By Julius Mucunguzi
On June 12th 2019, the city of Abuja, the capital of Nigeria came to a standstill. All roads led to Eagle Square from where the country was marking its inaugural Democracy Day– in commemoration of the day when the country is said to have held its freest, fairest and most credible elections 26 years ago, but whose winner never became President.
On that 12th June in 1993, millions of Nigerians went to the polls to elect their President. When the votes were counted, a wealthy businessman, Chief Mashood Abiola also known as MKO Abiola had won, but the military leader at the time, Ibrahim Babangida, nullified the results citing irregularities. What followed was a cocktail of confusion that led to Abiola’s arrest and detention. He later died in prison. He became Nigeria’s President it never had. In the interim, another military leader in the names of Sani Abacha came up and took power, complicating an already complex situation.
Fast forward: on 12th June, the current Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari stood on the dias at Eagle Square and declared Mashood Abiola a hero making 12th June a public holiday that will be marked every year as Democracy Day.
We were in Abuja accompanying Prime Minister Ruhakana Rugunda, who represented President Yoweri Museveni on the occasion.
As President Buhari made his speech, I could also not help, but look back the journey of a man who has kept hope alive to finally become the democratically elected President of Africa’s most populous nation.
My first visit to Nigeria was in 2007. I was there as part of a Commonwealth team that was present to observe the country’s elections of that year. Muhammadu Buhari was a candidate in those elections, but lost to Musa Ya’radua .The polls were controversial and held when there was insurgency in parts of the country. At one of the polling stations, thugs came and run off with the ballot boxes as vote counting was underway. But when Buhari lost, he accepted the results, and said he would wait to fight another day. This had been his second attempt at the presidency having first contested in 2003.
Then, the 2011 polls came, and again I was present with Commonwealth observers led by former Botswana President Festus Mogae. Again, Buhari was on the ballot paper. He again lost, this time to Goodluck Jonathan, a former vice president who had first assumed the Presidency following the death of Ya’rdua.
In his loss, Buhari maintained decorum and accepted defeat and waited for another occasion. He did not engage in defiant acts to undermine the government of the day. He did not lead protests on the streets, nor did he attempt to form a parallel ‘government’ like we have seen in some countries.
Then the 2015 elections came and he again put his name in the ring and was a candidate. The incumbent, Goodluck Jonathan was also in the ring. When the votes were counted, the man who had contested for three times before, and loosing, had won. Voters returned him in March this year for a second four year term. While campaigning for re-election last year, Buhari promised to mark and celebrate the return of democracy in Nigeria by declaring June 12 a Democracy Day, in memory of Mashood Abiola. He even named the national stadium after Abiola. This, he said would replace May 29th, the day that has previously been celebrated as the day when the first democratically elected government of former President Olusegun Obasanjo was sworn in on 29th May 1999.
Reflecting on Buhari’s journey to the presidency brings many lessons, including that of the story of keeping hope alive–which also happens to be the title of a book I authored in 2014: Once upon a time–the story of keeping hope alive. Hope is what keeps us going. When you loose hope, you become hopeless and cannot achieve anything. Even in the face of adversity, the voice and ray of hope should always be our guiding light. But in being hopeful, one must remain disciplined. When one decides to enter competition, they should expect a win or a loss. When one looses, they should not take it as the end of the world and act with desperacy. They should go back to the drawing board and review what could have caused their poor performance and aim to get better next time. Defiance, disruption and anger with bitterness are not qualities of good leadership.
Winners of elections too must be magnanimous and lead all, including those that did not vote for them.
In Uganda, we have the opportunity of initiatives such as the Inter Party Organisation for Dialogue, a forum that brings together all political parties represented in Parliament to discuss ways of improving the political climate and leveling the playing field to ensure that conditions exist for the conduct of free, fair and credible polls. Of late, the main item on the agenda of IPOD has been generating consensus on the application of the Public Order Management Act– a law that regulates public gatherings.
In addition, we have the processes of initiating a national dialogue, which is meant to provide a platform for Ugandans of all shades of opinion to sit around round tables and fireplaces to discuss the future they would like to have. Again, this is a positive step. When differences arise, as they surely always do, because we are different, the best way to sort them out is through dialogue, not confrontation. Respecting difference and promoting understanding should always be our mantra. In the end, keeping hope alive will have meaning.
The author is the advisor and Head of Communications at the Office of the Prime Minister