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By conferring GCFR on Abiola, Buhari has recognised him as former president –Falana

By conferring GCFR on Abiola, Buhari has recognised him as former president –Falana

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A Senior Advocate of Nigeria, Mr. Femi Falana, in this interview with TOBI AWORINDE, argues that President Muhammadu Buhari has officially recognised the late Chief Moshood Abiola as a former president by awarding him the GCFR title

What are your thoughts on the recognition of June 12 by President Muhammadu Buhari?

Like the majority of Nigerians, I was completely caught unawares by the announcement. It came from the most unexpected quarters. President Buhari had never given any indication that he was going to revisit the past with a view to correcting the monumental injustice of 25 years, which is a quarter of a century. It was a courageous and commendable political action on the part of President Buhari. But the President must proceed to give succour to all the other heroes and heroines of the June 12 struggle. Indeed, all victims of state-sponsored violations of human rights deserve redress. That was what the Federal Government did not achieve through the Justice Chukwudifu Oputa Commission of Inquiry into human rights abuses.

How much does the recognition mean to you personally, considering your contributions to the June 12, 1993 presidential victory?

Since I was arrested, charged and detained along with the late Dr. Beko Ransome-Kuti and Chief Gani Fawehinmi (SAN) for organising protests against the criminal annulment, I felt elated that June 12 has been validated by the Federal Government. For me, it means that our efforts were not in vain. But I was also pained when I realised that the nation is more divided than ever before. It means that a short-sighted political class has continued to keep the masses divided so as to facilitate the looting of the nation’s treasury. However, the symbolic award of the order of Grand Commander of the Federal Republic to Chief (Moshood) Abiola and the apology tendered by President Buhari to the Abiola family on behalf of the Federal Government confirmed the commitment of President Buhari to bringing the June 12 crisis to a permanent closure.

What does this recognition mean for the last 19 years of democracy in Nigeria?

For 19 years, we lived in denial. Hence, we have been celebrating May 29 as Democracy Day. May 29 was the height of official hypocrisy, chosen deliberately by ex-President Olusegun Obasanjo to spite Abiola in his grave. However, in changing the Democracy Day to June 12, the Buhari administration has corrected what was clearly a historical injustice.

Is there any significance in this recognition considering the fact that it is coming from President Buhari, a northerner and former military head of state?

When we identify injustice in any part of the country, we must collectively fight it. The fact that President Buhari is a northerner is totally irrelevant. After all, Abiola’s townsman and classmate, former President Obasanjo, showed absolute disdain for June 12. It was former President (Goodluck) Jonathan who attempted to name the University of Lagos after Chief Abiola. What the June 12 struggle has taught us is that we must always unite as a people to fight injustice whenever it rears its ugly head. At the same time, we must ensure that the victims of injustice are not left without remedy.

What is your take on the much talked about political undertones of this recognition?

There is no doubt that it was a political decision. It could not have been otherwise. Mind you, the decision to annul the election by the Ibrahim Babangida military junta in 1993 was political as it was designed to prolong military rule in the country. Even though Babangida was forced to step aside, the interim national government collapsed for refusing to actualise the June 12 mandate. General Sani Abacha took over, locked Abiola up and wanted to metamorphose into a civilian President. The decision of each successive regime, including the ones headed by Chief Obasanjo and Chief (Ernest) Shonekan, Abiola’s kinsmen, to disregard and dishonour June 12 was equally political. After all, we were usually told that it was a watershed in our political history. Even the failed attempt by ex-President Jonathan to recognise the June 12 mandate by naming the University of Lagos after Chief Abiola was also a political move.

Do you think the South-West should feel a measure of compensation from the recognition of June 12?

We must not join the dubious attempt by a bankrupt ruling class to ethnicise the June 12 mandate. It was a pan-Nigerian mandate. It was a joint Muslim ticket but Abiola won in states with large Christian population. Abiola defeated his opponent, Alhaji Bashir Tofa, in Kano, his home state. Therefore, the annulment of the election by the Babangida-led military junta was a crime against the entirety of Nigerian voters. So, the question of compensating the Yoruba people alone does not arise. It is a compensation for all democratic forces in the country.

Should the Yoruba be wary of this recognition?

Which Yoruba are you talking about, when the democratic rights of all Nigerian people were grossly abused by the military junta that annulled the election? It is on the record that the struggle for the validation of the June 12 election results was prosecuted by progressive forces all over the country. For instance, the Babangida junta believed that with the arrest of Dr. Ransome-Kuti, Chief Fawehinmi and my humble self, the anti-annulment protests would stop. But the junta was proved wrong as Chima Ubani, Sylvester Odion, John Odah, Osagie Obayuwana, Biodun Aremu, Gloria Kilanko, Jiti Ogunye, Abdul Oroh and many other comrades continued to organise the protests under the leadership of Olisa Agbakoba.

When the military junta resorted to brutal killing of unarmed protesters in the streets, Nigerians were asked to sit at home. And by the time our people were getting weary of civil disobedience, the struggle was boosted by the very effective strike of the oil workers led by Comrade Frank Kokori. Therefore, it is a total distortion of history to give the erroneous impression that the June 12 struggle was waged by Yoruba people alone.

Even the National Democratic Coalition, which joined the struggle in May 1994, was not constituted by Yoruba politicians alone. Chief Tony Enahoro, Dan Suleiman, Ndubusi Kanu, Arthur Nwankwo, and Ralph Obiora joined the likes of Pa Adekunle Ajasin, Ayo Adebanjo, Olanihun Ajayi, Bola Tinubu, etc. to wage the struggle. Of course, the intellectual wing was led by Professor Wole Soyinka. I am sure you are aware that the journalists who fought against the annulment cut across ethnic and religious divides. Col. Umar Dangiwa and General Femi Williams resigned from the army on account of the annulment of the June 12 election.

What does the recognition say about Obasanjo’s refusal to honour Abiola, whose electoral victory many argue was responsible for the former president’s ascension to power in 1999?

Chief Obasanjo has never hidden his contempt for the June 12 mandate. I am happy that both he and General Babangida are alive to witness the recognition of the June 12 mandate and conferment of the posthumous order of GCFR on the late Chief Abiola. Incidentally, both of them apologised for their inability to attend the investiture ceremony.

What is your take on the constitutional conundrum posed by the shift of Democracy Day from May 29 to June 12?

There is no conundrum whatsoever. In every election year, May 29 remains the day of inauguration of the Federal Government and the majority of state governments. But with effect from next year, June 12 will be observed as a public day throughout the country. It has to be so because it is a national affair. In other words, June 12 will replace May 29 as Democracy Day. The fact that western states have been celebrating June 12 does not mean that it is a Yoruba affair. In 1980, the two states of Kano and Kaduna declared May 1 as a public holiday. A year later, the Federal Government declared May Day as a public holiday throughout Nigeria.

Do you think the recognition seems to strategically sidestep the issue of restructuring altogether?

The recognition of June 12 is not an alternative to the popular demand for the restructuring of the country. Since 1999, every successive government has preserved the status quo because of the enormous powers conferred on the heads of government at the federal and state levels. But in view of the economic crisis plaguing the country, the Federal Government has been compelled to relax its stronghold on the autonomy of state governments. Hence, some state governments have been allowed to build and maintain airports. In the area of security, state governments ought to do much more instead of the agitation for state police. What is the justification for having state police whose members will be armed and left without salaries for months like civil servants?

In the interim, the Nigeria Police Council is constituted by the President, chairman of Police Service Commission, Inspector-General of Police and the 36 state governors. Since the council is empowered to organise, administer and supervise the Nigeria Police Force, it should meet regularly to deliberate on the increasing wave of insecurity in the country. While I fully support the demand for restructuring, the devolution of power must be democratised among the people. More importantly, political restructuring must go along with economic empowerment of the people.

Given your view that Buhari has officially declared Abiola a past president, is there any need for the President to still unequivocally state that the Federal Government regards him as such?

Since the order of GCFR is exclusively reserved for presidents of the country, the decision to confer it on Abiola posthumously has placed him in the club of former presidents. He has been found suitable and qualified on the basis of the June 12 presidential election won by him. By conferring the order of GCFR on him posthumously, Abiola has been recognised by the Federal Government as an elected president, even though he was not inaugurated due to the illegal annulment of the results of the historic election. Notwithstanding the gesture, the results of the election ought to be announced by the Independent National Electoral Commission, which has taken over all the assets and liabilities of the defunct National Electoral Commission that conducted the election.

You recently spoke out against the sale of nomination forms by political parties for electoral contest. Isn’t this in line with their right to freedom of association?

Every political party has undertaken to uphold the fundamental objectives and directive principle of state policy, in line with Section 222 of the Constitution. The right of every citizen to equal opportunities is guaranteed. Equally guaranteed is the right to freedom from discrimination. To that extent, a political party cannot be allowed to restrict political participation to the rich who can afford the prohibitive nomination fees imposed on all members who wish to contest elections. In a number of cases, the courts have held that since the qualifications for contesting elections have been outlined in the constitution, a political party cannot add to them by asking aspirants to pay prohibitive fees.

Are you saying the political parties are acting contrary to the nation’s constitution?

The conditions for contesting an election are stated in the Constitution. The conditions for contesting elections from local government to House of Assembly, governorship, House of Representatives, Senate and presidential level, are all in the Constitution. There are court decisions that you cannot add to or subtract from the conditions that are set out in the Constitution.

There are decisions of the court to the effect that Independent National Electoral Commission and state electoral commissions cannot collect fees from candidates who are contesting elections.  So, if I am going to contest election, you can’t ask me to pay N27m as nomination fee because that is unknown to the Constitution.

Is it not possible for the political parties to come up with their own rules?

The parties cannot decide their own rules. They cannot impose prohibitive rules that will restrict the participation to the contest of election to money bags.

What action will you take if parties insist on collecting fees from contestants?

We may have to sue the political parties if they continue in this illegality. We cannot continue like this.

Can the aspirants also protest the payment of levies for forms?

Aggrieved party members should be encouraged to challenge the prohibitive nomination fees imposed on aspirants by political parties. I believe that any citizen who meets the requirements outlined in the constitution is qualified to contest any election. Political parties cannot add to the constitutional requirements.

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