The president’s June 12 gesture should not be analysed too cynically.
As the dust settles on what has been an interesting past week in the Presidential Villa, President Muhammadu Buhari must feel comfortably on top of the world for the first time in months, if not years.
On June 6, 2018, the president announced that he had decided to confer the title of Grand Commander of the Order of the Federal Republic (GCFR) late Chief MKO Abiola, the presumed winner of the June 12, 1993 presidential election that was annulled by then military Head of State, Ibrahim Babangida.
Abiola had refused to concede his mandate and was imprisoned in 1994 by General Sani Abacha who had taken over the government. He died in custody under suspicious circumstances on July 7, 1998, four years after his incarceration and a month after Abacha himself mysteriously died.
Ever since Nigeria's return to democracy a year after Abiola's death, successive governments have been inundated with calls to recognise how symbolic the event has been to Nigeria's democratic history.
Former president, Olusegun Obasanjo, has especially been heavily criticised for not doing this as his electoral victory in 1999 is widely believed to have been an attempt to placate the south-west region for Abiola's death. Despite being from the same region as Abiola and leading Nigeria for eight years between 1999 and 2007, Obasanjo did not accord June 12 the honour it deserves.
Buhari, unexpectedly, has done that, and, like it or not, he'll get a lot of political boost from it whether that was the primary intention or not, but should it really matter?
A lot of people have, reasonably, noted that Buhari's primary motivation for honouring MKO Abiola and other actors of June 12 is a simple-minded scheme to get the support of the south-west region as he campaigns to be re-elected in the 2019 presidential election.
If it is indeed a self-serving scheme, the president has played his part well in making it as affecting as possible with what I personally believe to be him at his presidential best since his 2015 inauguration.
Detached from his perceived failed promises and underwhelming performance, the president has suffered from frequent PR disasters in the past few months regarding how he's been conducting himself. From his lazy youth comments to comments about killer herdsmen, or the dubious defeat of Boko Haram and his consistently problematic medical trips abroad, the president's reputation has been taking a battering.
However, this week, he has exhibited the sort of presidential grace that many Nigerians believed they were voting for three years ago.
Buhari's charm offensive was at its brightest during the Special Honours Investiture ceremony where he officially conferred the GCFR title on Abiola at the Presidential Villa on Tuesday, June 12, 2018.
His biggest moment came towards the end of his speech when he directly apologised, on behalf of the federal government, to the family of the late Abiola for the annulment of his electoral victory and the circumstance of his death.
“On behalf of the federal government, I tender the nation's apology to the family of late MKO Abiola who got the highest votes and to those that lost their loved ones in the course of June 12 struggle,” he said.
This elicited a loud applause from the crowd present in the Conference Hall that was packed with Abiola's family and others who have been strongly connected to the fight for June 12; and rightly so.
Throughout his speech, the president stressed that his government's decision is an attempt to assuage wounded feelings and heal a grievous injury that was done to the country's democratic institution.
He said, “It is aimed at starting a national healing process and reconciliation of the 25-year festering wound caused by the annulment of the June 12 elections. I earnestly invite all Nigerians across all our national divide to accept it in good faith.
“Our action today is to bury the negative side of June 12; the side of ill-feelings, hate, frustation and agony. What we're doing is celebrating and appreciating the positive side of June 12.”
Needless to point out once again that it was one of Buhari's most presidential moments as he offered a message of unity and progress that was devoid of distractions and double-speak.
His entire speech itself was concise and soothing which is not something you can say about the numerous others he has sparingly offered to the nation since May 29, 2015.
If you needed to assess the effect of Buhari's speech and gesture, you did not have to look further than the honest gratitude expressed by his family and so many other people who spoke at the event on Tuesday.
The apology was a big deal and many appreciated the president for addressing such a significant point of Nigeria's history that has been institutionally-ignored for 25 years.
Despite what many said at that event, this doesn't bring a definitive closure to the June 12 episode, but it is a grand step in the right direction and Buhari should take all the plaudits for that.
It's irrelevant to point out that Buhari might have done this as a political gambit, because, like it or not, the man is a politician and will always have a selfish tilt to everything he does; he wants to be re-elected after all. Even if the purest of heart of politicians had done this, there's no way they also wouldn't have had a mind on the political gain that it offers. This is why I don't believe the country should dwell too much on this. At the end of the day, the country has scaled an important moment that has been due for more than a few years now.
All of the June 12 brouhaha is slipping away now, and it is time for the country to move on to other things in the present.
The baggage trailing the president's administration is still there and I hope he gives Nigerians more credit than to have thought June 12 would cover up all of that and gain him widespread support at next year's polls due to that single gesture. There's still security to fix, corruption to mop up, and the economy to actually benefit the average Nigerians.
The president should be made to face the music over his failings, but he should also get his just dues for steering the country a little bit more out of one of its darkest episodes.