Imperatives of Transition from Activism to Politics in Nigeria


J. 'Kayode Fayemi , Ph.D.

Let me express my deep gratitude for the privilege of addressing this gathering. I am not unaware of the special place Professor Ralph Bunche occupied in the annals of bridge building and peace-making in the world of international relations. I am truly humbled to be speaking here under the auspices of a Center named after him. Professor Bunche was a unique exemplar of scholarship and activism, a man of immense courage and a peacemaker par excellence. He remains for me even now a most appropriate example of how to judiciously mix activism and public life without shirking one's responsibilities in either. I want to thank Ambassador Horace Dawson, Director of the Ralph J. Bunche Centre for International Affairs at Howard University and his staff for providing this space for the articulation of my views as an activist in politics. I can see many long-term friends from out here in the audience and many from my own country and continent - thank you all for your presence here.

The topic of my presentation this afternoon gives the impression that there is a difference between activism and politics, and that it requires moving from one to the other. If one follows this line of thought, one might be tempted to assume that the two - politics and activism - are mutually exclusive. There have always been attempts both in recent times and in our not so recent past to make a distinction between those who stand at the barricades seeking change in their quest for a better society and those who wield power in politics in defence of the State. Indeed, theories have been propounded about State-society relations deepening the difference between civil society and political society. Activists are often seen as occupying the moral high ground, irrepressible in their campaign for what they believe in, often living in utopia in the quest of the unattainable and generally cantankerous and obstinate in the pursuit of their beliefs. On the other hand, politicians are seen to be janus-faced - on the one hand, charismatic, visionary, fascinating and sophisticated, and on the other, repulsive, cynical, calculating, and opportunistic. My own interest this afternoon is really not to indulge in any deep philosophical or political arguments about these distinctions many of which you are familiar with but to simply explore - based on my limited experience, the possibilities of harmony in this pseudo-dichotomy - to explain that this pattern of categorizing people is at best a luxury, and at worst irrelevant in our own setting.

I am going to suggest that this pseudo-divide of activism and politics has impeded our abilities to connect with each other and work together towards a more positive future. I am convinced that the structuring of actors on the basis of either/or, and us/them with one of the other being valued more leads to domination and we need to really try as much as possible to avoid such separation and fragmentation and work towards community and cohesion. Consequently, I intend to argue that politics - properly conducted - is a form of social activism and another stage in the struggle to restore the dignity of humankind - an integrated continuum rather than discretely compartmentalised oppositional phenomena, often complicated and contradictory, but mostly in the quest to make a fundamental difference. (This is not to suggest that there aren't times that both politics and activism take negative turns. The common reference to "uncivil' society in the literature is but one example of this occurrence)

Activists have always occupied that realm between the household and the State, populated by voluntary groups and associations, sharing common interests and largely autonomous from the State, but often promoting core values that are consistent with what the State ought to stand for - participatory involvement, transparency, accountability, openness, ownership, legitimacy, equality of opportunities and respect for fundamental human rights. Many people always ask activists and politicians the same question: Why, with all the callings in this world that could perhaps earn one considerable social, financial and personal security, would anyone want to go into something like activism or politics, particularly in a setting as dangerous as Nigeria, unless one has a death wish? The unvarnished truth is that many activists and, I believe, even politicians love life too much to want to celebrate death. Many activists who make a transition into partisan politics have probably done so for the same reasons they embraced activism. It was not aimless boldness that drew many into activism. It was often a selfish desire to live their lives in freedom, peace and in a democracy that transformed ordinary folks into bold activists against all forms of oppression and in the service of their communities.

This is why perhaps the issue should not be one of transition from activism to politics, but the extent to which we are able to achieve citizen participation in our democracy. Our discussion should really focus more on the making of leaders and citizens in a good society because without direct citizen participation, the legitimacy of our political institutions will continue to decline. It is for this reason that I strongly believe that political leaders - be they politicians or activists should worry because their ability to lead effectively is being seriously undermined by the desertion of average citizens from the public space, deepening the crisis of legitimacy in our State. Yet, this lack of legitimacy cuts both ways. When we the people withdraw our trust in leaders or discountenance politicians, we make our democratic institutions less effective and risk making ourselves ungovernable.

While politics may have lost its edge globally - suffering a decline, apathy or disinterest, it is also true to say activism is on the rise in the form of single issues pressure groups which have continued to thrive around the world - whether in the form of campaigns like Make Poverty History or in the promotion of an international rights regime in the form of an International Criminal Court or a fair trade regime in the world. Yet even these popular campaigns still suffer from certain limitations in a world that is essentially statist and in which citizens' rights are better protected locally, even if we subscribe to universal ideals. In our case, it is the belief that another Nigeria is possible - one that embraces democracy, fairness, equity and justice and the possibility of saying what we like, write what we think, participate in the political process without fear of intimidation, make our votes count so that our views will matter. These are the beliefs that have continued to propel the activists that I know in the struggle for a better society.

But let me back up a little and locate this discourse within the context of our recent history in Nigeria as it concerns the relationship between activism and politics in Nigeria. Many will recall that with the sudden demise of the dictator, General Sani Abacha in June 1998, things had begun to look up for the country. We saw the end of military dictatorship in sight. Those of us who were involved in the campaign to restore the mandate of Chief MKO Abiola, the winner of the annulled election of 1993 had expected that it was only a matter of time for Abiola to be installed as President and for him to convene a sovereign national conference. Our focus at the time was not elections, but the institutionalisation of a fundamental restructuring of the Nigerian state and the strategy in the democracy movement was to put pressure on the new military leadership to release Abiola and install him as President. The new military leader, General Abdul-Salami Abubakar was seen as a common sense choice amid a largely obdurate military clique determined to maintain the status quo.

Clearly under pressure locally and on the international scene, he made every effort to win the confidence of the civil society movement by releasing jailed leaders and requesting exiles to return home. And then, all of a sudden - Chief Abiola died and this threw us into a deeper quandary in the democracy movement and the country tilted on the precipice. To arrest the religious and ethnic polarisation that had surfaced, General Abubakar went for elections, even at a time that many felt the national question had gone beyond simply organising elections and putting people in authority. Yet, because the military was so despised, the decision coupled with the sudden death of the most legitimate arrowhead of our struggle increased the urge for anything but the military, a mood which we shared but which equally caught us unawares in the democracy movement.

In the ensuing confusion, the central question for us in the democracy movement was: should the democracy community and the human rights movement participate in, or boycott the transition programme announced by General Abubakar? After extensive deliberations, we agreed that the new dispensation required new strategies, which should reflect a balance between principle and pragmatism. Some expressed strong views that the democracy movement's capacity to influence change would be severely limited if it decided to boycott the transition programme. Equally, others felt that getting involved in the military-directed transition would amount to a betrayal of the last bastion of the people's defence against oppression - especially as the professional politicians were eager to return to business as usual with the military, without addressing the root cause of the governance crisis in the first place. In the end, there was no consensus on the way the pro-democracy movement should proceed and we only agreed that individuals could participate while letting political groups stay out of the fray.

My own sentiment was with the latter group since I believed that the path, players, processes and patterns of the transition adopted by General Abubakar could only result in neo-militarism rather than a civilian, democratic dispensation. At the time, many of us were fond of saying that the path we were treading was one of transition without transformation. We argued severally that it was wrong to suggest that any opening after Nigeria's prolonged authoritarian rule was inherently irreversible and would lead to the deepening of democracy without interrogating the nature of the opening itself. We felt at the time that we needed to think more carefully about the implications of what we considered to be a staged-managed democratic transition, especially in a setting where the ethos, language, and character of public discourse remain completely militarised.

Looking back, the civil society leadership may have been correct to be cautious about embracing the military transition of 1999, but I now believe we were tactically wrong for completely eschewing participation in politics. The fact that the military had not responded to a full-scale defeat by the democracy movement could hardly be discounted in understanding the nature of post-military governance. The eventual dominance of the party hierarchy by retired military generals and civilians closely connected to them certainly set the tone for party formation and also resulted in authoritarian presidential governance. Essentially, the nature of that transition ensured a mere reconfiguration of the political space, rather than a transformation of politics.

Given this context, the eventual election of an ex-military General with significant support from the military constituency was seen by many of us in civil society as an extension of continued military rule. The fact that most of the governors elected (save in the South West) were all what we referred to derisorily at the time as "Abacha politicians" was further confirmation to some of us that we had no business being involved. Yet, even with all of this, we could have started the process of organising along political lines, rather than agonising about the dominance of these elements. After all, we were the ones who risked our lives to fight for the restoration of democracy in Nigeria - only to vacate the space when power was literally lying on the streets. Indeed, as Nigeria's Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka, recently noted,

one ceaseless complaint against the democratic movement is that its protagonists carried out this struggle at immense personal sacrifices of varying dimensions, only to hand over future responsibilities to proven reprobates and opportunistsŠwhatever self retiring principles may have governed the impulses of a number of us in that struggleŠwe have indeed left the field to brigands, parasites and unworthy custodians of power and authority, including even collaborators, that is those who have not only made such struggles necessary in the first place, but contributed to our personal woes, and even stained their hands with the blood of our fallen comrades.

So, we ended up having a democracy without democrats and the result is clear before our very eyes. In spite of the current government's best effort, the crisis of governance remains deep-seated. Yet, for many of our citizens - democracy was supposed to bring the end of military dictatorship in form and content; they hoped that it would bring greater involvement of ordinary people in politics, whether in state institutions or in civil society ones. They hoped for real and immediate dividends in employment, clean water, better shelter, accessible health care, improved education, reliable and consistent power supply, rehabilitated roads and food on the table. Beyond electoral democracy though, it was also obvious that the nation-state has become a source of unending conflict itself. Many Nigerians of unquestionable nationalist credentials had begun to question the very viability of Nigeria, especially if left in the hands of a centralised state. Constitutional reform was therefore seen as a major pivot for creating and sustaining democratic institutions that can address deepening conflict in Nigeria. To our people, the rising disquiet in the Niger Delta and other parts of Nigeria, for example, may not be a sign of a failing democracy but a sign of a maturing democracy that is conflictual and contradictory - which should find its own level through mediation, deliberation and negotiations.

Although the challenge of reforming the State is fundamentally structural, the issue of leadership - particularly how we conceptualise leadership is central to it. For too long, our political culture has perpetuated the myth that strong leaders can bring about change single-handedly - rather than convert the formal authority derived from their electoral mandate into a process of democratic renewal. In my own view, real leadership ought to involve motivating people to solve problems within their own communities, rather than reinforcing the over-lordship of the state over its citizens and to build and strengthen political institutions that can mediate between individual and group interests. The authoritarian residues of politics over the last seven years have achieved the purpose of turning many away from politics even if they are still active in their neighbourhood associations and their community projects. The main challenge of political leadership therefore is to reconnect democratic choices with people's day-to-day experience and to extend democratic principles to everyday situations in citizens' communities and constituencies.

Understandably, if you make political discourse more negative as some do - you deliberately turn ordinary people off politics; more people grow cynical and stop paying attention to politics. This experience is not unique to us in Nigeria; in fact it is the crisis that democracy is experiencing all over the world, with low turn out at the polls and scant regard for political leaders. Yet, if we as citizens choose not to play a part in this process of activism in our communities and our State, we will get the politicians we deserve, allow the hijack of the political realm by special interests and ethnic jingoists only keen in the promotion of their narrow agendas.

To avoid this problem, many of us in the Nigerian civil society sought the middle way after the election of the new government in Nigeria in 1999, even as we were lukewarm about the dawn of electoral democracy in the country. We put skills that were abundant in civil society to the service of the new government as a way of helping to bridge the gap between civil society and an elected government. At our own level in my institution - the Centre for Democracy & Development - we became associated with government at several policy and practical levels - assisting with the shaping and running of the Human Rights Violations Investigations Commission (the Oputa Commission); promoting an agenda for constitutional reform, helping with the reform of the security sector and democratic control of the defence and security establishments, building civil society capacity and pursuing issues of transparency and accountability. Our point always was that democracy is not an abstract concept. It must be relevant to people's lives. If democracy is not capable of curbing corruption, guaranteeing transparency and improving people's well being and quality of life, it is at best an empty concept, at worst a sham. Poverty and despair, oppression and humiliation, economic and social insecurities are breeding grounds - even if not the only reasons - for violence and conflict and as much as Nigerians want democracy, they also want to see concrete evidence of democracy making a difference in their lives.

My own experience of working with government over the past seven years as an outsider looking in is captured by the African adage that it's not possible to shave someone's head in his absence. The wheel of government bureaucracy turns very slowly and frustratingly so if the central actors are not alive to issues of transformation. No matter how good the policies formulated by outsiders are, implementation is key to transformation. It is for this reason that those who want to re-draw the map of Nigeria's future must return to more solid grounds rather than tie themselves to the apron strings of power-holders that neither have a track record nor demonstrate a vision that they are better than what we can offer our people. This solid ground must be within a larger movement though, one that accommodates the place of political institutions and not simply the celebration of astute individuals as the ultimate panacea to our crisis of governance. The most practical way to link individual choice to collective responsibility is to participate in the institutions that influence our lives. We must ensure that formal and informal institutions are democratised and giving more responsibilities for exercising state power. To do it well, we have to see Nigeria as a permanent enterprise that has to be fought over and restructured in order to provide cover for all Nigerians.

Distinguished Ladies and Gentlemen, this is why I see the debate about whether activists should become politicians superfluous. Important as they are, the institutions of direct state power and electoralism are just the tip of the iceberg in the democratisation complex. Indeed, genuine democracy ought to rest on a much richer ecology of associational and organisational life and should be nourished and reproduced through every-day struggles of the citizens. But when we broadly define this everyday struggles as simply the handiwork of 'civil society', we strip it bare of its spontaneity and deeper meaning and romanticise the civil society as the rationally ordered, codified and all-knowing alternative to government and overplay our abilities as activists to counter the inherent inequities of class and markets. Even worse, we are presented or we present ourselves as antidotes to globalisation, which is why causes like Make Poverty History have been hugely successful in form but exaggerated in their expectations. The reason for this crisis of exaggerated expectation that activists suffer is not far fetched. The truth is that as long as we live in the post-Westphalian world of sovereign states, we exaggerate the ability of the civil society to stand up to the power of the nation-state or the mega corporations on its own steam.

This is why I am not sure that the solution to the current deficit that our democracy is experiencing can be solved with posing activism as a counterpunch to politics. For autonomous institutions to play a different role in mediating citizens' democratic choices, their organic development must be combined in a more nuanced manner and a more systematic way with the use of public and state power. The choice is therefore simple: one can continue to snipe on the fringe and complain that government is not listening to the yearning of the people. Alternatively, one can stop agonising about missed policy opportunities and organise in a manner that places citizens as drivers of change in our quest to restore communitarian values and a future of hope and possibilities four our people.

Distinguished guests, let me spend sometime on my own notion of hope because I don't see it as an empty rhetoric about blind optimism. Yes, I know the world sees us - Africans - as incurable optimists and hope mongers. The other day, the New York Times, attempting to unravel the roots of the consistent optimism of the average African asked for my thoughts and I argued that while it may be difficult to find a verifiable basis for our collective and individual optimism amid unremitting misery - hope is God's last bastion for the African, the evidence of the unseen future of a life more abundant - since, for many, things can hardly get worse than they are. Yet, as I said earlier, this is not bleary-eyed optimism. It is not the optimism that believes that the crisis of governance in our land will simply go away; it is not the hope that we will all be winners of million dollar lottery tickets today. I am talking about the hope of our founding fathers in the struggle for independence and freedom and their unshaken belief in our inalienable right to rule ourselves. It is the hope of the freedom fighters resisting apartheid and racial discrimination in Southern Africa; the audacity of hope and the determination of optimism that led us to resist the military oppression in our land because of our belief that another Nigeria is possible - one that will be accountable to its citizens, legitimate in their eyes, transparent and respected around the world; the hope that allows us to hold our heads high, proud of our accomplishments and contributions to humankind - the hope that help is on the way.

Ladies and Gentlemen - Hope is alive and help is indeed on the way. I believe we can revive the State in a qualitative manner and make democracy more meaningful to our people, provide jobs for the jobless, improve healthcare, modernise agriculture and reclaim our young people from a future of violence, decadence and despair by linking activism to politics and not drawing artificial divisions. It seems to me a self-evident truth that where there is no civil society engaged actively in social activism and the promotion of core values in society, there can be no political society and the state runs the risk of decay and illegitimacy. Renewing our democracy through the strengthening of institutions and public participation increases our collective capacity to tackle the major problems facing our society - with a corresponding achievement of individual contentment even as we pursue the common good. This is where we ought to be headed and I am convinced we will get there in our lifetime.

Thank you very much for listening, and for inviting me here today.