Democracy Day recognises the end of military rule in Nigeria and the restoration of a democratic system of government, symbolised by the swearing in of the first president-elect, Olusegun Obasanjo, on May 29, 1999. Though the day is the subject of some controversy, many of Nigeria’s citizens view the holiday as an opportunity to celebrate democracy and basic human rights.
In a country as exceptionally diverse as Nigeria, it should perhaps come as no surprise that Democracy Day is commemorated in many different ways. May 29 is viewed as a day to both honour the struggles and sacrifices on the long path toward democracy and to celebrate the country’s continuing progress. Common activities on Democracy Day include a national address by the president as well as large public celebrations hosted in Eagle Square in the capital city of Abuja. Traditional celebrations are often held in smaller towns and villages to honour the many unique cultures and traditions of Nigeria. For many Nigerians, Democracy Day is also an opportunity to educate others on the importance of participating in the political process, and to encourage younger people to value the rights for which so many people worked so hard.
A Chequered Past
After gaining its long-sought independence from Great Britain in 1960, Nigeria almost immediately became embroiled in civil war. The ultimate result of this conflict was a military coup that installed the first of several military juntas. Outside of a brief interlude of democratic rule from 1979 to 1983, most of Nigeria’s first three decades as an independent nation were spent under some form of military dictatorship. This resulted in frequent outbreaks of violence, human rights violations and ultimately the deaths of more than one million people. Political assassinations were common, as was ethnic conflict and destructive rioting.
The Road to Democracy
The first serious attempt to institute democratic rule in Nigeria came in June of 1993 when Chief Moshood Abiola won a presidential election that was held shortly after the first successful elections for a bicameral National Assembly. However, in a move that was met with strong international condemnation, the existing military government annulled the election results and charged Moshood Abiola with treason for declaring himself president. Political unrest continued for several years under a series of military rulers before a plan was finally implemented to hold elections and transition to civilian control on May 29, 1999.
The First Elections
Nigeria’s first truly democratic elections in decades were held in early 1999, and though there were charges of fraud, intimidation and other improprieties, the result was a new era of democracy in Nigeria, with a new government composed of elected officials. A constitution was drafted and adopted on May 5, followed shortly by the swearing-in of President-elect Olusegun Obasanjo on May 29. Though allegations of government misdeeds and human rights violations continue to this day, the first Democracy Day is recognised for its role in ushering in improvements in civil liberties, a more free press and better representation from the government.