“As we all know, correcting injustice is a pre-requisite for peace and unity. As part of the process of healing and reconciliation, I approved the recognition of June 12 as Democracy Day and invested the late Chief M.K.O. Abiola and Babagana Kingibe with National Honours, as I did with the late Chief Gani Fawehinmi. The purpose was to partially atone for the previous damage done in annulling the Presidential elections of that year.”
“Today, I propose the re-naming of the Abuja National Stadium. Henceforth it will be called MOSHOOD ABIOLA NATIONAL STADIUM.”
In commemorating the maiden celebration of Democracy Day on June 12, President Muhammadu Buhari on Wednesday announced his proposal to rename the National Stadium, Abuja after the acclaimed winner of the June 12, 1993 election, Chief Moshood Kashimawo Olawale Abiola.
While the decision to honour the late politician is in itself laudable especially since it had not been done by at least 2 paranoid administrations before the Muhammadu-Buhari-administration owing to the dynamics behind the June 12 event, the manner in which it was carried out has thrown up more questions thus giving room for serious concerns.
Looking at the intricacies surrounding the failure of past administrations to honour the late politician, it was near obvious that it will take a popular leader especially from the North, to achieve the feat. Apart from former President Olusegun Obasanjo who allegedly had a personal issue with honouring Abiola despite receiving massive goodwill as a beneficiary of a South West compensation for the June 12 saga, a bold attempt by former President Goodluck Jonathan to right the wrong elicited backlash leading to a reversal of the decision while former President Umaru Yar’adua did not live long to conceive such.
“…the politics of Nigeria is so intricate. When they started Sharia in Zamfara, Obasanjo publicly endorsed it and allowed it.
“No northern President can do that effectively without incurring a major riot. There is no better person, there is no better government that can institutionalize June 12 except a government headed by a strong northerner otherwise, it will create a serious controversy,” Doyin Okupe, a spokesman for former President Obasanjo said in response to the June, 12 2019 declaration by President Buhari.
“Buhari by providence has been well-placed. He is not just an ordinary northerner, (he’s) a very strong one that a lot of northerners respect, that even if they disagree (with him) they will not vent their disagreement. They will hold their peace. And therefore, it was easier for him to do it. We give God the glory that it has been done. Delay is not denial,” he added.
In the case of the Bayelsa-born leader, he had in a broadcast to mark the 2012 Democracy Day, announced a change of name from the University of Lagos (UNILAG) to Moshood Abiola University, leading to protests by students and alumni of the institution as well as a court judgement ruling the change as illegal.
Drawing a parallel from top institutions in the world, the practice of naming universities after notable historical figures, financial benefactors, revered religious leaders, members of royalty, current political leaders, and respected teachers or other leaders associated with the institution is in no way new; hence the backlash against the UNILAG decision and the reasons for the protests remains a subject for debate.
Examples equally abound in Nigeria of prominent educational institutions at the state and federal level hitherto known with a particular name but changed by government to honour certain political or historical figures; University of Ife renamed Obafemi Awolowo University on 12 May 1987, Usmanu Danfodiyo University, Sokoto (UDUS); formerly University of Sokoto, Ogun State University (OSU) renamed Olabisi Onabanjo University on May 29, 2001 amongst others.
Two issues with the manner the former administration went about honoring Abiola are its inability to consult stakeholders on the issue (which is believed Buhari may have done in this case) as well as the decision to use the instrument of a Presidential broadcast to communicate the intention of government, as against proposing an executive bill to amend the law establishing the institution to the National Assembly. Albeit, the Goodluck Jonathan administration deserves commendation for making that bold attempt.
On the other hand, having tendered a public apology on behalf of the Federal government to the family of Abiola in June 2018, signed an executive order changing the nation’s Democracy Day holiday from May 29 to the date of the annulled election and honouring Abiola (posthumously) alongside his running mate, Babagana Kingibe with the award of Grand Commander of the Federal Republic (GCFR) and Grand Commander of the Order of Niger (GCON) respectively, was the Federal Government under any pressure to do more for the business mogul?
If the government was under pressure, perhaps from leaders of the ruling party in the South West who supported him to a ‘resounding second term victory in the recently conducted presidential election,’ could the idea of renaming a stadium after him be classified the best honour possible? Some critics have raised the issue of decay and dilapidation of the facility, but it remains a source of concern that another government-owned stadium in the country besides the M.K.O Abiola Stadium in Ogun would be named after the late politician. That much thought was put into this decision is also debatable.
Perhaps, it would have been more relevant to rename a monument like the Eagle Square; traditionally used for state functions such as Independence Day Celebration, Democracy Day Celebration and National conventions of the major political parties (which is in itself is a critical aspect of democracy) after the business mogul or even rename a major building in the State House (Aso Rock) like the Banquet Hall after him (as in the case of Akinola Aguda House, official residence of the Vice President). There is also the option of including his portrait in any of the existing national currency notes; something similar to what was done to the one hundred naira note minted to commemorate the nation’s Centenary in 2014.
Ultimately, the most important honour that can be done the late politician and the country would be to use the maiden celebration of the June 12 Democracy Day to set up a committee to consult and advise the Federal Government with a bid to resolve the age-long issue of declaring him winner of the 1993 Presidential election and as past President-elect, especially since the chief umpire at the election, Humphrey Nwosu is still alive.
The June 12, 1993 election was perceived by local election monitors and international observers as being largely free and fair and an expression of the sovereign will and democratic rights of the people. “For the people to freely express their choice of a leader to lead them and for such election and its outcome to be annulled” with no reasonable justification or a correction of the anomaly is an assault on this sovereignty.
We have to accept that beyond compensating the acclaimed winner of the election, if President Buhari is truly concerned about “atoning for the previous damage done in annulling the Presidential elections of that year,” the people who exercised their sovereignty must see that their decision is upheld, even if years after. This is the most robust way the people can be compensated, history corrected for future generations and more meaning given to the concept of democracy in our country.
Most worrisome is what can best be described as a stampede of the Legislature by this government and the administrations before it to do its bidding on populist decisions by substituting executive bills for presidential declarations – a development many Nigerians see nothing wrong with. As laudable as the idea of renaming a national monument like the Abuja National Stadium sounds, it is most important that an executive bill is forwarded to the institution empowered by the constitution to amend the relevant laws (having deliberated on its merit) to reflect the change and not blackmailing them to accept a populist-driven declaration.
The same was done with the June 12 holiday declaration where the President used the option of an Executive Order, rather than coming up with an executive bill to amend the Public Holiday Act as the constitution gives the power to legislate on or amend sections on public holidays to the National Assembly. With the declaration of June 12 as a public day before a deliberation on the decision at the parliament, it became difficult for the legislature to act otherwise, since the decison had largely been embraced by a large section of the public.
As Daniel Webster correctly puts it, “whatever government is not a government of laws, is a despotism, let it be called what it may.”