On Wednesday, President Muhammadu Buhari made a quite unexpected announcement of the movement of Democracy Day traditionally celebrated on May 29 to June 12; and awarding the national honors of the Grand Commander of the Federal Republic (GCFR) and Grand Commander of the Order of the Niger (GCON) to Late Bashorun M.K.O Abiola, the presumed winner of the elections and his running mate, Ambassador Babagana Kingibe.
This is a victory for the Abiola family, with the support of prominent South-West politicians and organizations such as Afenifere, who has been agitating for the Federal Government to recognize their patriarch as an officially elected former president rather than the presumed winner of the elections. While awarding him the national honor generally reserved for presidents is not entirely the same thing as what the family is demanding, it is still a significant victory for them.
Predictably, the decision is widely popular in the South-West where Abiola hails from and for whom it is still an emotive issue – since 1999, June 12 has been celebrated as Democracy Day in the states.
Also predictably, numerous commentators have questioned the timing of the declaration as being political, as a way to shore up his support in the region against next year’s election. That could very well be true but it needs to be pointed out that this alone is not what will bring votes. The All Progressives’ Congress (APC) currently controls five states in the region and is likely to retain these states over the next election cycle considering how the opposition parties are in disarray.
Of course, there is still some confusion over from when this date will be celebrated nationally and if an Act of Parliament is needed: while some legal scholars have said that the President has the power to determine a public holiday as a governor has in states, others have said it has to be enshrined in law for it to be permanent.
Nonetheless, President Buhari deserves commendation for recognizing Late Bashorun Abiola for his sacrifice in fighting for his mandate and for which he gave his life. The Abiola family also deserves to be commended for not giving up in the struggle to have him recognized. This will surely give them hope that their remaining demands, which include opening investigations into his mysterious sudden death in July 1998, will be acceded to.
While many critics of President Buhari’s move have quite a number of valid points (chief among which are that he never identified with the June 12 struggle and even worked in the Abacha government which jailed Abiola and many other pro-democracy activists), it does not erase the fact that he has done what previous administrations had continually shied away from.
After all, done is better than perfect.