Up until June 12 this year when President Muhammadu Buhari moved the celebration to June 12, the 29th of May has been Nigeria’s Democracy Day. May 29th was symbolic in that it marked another landmark attempt at returning Nigeria to democracy by the voluntary handover of powers from a military regime to a civilian regime when President-elect Obasanjo took the oath of office.
May 29 is often viewed as a day to honour the struggles and sacrifices on the long path toward democracy and to celebrate the country’s continuing progress. Also for many Nigerians, Democracy Day is an opportunity to reflect on the long journey which has eventually brought the nation on the path of lasting democracy. For others, it is a reminder of the painstaking effort it took to achieve such a feat after many years of hopeless military rule.
Although it was the second time such a transition from military rule to democracy happened, May 29 was named so by the administration of the newly sworn-in President Olusegun Obasanjo and his vice, Alhaji Atiku Abubakar.
It was an irony however that the person Gen Abdulsalami Abubakar handed over to, Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, was himself a retired military personnel and the first military head of state to voluntarily hand over government to a fully elected civilian regime back in 1979.
That this gesture which Obasanjo first emulated as an enactment of the goal Gen. Murtala Muhammed set in his regime is a testament that a good turn deserved another for Obasanjo. This reason was the major reason many Nigerians believed Obasanjo to be selfless and thus many enthusiastically cast their votes for him at the election. This was also one of the considerations most leaders in the country as at 1998 considered, when Gen Abdulsalami Abubakar as head of state when General Sani Abacha died, that a strong leader with civilian ideals but with some military background be fielded by a major political party. So Atiku Abubakar and a few other politicians, who despite being a major ally of M.K.O Abiola and Shehu Musa Yar’adua, had to abandon his influence in the party structure PDM set up in the founding of People’s Democratic Party (PDP) in favour of Obasanjo’s machinery.
More often unsaid is the fact that politics is a game of negotiations, consensus and strategy. And such machinations which happen behind closed doors are not often the kind of material the public is exposed to. While other political parties such as the Alliance for Democracy (AD) and All Nigerian People’s Party (ANPP) too were formed by other equally notable personalities such as Chief Olusegun Falae, Gen Muhammadu Buhari, Chief Bola Ige, Asiwaju Bola Tinubu, as well as other ethnic organisations, labour unions, and civil society organisations all featuring in the political happenings before May 29, they had lesser influence and control in the direction the elections would follow this time.
A decision was made also, after consultations by Gen Abdulsalami Abubakar, to adopt the constitution which was used in the 2nd Republic, and which favoured a democratic government styled after the American pattern despite us being colonised and influenced by the British, and for use in this fourth republic.
In 19 years, a lot has happened with regards to this constitution: some of the decisions made prior and after May 29th have been regretted and this is more of the reason why some notable Nigerians in their own fair capacity have been consistently calling for a nationally-induced review of the constitution haphazardly adopted in 1999.
Such is an aspect of the journey started on May 29, 1999, travelled by the longest running independent republic Nigeria ever witnessed in its 104 years existence and in 58 years after it became independent.