The election of June 12th 1993 changed Nigeria profoundly. That it would have this deep and positive effect was not always certain. Many people laboured, struggled and sacrificed for democracy. They fought not that we would have democracy day but that Nigeria might exist as a democracy every day. When I say democracy, I mean more than that we conduct periodic elections. Democracy means that we adhere to and live by the enlightened premise that all human beings are of essential value and are possessed of fundamental rights and liberties, which cannot be arbitrarily taken away or denied.
Democracy means that everyone has a right to peacefully influence and determine who governs them and how their government should work. It means that we all have a right to pursue our ambitions and aspirations so long as our actions do not wrongfully impede the aspirations and hopes of others. We have the right to believe, think and pray as we deem fit. In our democratic system, nobody can dictate your beliefs and your thoughts unless you voluntarily permit them to do so. These things are what true democracy means and they are what we celebrate today.
In this, we dare not forget how we got to this point. Planting the seedlings of democracy required much toil and sacrifice. Many potent forces tried to prevent both the planting and the harvest.
People like late Dr. Beko Ransome Kuti, late Gani Fawehinmi, Baba Omojola, late Pa Rewane, late Pa Enahoro, Baba Ajasin, Pa Adesanya, Baba Adebanjo, Prof. Wole Soyinka, Prof. Bolaji Akinyemi, Femi Falana, members of the civil society groups, student-activists and others fought hard and struggled mightily on our behalf. Many laid down their lives that we may have this brighter moment. Many people who we do not even know gave of themselves and lost life or limb to bring this moment to pass.
On this day, we duly honour such patriots. We remember them and commend their sacrifice. We mark this day that we not take this good form of government or their august labour for granted. We must keep and nurture democracy, not for its own sake, but for ours. Bashorun Moshood Abiola stood fast and strong despite the enormous pressure against him. Those who hated democracy and equality tried to break his spirit and make him lose hope that democracy would ever come to our land. Abiola withstood it all and held to a dream. They could not crush his spirit so they took his body. They did not allow his dream turn to reality but victory was still his because he held fast with uncommon determination and principle. In spirit, Abiola was truly the first president of this democratic period.
Here, I must commend President Buhari for having the political courage to make June 12 Democracy Day. It would have been easier to let things stay as they were. But President Buhari, himself a man of integrity and honesty, realised the import of June 12 and understood that this day more than any other best symbolized our national pursuit of democracy. Despite political opposition, President Buhari helped set the record straight by making today, June 12, Democracy Day.
I also congratulate our various governors including Governor Babajide Sanwo-olu of Lagos. They must all continue to do their level best to make the desired difference in the lives of our people.
We are recording appreciable progress on the political front. The Executive and Legislature are working harmoniously to deliver the programs and policies required for people to live a better more democratic existence. The courts are doing better in protecting the rights of individual Nigerians. The press is free and robust although, like any nation, we must remain vigilant and do even more to elevate freedom of thought and expression.
The civil society remains alive and active and holding government accountable to the people. The government too has continued to exhibit tolerance of constructive criticism and demonstrate endurance in a bid to nurture our democracy. A relentless battle is being waged against corruption. This fight would have been impossible or ineffective under a military dictatorship.
If we look at where we were and where we are now, we have cause to be thankful. We have left dictatorship forever behind. We see new and better ways to define and execute our democratic journey. For example, Youth and Women’s groups that in prior times had no voice or did not even exist. Now they are actively engaged and demanding political participation and a place in democratic decision-making. This is how it should be. Within this new, dynamic and vibrant democratic and civil society lies the hope and promise of a better, more representative government and nation.
Democracy Day and our commemoration of it must not descend into empty ritual. We, as a people, have chosen democracy as our preferred form of governance not because it is easy to hold and make work. We choose democracy because it is the most humane and representative form of government the human mind has thus far devised and imagined.
Nigerians deserve congratulations and commendation for their investment in democracy and for how far we have come. However, we equally must warn and remind ourselves how far we must go. We must continue to work to entrench and improve on our democracy. We must continue to be vigilant and keep watch over our democracy and ward off those who may want to draw us back toward a dimmer period.
The nation now grapples with COVID-19 and its resultant public health and economic challenges. The government has performed admirably in explaining its actions to the people and informing us about the disease. Only a democratic government would have been so informative and open. Only a democratic government would have initiated palliatives. Only a democratic government would have worked in a cooperative manner with the states to devise the best possible policies to fit local circumstances. By being frank and honest, lives have been saved and the pandemic contained. This has been democracy at work.
Government is still hard at work trying to protect the people from the virus and to revive the economy so that we can return the people to their livelihoods and to the road toward prosperity. The battle against the pandemic will ultimately be won. Even then, we still will have much to do. We still have challenges regarding economic development, economic inequality, administration of justice, violence against women and environmental degradation.
Yet, we have the human capacity to fight and win these battles. Democracy is the best avenue to harness and direct our collective abilities in the urgent resolution of these steep challenges. Thus, as we mark this day, let us be thankful to God and let us remember all of those who sacrificed to enable us to advance this far on our democratic journey. Let us also look eagerly ahead to the things we must do and the problems we must solve.
Let us not be weak and shy away from the obstacles in our path; let us learn from the courage and compassion of those who came before us. As they faced and won the battle of democracy over dictatorship, let us now use that democracy to win the present battle of national prosperity in all of its forms over poverty in all of its forms. The times we face are not the easiest but we have a destiny to reach and a democratic roadmap on how to get there. Hand in hand, let us get there together.
I wish all Nigerians a memorable Democracy Day and many more years of enduring democracy. I implore you all to be safe and act with compassion toward one another.
- Tinubu is the national leader of the All Progressives Congress (APC) and former governor of Lagos State.
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