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[OPINION]: A great moment for Nigeria - Kayode Komolafe

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A great man is not a hero in the sense that he can stop, or change, the natural course of things, but in the sense that his activities are the conscious and free expression of this inevitable and unconscious course. Herein lies all his significance; herein lies his whole power…” – George Plekhanov (1856-1918)

Until yesterday, you would probably be right to say that official apologies for wrong- doing were alien to the Nigeria’s political culture. Rulers would rather deny the reality or rationalise injustice as a step taken in the “national interest.” The arrogance of power of those who have ruled this troubled nation is an element of their political culture. A symptom of this malaise is the refusal to acknowledge the sore points of the nation’s history and apologise to the aggrieved as part of the healing process. 

Yet it is an indubitable truth that the land needs an honest and efficacious healing process for many reasons.

However, President Muhammadu Buhari changed all that at the yesterday’s Special National Honours Investiture in Abuja. As he honoured the winner of the June 12, 1993 presidential election, Bashorun Moshood Abiola, with a posthumous award of the Grand Commander of the Order of the Federal Republic (GCFR), the president unambiguously apologised to the family of Abiola and those who have lost their people in the June 12 struggle for the injustice done by the Nigerian state.

Buhari surprised not a few at the solemn ceremony when he declared: “On behalf of the federal government, I tender the nation’s apology to the family of late MKO Abiola, who got the highest vote [in the election], and to those that lost their loved ones in the course of the June 12 struggle.

“This event is not to open old wounds, but to put light on the nation.”

The wounds were inflicted 25 years ago when Abiola won the presidential election, but was stopped from becoming president. The results of the election were “annulled” by President Ibrahim Babangida, who launched and implemented the transition programme to which the election of Abiola could have been the jewel in the crown. General Sanni Abacha who later emerged as the Head of State amidst the profound crisis provoked by the annulment incarcerated Abiola for the last four years of his life. Abiola courageously refused to renounce his mandate before his death 20 years ago.

Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka said rightly at the occasion yesterday that Buhari’s unexpected action “is only the beginning.” The apology is certainly a significant step towards a closure in this tragic history. A great moment has been provided for a positive reconstruction of history. Indeed the atmosphere of the investiture was suffused with greatness in many dimensions. For instance, the posthumous award of the second highest honour of Grand Commander of the Order of Niger (GCON) to the exemplary people’s advocate, Gani Fawehinmi, is nothing short of greatness. Gani was detained 32 times by the agents of the Nigerian state in various prisons and detention centres between 1969 and 1996. In fact, a former president once said jokingly that his administration had to detain Gani simply because every government before him detained the people’s lawyer.

Doubtless, this Buhari’s action would be open to different interpretations depending on the interpreter’s perspectives. Many would wonder why previous presidents and heads of state could not muster the courage of conviction to do what Buhari did yesterday. And virtually all those who spoke at the occasion described Buhari as “the least expected” president to take this important step in the healing process. Just as the greatness of the moment in the nation’s history could not be denied so also could the greatness exhibited by Buhari on this issue not be denied even by his most ardent critics. Why others elected to ignore the reality of the enormous injustice embodied in the June 12 story, Buhari has striven to come to terms with it.

This unprecedented act of official apology should provoke further reflection on the role of the individual in history. Liberal motivational speakers are wont to harp on “building strong institutions and not strong men.” Well, this recipe may not be helpful enough for a nation grappling with a huge leadership deficit, political underdevelopment and poor governance. Strong institutions and men of strong character are important in the circumstance.

After all, the institution of the presidency imbued with the powers of executive orders was available to the past presidents who studiously ignored the injustice of June 12 before Buhari. It was the strong character of leadership to make the institution work that was sorely lacking.

The role of the leader as an individual comes into a sharp focus again in this context. It is the choice of the leader to play a negative or a positive role in history.

On this occasion, the logical thing to do is to at least concede that Buhari seized the historical moment yesterday on the lingering June 12 Question.

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