Another May 29th has come and gone; another Democracy Day has been celebrated, at least in name. Owing to security challenges, there were no flashy parades at the Eagle Square this year. However, there was the traditional National Broadcast by the President, and this year’s broadcast was not without controversy. The last paragraph in the 71-paragraph address dropped a bombshell on the nation: the University of Lagos was renamed as Moshood Abiola University, Lagos, after Bashorun MKO Abiola, the widely acclaimed winner of the June 12, 1993 elections who died in detention while trying to claim his mandate.
Bashorun Abiola was the winner of the freest and fairest elections in Nigeria, unofficially, at least. He won landslide votes even in Kano, the home state of his challenger, Alhaji Bashir Tofa. However, the elections were annulled. There was first an interim government and then a coup ushered in the dark days of General Sani Abacha, who detained Bashorun Abiola. He remained in detention until his death in July 1998. Bashorun Abiola has since been upheld as an icon of democracy in Nigeria. Thus, it was expected that renaming a prestigious institution after him would be popularly accepted. Unfortunately, it did not turn out to be so.
Within minutes of the renaming, the social media space exploded with outrage and condemnations. Within hours, students of the university had started staging demonstrations and protests rejecting the name. In the less than one week since the renaming, there have been countless articles rejecting and disagreeing with the renaming. Aside from the government, almost everyone seems to be in disagreement with the decision.
It is important, however, to note that the protests are not about the person of Bashorun MKO Abiola, or about whether he deserves to be honoured and immortalized. Rather, the rejection of the name change arises from other issues.
To start with, the University of Lagos, the first Federal University in Nigeria, was founded by an Act of Parliament in 1962. The Act clearly stated, “The University shall be called ‘University of Lagos’”, inter alia. Thus, any name change has to go through the parliament, and the Act needs to be amended to reflect the name change. However, the Federal Government did not go through this process. Instead, it ordered a name change, making the decision an illegal one.
Also, the name change came as a rude shock to everyone, from the university community to the entire nation. None of the University Council, its Senate, or the Alumni Association was consulted. This action feels like a reversion to the military era, where the military leaders took any decision they deemed fit and forced it down the throat of the populace. A democracy, which is what we claim to have, should work through a dialogue in which the government and the electorate arrive at the best decision for everyone.
Additionally, as the Federal Government was attempting to honour Bashorun MKO Abiola with the name change, it also took that honour away by referring to him as the ‘presumed winner’ of the 1993 elections. I believe that the starting point on the path to honouring Bashorun Abiola will be to declare the winner of the 1993 elections, and move him from being ‘the presumed winner’ to ‘the President-elect’, even though he has passed on and will never occupy that office.
Beyond that, the memory of Bashorun Abiola will be better honoured by conducting elections in this country that will rival, and even surpass the election that has etched him into Nigeria’s history. The 1993 elections were so free and fair that even the opponents could not challenge the results. These are the kind of elections Nigerians desire and deserve, and this should be the aim of the Federal Government. Let the government muster the political will to make sure that each election, starting from the Edo State Gubernatorial Elections next month, shall be free, fair and credible to both the winners and losers.
Lastly, I believe that there are many more ways to immortalize the name of Bashorun MKO Abiola. A couple of years ago, the House of Representatives suggested that the National Stadium be named after him, in recognition of his being the first person to hold the title ‘African Pillar of Sports’, and in recognition of his immense financial support of sports across the entire continent. However, the Federal Government ignored that advice. Instead, they chose the decision that has riled so many people.
I pray and hope that the Federal Government listens to the general populace and backtrack on its decision. Throughout this year, Nigerians have been feeling alienated and angered by the decisions of the government. A wise government will swallow its pride, admit its mistake and reverse this decision.
It is such small things as this that cause revolutions.