It’s Democracy Day. Major operational institutions are closed. If you tune in to radio and TV stations in the country, everyone is talking about the significance of June 12. This is a day that has come to represent Nigeria’s democracy. 

How did Democracy Day become such an important public holiday in Nigeria? 

First, you must understand the rise and fall of the 2nd Republic as the catalyst for the demand for democratic governance in Nigeria. You also need to know the backstory of the annulled June 12, 1993 elections, and the journey of Moshood Kashimawo Olawale “MKO” Abiola, who became an emblematic figure in Nigeria’s democratic history. 

Shehu Shagari, Buhari and the Fall of the 2nd Republic 

To better understand the significance of the Nigerian clamour for democracy in 1993, we must rewind thirteen years to when Shehu Shagari, a civilian president, was in power. 

His election into power led to the rise (and fall) of Nigeria’s 2nd Republic from 1979–1983.

Shagari’s election into power resulted from a military-to-democratic government transition model initiated by then Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo in 1979. 

The initiation resulted from Nigerians’ displeasure with the military’s involvement  in the 1966 Biafra Civil War and the dictatorship of Gen. Muritala Mohammed, his predecessor

But with Shagari’s entry into power, Nigeria didn’t enter a season of political utopia but plunged into its existing problems. 

Oil prices crashed, riots occurred in Northern Nigeria, ministers became more corrupt, and massive electoral malpractice and rigging occurred during the 1983 general elections.

This led to Gen. Muhammadu Buhari overthrowing the Shagari administration in a coup during the same year. However, Buhari’s government didn’t fare any better either. 

Buhari was particularly unpopular with citizens for his Decrees No. 2 and 4. These gave the state security power to ban strikes and popular demonstrations and censor media outlets perceived as posing a threat to the government’s interests. 

By 1985, it became clear to the political elite in the country that Buhari had no plans of ever giving back power to Nigerians. This resulted in the Ibrahim “IBB” Babangida-led coup in August 1985. 

IBB, the military general with a desire for democracy 

Upon resuming power, Babangida implemented measures to reduce governmental influence over the press. His government also released a number of individuals detained during the previous regime. 

Nevertheless, he encountered similar economic challenges as his predecessor, Buhari, including the devaluation of the naira, which led to social unrest

To address this, he dissolved part of the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) and ordered the temporary closure of universities

With the perception of being labelled as “just another military dictator” in Nigeria’s history, Babangida needed to achieve something remarkable that would leave a positive legacy in the eyes of Nigerians. You can consider it as him “doing better”.

For him, the solution was clear—to restore democratic governance.

To achieve this, he embarked

on significant reforms. This included:
  • The creation of additional states within the Nigerian federation.
  • An establishment of dual-tier legislatures at both national and state levels
  • The appointment of civilians to govern the states
  • And the formation of two major national political parties: the Social Democratic Party (SDP) and the National Republic Convention (NRC).

With these structures in place, the only thing Nigerians needed to do was elect a new president as the final phase of the transition. This is where this story becomes more intriguing—so grab your popcorn, and let’s dive in.

The June 12, 1993, elections

The June 12 elections witnessed a head-to-head battle between SDP’s business mogul, MKO Abiola, and NRC’s Alhaji Bashir Tofa. The election was scheduled for Saturday, June 12, 1993. 

This election was critical, as it would determine Nigeria’s first democratically elected president since 1979, marking the start of the 3rd Republic. 

At the end of the election, MKO Abiola emerged as the winner with over eight million votes, winning in 19 states. His opponent, NRC candidate Tofa, received over six million votes and won in 10 states.  

Out of the total votes cast, which exceeded 14 million, Abiola secured nearly 60 per cent. This made him the clear winner of the election. This election is widely regarded as the most free and fair in Nigeria’s history. 

MKO emerged as a prominent figure and continues to hold significance. Hailing from the South-West region and having Babagana Kingibe, his running mate, from the North-East made them a preferred choice for most people during the elections. Interestingly, despite both candidates being Muslims, they had wide support.

The election was annulled, which led to MKO—considered as Africa’s most successful businessman—not becoming president.

Who annulled the election?

It was Babangida. After the initial results were posted on June 14, 1993, no additional election results ever appeared on the National Electoral Commission (NEC) board.

On June 16, the government-run Radio Nigeria announced that NEC was suspending the official results announcement due to “developments and action pending in courts.” The announcement cited irregularities observed during the elections.

The announcement triggered widespread protests and civil unrest across Nigeria, leading to the resignation of Babangida. This was followed by Ernest Shonekan’s brief interim civilian government and, ultimately, the Gen. Sani Abacha military coup of 1993. 

Abiola was placed in detention following the annulment. Under Abacha’s leadership, the military regime in power at the time accused him of treason. They had him arrested after he declared himself the winner of the June 12 elections. 

Abiola died the day he was set to be released from detention, on July 7, 1998. The circumstances surrounding his death remain unclear. The claims of assassination as the cause of his death are also uncertain.

How Nigerians got to celebrate June 12 as Democracy Day 

In 2018, former President Muhammadu Buhari changed the date of Democracy Day from May 29 to June 12. 

The commemoration of Democracy Day on June 12 is now in its 6th year. For many Nigerians, particularly those from the South-West states, today is marked as significant for the outcome of the election.

But for Buhari, June 12 is a way to nationally acknowledge the man who lost his life in the quest for democratic governance in Nigeria. 

Undoubtedly, the 1993 general elections and MKO Abiola will forever be etched in Nigeria’s history as the pinnacle of its democratic revolution. 



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