Experience from the last nine years however, indicates that this national celebration has time and again fallen short of projecting the sobering significance of the contributions made by several individuals that made this dream a reality.
This journey began since 1960 at independence but was truncated by Major Chukwuemeka Nzeogu and his co-conspirators. We did not smell the fragrance of democracy again until after another 13 years of military rule. The new democratic government did not last more than four years before it was truncated again by the military. After this period several attempts were made notably in the 1990’s when the late Shehu Yaradua’s election was annulled before he could clinch the presidency which he seem all set to win. After his, the election of Chief M.K.O Abiola was annulled by the regime of Gen. Ibrahim Babangida just when he seem set to be confirmed as the winner.
Gen Abacha carried on from there after having seized power from Chief Ernest Shonekan who was heading an extra-constitutional contraption dubbed the Interim National Government.
These repeated efforts – genuine or false – by successive leaders, mostly of military extraction, as well as relentless pressures from civil society groups and the international community failed to redirect the country’s political ship towards a democratic course.
It was not until 1998, when through an interplay of providence and political exigency, God bestowed his favour on Nigerians and Gen. Abdulsalami Abubakar took over the reins of power that the bright torch of democracy, hitherto extinguished by his predecessors, was again lighted in Africa’s most populous nation.
This accomplished general with unflinching democratic disposition, like many other leaders before and even after him, had several options available to him on how to steer the ship of the Nigerian state away from the murky waters he inherited. First, there is the ‘I EQUALLY CHERISH POWER’ option favoured by the likes of Joseph Kabila of Congo and Faure Eyadema of Togo, both of who, like Gen. Abubakar, found themselves in power by divine providence following the death of their predecessors but quickly devised a means to hold on indefinitely.
Another is the “LIMITLESS TERMS” approach popularized by a number of African leaders, past and present. These leaders such as Paul Biya in Cameroun, Yoweri Kaguta Museveni in Uganda, Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe etc rationalise that the constitution, though ‘sacrosanct’ is made for man and not vice versa. Hence, its being subject to unrestricted ‘amendments’. A third and even more handy option at the time was the “INTERMINABLE TRANSITION – TO – CIVIL – RULE” programme that was the norm with successive military administrations in the country whereby the goal post keeps shifting with each move towards it.
Attractive and feasible as these options seemed at the time, Gen. Abdulsalami Abubakar chose the path of honour, dignity and professionalism by delivering on his promise to return Nigeria to the much anticipated democratic rule within a record 10 months. He not only midwifed and enthroned the democracy we are all enjoying today but also displayed a rare attitude, untypical of leaders of Nigerian and African extraction that are usually identified with gluttonous appetite for power or the established trend of “sit tightism” in ruler ship. As such, if a dispassionate chronicle of Nigeria’s post independence history is to be undertaken, the military regime of July 12, 1998 to May 29, 1999 should merit special attention as a period of strategic political re-engineering and rebirth with positive implication for Nigeria’s pre-eminent position in the comity of democratic nations.
Against this background, we should be upbeat celebrating: Sardauna, Zik, Awo, Balewa et al for laying a solid foundation; Dele Giwa, M.K.O Abiola, Shehu Musa Yar’adua etc for preferring death to dictatorship! Gani Fawehinmi, Anthony Enahoro and co for their consistent vituperations in defence of constitutionalism and human rights; Late Pa Adesanya, Asiwaju Tinubu and the rest for their NADECO contributions; Ekwueme’s G-34 gang for their unrelentless efforts to set Nigeria’s democracy on course, our Progressive Media and the Civil Society for lending a strident voice to the entire movement.
We should recognise and acclaim these undisputed Nationalists of our prolonged and costly pro- democracy struggles. But recognising the large hearted, fearless and courageous defenders and midfielders in the march towards a credible democratic system without as much as a mention of the players that scored the final goal would be tantamount to a tainted celebration. The truth is the only salvation for our dangerously derailing democratic venture may as well rest with our collective capacity for unemotional soul searching.
Dr. Jibril writes from Minna, Niger State