by security agencies in one state or the other on the orders of their Chief security Officers, for mere social media posts. Shortly after his terminal release, Omoyele Sowore was placed under travel restrictions excluding Abuja only, until the court says otherwise.

As we celebrate democracy in Nigeria today, we should all ask our leaders if we are truly practising a democracy. Please let us breathe — our nascent democracy is no longer a baby!

Happy June 12!

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