Democracy Day in Nigeria is being celebrated on the 12th of June this year. This is the first time the day has been marked on this date.
And the change carries heavy symbolism for a country that’s known more years of being ruled by military men than by democratically elected leaders.
Until last year the date on which Nigeria commemorated the restoration of democracy was May 29. But last year President Muhammadu Buhari declared June 12 to be the new Democracy Day.
June 12 carries huge significance for older Nigerians.
It was on this date in 1993 that presidential elections were held for the first time since the 1983 military coup.
It was an event many observers have described as the most significant in Nigeria’s post-independence political history.
It is still viewed as the freest, fairest and most peaceful election ever held in Nigeria.
On the day, an estimated 14 million Nigerians – irrespective of ethnic, religious, class, and regional affiliations, (in a period when religious acrimony and tension had reached its zenith) – defied bad weather to elect their president with the hope of ending eight years of military dictatorships.
The euphoria was short-lived.
The results of the election were never released. But unofficial results gathered through the various polling stations by civil society groups across the country indicated broad national support for the presidential candidate of the Social Democratic Party, Chief Moshood Kashimawo Olawale Abiola.
Abiola was a businessman, publisher, politician and aristocrat of the Yoruba Egba clan.
He made his fortune through various enterprises, including communication, oil and gas. He made his first, unsuccessful run at the presidency in 1983. By then, Nigeria had endured a great deal of political upheaval since its 1960 independence.
It was a deeply divided nation, riven along ethnic, religious and regional lines. Political and military power was held by the north.
Then came Abiola, a man from the South.
He brought a different perspective to the table and was able to connect with people across divides. Come 12 June 1993, he tried for the presidency again.
Despite his popularity, and the turnout, the elections stalled.
The then military head of state, General Ibrahim Babangida, decided to annul the results of the election.
He justified the annulment on the grounds that it was necessary to save the nation. He alleged that political activities preceding the election were inimical to peace and stability in Nigeria.
Some people however believe that the military underrated Abiola’s popularity. It also did not envisage the level of crisis after the annulment of the election result.
The June 12 election and subsequent annulment marked the beginning of a decades long struggle to see the election result restored and democracy rehabilitated.