Dropping May 29 as public holiday

LAST year, the Federal Government declared June 12 as Democracy Day to be observed as a public holiday. Specifically, the declaration was made in a statement on June 6, 2018 by President Muhammadu Buhari in honour of the late Chief MKO Abiola, the acclaimed winner of the June 12, 1993 presidential election. The election, which was annulled by Ibrahim Babangida, the then military president, had been described as the freest, fairest and most peaceful election in Nigerian history.  Though the results of the election were not fully announced before it was annulled, Abiola was believed to have won the election based on collations from all the states.

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Chief Abiola, who later died in government detention in pursuit of his mandate, was also posthumously conferred with the highest national honour, Grand Commander of the Federal Republic (GCFR), an honour reserved for presidents, on June 12 last year to mark the 25th anniversary of the annulled election. Until last year, many Nigerians had argued that June 12, 1993 was far more symbolic of democracy in the Nigerian context than May 29, 1999. The former is widely regarded as the day Nigerians in millions expressed their democratic will in what was undoubtedly the freest, fairest and most peaceful election since Nigeria’s independence in 1960.

The annulment plunged the country into crisis and provoked a struggle to force the military to return to the barracks. In the event, Nigerians revolted against the government, calling for a reversal of the annulment. General Babangida stepped aside and installed an Interim National Government led by Chief Ernest Shonekan and which was subsequently overthrown by General Sani Abacha. Many pro-democracy activists and protesters were killed while others were plunged into detention.  Many had to flee into exile in foreign countries.  The junta led by General Abacha carried on until he died suddenly on June 8 1998, paving the way for a swift return to democratic rule via a transition to civilian rule programme instituted by General Abdulsalami Abubakar, Abacha’s successor.

The declaration of June 12 as Democracy Day and a public holiday is welcome. Previously, May 29 was observed as Democracy Day simply because it was the day Nigeria returned to democratic rule in 1999 after about two decades of military dictatorship. May 29 remains the day of inauguration of a new president and new governors across many states. The declaration of June 12 as Democracy Day has added to the number of public holidays by one day. Thus, retaining May 29 as a public holiday adds to the already unpalatable situation of too many holidays. Given the widespread poverty in the country, the least the leadership can do is to promote the ethics of hard work. The country needs to work harder to scale up production and advance prosperity. In the circumstance, the inauguration of a president or governor should be a solemn and sober event.

Nigeria needs leaders who behave in a manner that symbolises the commitment to transforming the country into a culture of resourcefulness, hard work and frugality. We therefore argue that May 29 should no longer be observed as a public holiday. The inauguration day should be a working day. In some states, governors are not inaugurated on that day because of the change in timetable of elections arising from court decisions on election-related disputes. Today, seven states do not inaugurate their governors on May 29. Furthermore, some governors in some states have set the precedent by taking the oath of office in the Office of the Governor rather than in a public stadium, without the fanfare that goes with the latter.

We therefore call on the Federal Government to revert May 29 into an effective working day. Having two public holidays relating to the return to democratic rule is excessive.  Nigeria can do without it. Instead, let citizens cultivate a culture of participation and involvement in the democratic process. Let the leaders show commitment to the rule of law and demonstrate that they value hard work.  They should demonstrate commitment to democracy by accountability and transparency in governance.